The Ultimate Guide to Interpreting
While English is the most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, it’s far from the only language. In addition to Celtic languages like Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, you’ll also find a wide diversity of community languages.
For example, you might encounter people who speak:
- Various Chinese languages.
With so many different languages, interpreters are vital for effective communication. Making interpreting services available is good business, and in some cases, it’s also required by law. However, organisations still sometimes struggle with the details.
If you’re in charge of arranging these services, you might have questions about how to hire an interpreter.
Questions about Interpreting
This article will help you learn more about what interpreters do and why they’re important, better understand your options and choose an interpreting service that will help you achieve your organisational goals.
If you’d like to learn more, download our e-book:
What Is Interpreting?
Before hiring an interpreting service, you need to understand what you’re buying.
So, what is interpreting, anyway? Interpreting is the act of translating a spoken or signed conversation from one language into another. Please note, interpreting is different from written translation. Many people confuse the two disciplines. However, they are not the same, and they require different types of training and skills. For example, interpreting requires listening skills and speech skills. Translation requires reading and writing skills.
As a result, interpreters are not necessarily translators, and translators are not necessarily interpreters.
At times, interpreters may be asked to “sight translate,” that is, to read a text from the source language into the target language, translating it as they go. However, in most cases, converting written texts from one language to another is the job of a translator, not an interpreter.
As a general rule, if you’ll need to reference important documents during your interpreting appointment, get them translated, proofread and printed out ahead of time. This will ensure that the resulting document is error-free and that participants have a hard copy of the document in their language to refer back to if needed.
Types of Interpreting
When it comes to interpreting services, one size does not fit all. Fortunately, there’s a variety of different interpreting options available to suit all types of situations. Here are some options your organisation can choose from.
In consecutive interpreting, everyone takes turns talking. It is the most common type of interpreting. It doesn’t require any special technology, just a qualified interpreter. However, because it’s more time-consuming, it’s best suited for one-on-one conversations or small groups.
Simultaneous interpreting is most commonly used at large events, like conferences, trade shows or at the United Nations. With simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter interprets while the person is talking. This type of interpreting is much harder on the interpreter than consecutive interpreting. However, it also saves time and listeners tend to prefer it.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to get an interpreter in person when you need one, especially for less common languages. Telephone interpreting is an excellent way to bridge the gap, as one phone call can give you access to hundreds of different languages.
Video interpreting is much like telephone interpreting, except that everyone can see each other. That makes it easier for the interpreter to read body language and non-visual cues for improved accuracy.
Sign Language Interpreting
For many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, sign language is their first language. Sign language interpreting makes it possible for Deaf people to utilize their native language in the hearing world.
To learn more about the different types of interpreting, see our post 7 Types of Interpreting Services (and When to Use Them).
When Do You Need an Interpreter?
If you need to converse with customers, business partners or clients who don’t speak your language, then you need an interpreter. Keep in mind, too, that even people who can speak more than one language are often more comfortable using their mother tongue.
While businesses and organisations of all types may use interpreters from time to time, the sectors that purchase interpreting services most frequently include:
- Medical interpreting and healthcare interpreting. GPs, clinics, hospitals and specialists all utilise interpreters to ensure that even people who don’t speak English have equal access to healthcare.
- Legal Interpreting. Legal interpreters help witnesses report crimes. They also help the police investigate crimes, and ensure that defendants understand what is happening in the event of a trial.
- Events: Sign Language Interpreting at Music Events. Conferences, concerts and other large events use interpreters to ensure that attendees around the world can join in the experience. In particular, music concerts and festivals have begun to use sign language interpreters to make their events more accessible for people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Despite the hype, the technology behind even the highest-rated automated interpreter apps is still in its infancy. So, if accuracy matters, you need to hire a live human professional instead.
Who can be an Interpreter?
It’s not uncommon for organisations to think they can save a little cash by relying on the language skills of their employees. Sure, Bob in Accounting may have grown up speaking Spanish, but that doesn’t mean he has what it takes to be a good interpreter (or even an adequate one).
The bottom line? Interpreting is much harder than it looks to someone who’s never tried it. Interpreters are trained professionals. Bob in Accounting may be a trained professional accountant, but he is not a trained, professional interpreter. It’s not fair to Bob or anyone else to make him do a job he isn’t trained to do.
Sometimes, clients or patients will bring friends and family in with them to their appointments. However, friends and family are generally not the best choices, either, especially for medical or legal matters.
First of all, like Bob in accounting, they aren’t trained to interpret and are more likely to make mistakes, especially in high-stress situations. Secondly, using a professional interpreter can make it easier to candidly discuss sensitive issues. It’s not uncommon for people to want to keep some things – affairs, addictions, an unsightly rash, et cetera- private from their family.
Additionally, both the medical and legal professions have their own specialised vocabulary that a volunteer interpreter may struggle to understand.
Finally, unless there’s absolutely no alternative, children should never act as interpreters in any sort of medical or legal situation. Even if they want to help and speak both languages, they are still children. Interpreting adult conversations is a job for grown-ups.
A Day in the Life of An Interpreter
What’s it like being an interpreter, anyway? Once you understand what it’s like to be in their shoes, you’ll also understand how to work with them to get the best results from your investment in their services.
Depending on their speciality, interpreters may attend all-day events, like conferences, or they may hop from appointment to appointment. Regardless, most interpreters prefer to be able to prepare for their assignments ahead of time, if possible.
Interpreters must follow a strict code of professional ethics. Generally, they are supposed to interpret everything that’s said during the appointment, without adding any of their own opinions or views. They are also required to keep sensitive information confidential.
Mentally, interpreting is hard work. With an endless variety of potential topics, situations, and conversation styles, there’s no such thing as a routine assignment.
How to Work With an Interpreter
Be Prepared. The more an interpreter can prepare for a particular assignment, the better. Describe the purpose of the appointment and any special circumstances in as much detail as you can. If you plan to refer to written materials during the meeting, provide them to the interpreter ahead of time.
Speak Directly. Interpreters are there to transmit your words into the other person’s language. Don’t talk to them about your conversation partner. That creates confusion and the other person is probably going to be offended.
Speak Slowly. If you talk a mile a minute… slow down. It’s important to give your interpreter time to process what you’re saying. You should avoid talking so slowly that it sounds patronising. Speak as if you’re addressing an adult, not a child.
No Idioms. Use simple language. Avoid idioms, slang and jokes that might get lost in translation. If taken literally, you might think that someone with cold feet has… cold feet.
One Person at a Time. Interpreting is challenging enough without adding a cacophony of different voices to the mix. If more than two people are involved in the conversation, make sure than only one person is speaking at a time.
Be Professional. Respect interpreters time and don’t ask them to do tasks that fall outside of the scope of a standard interpreting assignment. For example, it means not expecting the interpreter to give the other participant a ride home or call them a cab.
Examples of Interpreting: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Interpreters may work behind the scenes, but they can have a tremendous impact for better or for worse. Here are some real-life interpreting stories that demonstrate the importance of choosing the right interpreter.
Everyone loves a good “interpreting gone wrong” story. And we’ll get to those. But first, let’s look at some examples of the positive impact interpreters can have.
The telephone interpreter who helped deliver a baby
When everything goes well, you usually don’t hear much about the role of interpreters. It’s like they’re invisible. But now and then, something extraordinary happens. For example, in July of 2019, a telephone interpreter teamed up with a 911 dispatcher to walk a Spanish-speaking couple through an unintentional home birth.
Mario Arroyo and Carmen Gomez’s baby boy was born on June 18th. He was only 32 weeks, and he came so quickly that the couple didn’t have time to get to the hospital. He was also born inside the amniotic sac.
Unattended births are not necessarily emergencies, but this one certainly could have been.
911 dispatcher Gina Thrasivoulou instructed the couple on what to do to free the baby from the amniotic sac and get him breathing. Meanwhile, from across the country, telephone interpreter Juan Batista interpreted.
A month later, everyone met to celebrate the happy outcome. As Batista explained to CBS46,
“I don’t get to meet the people that I help, we rarely meet the people. This is what makes the job worth it, you get to help a person, you get to make a difference, that’s the most rewarding thing you can have.”
Good interpreters can be heroes. But poor quality or unprofessional interpreting can have a range of negative consequences.
For a humorous look at why it’s important to select a properly trained interpreter, have a look (and a laugh) at this hilarious video from the Catherine Tate show.
What do you think the chances of success are for that business deal? Not good, are they?
Yes, this is sketch comedy. However, in the real world, choosing the wrong interpreter can still result in embarrassment.
Consider, for example, US President Jimmy Carter’s cringeworthy 1977 visit to Poland. The US Department of State did hire a professional interpreter. However, instead of an experienced Polish interpreter, they chose a professional Russian interpreter who also happened to know Polish.
Carter’s speech was misinterpreted, to hilarious effect. With lines like “when I abandoned the United States” and “I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish” it’s hard to blame the media for making the gaffes into a centrepiece of their coverage of his trip.
In the real world, the consequences of bad interpreting aren’t always funny. They can be absolutely tragic.
For instance, when hospitals don’t make language access a priority for patients and their families, quality of care suffers. People have died or become permanently handicapped as a result.
Here’s just one example. Without access to an interpreter, an ill thirteen-year-old girl from Arizona named Gricelda Zamora was expected to interpret for her parents and her doctors. After being held for observation, she was sent home. But her parents didn’t understand the discharge instructions, and they didn’t know they needed to bring her back to the hospital immediately if her condition worsened. She died of a ruptured appendix.
Meanwhile, in what’s probably the most well-known medical interpreting failure, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez ended up a quadriplegic after he suddenly collapsed and was brought to a Florida ER.
Ramirez’ family believed he had food poisoning. They tried to tell the doctors that he had eaten a bad hamburger. But they primarily spoke Cuban Spanish, in which food poisoning is colloquially called being “intoxicado.”
Because “intoxicado” sounds like “intoxicated”, Ramirez was treated for a drug overdose. But he didn’t use drugs. He had a brain bleed. And by the time the mistake was discovered, the damage to his brain had left him permanently paralysed from the neck down. After his family sued, the hospital was ordered to pay $71M for his care.
How to Hire an Interpreter
With so many options and so much on the line, how do you choose the right interpreting service for your organisation?
First, consider your interpreting and translation needs – not just the needs of the moment, but what you’re likely to need in the future, as well. Finding an agency that can meet all of your needs will save time and money in the long run. At K International, we offer a full suite of interpreting and translation services.
Next, look for an agency with experience and a good reputation in the industry. K International has been helping organisations of all types and sizes with their language needs for over 30 years.
Also, ask about interpreter training and specialisation. Sectors like medical and legal have their own vocabulary, and if interpreters aren’t familiar with the terminology their performance will suffer.
Sign language interpreters should be well-trained, and certification is often required. At K International, all of our interpreters are CACDP (The Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People) approved and registered.
Finally, consider the technology the agency brings to the table. Do they offer solutions that make it easier to order, schedule and manage interpreting services? Do they offer telephone interpreting services or video remote interpreting for immediate access and/or hard-to-source languages?
At K International, we offer access to trained, certified interpreters in 250 languages and a variety of formats. Do you need telephone interpreters on call 24/7? We do that. Do you need simultaneous interpreting set up for your next conference or event? We do that, too. Need to request a sign language interpreter? We’ve got you covered.
And by taking advantage of the latest technology, we’ve made hiring an interpreter easier than it’s ever been.
How to Hire an Interpreter: The Easy Way
At K International, we’re pleased to introduce TalkLingua, our new interpreting platform. TalkLingua brings all the interpreting solutions we offer together into one elegant, easy-to-use app.
Get help from a qualified interpreter, when and where you need it. Our cloud-based app works from anywhere you have internet access, whether you’re using a mobile phone, a tablet or a desktop computer.
- Connect with interpreters over telephone or video conference or schedule an in-person appointment, all from one platform.
- Instant gratification: Interpreters for 250 languages are available 24/7 and 99% of calls are connected in less than one minute.
- Need in-person interpreting help? Schedule services in advance with just a few clicks.
With TalkLingua, it’s never been easier for businesses and organisations of all sorts to ensure that important communication with partners, clients or customers is handed professionally, no matter what languages are involved.
Want to learn more? Contact us to discuss your interpreting needs today!