The Role of Interpreters Does being a human make a difference?

Greater than 3 minutes, my friend!

The opinion that in the future special gadgets will be able to replace human interpreters is growing more popular, and even now we have Pilot on the market, a small device which you can insert in your ear and understand the other person speaking foreign language. So, will these complex tools be able to replace people in the future? I don´t know. I think there are too many variables and hidden rocks in the communication between people, which a digital mind will never be able to understand. But is it really necessary to bother?

Each time I have to render the interpreting services I ask myself if indeed we are just mere instruments or rightful participants who can make a difference in the conversation. Actually, after more than 7 years of interpreting, I am still not sure about the answer. If we refer to the Oxford dictionary, an interpreter is “a person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally or into sign language”. Well, now I wonder what “to interpret” means exactly. Among some of the definitions in the same dictionary, we can find such words as “explain” and “understand”, and as for me, these are the key concepts. I can´t really conceive interpreting as a mechanical activity of transferring the words from one language to another. However I often ask myself if I haven´t crossed the line, and what if my role is just of a human tool which doesn´t need to go into detail.

I have much experience of interpreting in business negotiations on different levels and I lived through situations, which made me think about the interpreter´s role.

Some discussions can turn really tense, and many times in the heat I caught myself thinking that the two parties were not listening or just didn´t understand each other. First, I was thinking that maybe I had done something wrong, but then I realized that they were just not willing to hear. Usually each company comes to the meeting with clear plans and expectations, they know what they want to achieve, so very often they just don´t pay attention to what the other party is trying to say. In these moments, I hesitate if to defend the interests of my employer or just to switch on the “tool” mode, which means “I don´t care as I will get paid anyway”. There is also a risk that too much initiative could be prejudicial. Therefore, these moments are usually tough.

Another interesting point in interpreting is that you should get used to the different ways of people expressing themselves. I mean, sometimes they just outline the situation and explain what they want to transmit to the other party, and then they just leave it to you and only nod while you are speaking. The other extreme is when some employer suddenly becomes very serious and says: “Now you should translate exactly word by word what I am going to say”. Usually it happens when the atmosphere gets fraught and each word matters a lot. On the one hand, in these cases it is better to become just an instrument and try to transmit the speech as clear as possible, but at the same time, isn´t it important to understand the motives and the inner meaning of what the person is trying to express? This is another puzzle to me.

Some years ago, the news came out in Spain about the mistake made during the meeting between Barack Obama and the king Felipe VI in the White House. Obama was talking about the relationship between the USA and Spain and said that he wanted Spain to be “unified and strong” referring to the Catalonia´s separation threat, but according to the interpreter the American president meant “strong and unified relationship with Spain”, which is not exactly the same. It had great repercussion in the Spanish media and even the king, who speaks perfect English, understood the mistake and was confused.

So, the labor of the interpreter is really important and requires more than just a mere ability to transfer the text from one language to another. Even in written translations, don´t we always try to understand the text before starting to translate it? Aren´t we putting our best efforts to explain its meaning? Is machine translation of the same quality as human? I guess you know the answers.

In conclusion of this slightly erratic reflection, I think that the human factor is a key in the interpreting. We are too complicated to be deciphered by the machines. I tend to think that an interpreter is not just an instrument which can be easily replaced by a complex device. An interpreter is a person who helps people to understand each other through reasoning, explanations, feelings and experiences.

Natalia Sgibneva

About Natalia Sgibneva

EN-RU and ES-RU professional translator. Key areas: fashion, cosmetics, marketing, advertisement and tourism.

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