So you want to be an interpreter?

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Two months ago I saw an job ad for a Spanish-English interpreter in the Greater New York area. I applied and two exams later I was hired.

I’ve been interpreting in different settings for the past month and I just want to share a bit of my experience.

Fluency

If you’re thinking about becoming a freelance interpreter, one of the things you might have wondered about is if your language level is high enough.

I don’t have a definitive answer and the exams I took for the agency were awfully easy, but I can tell you about what kind of things happen in the settings I’ve been in.

Let’s talk about two settings.

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Legal

I’ve been in legal settings a couple of times and they’re never the same. What never changes are the way lawyers phrase the questions, you’ll hear a lot of “To the best of your knowledge…”

For the witness you’ll really need to be a good note taker. Sometimes they’ll be yes or no questions, but the person you’re interpreting for will decide yes or no doesn’t suffice and tell a whole story and go on an on about this or that.

I want to repeat, you absolutely need to be a good note taker. Go to a course or buy a book on it and practice. It helps so much. And for legal interpretation it is simply a must.

 

Another time, I was sitting with lawyers who were prepping asylum seekers for their interview. This was a more relaxed setting, but it’s not the norm. There was only one person I was interpreting for, so I ended up doing a lot of simultaneous whispered interpretation for one person.

In legal settings it’s important to intervene and get clarifications on anything you didn’t quite get. I remember one time I was interpreting for someone and they said a word in English with a strong Spanish accent, I didn’t even realize it was in English until I asked them what it was.

And then there will inevitably be words with two translations like tarde, which could be both afternoon and evening. Lawyers expect you to be precise even though the person you’re interpreting for is anything but.

So in the end, you might need to get used to a couple of legal terminology, but nothing crazy. You’re not interpreting for the lawyers speaking to each other in that lawyer-nese. I’ve found that it’s really about being precise and exact for people that are mostly very relaxed and ambiguous with their use of language.

In fact, this usually gives away the people who were prepped. As an interpreter, you’re the only one who’s really listening. And you learn to tell the liars apart very quickly.

Medical

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The medical settings are, well, there’s no better way to phrase it but to call them messy. A typical visit goes as follows: I arrive at the clinic or doctors office a little bit earlier than the scheduled time, announce myself at the desk, and wait for the patient to come in.

Most of the time, medical visits are for children that have grown up here, and I have to interpret for their parents. Doctors and nurses usually speak slowly and ask simple questions. I find that interpreting them is usually easy and they tend to be rather efficient with their words. They’ll ask things like: How old are you? What is your date of birth? Do you take any medication? And so on.

The patients, on the other hand, are wordy and sometimes repeat themselves in different ways. If you know how to take notes you’ll have no problem interpreting them. But what might get you are the accents and dialects.

You’d think the most important thing is to know medical terminology, but that has rarely been the case. Like I said, medical interpreting is messy.

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Sometimes you’re left alone with the patient for long periods of time. Sometimes both parents talk at the same time. Sometimes you’re at a psychiatric hospital and you’re the only person the patient can talk to. Sometimes, you’re the only person that understands them and they reveal all their secrets.

Dialects

The other thing I really want to talk about when it comes to interpreting is dealing with dialects. I’ve interpreted for people from places like Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic.

Ya tú sabes…

If you’re unfamiliar with the different dialects in a language this is where you’ll have the most trouble. I didn’t have to study these dialects because I grew up with some and have friends from different parts of the Spanish speaking world.

If you’re considering being an interpreter in these kind of settings be aware of the kind of dialects you’ll be facing. Also, be aware that a lot of the people in these settings have a low education level and will use very colloquial versions and slang. And in the worst cases, they’ll use words in English (if you’re in the US) that they learned here with a harsh accent.

My advice here is, do your homework. Find out what are the most used dialects in your area and get used to them. Watch movies, TV, and if you’re outgoing, make friends from these places. The other thing you can do is to chat with immigrants in your area and you’ll soon find out where most are from.

Of course I know that not all dialects in different languages are like the ones in Spanish. If you want to hear more about dialects I really recommend listening to Kerstin’s podcast on The Fluent Show and checking out some of those links.

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Conclusion

Interpreting is a people job and it’s not for everyone. There are some questions that you need to ask yourself before really taking it up.

  • Can you deal with the stress?
  • Can you deal with all the different settings?
  • Can you follow the interpreter’s code of ethics?
  • Would you be able to interpret in difficult situations, such as telling a patient that they have cancer, or interpreting in court for someone who is clearly lying?

If these settings are too stressful this doesn’t necessarily mean that interpreting is not for you, there are other settings and other types of interpreting. But you really have to think deeply how being on the job would affect you.

I’d love to hear your comments or questions.

See you next time!

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