Adding flavour to interpreting 

Adding flavour to interpreting 

Being impartial is a professional choice (not a rule), and as my colleague Phil Muriel repeats and insists, “what matters is not what we are doing, but how we are perceived”. Those watching us do not know what we are saying, which can be misconstrued as giving advice (medical or legal). 

Maybe some of you heard about an interpreter telling a domestic abuse victim to go back to her husband and not tarnish the honour of the family. Our code of conduct predicts situations like this and encourages us to stay faithful to the message and to not add anything when interpreting. It is not about being trained properly, it is about how we want to be perceived by others, and this should not be an individual choice, but what the profession expects of us.

The reality is that many interpreters add flavour to interpreting, feel the need to bridge the gap of understanding by embellishing the message or changing the register, they even chat away in the waiting rooms to help pass the time or to follow the conventions of British culture. And then when fewer interpreters state impartiality, standards or a code of conduct they are met with scepticism.

This is a touchy subject where some interpreters are divided by their humanitarian and social needs and/or the needs of others. For some, staying impartial and not adding any personal touches to interpreting is a must. 

I sat many times with defendants, patients, duty solicitors and appropriate adults in a small room without engaging in conversation. They understand and fully support my role as I introduce myself upon arrival.

It does not happen often but once the sister of the witness I was interpreting for asked me if I wanted to swap seats with her so I could chit chat (exactly those words) with her sister, and I explained very nicely and respectfully that: “as an impartial interpreter I follow a code of conduct and we do not engage in side-conversations to avoid bias. As I said in my introduction, I am here to be your voice and will interpret everything you wish to say, as accurately as I can, but my role is simply to interpret. This way I remain neutral and do my job without judgement or prior knowledge of the case.” 

As an interpreter I cannot stop their exchanges towards me, however, I was trained to use tools to protect myself, and to reduce certain things from happening as much as I can. 

My first tool is impartiality, my second tool is to use the code of conduct as a shield, and I bring a book because I know their need to talk can go on and on. They are often in an ’emotional’ state. Where I want to be in a rational state to be an effective interpreter.

My personal stance is that my private life is not to be shared with people I do not know. That is not what I am paid for. I go to a venue to interpret, not to be pleasant to people. I respect both parties and treat them the same. This is how I want to be treated and I have the right to say no when other people want to download their idle talk or personal dramas on me. 

I work in public service contexts, not in the hospitality industry where I must talk to everyone or make sure everyone is okay. That is the providers’ role. 

In addition, I consider both parties ‘service users’ and ‘service providers’ not ‘my clients’ as some interpreters often refer to non-English speakers. In my opinion, the moment we associate with a party as ‘our clients’ we are narrowing the boundaries and getting closer.

Personally, I do not get involved, as it is not my conversation, and I have no interest in being part of it, this is my job, I do not need to know anything extra about the parties (except for a briefing), I am not their nanny or confident so the extra pepper on my plate is of no concern. I do my utmost to be accurate and after my assignment I disengage and go back to my own life. 

Yes, there is a lot of common sense in our decisions but we should also ask ourselves why do we feel the need to offer extra comfort, words, whatever we are offering extra to those we are interpreting for. Perhaps it is not necessary. After all, we are already giving them a voice. Perhaps it is our own need to be chatty and pleasant, not necessarily needed for rapport or to build trust. 

I agree that a code of conduct offers guidelines only (not rules) because the profession is not regulated, but when we are all believing different things about our role it begs the question: Are we all interpreting to the same standards? 

And are we interpreters asking ourselves our motives for acting one way or another? Are we self-reflecting on our role and trying to improve our professional persona?

Self-evaluating or having a dialogue with peers is good, to maintain standards, consistency and have others seeing us all as professionals, not divided individuals doing each one a different thing. We need to establish boundaries, and for me adding flavour to interpreting, or any other involvement brings the parties to be too cosy and friendly. I remind myself that ‘I am not their friend. I am their voice’.

This brings me to another potential breach of impartiality – being left alone with non-English speakers in the room, instead of waiting outside the room. The same applies to being in the same room with the provider and exchanging trivialities.

If we are alone they may ask me for my help or advice, then I have to explain why I cannot do that. Too much explaining can be avoided with a good introduction. 

In an article published not long ago, an interpreter shared her experience of being left alone in an A&E cubicle separated by curtains while the nurse went to get something and the patient touched the interpreter inappropriately. If we are left alone with one of the parties, anything can happen. 

As human beings, we also have our own personal ethics in addition to our professional ethics, which guide many of our decisions. Only we can see if they become blurred and conflicting with each other. No one can tell us otherwise. 

I feel impartiality protects me as the interpreter, in every single way, from being attacked physically or verbally, from vicarious trauma, from complaints, accusations of taking sides, invitations, sharing private information, breaching confidentiality, asking me to do something I should not be doing. 

I see the code of conduct as a shield not as a burden to obey and not challenge.

In an ideal world nothing happens, but when something goes wrong how do we protect ourselves? How many of us have the tools to deal with challenges and conflicts?

As a trainer I must be inclusive, so for the benefit of all cultures, we should have more dialogue and see what issues and challenges occur often across all languages and cultures. What is acceptable in Britain may not be acceptable to other cultures even if they live in the UK. 

It cannot be all black or white, victims of rape will not want interpreters pity or extra words, cultures with castes and/or social status may not allow mixed education levels to chit chat, certain religious Muslim men (even of Catholic and/or of Orthodox faith) will not expect to engage in conversation with a female interpreter, so yes, in Britain certain things are acceptable to Brits and some Europeans but not to all cultures. 

Impartiality is the most difficult concept to learn and comply with. Hence why my previous thoughts were on whether Facebook is allowing us to share far more information than we should.

My thoughts aim to bring awareness to certain topics and issues (not criticise or disapprove). I do not pretend to have a position, but I believe we all need to develop critical thinking to see where we can improve and maintain high standards (myself included).

by Helena El Masri