Interpreting in the dark

Due to the coronavirus and social distancing restrictions, face-to-face interpreting has declined in most domains excluding hospitals and other medical institutions. This has led to an increased demand for phone interpreting. For me, this is less than ideal: interpreting relies on not only words, but also paralinguistic clues and situational/contextual cues.

As such, interpreting over the phone is something akin to cooking dinner in the darkness.

It’s highly unnatural and difficult. You don’t know what kind of interpreting (Pre-surgery consent? Counselling? Police? Antenatal?) you’ll be doing until the professional comes on the line. Most of the time, you’ll end up joining the conversation midway and lacking any kind of background explanation or context. Even simple questions like “how have you been?” are difficult to translate because you don’t know what the professional is referring to – a physical condition? Their emotional/mental space? Or just general small talk?

Phone interpreting is working in the dark in an unfamiliar place, without a torch.

Think about an everyday conversation. You get more cues from the speaker’s facial expression and gestures than from the words themselves. Interpreting relies on this too. It’s much easier to understand the speaker’s actual feelings or thoughts from seeing them in person. Words can only tell you so much, especially in such a contextually-dependent language like Japanese.

That’s why I try to avoid phone interpreting as much as possible. It’s stressful and complicated by even technical issues, difficulty hearing due the other side using a speaker phone with multiple people, and plagued by multiple people trying to speak at once.

Nothing is easy to figure out. Once, the other end of the phone was a woman being assessed by a midwife when the husband collapsed. On the other side of the phone, I had no idea what was happening – total mayhem! Naturally you would assume the patient’s condition has worsened, not the bystander!

However, many services are reaching for the phone rather than booking an interpreter to minimize the number of people in one space at a time. This is completely understandable from a safety perspective, but as an interpreter, it makes it difficult for me to readily pick up the phone when a phone booking comes through.

It’s hard to do your job when you’re in the dark.


Lastly, a personal anecdote.

The other day, I was at hospital talking to a Japanese patient that I interpret for occasionally. She was so happy to see me again, and said that she could always rely on me to interpret accurately for her. When I shrugged off her praise, she told me how she used a phone interpreter the other day, and it was a terrible experience. The interpreting was inaccurate and low quality. She hung up the phone with a bad taste in her mouth.

Of course, it’s easy to blame the interpreter over the phone, but as an interpreter myself, I could empathise with them. A lack of contextual information, voices hanging in the air, a black void… I’m going to wager it was the situation that was terrible, not the interpreter.


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