The Good Interpreter

sister-studying-1581920The other day at work, a nice lady on the elevator saw my interpreter badge and asked me, “What kind of interpreter are you?” I get this question a lot, and clearly she was asking what language I spoke, but I couldn’t resist and told her “A good one”. We both laughed, and I told her, “No really, I’m a Spanish interpreter.” She laughed again (did she think that was a joke, too?) and *ding* I left her laughing in the elevator and went to my office to do what I do.

“A good interpreter.” I’m a good interpreter. It got me thinking, how do we know what a good interpreter is? What does a good interpreter do? What does *gasp* a bad interpreter do? Who says? Turns out, like everything else, it’s all a matter of perspective. Let me explain.

I have heard all about “bad” interpreters. “The interpreter refused to (insert behavior here: do the discharge teaching, sign as witness on the consent form, give the patient a ride, sit with the patient, translate the consent form, help move the patient).” The thing is, these are things that the good interpreters refuse to do, because doing any of those things would totally violate a professional interpreter’s role boundaries, and a trained interpreter knows this.  Surprise: Interpreters have National Standards of Practice, and a Code of Ethics!

Oh, and I’ve heard all about “good” interpreters. “We just loved the interpreter we got today. She (insert inappropriate behavior here: Stayed with the patient in his room all day, gave the patient a ride to his appointment, took care of the discharge paperwork, helped the physical therapist get the patient into the wheelchair, explained the whole procedure really well while the doctor was busy seeing someone else).” Yes, I’ve heard all about the “good” interpreter. But see, a trained interpreter would never do these things. Well, a trained and experienced interpreter.

So let’s begin by distinguishing, not a good interpreter from a bad interpreter, but instead, a trained interpreter from an untrained interpreter. And from there, we distinguish between trained interpreters with experience and inexperienced trained interpreters. Why experienced? Why isn’t training enough? Friends, I have personally witnessed trained interpreters doing exactly what they are trained to not do. Back in the day, That Interpreter did exactly what she was trained not to do. I have sat with the patient while she waits to be seen by the doctor (which I was told not to do, but I felt really bad if I didn’t do it).  Being alone with a patient is a great way to be exposed to information at a time when…There’s nobody to interpret it to. Then as the interpreter, I have to struggle with deciding to reveal that information to the doc, or to consider that information private.  After the patient told me her medical and social history in the waiting room, what happens when the doc comes in and asks about her medical  and social history and the patient tells me, “I already told you all this.”

In training, we watch a video (yes, I date myself by calling it a “video”) where we see a trained interpreter and an untrained interpreter. The untrained interpreter makes all the classic mistakes: Speaking for the patient and the provider (that is, not interpreting), including her opinion, “interpreting” in reported speech, totally disregarding cultural differences that cause barriers to communication (“hot tea” for a Mexican patient is not the same as “hot tea” for a US born-and-raised doc).  The interpreter trainees still insist that it’s not the untrained and the trained interpreter, but the bad and the good interpreter.  They are so shocked by this “bad” behavior!  On some level, it’s good that they’re shocked.  But secretly, I know they’re thinking, “I have done this, and it’s so wrong!  It’s so bad!”

In my years of training interpreters, it’s like a broken record from the students after the first day, “I’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.”  I encourage them, “No, you just haven’t had training.”  And I encourage them to reach out to other untrained interpreters who are “doing it wrong”.  Because to even want to be an interpreter in the first place is right.  It means that you want to serve others, that you value equality, and that, even if you don’t realize it, social justice means something to you!  How can any of that be “wrong”?

Over the weekend, I finished teaching a 40-hour training for health care interpreters.  I told the students on our last day, “I love sharing my passion for interpreting, and I can’t do that without you showing up to this classroom, so thank you for giving me the gift of sharing that passion.”  And I meant it.  I think they understood, and they walked out of that classroom as trained interpreters.  You might even say that they left as good interpreters.

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