Lessons From the Field: It’s All Just Interpreting… Or is it?

By Athena Matilsky

When I enter a court-room, I suddenly transform into “Madame Interpreter.” I must admit, the first time a judge addressed me in such a fashion I felt a thrill. I still find it quite soothing to the ears; it’s one of the bonuses of working in court.

However, when I first started interpreting, the courthouse intimidated me. I found it easier to work in clinics and hospitals, where things didn’t feel so formal and rigid. I felt like I was helping to facilitate peoples’ well-being instead of their punishments.

In a medical setting, I’m definitely not “Madame Interpreter.” I’m usually just “the translator.” Our job isn’t as well-respected or well-understood as it is in court; doctors tend to treat us as if we were high school interns and don’t seem to have any understanding of the amount of education necessary to become a competent, certified interpreter.

I am also frequently thrust into awkward situations (when I’m asked to give medical advice, for example, which would be a flagrant violation of our Standards of Practice).

However, my breadth of influence expands, and whereas in court I must remain neutral at all times, in a hospital I can adopt what is called an “incremental interventionist” approach. This means that when called upon, I can smooth out cultural barriers and, on rare occasions, advocate for a patient if their access to healthcare is at stake. In court, this is simply off the table; I’ve seen attorneys, litigants, defendants and witnesses (heck, even judges!) make big blunders because of cultural misunderstandings, and as a court interpreter, I have to keep my mouth shut.

From an outsider’s perspective watching an interpreter go about their task of converting one language into another, it would be tempting to say that our job is always the same. And certainly there are over-arching similarities. But as you can see, our role can actually change drastically depending on the setting.

Curious to learn more? I’ll be presenting on this topic at the upcoming conference with de la Mora Interpreter Training: Finding the Parallels in Orlando, Florida. Hope to see you there!

Have you ever had to navigate the conflicting perspectives of legal and medical environments? Let us know how you dealt with them in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates and deals from DE LA MORA Interpreter Training, as well as our next blog post!

1 thought on “Lessons From the Field: It’s All Just Interpreting… Or is it?”

  1. I appreciate your perspective and advocacy for continued education for professional interpreters! It’s important also that requesting parties become educated in standards of practice, ethics, and the role of a professional interpreter. Keep up the good work!

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