Being Just an Interpreter

By Whitney Gissell, BEI Advanced


“I don’t know, I’m just the interpreter.”

“Just carry on with your conversation and pretend like you don’t even see that I’m here.”

“It’s a simple process; I’ll just repeat what you say in the other language.”

Those of us in the interpreting industry have probably found ourselves making these remarks while on assignments or when speaking to clients and consumers.  We use phrases like these to ease the concerns of our clients who feel uneasy about bringing in an additional person, the interpreter, into situations that may already be delicate and personal. Our intentions are well meaning as we hope to calm insecurities and show our clients that using an interpreter will only enhance, not hinder the interpersonal relationships that they are strategically and purposefully creating. In using these phrases however, we limit the world’s view of the work of interpretation.

The struggles the industry has faced in recent times to be recognized as a true profession can be attributed partly to the way we, as practitioners, speak about our work. In conversations with our interpreter colleagues, we are honest about the challenges and difficulties we face and subsequently overcome through enhancing our specialized vocabulary, interpersonal problem solving, and ethical decision making. We discuss the desire for standardized educational programs and credentialing. We share excitement about the work that we perform and recognize that we are changing and saving lives. Nevertheless, when we enter a boardroom or emergency department we ask to be treated as invisible.

Although the profession as a whole has shifted away from the Machine or Conduit Model of interpreting, the minimizing language we used to describe ourselves still lingers behind. By encouraging our clients to carry on as if we are not there, or insisting that the work we do is simple, without mention of our ethical, logistical, linguistic and cultural decision – making abilities, we are doing a disservice to the profession that perpetuates the view that interpreting can be done by anyone who happens to speak a second language. Let us change our vernacular so as to change our path. Instead of minimizing and reducing the role of the interpreter, let us hold true the value we bring to the world. Let us recognize the skill and professionalism it takes to do our work well and reassure our clients that although interpreting is an involved process, we have upheld our commitment professionalism. Intentionality in the language we use to describe our work demonstrates the value of the services we provide. Rather than asking for anonymity, our conversations with our clients may sound more like this:

“Although interpreting is a rigorous process, I have professional training and we will work together to ensure effective communication. I’ll be sure to ask for clarification to ensure accuracy of the message if I need, and we will proceed from there.”

Hats off to professional interpreters everywhere.