David Lauman

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No need for tears

In Interpreters are not parrots on October 20, 2012 at 12:39 PM

By David L. Lauman, M.A. Translation and Interpretation

20/20 Translations

 Have you ever played “whisper down the lane”, also known as broken telephone, grapevine, etc.?  Isn’t it interesting how the first person’s message usually gets completely distorted by the time it’s the last person’s turn to repeat what was said?  While “whisper down the lane” tends to be a very amusing game, in real life an improperly conveyed message can wreak havoc.

The day before yesterday, while working as a telephone interpreter (as I often have when it is either impractical or impossible to get an interpreter in person), I experienced firsthand just how difficult it can be to accurately repeat a spoken message.  I was interpreting for a bankruptcy trustee who needed to interview Spanish-speaking debtors (one-by-one) filing for bankruptcy.  Because of the phone set-up, I would wait for the trustee to finish asking each question and then convey it into Spanish. After each response in Spanish, I would render the answer into English.

One of the Spanish-speaking debtors was hard of hearing. The debtor could not hear me properly even though I spoke more loudly than usual and increased my microphone volume.  The trustee then asked a Spanish-speaking friend who had accompanied the debtor to provide exact repetitions of each of my Spanish renditions to the debtor. The trustee instructed me to ensure that the friend repeated correctly and for me to inform her if she did not so that corrections could be made as necessary.

Starting with the swearing-in process, I knew that this meeting was not destined for success. The debtor’s friend was unable to recall the entirety of, much less accurately repeat my Spanish translation of “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that your testimony will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” (¿Usted jura o afirma solemnemente que su testimonio será la verdad, toda la verdad y únicamente la verdad?).  Even after getting permission from the trustee to split my Spanish interpretations into smaller, easier to repeat segments, the friend could not accurately repeat these either.

After having to inform the trustee of the mistaken repetition of my Spanish equivalent of “To the best of your knowledge, is the information contained in the petition, schedules, statements, and related documents true and correct?” and having the friend correct her own repetition, she broke down in tears and had to leave the hearing room.

Another Spanish-speaking gentleman who was about to be interviewed for his bankruptcy filing offered himself for the task of “repeater”.  Not only was he not much better at repeating, but he also told the debtor how to respond to a question, which is a big no-no for interpreters [and, in this case, repeaters]! Of course I had to inform the trustee about this, which prompted her to vacate the hearing and instruct the debtor’s attorney to provide written responses to the interrogatories.

What can be learned from this situation? To begin with, it is very difficult if not impossible for a person unfamiliar with legalese, legal proceedings, and who lacks highly developed short-term memory recall skills to provide an accurate (much less exact) repetition of a message in the same language. The same could be said about repeating any lengthy message, especially when it contains specialized terminology. Furthermore, if accurately repeating discourse in one’s own language is very challenging, wouldn’t it seem far more daunting to recall and then convey a complicated message into another language without distorting, embellishing, omitting or adding to what was originally said?

For those who have worked with interpreters and have witnessed the difference between professionals and would-bes, foreign language interpreting is clearly a highly challenging activity that requires a specialized skill set. The mode of interpreting described above, where I was listening to a statement or question, waiting for the speaker to pause and then conveying the communication into the other language is known as consecutive interpretation.  In my experience it takes just as much training to master consecutive as it does to be proficient at simultaneous interpretation (listening to a speaker and retransmitting his message into another language at the same time).  At the Monterey Institute of International Studies, I was trained to listen to a speech lasting 2 minutes or longer and then reformulate it into the other language in its entirety.  Luckily, that has served me and my clients well, because there are times when certain individuals will make lengthy questions or statements.

Don’t let the language barrier get in the way of effective spoken communication with Spanish speakers here in the USA or on the opposite side of the globe.  You are invited to visit 20/20 Translations and contact David Lauman at david(at)2020translations.com for further inquiries.

© David L. Lauman, 2012.  All rights reserved.