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What Effective Interpreting Looks Like

In my thirty plus years of interpreting experience, I’ve encountered many people who have a skewed definition of what “effective” interpreting looks like.

Often times they assume that the work of the interpreter is simply to sign word for word what they hear in English word order, or to speak word for word what is being signed. That, many people believe, should be enough. However, the transfer of a message from one language to another is much more than that.

Imagine what it would be like if a hearing person was watching a movie, and every line spoken by one of the actors/actresses was delivered with no inflection or emotion.

Whatever the themes and experience the screenwriter intended for the audience member, the meaning behind the spoken words would be lost and the movie would be a complete failure.

The essence of the film is only communicated when the words are spoken with appropriate emotion and then combined with facial expressions, body language, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

For example, the actor may roll his or her eyes or add an emphatic gesture to coincide with what is being vocalized. The combination of those influences allows the message to be consistent with the intent of the screenwriter.

The same is true when it comes to “effective” interpreting.

An effective interpreter communicates MEANING, rather than just relaying words and signs.

An interpretation is considered effective when the exchange is productive, mutual, rich in nature and complete. Nothing was missed, censored, or neglected just because the process was a bit different (through the use of a 3rd party). The nuances are captured, and the passion and conviction are felt.

This is especially important in sensitive situations such as a doctor’s visit or a job interview.

In a medical appointment, the doctor may tell the patient how often to take his or her medicine. The language which illustrates that the medication must be taken three times a day is best interpreted when it is articulated when those “3-times-a-day” occurs.

So, in order to emphasize the meaning visually, the interpreter would clarify and expand on “taking the medication” by adding the times of “morning, noon, and night” incorporating the importance of the accuracy of those instructions.

And because much of this is seamless, it must be present for a message to be effectively interpreted.

When this occurs, barriers are eliminated, meanings are understood and true communication happens.

For example, when I interpret a Broadway show, my team interpreter and I work very hard to make the humor transfer from what is being done on stage to the personal experiences we all use as a reference point to define what is funny.

We want the exchange to feel smooth as though communication is happening without any type of accommodation. In fact, we used to say that the interpreter should be invisible. In other words, we want the interpretation to look as though a Deaf person were saying it – in a very pure and native form of American Sign Language that doesn’t look like it was manufactured or interpreted from one language into another

When you have a blended audience, some that are Deaf and some that are hearing, the real test is if the interpretation can successfully allow people to laugh at the same time and at the same subject matter.

When I see that happen I know I have made it work. No one feels left out or short changed and that’s a GREAT indicator that you have been truly effective in your interpretation.