Interpreting or Cultural Consultation

As interpreters, we are asked to translate the words and convey the intonation of the speaker into the language of the listener. As one can imagine, this process of interpretation yields terms or ideas for which there is no direct translation. This is often because a concept may not exist in both languages; we may all be human beings, but not all cultures are alike, right? For example, when I was recently assisting a case worker interact with a family who had recently resettled in the U.S. as refugees, the case worker told the mother that she needed to get a letter from the landlord verifying her residence in the apartment for her daughter’s school. For this woman, the fact that a school would require a document from her landlord made absolutely no sense. When asked for clarification, the case worker did not know how to clarify in any other way than to restate because she was unaware of what precisely was confusing the mother.

Another kind of challenge that arises in interpreting is expressions whose words have a close match but whose significance in context are very different. For example, the mother previously mentioned kept repeating “God willing” in response to anything the case worker said. To the case worker, this seemed to express a kind of sarcasm that expressed the mother’s lack of trust in the case worker.

As interpreters, we are not permitted (nor do we have the time!) to help each party understand one another on a deep psycho-social level. However, in home visits, medical or hospital settings and elsewhere, individual interpreters can and must clarify certain phrases or words when they feel the mere interpretation does not provide adequate meaning to a person’s message. I, for one, have done so on occasion. For the example of the case worker and the mother, I did find an appropriate time to step in and offer some clarifying words.

As speakers of both languages in interactions where we are a mere third party, it is hard at times not to step in and explain or even provide insight. This juggle of either resisting or interjecting to clarify leads me to ask: Where is the line between interpreting and cultural consultation, and furthermore, in an ideal scenario, where should the line be placed?

The answer is a classic: It depends. Sure, in some settings, the line is quite clear and there is no urge to step in as “referee.” For example, when interpreting between two parties who work in the same field or whose levels of education are fairly on par with one another, extra assistance from a cultural observer may not be needed. Or, at a UN conference, not only can you not interrupt from a speech to provide insight, but your cultural awareness may not even be as useful as, for example, that of experts in political rhetoric. Codes of conduct are central to ensuring the quality and professionalism of our services. However, might it also be that the very codes that define also, at times, inhibit?

Depending on your client or the agency through which you work, your responsibilities may slightly differ. Nevertheless, regardless of the specifics, our job is to precisely transmit the information or message of the speaker to the listener, from one language into another. The goal is not to provide additional insight into how or why a speaker might say something the way he or she does.

What if that were allowed? What if cultural consultation were a service that interpreters and translators could provide in addition to their linguistic expertise?

Imagine, you enter into an office to interpret between lawyer and client. Client is from your home country and you two share not only a language but a culture. Preparing for court, the lawyer is advising the client how to appear, only she does not feel comfortable taking his suggestion. You know why and you know why the lawyer is confused by her resistance. Imagine you had the power to alleviate both party’s frustrations with a simple contribution of cultural interpretation? Not only could you help save time, you would also help strengthen the relationship between lawyer and client, thereby providing your client with even more accurate interpreting services.

Or perhaps you are a historian with expertise in Latin American history. Would you not be doing your client a disservice by withholding valuable information pertaining to the historical relevance of a term or expression used in dialogue?

What about adaptation of educational curriculum from one country to another? Would it not benefit both parties to have a cultural liaison to advise each other on how students or “school culture” might affect implementation?

Sure, not all interpreters or translators can also double as a cultural consultant since many are hired on an assignment for which they do not have the relevant knowledge or expertise. In fact, when deemed necessary, a cultural liaison or “diplomat,” if you will, is called in to assist separately from the hired interpreter or translator. But isn’t the marriage between language and culture just too hard to ignore?

Perhaps the translators and interpreters are in the best positions to determine when or where this kind of additional service would be of use.

Written by Melissa Mannis

March Meeting Recap: A Look at the Interpretation Market

Our well attended March meeting focused on interpretation. The panel consisted of:

  • Loubna Bagnied, Interpreting Services Manager at Eriksen Translations
  • Michelle Santarpia, Interpreting Recruiter at Geneva Worldwide
  • Elodie Gonzalez, Senior Project Manager at Translingua Associates
  • Anthony Cosimano, Managing Director – Event Services Ubiqus


The panelist discussed their respective agencies and then what qualifications they look for when hiring interpreters. All the agencies stated that training on the CV was a good thing. Ms. Santarpia from Geneva stated that if there is no training, relevant work experience would help interpreters stand out. For example someone who worked as a paralegal and was now starting in interpreting would be considered by Geneva. It also helps to be recommended by interpreters who are on their roster. In fact all the panelists agreed that recommendations from colleagues were a plus. Ericksen tests potential interpreters for language proficiency and eloquence of delivery.

From Ms. Santarpia of Geneva: You need to establish a relationship with your agency – as recruiter, I like to meet my interpreters in person; there has to be a personal connection.

All agencies lamented about client education. Clients and other industries really need to understand about interpreting. It requires more than just a bilingual. They all breathe a sigh of relief when servicing clients who truly understand what interpreting entails. In fact Ubiqus has written in their contract that “if no materials are provided prior to the meeting then they cannot guarantee the quality of the interpretation.” This is quite unique in the industry.

Modes of Interpreting

In addition to the usual consecutive, simultaneous and escort interpreting the new types of technology are ushering in different modes of interpreting (video remote interpreting on a rise; telephonic)

While in-person interpretation is the ideal it is not always available in every circumstance. Geneva and Ericksen both agreed that in situations such as medical you prefer the “human touch”, an interpreter not only delivers what the patient says, but more importantly what is not said. An in-person interpreter can see if the patient scrunches up their face in pain, or looks confused or frightened. The telephone cannot relay those sentiments, video does not work that much better.

Many hospitals use VRI machines or phone interpreting (Woodhull Hospital using VRI machines) but for many situations, it depends on the condition of the patient him or herself before knowing whether or not VRI or phone interpreting works.

However, where face to face is not available these types of interpretation are the only choice. Hospitals by law must provide language services to patients.

What are the areas which have the most growth potential in the interpreting market?


Due to globalization there is a huge demand for web localization and branding a business into other markets. Interpreters are generally hired to help with visits and signing contracts between CEOs, CFOs and their international counterparts.

Ubiqus finds that business meetings and forums keep them quite busy are growing on a yearly basis. This part of the industry is quite robust and does not seem to be slowing down.

 What are the trends?

– People are becoming aware that everyone has a right to language access
– People are becoming more aware that there is a difference between a skilled interpreter and a bilingual
– People need and demand more certifications
– VRI and telephonic isn’t taking away from in-person, just expanding it

Can people do both interpreting and translating?
From our panelists:
-70% of interpreters at some of the agencies also do translation
-Most interpreters are not into translation, but do it in their areas of expertise
-Suggested it’s easier to go from interpretation to translation and not vice versa

Standards For Interpreting

What Is Happening with ISO, ASTM and Going Forward into the Future

Article based on an interview by Margarite Heintz Montez with Marjory Bancroft

Marjory Bancroft is the Director of Cross-Cultural Communications and also the World Project Leader responsible for developing the upcoming standard ISO 18841, Interpreting: General Requirements, for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The Gotham had a conversation with her regarding standardization for interpreters, which seems to be on everyone’s mind today.  Members of the NYCT will really appreciate her insight into the standardization process.  Many organizations including the ATA have been discussing certification and standardization, but so far the ATA has not developed any certification for interpreters.

International Standards

ISO recently published its first International Standard for interpreting: ISO 13611:2014, Interpreting: Guidelines for Community Interpreting. The second ISO standard, 18841, will be a stricter requirements standard that addresses all areas of interpreting; 18841 is intended to be an “umbrella” standard.

This standard which should be completed by 2017 addresses three key areas:

  • Terms and definitions
  • Requirements for interpreters
  • Requirements for Interpreting Service Providers (ISPs, including self-employed interpreters who act, in effect, as their own interpreting agencies).

After the standard is published, there might be companies who seek to create a certification program, particularly for ISPs, based on the standard,.

ISO involves input from many countries. For instance, 29 countries were involved in the development of the community interpreting standard. For the new standard, 42 national member delegations are participating, in addition to many “liaison delegations” that can’t vote but include the European Commission, European Parliament, FIT (international Federation of Interpreters) and WASLA (World Association of Sign Language Interpreters), among others.

ISO standards are strictly voluntary, so although they are international standards that technically apply to all countries, in reality only those interpreters and ISPs who choose to comply with ISO interpreting standards will do so.

ASTM International is another organization that develops international standards. However, for interpreting the ASTM involvement is primarily U.S.-based. Thus, the ASTM interpreting standard ASTM F2089: Standard Practice for Language Interpreting  is more an American standard.  However, ASTM standards in general are used in more than 100 countries, so the interpreting standard might be used in a number of countries.

ASTM standards must be revised and updated every few years. That revision just took place for F2089 and the newest version of this interpreting standard has just been published. It is a stricter standard than its previous version, which is likely to please many professional interpreters. However, this standard, like ISO’s, is voluntary.

U.S. Standards

In addition to international standards, the United States has medical and court standards as well as certification programs. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Association of Interpreters in the Judiciary (NAJIT), the federal courts and the state courts have published a code of ethics for interpreters. In addition, NCIHC and IMIA have published formal, researched standards of practice. Standards of practice are standards developed by professionals for professionals. Those published by IMIA and NCIHC have had influence in other countries.

Sign language also has both general and specialized (including educational) standards of practice published by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and they are needed.

In addition, the National Board of Certified Medical Interpreters (NBCMI, part of IMIA), the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), NAJIT, federal courts, many state courts and RID have all developed national or state certification for interpreters for either medical interpreters (IMIA and CCHI) or court interpreters (NAJIT, federal courts and state courts). The state of Washington has also developed a state certification for community (medical and social services) interpreters. In some ways, because it involves both a written and oral skills examination, certification implies a set of strict standards.

Finally, three U.S. entities have developed standards that address training and education programs for interpreters:

  • In 2010, the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE) published its revision of Accreditation Standards for programs that educate sign language interpreters.
  • In 2011, NCIHC published National Standards for Healthcare Interpreter Training Programs.
  • In 2012, IMIA published National Accreditation Standards for Medical Interpreter Education Programs.


Driving forces

International migration has been a major force in the drive for standardization.  There is an inescapable need for professional interpreters in medical, community and the legal areas.  Hospitals, government agencies and even schools have added pressure to have more qualified certified interpreters.

Alas, money is a major driving force.  Hospitals do not want to be sued for inappropriate care or negligence. To reduce risk and liability, many hospitals are engaging more qualified and certified professional interpreters.  Agencies that send interpreters to hospitals also then need more qualified and certified interpreters to send, and interpreters themselves see having more qualifications as a sign of professionalism.


Certification and Credentials

A training certificate is not certification! What would it cost interpreters to obtain real certification?  The answer varies by specialization. Each state court may have a different cost, whereas national certification for medical interpreters by CCHI or IMIA costs roughly $450.

However, credentials are credentials, whether an interpreter is just starting out or is a seasoned veteran. A certificate for attending a training program or conference is a credential. For medical, court and general interpreters, however, certification is considered the most important credential.

Certification for state courts is available in about 20 languages, but for federal courts only in Spanish. The two national medical interpreter certifications cover 7 languages. However, even taking the written test alone for court or medical interpreter certification (which an interpreter of any language pair can do) is a credential worth having.

Whether or not one can get certified, it behooves interpreters or all levels to try to attain meaningful credentials, perform their work to the best of their abilities and know about and follow the relevant standards. Doing so is one hallmark of a professional interpreter.

The Gotham Translator wishes to thank Marjory Bancroft for her time in helping us prepare this article.

About the Author
Margarite Heintz MontezMargarite Heintz Montez is a conference interpreter and editor of The Gotham Translator. She has been a long-time member of the NY Circle of Translators, the ATA and is on the Human Rights Committee of FIT.