Bilingual or Interpreter?

posted in: Interpretation | 0

Question for today: Can any bilingual person interpret?


Consider the concert pianist.

She sweeps onto the stage in a floor length gown, bows to the applauding crowd, seats herself gracefully at the gleaming black Steinway grand piano. She bows her head and breathes deeply, concentrating, her hands poised over the keys. The crowd is hushed and expectant. Then, she begins! A crashing chord, a glittering glissando, delicate arpeggios – what mastery! What control! What passion!  All too soon, she reaches the final notes. Silence. Then – crowd goes wild! What a performance! Stunning!

Now consider me.

I stumble into my living room in my bathrobe, check to make sure nobody’s listening, and plop myself down in front of my upright Baldwin. I lean in to try to focus on the music with my new trifocals. I sigh and resign myself to blurry vision, then poise my hands above the keys. The living room is silent. Then, I begin!  A crashing chord, a faltering glissando, awkward arpeggios – what a mess! After what seems like a week, I reach the final notes. Silence. And more silence.

For some reason or other it seems to me that my rendition of this piece does not sound at all like that of the concert pianist, whose performance inspired me to buy the sheet music. No, it most certainly does not. But, why does it not? She has fingers, I have fingers. Her fingers move over the keyboard, my fingers move over the keyboard. She nails all the notes, she dallies with the dynamics, she breathes life into the melodies and pulls pathos from the musical lines. I, well, I, um . . . I have fingers. But clearly, that’s not enough to be a concert pianist.

Now consider the interpreter.

Yes, interpreters do have to be bilingual at least. They have to have a strong command of two languages in the same way that the concert pianist has to have fingers. But just as fingers alone are not enough to make one a pianist worth listening to (consider my piano playing!), being bilingual is not enough to make one a good interpreter. I mean, just think about what’s going on in the interpreter’s head when she’s at work:

  1. She hears the message.
    First, the interpreter hears a person speak in one language, filtering out background noise and distractors.
  2. She understands the message.
    Then, allowing for accent, poor grammar, unfinished thoughts, interruptions, slang, technical terminology, jargon and idioms, she then has to decode the meaning of that speech – hopefully, the meaning that the speaker intended to convey – within the context of the culture, the situation and the people who are conversing.
  3. She converts the message.
    Then she converts the meaning of this speech into the target language within a new cultural context, striving to create the same message in this new context.
  4. She delivers the message.
    Finally she renders (speaks) the meaning of the speech in the target language, maintaining the level of formality and politeness, making sure she is heard by the listener.

And all of this almost instantaneously. For simultaneous interpreting, such as you see at the United Nations, the interpreter even does step 4 at the same time she’s doing step 1. Impressive, no?

But wait! There’s more!

While she is doing this, the community interpreter is also staying unobtrusive. She’s subtly monitoring the people for whom she is interpreting to see if they are connecting with each other, if they are understanding each other. She is monitoring her own interpretation, to catch and immediately correct any mistakes. And she’s constantly dealing with ethical dilemmas that stem from dealing closely with people who are sick and stressed and in a hurry. In her hands – or rather, in her mouth – lies the health of the patient and the success of the provider in healing.

But wait! There’s even more!

The community interpreter also has to know the protocols of interpreting: how to introduce herself, where to stand, how to help patient and provider connect, when to intervene and how to do so seamlessly, how to handle a hundred difficult situations. She has to know how to deal with birth and death, with blood and other bodily fluids, with pain and with sadness without herself getting sick in body or spirit. She has to know her way around the healthcare system, the social service system, and maybe other systems as well. She is calm under pressure, friendly with good boundaries, and always professional.

Sounds like a concert-pianist-level of expertise to me!

Now, noodling around on your piano in the living room is a perfectly wonderful thing, and so is being bilingual. But the first is not a concert pianist, and the second is not necessarily an interpreter. So, what about it? Are you a bilingual – or do you want to become an interpreter? Next week, I’ll write about how you get from being the first to rocking the second.


Written by: Cynthia E. Roat, MPH

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