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The Interpreter’s Mistake

Have you ever met the interpreter who knew everything? I have. Well, not really. As a matter of fact, it’s not possible to have met such an interpreter, because nobody knows everything. That is the sad reality of being human. But I have most assuredly met the interpreters who thought they knew everything.

The field of interpreting attracts a remarkable number of perfectionists. I say “remarkable,” because by very nature, to be an interpreter means to expose yourself to imperfection. It is not possible to have the most idiomatic, best-thought-out interpretation on the spot, every single time. It’s simply not possible to recognize every single turn of the tongue, or to spot every single regionalism or metaphorical undertone. It is unreasonable to expect perfection in our field, simply because it is not possible to be perfect.

Which brings me to my point. In my humble opinion, a great interpreter is not an interpreter who knows every word in the dictionary. Rather, a great interpreter is one who can accurately self-assess, and when necessary, correct a mistake. I’ll say that again: A great interpreter is one who is willing to correct a mistake. (Full disclosure: I’m a perfectionist, too. This is an uphill battle for me.)

The more pressing question is how. How can we correct a mistake while not undermining our credibility? How can we ask for repetitions, clarification, a pause or a chance to slow down, without turning our clients against us?

Part of the job of a professional interpreter is mastering the ability to conduct a seamless “intervention.” The idea is to get what you need, as quickly as possible, and then go back to interpreting. In order to do this, you must be ready to express what you need quickly, politely and transparently. Bonus points if you can explain why you need what you need, because people are always less annoyed at interruptions and more willing to cooperate if they understand why the interruption is occurring.

Example 1: The Interpreter’s Mistake

I observed a correction to the record for the first time as an intern about eight years ago, and the scene has stuck with me ever since. The interpreter was in the middle of a consecutive interpretation, on the record. The LEP said a number, “12.” The interpreter heard “2,” and interpreted the utterance as such. A moment later, the interpreter realized her mistake, and without missing a beat, in both languages, she said, “Interpreter’s correction: Not 2, but 12.” Nobody batted an eye. The interpreter wasn’t fired. And I learned an important lesson: If you make a mistake, don’t panic. Correct it with confidence and move on. I have done this countless times, in multiple settings. Sometimes I’ve corrected myself immediately, other times I’ve had to go back and inform a judge or a doctor of a potential mis-interpretation after the fact. It’s not fun, but it is necessary.  

Example 2: Pause For Clarification

When we are interpreting, people tend to be in a rush. Perhaps even more so when we are present, because the presence of an interpreter naturally means a proceeding or encounter will take longer than normal. This means it can be extremely tempting for an interpreter to just guess at an unknown term and hope for the best, especially if they are busy trying to pretend they are perfect. Don’t do this. My favorite example dates back to a court hearing several years ago, in which the defendant used the term, “Cheta.” I was not familiar with this word, because as it turned out, the word did not exist. Bravely I told the courtroom, “One moment, the interpreter needs to make a clarification to ensure accuracy of the record” (note the use of the phrase, “for the record.” This is a magical way to achieve whatever you need in a courtroom). I then turned to the defendant to clarify what cheta meant, and finally realized that this was a mispronunciation of the English word “shelter.” In this instance, there was no room to save face with the courtroom; nobody really understood the significance of trying to interpret Spanglish. But I was able to render the interpretation correctly, and that is what mattered.

Example 3: Interpreter’s Requests

Sometimes we need people to slow down. Or we need them to repeat themselves, or to give us more information about a case. This brings us back to the tip I mentioned earlier: Get ready to express what you need quickly, politely, and transparently (“transparently” means making sure all parties know what is occurring, not just one). Bonus points if you can explain why you need what you need. The better you are at communicating, the easier this will be, and the more you can retain your professional dignity. So come up with some phrases in advance, since it’s always harder to speak coherently in the heat of the moment.

Some possible phrases:

  • Would you pause for a moment so the interpreter can get all the information across? Then you can continue.
  • The interpreter isn’t familiar with that term; would you mind explaining it so the she can interpret the explanation?
  • The term we just heard can have several different meanings in English. One moment while the interpreter clarifies the term to ensure accuracy.

Moral of this story? The mark of a good interpreter is that they are willing to admit when they don’t know everything. I’m sure you all have stories to share as well, and I look forward to your comments below. For a deeper discussion on the topic, join me in Nashville for our upcoming NAJIT conference and my workshop, The Interpreter’s Mistake: Reconciling Pride with Humility. See you soon!

Portrait of Athena Matilsky
Athena Matilsky

Athena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

16 Comments
  • Carlo Jaramillo
    Posted at 13:12h, 03 May Reply

    I really enjoyed your article. However, I believe it is just as valid to use the nonsensical term when rendering your interpretation and give the court and other parties involved a chance to ask for clarification. I am specifically referring to the example you used with the word “Cheta”. This is not to say that I disagree with your approach, but to show a different way to deal with that same situation.

  • Josephine J. Baldwin
    Posted at 14:54h, 03 May Reply

    Extremely useful article, thank you very much! The notion of “retaining one’s professional dignity” is important and reflects on our professionalism.

    • Silvana Garetz
      Posted at 18:29h, 10 May Reply

      Thank you for your article.
      I agree that “great and ethical interpreters” are always willing to correct themselves. It doesn’t expose us to lose credibility. On the contrary, it enforces our professionalism and our ethical behavior.

  • Nevine Ibrahim
    Posted at 14:56h, 03 May Reply

    Thank you Athena for the real life scenarios and reminders of tips and professional approach to being an ethical broker of languages. Its helpful to remind ourselves to be focused every time we render interpretation services, notwithstanding the harsh or emotional surroundings.
    You are absolutely right that a confident interpreter will ask for clarifications, pauses, and corrections to the record. Again you pin pointed that one should not allow self to become arrogant and conceited while performing his/her job.

  • Mary Lee Behar
    Posted at 15:08h, 03 May Reply

    These are some great tips. Thank you for sharing,

    Athena. I also recently realized that it is not about being perfect or knowing everything in your working languages. Like you said, that is impossible and can be so disheartening. I think the real goal is to continue learning and growing in our abilities by constantly reading, taking classes, travelling where our weaker languages are spoken, and practicing our skills at home with random speeches or news broadcasts… The real goal isn’t the perfection… it’s enjoying the journey.

    Peace.

  • Mengistu Dinato Didena
    Posted at 15:41h, 03 May Reply

    Athena Matilsky,
    Thank you very much for sharing your insights and the lived-experiences. Actually I am from a country where court interpreting is conducted, by and large, on ad hoc basis and by people who don’t have any training, even an orientation. I just dared to delve into the area of court interpreting and legal transcription simply because I have been listening to problems of interpreting in courtrooms from my friends who work as judges, prosecutors and attorney. While I was studying Applied Linguistics and Communication, I decided to explore this area and chose the topic for my thesis. It was later that I came across the idea of legal transcription. I realized that .court interpreting and legal transcription are important professions to my country’s judicial system.

    I am trying to raise the awareness of law professionals in the state I live in, and that of the staff and students of law school in the university I am working in..’I am trying to capitalize the importance of a program in such field in our higher learning institutions.
    Your points reminded me of many of the problems I had been observing during the in-court observations and the questions some of the trainees raise to me.
    I wish the light of this profession shine for the voiceless citizens that suffer from injustice caused because of lack of professional language assistance.

  • Jackie Sandoval
    Posted at 16:45h, 03 May Reply

    Great examples and tips. I have experienced similar situations and have also corrected myself. Next time I’ll add “for the record”. Thank you.

  • Di Clark
    Posted at 17:06h, 03 May Reply

    Great examples and wonderful advice, thank you … there is indeed a temptation to seem omniscient but it is SO much better to stay humble 🙂 And thank you for underlining that point about relating any corrections to the importance of the RECORD.

  • Jennifer Clowery
    Posted at 17:23h, 03 May Reply

    Thank you very much for writing about this important, but often overlooked, topic. We have done the profession (and ourselves as individuals) a disservice by pretending to be infallible walking dictionaries.

  • Grettel Huber
    Posted at 17:39h, 03 May Reply

    Hello Athena,

    Your friend/interpreter in Delaware here. I love this article you wrote, you are so correct, in my almost 21 years of interpreting I’ve encountered those, certified or non-certified, that believe they are perfect. I’ve in the other hand take some criticism in a way, because like you I like perfection, and like you , it is an uphill battle for me too. It is interesting that I kind of know when I might be saying in the spot something wrong, which I’m ready to correct, but also I’ve seen myself sometimes being corrected by others because for some strange reason I thought I was right, you know those words that by context one has to pull out of our brains in a split second he correct word for that context. I’m still learning and I love it. I want more knowledge, I want more of the two languages from different countries, I just plain love what I do for the love of languages. Thanks Athena, and I hope to see you soon in a future seminar. Sincerely, Grettel

  • Konnie Garrido
    Posted at 21:24h, 03 May Reply

    Athena, I hope you will teach a Continuing Education class somewhere about this – it is invaluable. Thank you for taking the time to share with us. Please re-post at a later date too – this is timeless and one of the more useful posts I have seen!

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 02:05h, 04 May Reply

    I wonder who came up with the third person on the record thing. I was interpreting in depositions in the early 90’s and back then it was normal to enter the corrections on the record in the first person “Let the record reflect that I interpreted xxx incorrectly because my beeper was on vibrate and it tickled me in the wrong place went in went off in my front pocket, and the correct interpretation should be yyy.” The court reporters just named you in the transcript as a speaker and everything was hunky-dory. At some point in the first decade of the 2000s the third person interjections to correct the record were the new practice/fad. Thing is, I don’t even think it’s based on some pedantic academic perfectionism derived from a real need to right something that was originally being done incorrectly, or for the noble persuit of creating a crystal clear record required by judicial necessity (was always plenty clear before). I can’t tell you where it came from, but I can only guess that someone pulled it out of a recondite bodily chasm where the sun doesn’t shine. I still, to this day, can’t quite get used to putting myself on the record in the third person and not feeling… uh, platitudinous? Is that still a word? LOL, pardon me for being anticuado. Anyway, as I grow older and more deranged, and perhaps a little less serious, I can see myself someday having to interrupt the record to say, “The interpreter likes his chicken spicy! The interpreter is getting upset!”
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YFb8WYYYSI4

    Oh, Athena, good stuff, as always.

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 20:09h, 05 May Reply

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments! I’m so glad this resonated and that the post was helpful. As for your tip, Carlo, I think it’s valid, as long as you are absolutely certain you haven’t misheard. I usually prefer to pause and clarify, just in case. And Konnie, if you’ll be at the NAJIT conference, I will be speaking more on the topic! Jennifer–“infallible walking dictionaries.” I love that term. Yes, we mustn’t pretend that is what we are. 🙂 Thanks again to everyone for taking the time to comment!

  • Doris Squires
    Posted at 23:59h, 05 May Reply

    Excellent article. I have encountered similar situations several times. On the same subject, one of our colleagues in Atlanta doesn’t say she knows everything, but she claims that (in more than 20 years) she has never been corrected during the rendition of her interpretations because she has never made a mistake. I don’t know which is greater, her ego, her arrogance or her ignorance. I hope she reads your article and the appropriate comments. I would like to see this topic included in some future presentations of Continuing Education, as Konnie Garrido suggests. I agree with Mary Lee Behar that “the real goal is not the perfection” but, in my opinion, to render the best possible results, after all we are “just” human beings.

  • Alfredo Babler
    Posted at 16:16h, 06 May Reply

    Doris, you just made laugh so hard with the Atlanta’s interpreter story. I’m going to confess. I may or may not at some point in my career have decided to bluff my way through a mistake I knew I had made on the record. Now, that’s some Olympic ego right there. Beyond that, I’ll take the 5th. Heheheh, more than an infallible walking dictionary, I consider myself a thesaurus asaurus…
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=URCcyN2JDT4

  • Gerardo Hernández
    Posted at 23:51h, 09 May Reply

    Excellent article discussing a topic that is overlooked. I thank you for your pragmatic phrases when clarifying while preserving our professionalism, confidence, and transparency.

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