Team Interpreting Standards: Are We Ready?

I remember it well. I had just begun my interpreting career, and I was placed with a more experienced interpreter to provide services for a competency hearing. I had been interpreting simultaneously for a while, and now it was my partner’s turn. She switched to consecutive as the judge began to question the witness. And then suddenly, I heard my colleague say something in English that was an absolute misinterpretation of the original Spanish, and vital to the judge’s decision-making. My heart started to thud in my chest as I frantically tried to decide what to do.

This experience, it turns out, is not all that unusual when working in a team. Interpreting is hard enough already without having to struggle with the interpersonal dynamics of people who have been trained differently from you. Where should we sit? Can we take breaks? How do we handle corrections? All of these issues must be handled delicately, and it is no easy task to tell your more experienced colleague that you have heard an error, as was the case for me that day.

So in September of 2017 Agustín de la Mora and I decided to lay the groundwork for creating proposed standards on team interpreting. We began at the California Federation of Interpreter’s conference in Oakland, and with a group of 50+ participants, we broke into working groups and presented to the rest of the team. I have typed the results of that meeting into a document which you can see HERE.

In the time that has passed since, I have led three different ethics workshops, and in every single one of these interactions, interpreters of all languages and from everywhere within the US have related very similar experiences. Everyone agrees that the interactions between teammates are not set in stone. At best, working within a team is a satisfying and mutually beneficial learning experience, serving as a relief from the responsibility and exhaustion brought on by interpreting alone. But at worst it is extremely challenging and detrimental to the interpreting process, leading many to be wary and attempt to interpret on their own when doing so will expose them to interpreter fatigue and they run the risk of committing errors.

Our hope is to bring all this information together and create a set of interpreting standards, to promote uniformity no matter who you are interpreting with. The goal, too, is to create a structure that allows for fruitful dialogue, so that both interpreters understand how to give and receive feedback.

Our working draft contains the following proposals:

  • A formalized pre-session between interpreters to establish basic guidelines for working as a team before each team-interpreted encounter.
  • A standardized method for passing on information in an ongoing interpreting situation from one day to the next.
  • An actual code by which both interpreters can abide.

To see these suggestions fully explained, please go to the document accessible HERE.

To finish up my story about the competency hearing: A the time, I just had my training and my gut instincts to go on. I did end up confronting my colleague, as tactfully as I could. She did not agree that she had misinterpreted the term, so we decided to defer to the supervisor of interpreters, a Spanish interpreter herself, who did confirm that a mistranslation had occurred. I then went on the record because my colleague preferred not to, even though she had been the one to make the mistake. It was not fun or easy, especially because I was less experienced and lacked confidence in myself.

I contend that such feedback and interpreter corrections within a team do not have to be this difficult. If we had better training on team interpreting, accompanied by uniform standards with which we were all familiar, such issues would simply become simple and routine.

I’m sure that all of you have had a similar experience to this one. Please do share your thoughts and suggestions below, and we will keep you posted about this project as it develops!

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