Working as an interpreter means that sometimes you encounter people who prefer to work on their own and are unwelcoming to foreign intrusions, including but not limited to your own, and we will be calling these people “professional loners” in this article. Professional loners could be lawyers, investigators, forensic examiners, anthropologists and any other professionals whose ground work is based on their ever-changing theories about the case on which they are working. The thing that complicates the matters from interpreters’ point of view is that their theories are mostly contained in their head and not on paper, so the interpreter doesn’t really have any kind of reference to these people’s subject matter of the meeting. These professionals do sound scary for an interpreter who prefers to work after having read reference material, but how often does that preparedness on the part of a client happen to any interpreter, really? I actually find these professional loners perfect to work with: they do their job and they let you do yours. However, what is overwhelming about professional loners is their secrecy and all that they, and you, have to do to protect it.
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Without going deeper into psychology of a professional loner and their interest, I think it would be pretty safe to assume that these professionals would safeguard their information and attitudes in exactly the same way when dealing with their colleagues who are coming from the same line of work, so there is actually no reason to feel freaky or weird as an interpreter because they insist on secrecy as it pertains to the direction or the point of their interview. What interests me is what is that their “secrecy” does to ability of an interpreter to insert himself as the linguistic master of the interview and how is it possible for an interpreter to maintain that position throughout the interview without violating any of their unspoken rules of secrecy?
Let us tackle a point of secrecy on a rather obvious example of working with people who are coming from a very strict domain of reality: law. In preparation for the interviewing of a witness, an experienced investigator does not want to reveal any information to anyone which may reveal his source of information or which may show to his client where the interview is leading to. The same goes for the lawyers: they do not want their clients to know what their strategy is and what are the legal points that they are trying to make by interviewing a particular witness. The most these people would tell you when you ask about the interviewee is whether you are dealing with a criminal, informer or a victim which then raises issues of fairness of their client amongst the interpreters. Now, let’s consider for a moment what does “knowing about the purpose and the end of the interview” can do to you as a professional. Would it be far fetched to say that if you knew that the interview with the unsuspecting client will end up with a lawyer accusing him of a crime and reading him his rights, that your tone of voice would involuntarily and unconsciously start to sound accusative from the very beginning and throughout the interview? Would it be fair to say that this knowledge of what will happen at the end of the interview can stop you from hearing the interviewer’s luring, sarcasm, pleading and etc. and that you can start to interpret only in the spirit of the end of the interview oblivious to any and all changes in the tone of voice of your clients? Wouldn’t you prefer to be shocked and surprised when the investigator makes an arrest of his client? Depending on the situation, “knowing” does have a potential to get in the way of your performance, so it could be argued that it is actually good for you not to know the conclusion point of the interview because it can mislead your tone of voice and your attitude and they both need to develop according to that of your clients. All of these points that I made could be argued in greater depth, but let’s assume for a moment that less you know, the happier you are.
Simple truth behind my reasoning is that I became interpreter because I didn’t want to be bothered with the theories of law, techniques and methods of police work, or, God forbid, how is it exactly that the fruit grows. I am sorry, but, although I understand the concept, I don’t find any of that conceptually interesting and I can’t be bothered. I wanted to become an interpreter because of words, their meaning, their cultural context and for the interest in people as individuals. Yes, I am an universal ignorant, I do not know anything in detail, but it doesn’t bother me at all and it is solely my choice: I am interested in everything that can be put in context of words for the mere words, not for the conceptual explanation behind it. Not all interpreters are like this, I realize. I worked in pairs with many a colleague who would stop the interpretation of a confusing point and say in the middle of the meeting to participants “Let ME explain to you,” reasserting his persona and his point of view on the issue which then solicited rather nasty comments on the part of his clients. These interpreters were never called again to do a job or, if they were called, it was done so with a big reserve and they had to reassert themselves again as professionals, which is a hard thing to do when you are working with professionals whose job is never to forget. What I learned from the mistakes of the others is that no matter how much I felt superior to both the lawyer and his client for speaking four languages, they are the kings of their own castles and I am equally small in front of their expertise as they are in front of mine. I know how little of linguistic respect I have for any people when they say “I speak Russian, and Bosnian is similar language, so I know you didn’t interpret that word correctly,” so it is understandable that, in return, they don’t want me to jeopardize or question their professional integrity or their strategy. So whenever in doubt as of should I intervene, I look at it and think to myself “Well, why not let them be professionals in their own right?” and the things become much easier.
When working with the people of law, what I noticed is that these professionals don’t really have any clients who are able to keep their cool at all times of the interview. Manifestations of their clients’ confusion or outright “uncomfortableness” could be one of the most distracting things to an interpreter. Sometimes their clients will be in awe of the institution that these professionals who are interviewing them represent and might be nervous; sometimes they will be concerned if this necessary intrusion of a third party will be able to correctly convey all the pain, anguish and meaning of this feeling inside which no one before them felt with the same intensity and might go out of their way to make sure you said exactly what they have said; sometimes they will be paralyzed by the dominating character of an investigator or a layer and you might think that it is something that you are doing that is making them speechless; and sometimes they will apathetically want to finish with all this and go home and you might be continuously interrupted. I decided that it is not my job to make these people any more rushed, confused or nervous than the people of law are trying to make them feel, so my first step in learning how to deal with this in the process of the consecutive interpretation was to completely eliminate my presence in their mind. The way that I decided to do that is not to look at them at all: in the process of consecutive interpretation I never look neither at the lawyer or at his client. I would make myself seated right in between the lawyer and his client and, when I’m not reading off my notes, I would look somewhere at the blank spot in front of me. I noticed that this technique enables both lawyer and client to have an uninterrupted conversation between each other as there was no interference of neither my body language or my eye contact that could confuse one of them. I work based on the sound of their voice and sometimes watch them from the corner of my eye for body language. This technique enabled me to eliminate several super annoying possibilities and biggest of them all is a possibility for any of them to start speaking in indirect speech, that is to say to turn to me and tell me “Tell him that…” Indirect speech of this kind puts any interpreter in a very tricky spot of having to determine quickly who is “he” and then trying to get oneself out the situation if some second or third “he” appears and one realizes that this first “he” wasn’t the one originally thought. The golden rule of any interpretation is that there cannot be any unaccountable or assumed “he/she/it”s in the interview, and letting your clients speak directly to each other eliminated forever this super annoying possibility from ever appearing again.
Speaking about avoidance that this technique provides us with, what I also noticed is that when people don’t know how to explain a certain part of their case they would sometimes turn to the interpreter and say “Well, you can explain it to him, you are coming from the same culture, you know how it is.” This puts an interpreter in a very ugly situation of either unrightfully having to explain the cultural aspect of the client’s case, or of confronting the client and telling him it’s his job to explain his own case. I am saying “unrightfully” because I have a degree in languages, not in cultural anthropology, so why would I assume what is the client’s position on a certain part of his cultural reality? Also, having to confront people is never a good idea, so my advice would be just to interpret what the client said and any lawyer who is interested more in what his client had surely say to his client “Yes, but I would like to know what you think.” I am saying this because, what is characteristic of lawyers and investigators is that they love to play naïve: lawyer knows very well the explanation of that cultural aspect, he wants to see his client’s understanding of it. However, if the lawyer goes along with his client and asks you “What do you think about it?” think twice before asserting your point of view. As for me, I would politely remind him that I have a degree in languages. You don’t want to be put between your clients in any capacity of a mediator and you should insist on that. Furthermore, when an interpreter does reassert his understanding of the issue, he puts himself in an unnecessary and a potentially dangerous position: unnecessary because you are not qualified as a mind reader and/or cultural anthropologist and dangerous because you can end up being the only one to blame if anything goes wrong with the interview and if that happens, trust me, there is almost nothing you can do to pull yourself out from one such situation graciously and/or professionally wholesome.
What not looking at the clients also eliminates is a situation when people sometimes come short of words. If I was looking at my client and his body language while he was coming short of words, my first instinct of a linguist would be to put that word in his mouth with which he is struggling, and I would actually think nothing of it. But as I said, both the lawyers and their clients thoroughly enjoy playing naïve (they call it “tactics” or “playing the system” respectively) so maybe one of them wanted this other to put that word in his mouth, or maybe he just wanted that word to linger about unsaid. Looking somewhere between the lawyer and his client is sure to eliminate all this temptation. At the very end, one other way to put any “professional loner” at ease is to, upon the completion of the interview, give them over your notes that you took during the consecutive interpretation; for them this is showing that you have absolutely no interest in their work except for the linguistic part of it and I am sure they will appreciate it.
I suggested for you not to look at your clients, but notice that I didn’t say that you should ignore anything about their presence. It is my strong belief that all the words uttered at any interview are sacred and they should not be taken lightly at all. Also notice that I italicized all and any which I did to denounce that often used interpreters’ understanding that there are high-end meetings and clients for which they prepare with special care. That attitude and discrimination is a product of an intellectual snobbism and should be kept in a privacy of one’s kitchen, not in professional environment: treat John Doe as you would treat presidential candidate, it’s called being fair. So, don’t take your John Doe lightly and if a client says “No, no, no. No!” notice that he said “no” four times with two different tones of voice, respect his wish to do so and translate accordingly. The same goes with cursing. You can be a son of a preacher man all you want, but if a client feels that a curse, no matter how vulgar or tame, would best describe his point or his emotion, you have an obligation to interpret it for what it is and not to substitute with your own version in order to protect someone’s purity.
In addition to these friendly warnings, I am obliged to mention one other “technical” aspect of interpretation with the people of law. I learned that if the witness says “Could you please repeat that?” you shouldn’t take it personally and simply repeat what the investigator just said, you should interpret it as “Could you please repeat that” in the target language, because you don’t know if your clients are playing games with each other. One of my colleagues had a very, very, very bad day that ended with her crying when she came back to the office, because one very serious criminal kept on answering to investigator’s questions with “I didn’t hear that” and she felt it was her duty to keep on interpreting it as “I didn’t hear that” in a target language. It is obvious that he did it only to win time but, you know what, no matter how tedious and nerve wrecking what he did was for my friend, that was his right to do. It is not a job of an interpreter to intervene in these cases and thus stop his client’s petty games, it is an investigator who is a master of that aspect of that interview and it is up to him to react.
The other rules of behavior of the consecutive interpreter apply to working with “professional loners.” Do not sit too close to your clients, you don’t know if they brushed their teeth or what is that they ate. You may laugh or think this remark unnecessary, but if you don’t believe me that breathing in someone’s bad breath with your full lung capacity through your nose during the consecutive interpretation can be more distracting than a bomb exploding in a room where the interview is conducted, then humor me and check it for yourself, I would advise you to always keep your physical distance. Also, there is nothing more annoying than an interpreter persistent to acknowledge with polite laugh sarcasm, irony or a joke of any of his clients during the interview. Don’t be like that sign at talk-shows showing “Applaud now” and don’t forget that you don’t exist in their conversation: he wasn’t talking to you personally, so why do you feel like honoring him with your acknowledgment of his joke? What if he turns around and tells you “Would you please stick to interpreting” because his sarcasm didn’t catch his client off guard or his irony didn’t produce desired effect? One more thing that can happen when working with the people of law and their clients is that it can occur that some of them keep on saying “I said that, it just didn’t come through interpretation.” My advice to you would be to be intellectually generous and humor them, don’t get upset and start to explain yourself, go along with it. Remember that you don’t see the big picture of that particular case and/or witness, investigator does and it is always easily checked that you were the one who was right (if that was the case) because legal meetings are almost always recorded in one way or another.
It should be said at the end that it is hard to be an interpreter and work with “professional loners” or with any professional for that matter, but it should also be said that we cannot really do our job without direct interaction with people. As an interpreter, no matter how harsh this sounds, but you are considered to be expensive nuisance and unwanted guest in the field of your clients’ expertise, so you have no choice but become invisible if you would like to come across as professional. Many interpreters would apply for jobs and say things like “I have a degree in x, y and z language” to be met with comments such as “That is absolutely amazing!!! Can you use the fax machine?” and there is very little to do about that: how to change the mentality of the mainstream reality that thinks that having a degree in languages doesn’t really mean anything is not the subject of this paper. Instead to take on Tantalus’ task of explaining their intellectual worth, interpreters should insist on their linguistic professionalism and integrity and getting themselves involved exclusively with the linguistic part of their job is one of the best ways to do that.