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  • Writer's pictureDavid de Souza

The Lessons from Interpreting

"To fully understand what has been said requires active listening with concentration and patience." - Weiwei Zhu

Weiwei Zhu is an expert in legal Interperteuring in Chinese and English. I asked her 3 questions about the life lessons that she has learned from Interpreting.

1. What principles from Interpreting can be applied to other areas of life?

The basic principles for professional interpreters are (i) Understanding, (ii) Analysis (iii) Re-expression.

  1. Understanding To fully understand what has been said requires active listening with concentration and patience.

  2. Analysis Analysis requires you to understand the whole idea (context) not just the words.

  3. Re-Expression Professional interpreters should be able to choose more accurate words to reflect what’s been said, when it comes to some cases these things really matter. For example, a Chinese victim was giving evidence in a criminal case, and she wanted to say that she was raped. Due to shame or embarrassment, she used vague language and said, “he pushed into my room and wanted to sleep with me…” whereas what she actually wanted to say was “he broke into my room and raped me.” If the interpreter was not vigilant and didn’t ask for clarification, a mistake would have been made and the outcome for the rapist could be different. Professional interpreters can also offer cultural reference in their interpreting when the literal translation doesn’t reflect the words accurately. e.g., in China, people often have a false age (based on the lunar calendar and the region where they come from), some areas consider newborn babies already 1 year old, and if the baby was born in December when the year turns, the baby will be considered a year older, making the baby 2 years old after only being born a month ago. Often in asylum interviews, Chinese asylum seekers would say their false age, as that’s what they always used in China. “I was 25 years old when the incident happened…” but based on the actual DOB, the person was only 24 or 23. If the interpreter didn’t clarify and just translated what’s been said, the person could be accused of lying and this would have a negative impact on their reliability as a witness leading to their application getting refused.

I think these 3 principles can be applied to many other fields, but they could specifically be applied to parenting and romantic relationships.

2. What small things make a big difference in interpreting?

Having the courage to admit that we, interpreters, are not walking dictionaries and there are always some words/terminology/technical terms that we may not know. Asking for clarification or time to check a dictionary so that we can make sure the words we use are as accurate as possible, it can really make a big difference, especially in the legal fields in which I work. When we realize that we have made a mistake, we need to have the courage to admit it too and correct it quickly. Sometimes a misused word can lead to misunderstanding further down the line and/or change the whole outcome of a case. I have seen many interpreters who don’t equip themselves with the right attitude, which can often lead to misunderstandings or clarification down the road, which can result in wasted time.

3. What is the biggest misconception or the biggest mistake that people make in interpreting?

Some people think that as long as we can speak two languages, we can be interpreters. That’s a misconception and mistake! A qualified interpreter needs to have specific professional skills other than language skills. Of course, it depends on the situation. For example, if it is a family gathering or accompanying friends to do shopping or sightseeing, sure, you don’t need to hire a qualified interpreter to help. But, if it is a professional setting, qualified interpreters should be hired to assist the communication. Because the outcome can be very different, miscommunication can be a deal breaker.

3.1 Can you dig deeper into that point? How do you avoid miscommunication, what are some of the things that you do to make sure that you don’t miscommunicate?

To avoid miscommunication, I have to be vigilant and give 100% to each job, even it is an easy case. This is part of my professional training, knowing that if I have any doubt I will ask for clarification or explanation. I get myself and my ego out of the way. I also have to be impartial and empathetic in my job. I cannot speak for the client by adding or omitting some words, just because I feel sorry for the client and want to help. Friends or families who act as their interpreters often do this. It can lead to similar consequences as the above examples.

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