What is an Interpreter? Educating for Change.


Just as music is the marriage of notes and pauses, communication is in the verbal and non-verbal alike.

In a recent conversation I was having with the manager of an LSP – he, the manager, being new to the industry and field – commented that “interpreting is a very lucrative business” and that he wanted to profit off of this cash-cow so he had ramped up their recruitment efforts by posting for interpreters across multiple job boards. I had to ask what his definition of an “interpreter” was, and his response was simple: An interpreter is someone who speaks two or more languages. Wow! There you have it. Well, I guess that makes my 81-year-old mother an interpreter, my 16-year-old niece an interpreter, and the wonderful man that served us dinner at the restaurant in Lisbon an interpreter as well. And along with them, all of the other approximately 56% of the world’s population that are either bilingual or multilingual. There must be few, if any other, professions where one can simply claim their competency based on the fact that they have a facility that they share with 3 billion other people. In fact, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is well evidenced in language services, because those that label themselves, or are labelled, interpreters simply based on their apparent bilingualism, without even the slightest attempt at exploring the definition of what the role entails, often fancy their competency in their language ability much higher than the reality. And that does not even speak to all of the other skills, abilities, and profound knowledge of communication, self and culture that interpreters must hold.

But I like to see the positive in the negative, so, setting aside the absurdity of this fellow’s statement, there is a lesson in this for those of us still slogging away in the mire of language services in community settings: We are not doing a good job of it at all. Not a good job of teaching others what it means to be an interpreter. Not a good job at building awareness of the importance of quality language access. Not a good job of explaining that standards matter, and that those standards are there for the consumers and the non-English (in the case of my geographic location) speaking clients. Not a good job of explaining that the slightest shift in the message, the omission of some words and the addition of others, the change in tone and register, can completely transform what the speaker said. And those alterations can have devastating impact. We have all heard anecdotal evidence over the years of what bad interpreting can do, from battlefields, to court houses, to operating rooms, incompetent interpreting has transformed, endangered and even taken, lives.

 “A study by the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2012 analyzed interpreter errors that had clinical consequences, and found that the error rate was significantly lower for professional interpreters than for ad hoc interpreters — 12 percent as opposed to 22 percent. And for professionals with more than 100 hours of training, errors dropped to 2 percent.”

NPR: In the Hospital, A Bad Translation Can Destroy A Life

Communication alone, in the same language, in the same or similar cultural context, can often be completely ineffective, now add to that interaction layers of language and culture and see how much more opaque it can all become. Interpreters are not language specialists; their work is in communication. They facilitate communication between parties that speak different languages, who have a need to communicate. The nuanced skill of hearing the message and converting it, while retaining its original intent and tone, is not one that is easily attained. It comes with a base knowledge, a competency with professional skills and techniques, and adherence to an ethical code that places high demands on critical thinking, analysis, speedy response and a lot of practice. If interpreting were only about words, then all that would be needed are bilingual dictionaries. And if interpreting competency was only about language, then there’s a world of polyglots from which we can pick our interpreters. But do we really just want our words translated or is it that we want our voice and message heard? If it’s the latter then we must utilize and promote professionals that have the competence to facilitate our communication – professional interpreters. Just as music is the marriage of notes and pauses, communication is in the verbal and non-verbal alike.

 “You can speak the words of a language, but still be totally off, because you are saying all the wrong things, in the wrong way, in the wrong order and in the wrong structure.” Hilde Fiva Buzungu on Just Another Do-Gooder: Working with interpreters – a conversation with researcher and anthropologist, Hilde Fiva Buzungu

It has always been my belief that interpreting (and translation) are often considered as non-professions by the lay audience because it’s communication itself that people don’t understand. If you don’t have an appreciation of how difficult interpersonal communication is, or how many levels of interference exist in intercultural communication, then you won’t understand that interpreting is not just about language, and not just about words. So to those of us that are still slogging away at that strata of the industry where the uninitiated still reign (I know many of my lucky colleagues living in more progressive countries have fortunately passed through this phase of language services evolution), it is up to us to improve our awareness building and education strategies and to more effectively promote the understanding of how critically important quality language services are – not just for fun or profit, but for equity, equality and community cohesion. Because while interpreting is a profession, not everyone calling themselves an interpreter is a professional.

Angela Sasso

CEO and Director – Shifting PicturesInc.

 Originally published in LinkedIn on August 7, 2019


August 7, 2019

 The Case of R v Sidhu and the Ontario Ministry of Attorney General

In 2005 a case heard on appeal at the Ontario Superior Courts (Canada), exposed a network of deceit, favoritism and unethical practices in the provision of interpreting services to the courts. Access to justice in one’s own preferred language is a Charter Right in Canada. While the situation in Ontario resulted in more stringent assessment and testing procedures for interpreters, it nonetheless acts as a cautionary tale because current practices, whether they be in courts in other parts of the land, or language service programs under the management of people similar to the fellow with which I spoke, are the today’s mirror of what was happening in the Ontario Court System – under the Ministry of Attorney General’s watch – 15 years ago. I included these excerpts because they so beautifully capture the “gist” of what is wrong. We fail to learn, we fail to grow, we will fail our citizens and community members once again.

“The trial judge concluded:

The failure of proper interpretative services in my view is clearly the major contributing factor to the state of affairs in this case. On the first day, apparently there were problems with interpretation for the applicant and on the second day, problems with the witness interpreter function.

Quite fairly, on my review of the record, a mistrial became necessary after an appropriate investigation was conducted. I find the period involved regarding the investigation and conclusion to be far from unreasonable. I find that to be an efficient utilization of resources, given the issue at hand.” (p.23 Ontario Superior Court of Justice – Summary Conviction Appeal Court accessed at 2005 Canlii 42491 _ On SC).

“[319] Ms. Wyatt believed interpretation to be some type of art-form capturing “the gist” of what was said in court while Ms. Laws was of the view that court interpretation was essentially a question of whether, “for the majority of the time”, “the essence” was captured. The supervisors demonstrated little insight into the constitutional significance of the access to justice issue at hand” (p.93 Ontario Superior Court of Justice – Summary Conviction Appeal Court accessed at 2005 Canlii 42491 _ On SC).

“[330] For years, Judges and lawyers have justifiably assumed that competent, accredited interpreters were placed in Brampton’s criminal courtrooms. Ms. Masrour scheduled unaccredited interpreters into courtrooms before they became accredited. Ms. Masrour and Mr. Brum have routinely scheduled unaccredited interpreters in the criminal courts who have failed the accreditation test one or more times. Ms. Masrour’s testimony as to why these individuals were scheduled and should be uncritically accepted as competent interpreters was entirely unconvincing. By having failed an accreditation test, an interpreter would be presumptively incompetent. Failing the Ontario test, would seem to provide a guarantee of incompetence. It was not for the Coordinator or her staff to conclusively determine the competence of interpreters unaccredited by the Ministry without disclosure to the court and the parties that such individuals were being used in the courts” (P. 95 – Ontario

Superior Court of Justice – Summary Conviction Appeal Court accessed at 2005 Canlii 42491 _ On SC).