We will need an interpreter at some point in our lives, and it has better be a good one.
When I was 15 years old I played the role of interpreter without even knowing. The story took place at a hardware store. A British client wanted a sink cap but the owner couldn’t understand her because she spoke zero English. I was there by chance and I saw the situation. My knowledge in English was the clue to solving this situation. These two individuals could not talk to each other because of a barrier in communication. I then became a bridge between the two parties. The customer could get the sink tap and the owner sold her product. I also got my first “payment” as an interpreter. The owner offered me, for free the screws I was buying for the services provided.
This story is a clear example of the most important quality an interpreter must have: WILLINGNESS TO HELP. There are thousands of situations every day in which languages are barriers to communication. We must be aware that our knowledge in languages can be the lifesaver of a person; it was a sink cap this time, but next time my interpretation could lead (or not) a person to jail.
Important Qualities of an interpreter
One of the most important qualities that an interpreter must also show is NEUTRALITY. The interpreter has a sole job: convey the message from one language to the other and the other way around. One of the parts may feel helpless because they cannot speak the language of the country where they are being prosecuted or sued. This role usually affects the defendant. However, we are already helping by putting their voice and their message in a language that the court may understand. As well as translating the words from the judge, the lawyer, the public prosecutor, the witnesses or any other party involved into the language of the foreigner.
We are not psychologists, therefore we cannot take care of the victim. For instance, if he/she is suffering from anxiety, our lack of knowledge in this field could even worsen the situation. If social intercourse is bound to happen, we should say nothing more than “Hello, my name is XXX, I’m from XXX, I will be your interpreter. Please stay calm, I am here to help, I will translate what you say with maximum accuracy and I will convey the words of the court into your language.” If any problem arises, you can contact a professional in order to help her (and interpret again as well). However you cannot be THAT professional. You can contact a doctor if she needs it because of anxiety and work as an interpreter, but you should never take the role of a doctor.
Interpreters are not obliged to do.
We should never help the defendant with legal aid in the middle of the court since this is unethical, and in some countries, it is even illegal and the interpreter could be forced to pay a fine or even go to jail. Needless to say, conveying the message into the corresponding languages must be a faithful copy of what the speaking party is saying, and we should never invent, alter or omit any part of the speech or the words of the speaker.
Last, but not least, the interpreter must be PROFESSIONAL and PROFICIENT. We must acknowledge that our first translation or interpretation is not going to be the best one in our lives. If the interpreter works hard, practices every day and tries to improve his techniques (taking notes, speech, mental agility to deliver the message simultaneously, knowledge of the target language), he/she will become a really good interpreter in the future.
My first interpretation in the hardware store was terrible but sufficient to let the message arrive at both parties. I was WILLING TO HELP. I was NEUTRAL (I didn’t try to convince the customer to buy something else or to buy in another store). When I was translating I didn’t try to convince the owner to charge her more because she was a foreigner or to give her a discount. If this situation happens again, I`ll be more PROFICIENT because I practised every day to become a PROFESSIONAL. My first translation was horrible as well when I started my Translation Degree at the University. If I had decided to stop because of the bad quality of my work, I would have never become a professional translator and interpreter.
The first interpretation is not the worst, the worst is to give up. The first interpretation leads the way to perfection, in which each step is an improvement.