• Elena Langdon

5 things I observed when untrained bilinguals took on interpreting



You might already know why trained interpreters make a difference in healthcare and legal settings. It's been well documented. Recently I attended an academic event that was billed as bilingual and that featured a Brazilian author and two Portuguese language professors. The author was meant to be the focus of the event. Because the author didn't speak English, the professors interpreted his comments and audience questions. Because the professors weren't trained as interpreters, the event became about all three of them.

As I listened to the three speakers, I was able to ponder on the nature of our profession and how untrained bilinguals affect an event by what they do and don't contribute. Below are five thoughts I jotted down.

Third Person. This is by far the easiest to recognize and sets a distance between the speaker and the interpreter. In this event the professors only used third person ("he said," "he thinks"), but more alarmingly to me, often added hedges to the author's thoughts, such as "he is trying to argue that" or "he is claiming that...."

Saving Face. Several times the professors omitted unflattering or humble statements the Brazilian author made about himself. While it has been done in some extreme cases, filtering one's utterances by omission, changes, or addition is not something defended in any standard of practice for interpreters.

Corrections. Not only were factual corrections made a few times, but the correcting itself became a point of discussion, with one professor pointing out that he was correcting the author. It was not presented as a negative thing, but it sidetracked the author's comment.

Cultural context. Trained interpreters often provide this as well, although many of my students struggle initially with how to manage it in a transparent manner. In this particular setting it worked well and contributed a lot to the author's main points.

Visibility. Language interpreting is not easy for anyone, as bilingual or as well-versed as one might be in the subject (as both professors were). Yet as performers, we should not "let the audience see us sweat." In this event, the uneven quality between the two professors and the ensuing insecurity made the difficulties of translation very visible. I found it to be a big distraction.

Of course there was little harm done by organizing an event like this without a trained interpreter, and budgetary concerns are always a hindrance. Moreover, it was rightly billed as a a bilingual conversation. An interpreter would have changed the event to an author presentation or allowed the professors to contribute more directly with their thoughts. To me, it was an interesting opportunity to observe some major differences in a non-life-threatening environment, without judgment or outrage.


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