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.