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Translation Embassy | Fighting misconceptions about interpreting
Translation Embassy | Fighting misconceptions about interpreting
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Fighting misconceptions about interpreting

30 Jan Fighting misconceptions about interpreting

What is really the job of an interpreter? Are customers correctly informed about this duty when assigning their projects? How can misconceptions lead to false expectations? Setting a correct framework is an essential step to safeguard the success of a project and make a profitable and effective deal. In this article we’ll analyze some of the most common misunderstandings about the role of interpreters and we’ll try to clarify what actually interpreting means.

For those who wish to gain an extra income….

Hiring a professional can make a big difference

“Extra income opportunity: We are looking for people with good knowledge of Greek and Russian who can accompany a team of executives to business-visits in several regions of Greece and are able to translate the conversations.” This add was posted in a group of Greek language students and learners. Unfortunately in our everyday practice we often come across this type of requests, which clearly show an incorrect perception about interpreting services that is often observed among clients. What are the misconceptions hidden in it?

First of all, interpreting is not an opportunity, nor a parallel or occasional activity that offers some extra money. Interpreters are fully devoted to their job and take it seriously. This represents a main professional activity, which takes place regularly and ensures a main income. Interpreters are specialists, not opportunity seekers.

Is mastering a foreign language enough?

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning the criteria, which emphasizes mastering a foreign language to be hired as an interpreter. Simply speaking a foreign language does not make you able to interpret (even if you are bilingual), just like having a profound knowledge of your native language does not automatically allow you to call yourself a writer of novels or poetry. Interpreting is definitely not a task for language learners, but for professionals. It requires proper education, a complex set of skills developed through training and experience, linguistic and cultural knowledge, specialization etc.

It is true that multilingual people working for companies often act as language facilitators in their  duties, for example in the framework of sales to foreign countries and other business activities. This is not to be confused with interpreting though. Rendering the basic meaning of a simple conversation is a task many people could successfully fulfill. However, a business mission that requires interpreting support is not probably limited only to trip arrangements and typical everyday communication. Usually the involved parties need to talk about technical details (like for example how machinery/equipment works or security specifications), partnerships or sales contracts, licenses and different kinds of official documents, legal procedures or local legislation regarding their imports/exports, accounting issues, taxation, procedural details etc. Such issues go beyond the capabilities of multilingual people, since they require technical/special knowledge, use of terminology and faultless linguistic skills in both languages you are dealing with.

A trained interpreter has been prepared to deal with such situations in various ways. First of all, training programs often include supporting courses, such as the basics of law, economics, engineering principles, science and others, in parallel with the major field of studies. Secondly, interpreting training always assimilates the reality and focuses in any possible sector an interpreter may come across in real conditions. Training sessions pertain therefore to specialized topics, like for example agricultural policies, maritime affairs, public health, reforms in taxation, fraud, known geopolitical issues, industry and energy matters etc. Thirdly, regular activity ensures profound experience and success in handling any kind of situation. A professional interpreter does not simply come across an opportunity by chance, because he has a comparative (linguistic) advantage over his co-workers. A professional interpreter undertakes assignments again and again, is experienced in doing this job, can adapt to different topics and project requirements and performs in different interpreting types, such as simultaneous interpreting for conferences, consecutive interpreting in presentations and events, liaison interpreting in bilateral meetings, community interpreting etc.

Furthermore, professionalism requires a faultless linguistic usage, which practically entails formal wording and expressions. The aim is to convey the message accurately, while paying attention to grammar, syntax, terminology, expressions, style etc., so that you create a serious and responsible impression for your client. Lowering the expectations to the level of rendering a rough meaning without caring much about expression quality and mistakes wouldn’t  have the same effect.

It’s only a 3-hour assignment, how do you come up with this extravagant charge?

What people might ignore is that working time does not actually pertain only to the meeting or conference time. Every assignment consists of thorough preparation. Unlike translators, interpreters are not able to do research while on duty. They only have a few seconds to act until the speaker goes on to the next part of the narration. Therefore, preparation is always an important part of our job. Preparation may start days or even weeks before the assignment, depending on how early the contact is made with  the client. During this stage the interpreter gets informed about the discussion topics, makes profound research, extracts terminology and studies relevant supporting material in general. As you understand preparation time is also part of the assignment and should be taken into consideration in price calculations.

Besides, the complicated nature of the job itself is another factor which is accountable for the rates. Interpreting requires intense multitasking of the brain. The stages you go through start from active listening and continue with decoding the speaker’s message, analyzing it, detecting the correct expressions and terminology to be used, re-coding it in another language, while also controlling the grammatical correctness, the tone of your voice and the style of your speech at the same time as you talk. And all this within a few seconds time! It is a task that requires quick reflexes and a set of high skills which are developed through continuous training.

I don’t need a top notch interpreter. I just want to be able to understand what’s being discussed in the meeting.

I have heard this argument quite a few times from customers in their effort to reduce costs. I cannot imagine either myself or my colleagues though consciously deviating from professional standards in order to render a service of lower quality. How should one react to this suggestion? Go to the meeting unprepared or refrain from giving the best of himself/herself while on duty? Consciously striving to achieve a mediocre performance cannot be a tactic that characterizes a professional. After all, don’t forget how much hard one needs to try in order to build a good reputation. How is it possible then to endanger this reputation simple to accept a cheaper deal?

Cost is obviously important for business. However, quality is important as well. Don’t forget that if a low cost service produces a mediocre quality, this can have implications on your business. Such a situation may jeopardize your deal, exports/imports or sales in general. A mediocre service can make conversations cumbersome and lead to delays, which result in loss of profit in their turn. It is true that a business deal is not only affected by the practical terms. The impression you make is also critical, so that your partner takes you seriously, your clients trust you and your audience relies on your expertise and  advice. The profile you build adds value to your business or cause and collaborating with professional interpreters is part of building a strong profile.

I’d expect a better performance of today’s interpreters…

Professionals are of course responsible for their performance. However, the performance depends also on factors we cannot control. Those who work with interpreters and translators typically do not realize that they, too, as active participants have an important role to play.

In the interpreting process the speaker’s performance is of crucial importance for the interpreter. Don’t forget that interpreting is meant to involve oral speech (in contrast with translation), which requires a proper syntax and structure (even if one speaks directly to the audience’s language) in order for the interlocutors to be able to process the information in their minds. According to public speaking principles a good speaker talks freely in a suitable rhythm, maintains visual contact with the audience and applies a proper tone for each instance. Interpretation is much more likely to be successful, when such optimal practices are applied.

On the contrary, interpretation becomes difficult, when speakers step on the podium with badly prepared texts and do nothing more than reading out loud the text they wrote the previous day. If you try yourselves as well, you’ll realize that when reading, your rhythm becomes quicker than orally arguing for a topic in normal circumstances. Furthermore, structures in written texts tend often to be longer and more complicated than in oral speech, especially when writing about technical / legal issues which often happen to be the topic in conferences. If you were to talk to a friend about the same thing, you would probably adopt a more simple style. Just think of a situation, where the speaker (it can be your teacher in school) opened his papers and started reading loud (in your native language) an endless text with a dull voice without pause. How much of it would you be able to follow? Although an interpreter is an active listener in every situation, I think it’s obvious that such bad circumstances can negatively affect his performance.

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