Because Our Job is Too Easy

I find that there are two types of people in this world: Those who find interpreting to be awe-inspiring, and those who think it’s as simple as opening up Google Translate. Usually the ones who think it is simple haven’t actually tried it. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that ours is a tough job. Furthermore, we constantly need to explain ourselves to people who think we should be walking dictionaries; people who don’t understand why we may need to look up a term, or why we should have a partner with us for a trial. There are also times when we render extremely difficult interpretations and wish people realized! Sadly, people only ever seem to notice us when we’re messing up.

The last time I wrote, I discussed mistakes we make, and how to correct them. This month, I thought of something similar but different: The mistakes we don’t make, but which could be perceived as such to the lay observer. I’ll explain what I mean: Sometimes we need to clarify, and it’s not obvious why. Especially if our clients are monolingual, there will be issues we need to resolve that they wouldn’t even know about.

Here are three examples:

  • A word has been invented: My famous example, which I believe I’ve mentioned here before, occurred when a Puerto Rican defendant told the judge he was staying in a “cheta.” I had to stop the entire proceeding in order to clarify that actually, this was a Spanglicized version of the English word, shelter. Voila an interpreter who looks bad for not knowing something so simple and yet…it wasn’t my fault! (I resisted the temptation to tell this to the judge.)
  • Need for clarification: Sometimes we get a word like “child” in English, which is gender neutral. The trouble is that to render this word in Spanish (and, I’m sure, in other languages as well), we need to know the gender of the child. Asking for it is bound to get us some weird looks from people who just don’t get our job! (Since I interpreted on a daily basis in one family judge’s courtroom, I explained the predicament to her. After that, every time I interpreted for her, she gave me the children’s genders beforehand.)
  • Words that have more than one meaning: There are lots and lots and lots of words like this. For example, if you climbed the escalera in Spanish, it would be unclear whether to interpret this as ladder or stairs. Further clarification would be needed, and someone not familiar with the conundrum wouldn’t understand why.

My recommendation is to have a formula for providing a quick explanation, just so that your clients know what you are trying to accomplish. I’m sure that my examples are just a drop in the ocean. Feel free to put yours below!

[Also published at on June 7th, 2019.]

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One Response

  1. I have experienced very similar situations. Very recently during a deposition, the Spanish speaking deponent kept saying “laira”. Clearly I had to ask for clarification. She was referring to a lighter, actually the ignition of a stove. Her explanation in Spanish was confusing because of the emotional component of her recollection (she had burned herself) and she was also mixing up words. I must add, that I, the interpreter had not been given any prior information on the case, even though it had been requested.

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