A professional certified interpreter’s job is to connect people through language using above-par language skills, diligence, perseverance and owl-like precision hearing. The best interpreters are always improving their language skills, but —no matter what— there are a few areas that can potentially trip them up. Aside from occasionally being unsure on how to translate a word, term or phrase, or forgetting what the speaker said, there are other challenges that interpreters face on each assignment. Here are the most common:
#1 What’s that you say?
The number one challenge interpreters face relates to hearing. Rarely, if ever, are interpreters in a quiet room with no interference. There is always some ambient noise that could potentially besmirch interpretations. In an ideal world, speakers enunciate their words clearly; room acoustics are perfect and noise distortion nonexistent. In reality, interpreters deal with all of those disturbances on occasion including background noise, a mumble or two, an incredibly quiet speaker, and the occasional audio equipment failure. The list is almost limitless. An interpreter can’t interpret what they can’t hear.
#2 Know Thy Culture
In addition to understanding and fluently speaking the target language, interpreters are required to have a deep-rooted sense of cultural awareness. They need to know regional slang and idioms. To stay current and accurate with their translations, interpreters need to be well versed in new slang, words and phrases as the target language evolves.
Part of cultural awareness includes being able to comprehend regional accents and words used only in specific locales and understanding local comedy which brings us to…
#3 What’s so funny?
We all know jokes, humorous sayings common to one language often lose their meanings and punch lines when received in another language. Sometimes, interpreters can peruse prep materials or briefings that allow them to review what the speaker intends to cover including any jokes, sarcasm or puns. Rendering the meaning and recreating the stylistic devices in the target language is time consuming and tough. Preserving the rhyme of poems is even more difficult. When humor is used liberally throughout a conversation, interpreters must accurately interpret the joke or line of humor while keeping the integrity of the message intact—not an easy undertaking.
#4 Having No Prep Time
Top interpreters spend as much time as possible going over materials that will be discussed or presented by a speaker in a meeting or conference. Usually they get a day or two. Not being properly briefed can be stressful especially with last minute assignments. Interpreters review prep material to familiarize themselves with the topic and terminology. They often take time to research, if needed. Not having prep materials, lessens an interpreter’s confidence and can lead to mistakes.
#5 The little things… or the long things
When asked for the other things that block the flow of their interpretations, many interpreters say there are a few things most of us would consider small that cause them huge headaches. First, incomplete sentences can be torture to an interpreter. How does an interpreter “fill in the holes” left by such sentences if their job is to be as accurate as possible?
Another is the greetings speakers extend to certain individuals. For example, “I want to thank (incomprehensible name in a foreign language), minister of the (department in a foreign government, with a name and title that have no corresponding words in the target language).”
Usually, the greetings are also spoken at break-neck speed and include a long list of names, street names, more organizations and a few numbers (for good measure) which can result in the interpreter’s head spinning at the same speed at which the speaker is speaking.
Difficult though they may be, challenges can be overcome by interpreters relying on their many years of training and experience. That is where those two characteristics of the best interpreters come into play: diligence and perseverance. With those, most things are possible. Even those crazy long greetings!