Interpreter Training, Workshops and Coaching

Muddying The Waters of Interpreting

Exactly a week ago today, you would have found me in New Orleans with a colleague at an oyster bar on the banks of the Mississippi, discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it’s pretty simple. Basically, the more you know, the less you think you know. The idea is that as you come to know a subject extremely well, you begin to understand how much more there is to that subject. You understand the nuances. The subtleties.

The smarter you get…the dumber you think you are.

This has happened to me more than once! I currently teach a 40-hour training on medical interpreting, and as I try to do the topic justice for my students, I am terrified by the vast ocean of my own ignorance. Did you know how much there is to the human body? It is incredibly overwhelming. And I’m fairly knowledgeable on the subject; I read books on biology just for fun! Yet for every concept I master, five more appear that I didn’t even realize were a thing!

But back to the oyster bar: I happened to be in The Big Easy because this year that was the location of the American Translator’s Association’s 59th annual conference. I led several presentations, and during one workshop (Two Roads Diverge: Medical Interpreting versus Legal Interpreting), we abandoned my carefully planned PowerPoint slides. That’s because by minute two, the session had turned into an animated discussion extending to a passionate and opinionated audience. It was the best departure from a lesson plan that I’ve ever had.

We talked about a lot of things, and it seemed that the more we talked, the more confusing everything became.

Know the environment, know the role

Take the concept of “collaborative environment” versus “adversarial environment.” This is the basic premise that guides us when deciding which role we can step into; legal interpreting role for the latter, community interpreting role for the former.

We draw this distinction because in the United States there is a drastic difference in the level of intervention permitted for community interpreters versus legal interpreters. In court, our role is very limited. Do we happen to witness a breakdown in communication due to a cultural difference that we know perfectly well how to resolve? Too bad. We’re in an adversarial situation and must stick to the role of conduit (that is, interpreting exactly what’s said while pretending we’re invisible, even though—and here’s the clincher—we aren’t). We want the LEP individual to have the same experience that an English-speaking person would have if we weren’t there. Essentially, we are facilitating equally imperfect access to justice. On the other hand, in community interpreting (and therefore medical interpreting, which falls under the community umbrella) there is more leeway for cultural mediation and even for advocacy, which carries its own set of difficulties.

Environment vs Purpose

While having our hands tied in legal interpreting encounters can be frustrating, at the very least it seems pretty straightforward: Know the environment, know the role.

Enter the Dunning-Krueger effect.

First of all, how do we define our environments? I’ve been taught that we look to the purpose of the encounter; if we are facilitating access to community services, we are a community interpreter. We should also consider the fact that medical interpreters are part of a team working for the benefit of the LEP patient’s health, whereas in court settings we are a neutral in-betweener. We have to clearly define what role we are performing where, and it’s not all about terminology: You can be a court interpreter diving into complex medical expert witness descriptions, and you may find yourself deciphering high-register legal documents while working as a medical interpreter. So, we don’t look to content necessarily; we look at purpose.

Muddying the waters…

But what if we are interpreting for an attorney and a client in what is very much a collaborative setting, or a probation officer and a defendant, where the goal is not exactly adversarial? It’s kind of collaborative on the one hand, and adversarial on the other. And what about a medical interview in the context of a civil litigation? If we think of our ultimate goal as teaming with the doctor to provide services in the form of a proper diagnosis, then we are obligated to help navigate cultural differences. Yet at the same time, we must keep our mouths shut on the assumption that the encounter is serving an over-arching adversarial goal, so we can’t take sides or do anything but interpret.

Why shouldn’t we be cultural mediators in an adversarial situation? We are supposed to facilitate equal access to justice for those who don’t speak English. However, our LEP clients have an added disadvantage: their cultural backgrounds, and that will almost inevitably impact their access to justice.

Individuals who speak enough English to communicate, regardless of their cultural background, would not benefit from the services of interpreters to help them navigate cultural differences. Therefore, the consensus is that when interpreters act as cultural brokers in a court setting, they are giving LEP individuals an unfair advantage over their opponents. The issue is that, much like in a medical setting, LEP individuals are already at a disadvantage by needing to communicate through an interpreter, and there are times when cultural differences make communication (and therefore interpreting) extremely difficult.

As you can see, we start muddying the interpretation waters really quickly.

So, there you have it. The Dunning-Kruger effect in real time. I have more questions than answers right now, and that’s why I love this field. It’s young, it’s new, and it’s evolving. We don’t know everything, but there is room for a passionate group of voices to be heard, even as the interpreting waters grow as muddy as the Mississipi.

I’m sure y’all will have opinions too. Feel free to comment below, and maybe we’ll continue the discussion at the NAJIT conference in Nashville this May!

[Also published at on November 2nd, 2018]

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