Friday, July 28, 2017

Wait, doesn't have to be perfect? Coping tactics from master interpreters

Before I begin, I really feel the need to caveat this post before I haul out just enough rope to absolutely hang myself. The job of the interpreter is to faithfully and accurately interpret all aspects of the speaker's message, matching register, style, and tone. If the speaker asks "Are you currently employed" and my interpretation to my target language is more equivalent to "You got a job?" then I have not done my job as an interpreter to a particularly high standard because I have altered the register and quite possibly the tone, even if I left the meaning intact.

I have taught perfect accuracy as the standard to my interpreter trainees for the last six years, and as a result have probably left some of the more conscientious among them as neurotic as I myself am about accuracy in interpreting and translation (I'm sorry, friends! But as they say, if you aim for the stars, you'll at least land on the moon, and that's not a bad thing). So for me, the most mind-blowing takeaway I've gotten from this training by MCS is that it doesn't actually have to be perfect, and that in fact, the most expert interpreters employ what are called "coping tactics" (more on this in a moment) to smoothly handle problems such as not understanding part of a speaker's utterance, forgetting a word, or momentarily losing their concentration - all without negatively impacting the message or its flow. To underscore the legitimacy of what I'm saying, the workshops included in this training are being being delivered by a federally certified court interpreter who also happens to be a rater for the federal court interpretation exam, an AIIC-member conference interpreter who interprets for the highest levels of government, and a former dean of the Monterey Institute (now Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey). That is to say, these are authoritative speakers. Or totally legit, depending on the register you prefer.

So what are coping tactics? They include, but are not limited to....
  • Delaying
  • Paraphrasing (a little bit)
  • Circumlocution
  • Re-sequencing
How does it work? Let's say you forget for a moment what comes next in your consecutive delivery. But you don't want to damage your speakers' confidence in your skills, or irritate them with constant requests to repeat themselves. So rather than hemming and hawing and leaving a big gap in your rendition, maybe you buy yourself some time and just quickly repeat yourself, or say the next thing after the thing you forgot, while you decipher those scribbled notes and make vows to improve your handwriting. However, you still make sure you remain faithful to that message and know that you must come back to what you forgot, either by asking for repetition or remembering - finally. It goes with out saying that you had better be sure that the message is not one that would be seriously harmed by such re-sequencing. Like medical instructions: there is a difference between "eat lunch, wait an hour, and take the pill, and "eat lunch, take the pill, and wait an hour". Don't do that, kids, that would be wrong and you might hurt someone. 

So that's what coping tactics are. Master interpreters use them judiciously and sparingly to preserve the integrity of a message and keep communication flowing properly. It's a complex balancing act, and whether or not to employ coping tactics is one of the many background tasks that skilled interpreters handle with grace and elegance while analyzing and interpreting all the messages included in an interpreted encounter. It's a relief to know that this is one of the tools I can use as an interpreter, although deep down inside-well, I still just think it should be perfect.

I'll leave you with this excellent video by court and community interpreter Katharine Allen on how to handle unfamiliar terms in both consecutive and simultaneous settings, where she describes some of the coping tactics mentioned above, with all due caveats on maintaining accuracy:

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