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
Great article, Melissa! I agree with you that in the settings you describe, the interpreter does need to be a kind of cultural consultant, translating not just words but cultural concepts. One of the hurdles is probably that interpreters tend to be brought in at the last minute without a lot of time to prepare. If the interpreter could talk to the case worker or lawyer and the client ahead of time and find out their expectations for the meeting, she/he could get a sense of what cultural obstacles might come up. Luckily you were able to help the client and case worker understand each other better, even with limited time. It would be interesting to hear from other interpreters as to how they’ve managed to deal with these issues in different settings.
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