Be a translator or interpreter, but not both

When I was in college, I had a romanticized outlook on interpreting —UN interpreters were the only kind to admire. I admit, it’s a Hollywoodesque assumption, since there are many kinds of interpreters: ASL interpreters, court interpreters, Social Security Administration interpreters, federal interpreters, escort interpreters, and so on.

Again, when I was in college pursuing my BA in English and Translation Studies, I firmly believed that I was acquiring a foundation on both professions, translation and interpreting. I should have known better, since interpreting-related classes were relegated to the last couple of semesters in my four-year university syllabus.

Most educated Americans know the difference between a translator and an interpreter; if the media misuses either term, it’s either because of an innocent semantic error or simply done on purpose, correctly assuming that the ordinary reader knows what an interpreter does as separate from what a translator does. I see no serious problem here, and only the curmudgeons among us linguists will object.

What I’m concerned about, however, is the comingling of both roles in classifieds directed at translators and interpreters. I think businesses and other organizations that seek out translators to play the role of an interpreter instead of, or in addition to, that of a translator are doing themselves a serious disservice. Catholic Health Initiatives recently posted the following classified:

Medical Interpreter1400017915

This position will provide interpreter services for patients, families, staff, visitors, physicians, and others regarding consents, medical treatments, discharges, instructions, and other concerns as needed.  Also responsible for the process of identifying, prioritizing, and completing translation of documents from English/Spanish, Spanish/English. May also facilitate the translation of documents in other languages as well.  Other duties include assisting the supervisor in problem-solving with patient and family communication needs and proactively identifying opportunities for improving services to our limited or non-English speaking patient and family population

big_earWhy not call it what it is, medical translator and interpreter? By analyzing the job summary above, one may reasonably conclude that they are, in fact, looking for an interpreter, with ancillary translator duties to be fulfilled. What I see is a blending of not two but three roles here: interpreter, translator and community facilitator.

Another institution, Borrego Health in El Cajon, CA, is seeking a behavioral health translator (Arabic). The classified reads thus:

JOB DESCRIPTION

Borrego Health is seeking a Translator for their Behavioral Health Department.  The Behavioral Health Translator will be responsible providing translation services for the Behavioral Health Department.  This position will work closely with the Behavioral Health Department in providing mental health services to a particular clinic.

QUALIFICATIONS

  1. Several years experience in the medical field preferably psychiatry/psychology.
  2. Certified Translator preferred, in Arabic.
  3. CPR Card from American Heart Association.

Here’s the problem: there is no such thing as a behavioral health translator in the same way there are behavioral health medical counselors or nurses, for which candidates surely have solid credentials in the medical field. Not so translators, unless you consider physicians or nurses who happen to be, and work as, translators. Borrego Health should rename the position to behavioral health assistant/counselor with interpreting skills for the sake of honesty. In addition, Borrego Health would do well in consulting the American Translators Association (ATA) for the current state of the art of translation certifications, since there is no ATA certification for the English-to-Arabic language pair at this time.

Different roles demand different skills. The crux of the matter is that different sets of skills are required to perform as a translator and as an interpreter. Given the nature of the printed or written media, translators need to be more analytical and precise, as well as use the right presentation to display their translated texts. On the other hand, interpreters have to be quick on their feet and deliver the interpreted phrases almost simultaneously or in quick succession; therefore, they do not have the luxury to be too analytical about what they’re hearing. Their delivery is situational and very close to what the author of the original phrase is saying. That immediacy is a keen advantage to an interpreter because he or she can quickly use the feedback gotten from audience observation and adjust the delivery according to the audience needs.

Translators don’t have the benefit of proximity to the creator of the original text. Because of that, the original text is far more structured than a verbal statement and demands precision and research for successful delivery. While you may be all too familiar with translators who work as clinical or court interpreters or vice versa, very few translators have the inner resources to succeed as interpreters, and vice versa. It is not a matter of knowing and speaking two or more languages. Professional translators are trained to write well, whereas professional interpreters are trained to speak well.

I once had an interview with a powerful Silicon Valley company in 2011 regarding a position that involved translation with marketing flavor. In other words, they were looking for a Spanish translator who was well versed in marketing materials and with experience and/or knowledge of Spanish in marketing materials in different countries. During the interview, I realized that they weren’t so certain about the profile: were they looking for a marketing specialized in Latin American markets who happened to be also a translator, or vice versa? Given the responsibilities described to me during the interview, I couldn’t see how they could cover both roles with just one candidate.

Some people may call that thinking outside the box or even say that this company was disrupting the traditional role of a translator by placing him/her in a powerful marketing position. Whatever the case, you can’t expect to hire a plumber who also happens to be an interior designer, or a phlebotomist who can also operate an X-ray machine.

When a company seeks a translator fluent not in 2 but 3 or 4 languages, well, the pool of candidates will be smaller but asking for a Spanish-Portuguese-German translator is not an unreasonable request. What is unreasonable is the compensation part, as if writing translation in more than two languages were a matter of using a dicitonary and filling up pages with different words in the allotted time, 8 or 9 hours a day. Languages, especially for writing, are not some sort of costume you wear for a certain occasion or a Dremel attachment. If a company wants a translator (or interpreter) to perform double duty —and there are some fine candidates that can do it— make the compensation match that requirement. Or else hire a part-time translator and a part-time interpreter if you are so budget conscious.

There are lateral roles that a translator or an interpreter can reasonably perform, such as that of a project manager (for translations or for interpretation assignments) or an interpreter coordinator, who makes sure to match the right interpreter with the assignment. Some translators and interpreters can grow into a managerial role. Keep in mind, however, that most interpreters are outgoing individuals who enjoy being in the thick of things and help out other people with communication issues. On the other hand, translators are mostly —but not necessarily exclusively— reserved and enjoy working alone or in small teams. More importantly, translators need space, both physically and mentally, to perform well.

Translation has a different pace. Translation requires deep concentration and marshalling several mental skills to write well the first time and with almost no errors. The faster you ask a translator to do his or her job, the more errors he/she is likely to make. So, give them the space they need, away from inopportune and unnecessary distractions. That’s why translators perform better in silence. That’s why bullpens or open offices are not conducive to good translation work.

Translators who want to work as interpreters (and vice versa) need to make an honest assessment of their skills. Switching from interpreting to translation —and vice versa— takes an enormous amount of mental energy. Play to your strengths: if you are excellent at writing, stick with it. That doesn’t mean that a translator can’t turn in a good interpretation performance. In fact, some interpreters do mostly interpreting and a small portion of their job is translation. I’m the other kind: 95-99% of my work is translation and translation-related activities, and only the occasional interpreting suits my fancy and my schedule.

Another point of misunderstanding about what is involved to perform either translation or interpreting is the all-too-common requirement of high school education in many online classifieds. Most high school graduates aren’t prepared to write at a college level, either in English or in a foreign language. How can an employer expect a high school graduate to have the education and experience to turn in a well-written page?

It is imperative that a business has a clear image and a clear concept of the role of a translator and/or of an interpreter. American businesses have the right information at their fingertips, starting with the American Translators Association, which publishes free brochures explaining these positions in more detail. Businesses can use the ATA as an information clearinghouse and avail themselves of its resources, especially the directories of translators and interpreters. Also, translators affiliated with the ATA are bound to a code of ethics and are more likely to live up to professional standards than the average bilingual worker who may apply for a job for opportunistic reasons.

 

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Classifieds, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills

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