Interpreter Sets the Record Straight with Dear Abby


Dear Abby

Professional interpreter, O.W.K. Corrects Dear Abby’s Advice from December Column

Today’s Dear Abby column features a reader’s response to her December 27, 2015 column, “An International Educator.” In case you haven’t read it here’s the synopsis:

Back in December, a teacher asked Ms. Van Buren what to do during a parent-teacher conference which requires the use of a language interpreter. Her response to keep eye contact may seem like an appropriate response to some, but to a professional interpreter, it most certainly is not.

While Ms. Van Buren’s response is in line with today’s socially accepted etiquette standards, the reality is that it is not professional in this context.   In O.W.K.’s letter indicates instead the industry standard, writing “Persons being interpreted for do not need to look at the interpreter while facilitating their communication.”

O.W.K. also points out the fact that the term “translator” and “translation” were incorrectly used in the original December letter and response in question.  In that correspondence, variations of the word “translation” are used when, in fact, translation is the written process of converting text from one language to another.

Interpretation is the correct term, as pointed out by O.W.K, since it indicates a verbal exchange Even though there may be three people present during an interpretation appointment, the conversation is really only between two people. A professionally trained interpreter is an impartial party whose only role is to facilitate communication.

O.W.K. is absolutely right when he/she wrote, “Just knowing two languages does not guarantee that someone is capable of doing accurate interpretations.” In addition to language fluency, interpreters must also be fluent in different dialects and knowledgeable of the accompanying cultures. For example, many of the Chinese and southeast Asian languages are tone languages, in that, a word spoken in a high pitch has a different meaning than the same word spoken in a softer pitch. Therefore,  while it may seem that anyone who can speak the language is competent, there are in fact broader dialectical and cultural nuances that professional interpreters  are tested on and taught through advanced training.

A professional interpreter will be better able to negotiate cultural differences between a foreign language speaker and an English speaker. This may include knowing proper modes of addressing different people, which can include everything from choosing appropriate titles for individuals (to indicate gender, status, or education) to the use of informal vs. formal registers of language. In addition, professional interpreters have training in how to navigate cultural specifics in a variety of circumstances; for instance, explaining a hospital procedure (which may include delicate, private information) will be  approached differently than an informal parent-teacher meeting. These aspects of professional training allow for the communicative event to take place in a clear, understandable manner.

Well, Dear Abby, there you have it. The nuances of interpretation versus translation have been explained, and there are no hard feelings! We know you’ll use this information to brighten a future reader’s day.

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