The challenge of interpreting the “right” amount

As an interpreter, I work in a variety of domains. Pre-COVID, I would spend my days flitting between hospitals and courtrooms, going from scans and antenatal checkups to intervention orders or custody matters. I made numerous visits to the police station. I even went to prison occasionally! But I digress. From the frequency with which I commuted to hospitals and courtrooms, it was evident that the hospital and the courtroom are the places where migrants feel the least confident in understanding and making themselves understood.

When I meet Japanese people in hospital for an interpreting job, I always start by asking how confident they are in English. Interpreting is a service provided to ensure that the person can understand and partake in services as if they were a native English speaker. In a perfect world, the other person would speak absolutely no English, so intepreting would be a clean-cut service of translating everything that is said in the conversation. The interpreter interprets.

However, this is reality: the Japanese person is living in Australia, and has been living there for at least some time to be accessing services like healthcare or the courts. It’s inevitable that they speak English to some extent. Navigating the real world is quite difficult as an interpreter. How much to interpret? How much to let the non-native deal with? If you over-interpret, the client may get annoyed or offended that their English is being unacknowledged or rejected. If you under-interpret, the client won’t understand what’s going on and get stressed, leading to miscommunication.

But how do you know how much the other party actually understands? I’ve had instances where the non-native tells me that they understand English and don’t need me to interpret, yet they obviously don’t understand what the doctor is saying. It’s a delicate line between upholding the other party’s pride and also ensuring that you are able to interpret properly. And then in cases the non-native tries to respond in broken English which isn’t really making any sense, but they are determined to keep talking because they “know English”.

It’s a slippery slope of keeping both parties happy without offending anyone, and facilitating smooth communication.

In the courtroom, to avoid any kind of miscommunication or misunderstanding, communication is achieved through 100% interpreting in principle, regardless of the non-native’s English proficiency. Healthcare, however, is a different matter. Facilitating communication and understanding between the two parties is the objective, so the rules tend to get blurred, and the pathway for interpreting becomes less clear.

On the other hand, I’m no advocate for over-interpreting. If the Japanese person speaks English perfectly fine, there is no need for an interpreter to jump in. It just makes the whole process horrendously inefficient and wastes everyone’s time. There’s no point using an interpreter if they’re not necessary. But who determines language proficiency? What is “good enough” to not require an interpreter?


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