Interrupting Without Intruding

“One moment, the interpreter needs a repetition,” I said in English, followed by “Excuse me, could you repeat that for the interpreter?” in rapid-fire Spanish. It was about fifteen minutes into the interpretation, and the fourth time I had interrupted. I was feeling a bit embarrassed by this point; the asylum seeker being interviewed on the other end of the phone tended to speak at length. I needed to interrupt before I had reached maximum saturation, and given phone lags and delays, this had to be done strategically. We got to the end of the call, and the interviewer thanked me. He seemed genuine, and I felt flooded with relief. I was about to apologize for the numerous interruptions when he said, “This was the best interpreting experience I have ever had. Thank you so much for everything you did. You really made having the conversation easy.”

Obviously, I was thrilled—clients are not always so grateful. But more importantly, that interpreting assignment confirmed something I had suspected for some time—interrupting without intruding is possible, and the interpreter who does it well will actually move the conversation forward.

It has actually been 6 years since I wrote about this concept of “People Management.” But because it has been a while, I decided to give this topic another go. Interpreters are often expected to be like some sort of machine: input language A, output language B. This simplistic expectation crumbles when faced with the realities of day-to-day interpreting. A mumbled phrase, a door slamming in the background, a term you’ve never heard before—all these problems can arise, and if you don’t want to guess at what was said (which you should never do), then you need to be able to insert yourself into the conversation, quickly and transparently, resolve the issue, and then disappear once more into the background.

The importance of a pre-session

This is a magical act, and not an easy one. I firmly believe that it begins with knowledge of all parties involved. In medical interpreting, we teach the concept of the “pre-session,” or interpreter’s introduction. This is your 30-second elevator pitch, and its importance cannot be understated. The idea is to anticipate possible problems, and put everyone on the same page right from the beginning. You want to engage your listener, explain yourself clearly, and most importantly, explain why you are asking for these things. As an example, in my pre-session I say, “Please feel free to speak directly to the patient/provider. I’ll interpret everything that is said, as if I were you. This will allow the session to go more smoothly.” Of course, five minutes into the session, one of them will inevitably slip up and say, “tell her XYZ.” Hey, I don’t blame them—what we’re asking our clients to do feels awkward at the beginning, even if it will be more effective in the long run. It takes time for concepts like “speak directly to the other person” to sink in. However, now that I’ve already done my pre-session, all I have to do is give them a friendly reminder—“Speaking as the interpreter, it will actually be much smoother for all of us if you speak directly to them. I’ll speak as though I were you.” This is the second time they are hearing this. They are implicated. They are involved. They are therefore more likely to change their behavior, ultimately guaranteeing better outcomes.

I firmly believe that all interpreting assignments should begin with this sort of introduction. It will only benefit everyone in the long run. Sure, it will take an extra minute at the beginning of the assignment, but it will save time because the sessions will become more efficient.

Pre-sessions in legal settings

It is unclear to me why this is still not common practice in legal settings. One big objection is that any sort of side conversation with either party is strictly forbidden. However, you can easily introduce yourself in the presence of all the parties involved. Either way, you’ll still have to deal with any issues later on, interrupting in the process, and if there has been no introduction, it’s sort of like agreeing to the rules once the game has already started.

With COVID forcing more and more interpreting encounters online, proper interventions are even more crucial for positive outcomes. Interpreters need to be able to establish basic guidelines for a dialogue that is very different from a normal, monolingual conversation. Once those guidelines are established, a skilled interpreter can intervene when necessary, “interrupting without intruding.” None of this happens as much as it ought to, and if it did occur more, then everyone-LEP, interpreter, and English-speaking party-would be the happier for it. Or anyway, that’s what I think. Let me know your thoughts below. 

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