Why Interpreters Should Forget About Quality (and concentrate on value)

by Jonathan Downie

How can we define “quality” in interpreting? What does it mean to be a “good interpreter”? Before I answer that, let me tell you a little story.

I was doing chuchotage interpreting at a wood industry conference. The first plenary talk was given by an economist. This particular economist crammed as many charts as he could on each slide. Added to this was his love of long, complex numbers. Numbers are hard enough when we are in nice booths and have the chance to take notes in advance. When you are doing chuchotage and you have no advance warning, they are practically impossible.

Faced with this task, I decided to concentrate on giving a version that would be useful to the French delegates, even if that meant dropping a few (or more than a few) numbers in the process. I had realised that the purpose of the entire conference was to help people see the economic context they had been in and prepare for the one they were going into. So that’s what I aimed to do in my interpreting.

Now, interpreters have almost universally defined “good interpreting” or “quality” in interpreting as being all about interpreting everything the speaker says, getting terminology perfect, and staying totally neutral. So, following that logic, what I did at that wood conference would count as bad interpreting.

Yet, from the point of view of the people who actually needed my services I did a great job. Actually, the head of the French delegation leaned behind me, while I was working, and said to his colleague “il est bon, cet interprète, n’est-ce pas?” [This interpreter’s good, isn’t he!]

We can now be pretty sure that the reason for such differences in quality judgments is that clients use different criteria from interpreters when judging quality. In fact, even when interpreters and clients seem to be using the same criteria (such as accuracy), it turns out that they are likely to be using completely different definitions.

Now, we could stop at this point, argue that clients are clueless and go on doing what we are already doing. There are two problems with that. The first is that it happens to be clients who are paying our invoices so it is bad manners to call them clueless! The second problem is that, as soon as we assume that we have things right already, we stop learning.

A more useful explanation of the difference between how clients see interpreting and how we see it is that we often talk about “quality” in interpreting in a way that separates it from any context. We describe it in terms of reducing errors, creating standards and maximising productivity. In short, the way we often talk about quality treats interpreting as if it were a product and not a service.

Clients necessarily view interpreting in terms of the contexts in which they receive it and in terms of what they want to achieve in that context. Instead of neutral, depersonalised “quality”, they view interpreting in terms of the value it adds to them. In short, for them, it is a service and not a product.

That knowledge is vital if we are ever going to improve the status of interpreting and stop the relentless drive towards cost-cutting in some circles. For as long as we talk about interpreting as if it were a product that can be described in terms of “quality”, we are actually encouraging clients to look for ways to cut costs and reduce how much they pay for it. If we start talking about interpreting in terms of the value it adds, then we will have a much better platform from which to argue that interpreting is worth investing in. It’s our choice.

5 thoughts on “Why Interpreters Should Forget About Quality (and concentrate on value)

  1. Nice article. I’ve argued myself that talking about quality is just a reaction to the “austerity discourse” and is doomed to fail. As a sign language interpreter working in education, I face similar decisions about what my clients need from me every single time I interpret. My own training was very much focused on goal-oriented, purposeful approaches to interpreting – I question whether this line of thinking is as prevalent as it should be in sign language interpreter training generally.

    • I think you could widen that question out even further to how prevalent goal-oriented interpreting is in interpreting as a whole. It is still common to hear some interpreters talk about neutrality and completeness as if they were sine qua non of interpreting. It is only when we are exposed to research and/or taught to be self-critical that we begin to realise that neither is ever even possible. The question then is not “how can I be more neutral?” but “how can I add value in this situation?”

  2. I think it is dangerous for an interpreter to try to “add value” to a conversation. The interpreter is there as a language expert, not as an expert on the topic, industry, or situation discussed. When you believe you can summarize or explain in other words something someone else says, you risk modifying the actual meaning of what was said. I know that as interpreters, we must always adapt words when interpreting, simply because literal translation does more harm than good. However, giving too much feedback or applying one’s own opinions may not be a good idea.

    • Interesting response. My reply to that would be to ask where the lines would be drawn. Take summarising. In theory we should never do it because it is risky but in reality it is a well-practised and deliberately employed strategy for when we are low on time and/or when speakers have gone on a bit. In my wood example, there really was no option but to summarise. The question then was not summarise or not but how to do it intelligently.

      Similarly, on not offering opinions, there is the stereotypical (and apparently not uncommon) case of interpreters working in situations where there are huge cultural differences. Things like examinations of female patients by male doctors, the use of honorifics by Mexican Spanish speakers in US courts, sarcasm in debates and so on. In many of those cases interpreters and researchers have argued that our position as people who are (or should be) cultural experts as well as language experts means that we have to do something, especially when there is a real risk of error or misunderstanding.

      One might also argue that we are (or should be) communication experts. If we know what the speaker wants to achieve, can or should we help them to achieve that? If we know, for example, that a speaker is trying to sell a product, we might want to adjust our output (at very least our intonation and enthusiasm) so they can achieve what they are hoping to achieve.

      Strangely enough, in translation, most of these debates are now settled, with many professional translators accepting that they are paid to do a job for a client and so they should apply the skills they do have to produce a document that will serve the clients needs. Of course, how much freedom you have to do that depends on the precise nature of the document, but even then, it is the context and the document that creates those limits, not any pre-existing judgments.

      I hope that paints a better picture of where I am coming from.

  3. Pingback: As If We Weren’t There | LifeinLINCS

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