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How does a professional interpreter help at conferences and presentations?



5 values of a professional interpreter – and how they help you to reduce risk.

A lot of people think that interpreters simply translate speeches – as though they’re a human stand-in for Google Translate. But experienced interpreters do much more than that.

For starters, good interpreters are linguists with a deep knowledge of both source and target languages and cultures. Bilingual employees, on the other hand, may lack the experience, education, expertise or professionalism of a professional interpreter.

Before joining the industry, a professional interpreter will have gone through exhaustive training and undergone a rigorous qualification process. Good interpreters continuously engage with activities and programmes that maintain and further their capabilities.

It’s natural to be mindful of costs when hiring a professional interpreter, and I’ve previously covered this topic in my article How much does interpreting cost? 

It’s also important to consider the potential costs of not hiring the right professional interpreter for the job. In other words, you should think about the hidden costs and risks associated with giving interpreting responsibilities to a non-expert, such as a bilingual employee with no formal training in interpreting.

Natalie Kelly’s book “Found in Translation” cites examples of companies who “saved” a few tens or hundreds of dollars by opting to use bilingual staff available onsite. Unfortunately, the real cost was millions of dollars of medical expenditures that needed to be compensated. Cases also included litigations and diplomatic disputes.

So, how can an interpreter help you eliminate or mitigate these risks? Let’s find out by looking at 5 qualities embodied by professionally trained interpreters.

1. Role boundaries

Professionally trained interpreters are clear about their role as interpreters. When they’re doing an interpreting job, they’re not trying to be an advocate or to give advice.

Those extra roles may be of value in other situations. In interpreting, they can be a distraction.

I’ve heard of a case where an untrained person took on an interpreting job at a hospital. Instead of focusing on the interpreting work, they started arguments with one of the interlocutors to question the professional advice being given to the patient!

Unsurprisingly, this untrained person was banned from the hospital.

I was stunned when I heard the story, because I couldn’t imagine any professionally trained interpreter doing such a thing. We know that it’s important to maintain the right boundaries and to focus only on our interpreting work.

2. Impartiality and neutrality

Interpreters don’t take sides. But bilingual staff are employees of their company and their responsibilities go beyond the role of an interpreter.

When internal politics are involved, as they often are in many organisations, each individual has interests that can conflict with their impartiality.

Maintaining neutrality as an interpreter requires training: we learn how to isolate our views and opinions while we work, and that avoids conflict.

If an interpreter holds strong beliefs that they think that might prevent them from interpreting impartially, they ought not to accept the job. If the job has already started, they should offer to withdraw from the job.

Funnily enough, when I was asked to appear on a political comedy TV show in the UK, I was asked a question about having to listen to some of the things some political leaders say these days. The assumption was that such things would make me see red and make it hard for me to continue with my interpreting.

But I answered no.

As a professional interpreter, I know that my personal opinion has nothing to do with what is there to be interpreted. The content of what a politician says has no bearing on my personal quality or reputation. If I were to listen to the same speeches as a viewer, without my interpreter’s hat on, then I might go through the roof.

My training means that I feel no contradiction in working as an interpreter and living my own life. An untrained bilingual employee might struggle to find the same perspective.

3. Confidentiality

Professional interpreters agree to keep all client information confidential and not to use information gained from jobs for their own good.

The most prominent episode around confidentiality in recent years must be when the U.S. congress attempted to summon the diplomatic interpreter who interpreted between the President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

“If statesmen are to speak freely, they must be able to trust interpreters unreservedly not to reveal confidential information. Hence the importance of upholding the cardinal principle applied worldwide since WWII, that interpreters should never be obliged to give testimony.” [https://aiic.net/page/8618/the-principle-of-confidentiality-for-professional-interpreters/lang/1]

That said, I have observed a slightly different attitude outside Europe. For example: “the Code of Conduct of the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AUSIT) describes that ‘Disclosure of information may be permissible with clients’ agreement or when disclosure is mandated by law.'”

[reference: https://ausit.org/AUSIT/Documents/Code_Of_Ethics_Full.pdf ]

At any rate, emphasis on confidentiality in the interpreting profession is paramount.

In this day and age, the boundary around confidentiality is not as clear cut as it used to be: it might be worth clarifying the scope of confidentiality in your contract with the interpreter.

4. Professionalism

As well as having skills and knowledge, professional interpreters value and demonstrate a polite and courteous manner at all times, even when dealing with rude customers or interlocutors.

Your in-house staff aren’t professional linguists, and they might not have had the opportunity to think about and internalise such matters.

Diligence is another dimension of professionalism. Interpreters are often, if not always, required to take on assignments in all kinds of field.

Professional interpreters invest in Continuing Professional Development or other self-disciplined activities. They’re always curious and willing to expand their horizons.

Interpreters are bilingual or multilingual, but being bilingual or multilingual alone is not enough to make someone a natural interpreter. It takes much more training to prepare someone for professional interpreting work.

5. Accuracy and completeness

Have you seen the film “Lost in Translation”? There was a scene involving a Japanese interpreter, a famous American actor and a Japanese director, shooting a commercial advert for whisky.

In the scene, the director tells the actor what he needs him to do in a lengthy manner. But the interpreter repeatedly tells the actor to do it “with more intensity”. The actor says to the interpreter that the director seems to have said much more than that …

I’d hate to think that this is how our profession is perceived by public.

Of course, the scene was clearly exaggerated for effect. In reality, a good interpreter asks speakers to repeat, rephrase or explain if anything is unclear, so that they can interpret accurately.

An interpreter isn’t supposed to change, add or leave out any of the content or intent of the source message. If they make a mistake, they should be honest about it and quickly try to fix it.

As well as their accuracy, professional interpreters can give you a strategic edge. In an international business negotiation, a group of worldly delegates might hire an interpreter even though the group can understand and speak English very well.


Was it a mistake? No.

Aside from the reasons we’ve already looked at, hiring a professional interpreter can eliminate the risk of tit-for-tat arguments arising from either side. Another reason is to secure space and time to think before answering.

These are scenarios that bilingual staff are not prepared for. But professional interpreters are trained for such situations and more.

Finally, note that the smart move is to hire a professional interpreter at the outset of your projects rather than to engage them at the last minute, which can be disastrous.

Do you need an interpreter to help with your next project? Get in touch and find out how I can use my 20 years of experience to assist you.

You can drop me a line now.


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