The Interpreter’s Mistake

Have you ever met the interpreter who knew everything? I have. Well, not really. As a matter of fact, it’s not possible to have met such an interpreter, because nobody knows everything. That is the sad reality of being human. But I have most assuredly met the interpreters who thought they knew everything.

The field of interpreting attracts a remarkable number of perfectionists. I say “remarkable,” because by very nature, to be an interpreter means to expose yourself to imperfection. It is not possible to have the most idiomatic, best-thought-out interpretation on the spot, every single time. It’s simply not possible to recognize every single turn of the tongue, or to spot every single regionalism or metaphorical undertone. It is unreasonable to expect perfection in our field, simply because it is not possible to be perfect.

Which brings me to my point. In my humble opinion, a great interpreter is not an interpreter who knows every word in the dictionary. Rather, a great interpreter is one who can accurately self-assess, and when necessary, correct a mistake. I’ll say that again: A great interpreter is one who is willing to correct a mistake. (Full disclosure: I’m a perfectionist, too. This is an uphill battle for me.)

The more pressing question is how. How can we correct a mistake while not undermining our credibility? How can we ask for repetitions, clarification, a pause or a chance to slow down, without turning our clients against us?

Part of the job of a professional interpreter is mastering the ability to conduct a seamless “intervention.” The idea is to get what you need, as quickly as possible, and then go back to interpreting. In order to do this, you must be ready to express what you need quickly, politely and transparently. Bonus points if you can explain why you need what you need, because people are always less annoyed at interruptions and more willing to cooperate if they understand why the interruption is occurring.

Example 1: The Interpreter’s Mistake

I observed a correction to the record for the first time as an intern about eight years ago, and the scene has stuck with me ever since. The interpreter was in the middle of a consecutive interpretation, on the record. The LEP said a number, “12.” The interpreter heard “2,” and interpreted the utterance as such. A moment later, the interpreter realized her mistake, and without missing a beat, in both languages, she said, “Interpreter’s correction: Not 2, but 12.” Nobody batted an eye. The interpreter wasn’t fired. And I learned an important lesson: If you make a mistake, don’t panic. Correct it with confidence and move on. I have done this countless times, in multiple settings. Sometimes I’ve corrected myself immediately, other times I’ve had to go back and inform a judge or a doctor of a potential mis-interpretation after the fact. It’s not fun, but it is necessary.

Example 2: Pause For Clarification

When we are interpreting, people tend to be in a rush. Perhaps even more so when we are present, because the presence of an interpreter naturally means a proceeding or encounter will take longer than normal. This means it can be extremely tempting for an interpreter to just guess at an unknown term and hope for the best, especially if they are busy trying to pretend they are perfect. Don’t do this. My favorite example dates back to a court hearing several years ago, in which the defendant used the term, “Cheta.” I was not familiar with this word, because as it turned out, the word did not exist. Bravely I told the courtroom, “One moment, the interpreter needs to make a clarification to ensure accuracy of the record” (note the use of the phrase, “for the record.” This is a magical way to achieve whatever you need in a courtroom). I then turned to the defendant to clarify what cheta meant, and finally realized that this was a mispronunciation of the English word “shelter.” In this instance, there was no room to save face with the courtroom; nobody really understood the significance of trying to interpret Spanglish. But I was able to render the interpretation correctly, and that is what mattered.

Example 3: Interpreter’s Requests

Sometimes we need people to slow down. Or we need them to repeat themselves, or to give us more information about a case. This brings us back to the tip I mentioned earlier: Get ready to express what you need quickly, politely, and transparently (“transparently” means making sure all parties know what is occurring, not just one). Bonus points if you can explain why you need what you need. The better you are at communicating, the easier this will be, and the more you can retain your professional dignity. So come up with some phrases in advance, since it’s always harder to speak coherently in the heat of the moment.

Some possible phrases:

  • Would you pause for a moment so the interpreter can get all the information across? Then you can continue.
  • The interpreter isn’t familiar with that term; would you mind explaining it so the she can interpret the explanation?
  • The term we just heard can have several different meanings in English. One moment while the interpreter clarifies the term to ensure accuracy.

Moral of this story? The mark of a good interpreter is that they are willing to admit when they don’t know everything. I’m sure you all have stories to share as well, and I look forward to your comments below. For a deeper discussion on the topic, join me in Nashville for our upcoming NAJIT conference and my workshop, The Interpreter’s Mistake: Reconciling Pride with Humility. See you soon!

[Also published at on May 2nd, 2019]

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