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Non-professional Interpreting – Risks and Alternatives

Non-professional Interpreting – Risks and Alternatives

There are times when the only language interpreter available in a situation is the friend or family member of a person in need. In one case that might be the child of a person who has ended up in the hospital, and in another case the friend of a foreign crime victim, a person who knows both languages. Such spontaneous interpreting by someone who happens to be available occurs in encounters with police, public service employees, doctors, border guards, and even less consequential situations like talking with employees at a store.

But while the unplanned presence of a person who is able to interpret during an emergency can save the day, this is not a reliable outcome. Unfortunately, the risks that come with interpreting handled by an untrained bilingual person are high. Language errors are likely, as are inaccurate conveyance of attitude, mood, and intent. The cool-headed interpreting that is ideal for emergencies and sensitive situations is almost impossible.

The most common mistakes made by untrained interpreters are completely understandable when you consider the intellectually demanding nature of interpreting and the pressure of having a good outcome depend entirely on their ability to manage it. Dr. Glenn Flores of the University of Miami conducted a study of taped interpreting for pediatric patients that took place at a hospital where most interpreting was handled by nurses, social workers, and family members.* From 474 pages of transcripts 396 interpreter errors were noted, which averages to 31 per encounter. They illustrate how interpreter training and experience make such a huge difference in accuracy. The most common were:

  • Omission (52%) – the interpreter left out a word or phrase
  • False fluency (16%) – a non-existent phrase was added into the interpretation
  • Substitution (13%) – a word different from what the speaker actually said was used
  • Editorialization (10%) – the interpreter mixed their own opinion into their translation
  • Addition (8%) – a word was added to the speaker’s words

On the other hand, professional liaison interpreting services create a situation of ease, cooperation, and safety where genuine understanding can take place, even in difficult situations. With proficiency in all of the languages in use, liaison interpreters are trained to process each of the speakers’ words and during a pause translate for others involved. While the process is more casual than most other forms of interpreting, in that advanced preparation and special equipment are not usually involved, the goal remains the highest possible accuracy.

Liaison interpreting is useful for informal and last-minute meetings, on-site urgent needs like those mentioned above at hospitals, as a link in the field for foreign correspondents, inclusion of foreign-language speaking individuals at events like weddings, as a guide for tourists, and in private sessions with counselors or doctors. Liaison interpreting is called various things depending on the situation in which it is used: escort interpreting, ad hoc interpreting, administrative interpreting, business interpreting, and bilateral interpreting. With the intention of remaining in the background as they facilitate understanding, all liaison interpreters focus on creating two-way bridges over both lingual and cultural gaps for their clients.

One form of liaison interpreting that is highly useful and accessible for many situations is Over the Phone Interpreting, or OPI. Often OPI can be arranged at the last minute for circumstances that arise and must be dealt with immediately in business, hospitals, courtrooms, etc. When direct connection and interpreting with just one other party is needed, standard phones are the only equipment required.

OPI and other forms of liaison interpreting can be contracted at the last minute or arranged ahead of time with Language Service Providers like Skrivanek that offer these services in many language combinations. The best liaison interpreters will be great communicators in general, capable of expressing not only a speaker’s words, but also their body language and emotions. These are good traits for all types of interpreters – but liaison interpreting puts added pressure on to translate what is happening right here and now, beyond mere words. It’s a lively, challenging form of multilingual communication that takes training and experience to do well. And often enough it really does save the day.

* https://www.researchgate.net


J. V. McShulskis



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