Essays on interpreting


Preparation for five assignments(1) When I was given an English-Russian interpreting job at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (Sydney, Australia), I was not provided with any background information. So I had only a vague idea of what might expect me there: a situation with an illegal immigrant. But how, why and who exactly? I did not even know the precise location of the place. Finally, thanks to the telephone numbers provided by Telstra and my close examination of the Street Directory I learnt where I would be heading the next day. It seemed to be an isolated place with few clear signs so I decided to be there half an hour before the appointment at 9 am. And I did not regret the decision as I had to go through a maze of signs, barracks and camps, and only at 8.50 I was at the door and was let in by the security guards. I entered the detention camp with some trepidation, but my nerves were calmed down when I saw people in civilian clothes and with ordinary haircuts who were moving around the camp with little restriction. I was introduced to an officer who, in turn, introduced me to the detainee. I was asked to do some sight translation for him, and then I did consecutive interpreting for an interview conducted by two immigration officers. As the day before I had read the immigration legislation and studied my immigration and legal glossary, I was adequately equipped for the task. I was also prepared to take notes, and I needed a note-book and pen more than once. It was a successful interview for me, and the subsequent interviews were equally successful, perhaps they were even easier, because I had extensive background knowledge.

(2) When I was given a job at the Family Court in the city (Sydney, Australia) , I read the relevant family legislation and prepared myself psychologically for a tough session. I thought it was going to be a court hearing but it was a counselling session concerning child access for a divorcing couple. However, I was correct in assuming that it was going to be tough. It lasted longer than many other court hearings. I was assertive, and I knew that I must be objective. I interpreted everything without favouring any of the parties, although the husband expected me to take his side. Perhaps he thought that I would display ‘male solidarity’. On another occasion, it was the wife, a beautiful lady, who expected me to succumb to her charms. But on both occasions I acted as an interpreter, as my task was to facilitate communication and not to take sides, and I am glad that in the end both parties understood my position. And of course, my knowledge of the terminology, note-taking techniques and ethics of the profession were essential for the success of the assignment.

(3) The Bondi Branch (Sydney, Australia) of the Housing Department block-booked Russian interpreters for three hours on Monday and Thursday mornings. When I was first given an assignment there, I looked through the housing terminology and several acts on public housing. Psychologically I was prepared for a busy day with little rest. In fact I interpreted for many people on that day. Most of them were disgruntled in one way or another, because they all wanted accommodation immediately and did not want to wait, or considered their waiting time excessively long. So I had to deal with an avalanche of negative emotions, but I showed detachment and concentrated on my task, patiently interpreting their irritable, emotional and repetitive questions. Several of them refused to believe the officers and tried to trick them using cross-examination tactics. I was glad that the vast majority of the Department’s staff were patient and answered the questions without irritation or rudeness. During my subsequent assignments, although I knew the answers to many questions, I never attempted to substitute the officer: I did the interpreting only.

(4) My job in a doctor’s surgery was different. The atmosphere was friendly and the patient looked upon me as her helper. The doctor was understanding, spoke in short passages, and I did not use my note-book. I sat beside the patient, a little bit behind her, to encourage eye-contact and direct communication between the doctor and the patient. I learnt in advance that it was going to be a cardiologist, so naturally I refreshed my medical vocabulary and also read about heart conditions. I also examined cardio-vascular charts in a medical dictionary. I was also prepared for a quiet session where my tone of voice and confidence would help. And it worked: I believe I did help the doctor, and the patient’s initial nervousness was gone eventually. I also had to bridge a communication gap between them, when the patient mentioned a Russian medicine unknown in Australia but very popular in Russia. I helped the patient to give clear explanations, and the doctor allowed her to continue using the Russian tablets in addition to the new ones he prescribed.

(5) When I was given a job to interpret for the Legal Aid Commission, I did not know what the topic of the discussion would be, as topics vary a lot. So I prepared myself psychologically for an unusual situation and, of course, I refreshed my knowledge of general legal terminology. As usual, I came 10 minutes earlier. The client was a lady in her late thirties or early forties who was interviewed by a young male lawyer with an ear-ring and a trendy beard. The client was nervous and did not feel comfortable. It was obvious he did not believe her story of rape, and rather reluctantly gave her the necessary information: how to fill out the forms, what procedures for claiming compensation to follow, etc. She was somewhat disappointed. However, I did not show approval or disapproval of his or her acts or words. Also, I was psychologically prepared for an unusual situation I remained calm and concentrated on interpreting and not on judging. I was ready to take notes, but I used my note-book only twice when numbers were mentioned; the discussion was very emotional, heated and very fast.


Background knowledge for three difficult assignments.


(1) When I received a CES (Commonwealth Employment Service) assignment, I knew the discussion could be complicated because of the client’s specific occupation. Many technical terms could be mentioned. So I went to a CES office and took as many leaflets as possible on different occupations: fitter, carpenter, builder, electrician, school teacher, etc. I also got an illustrated technical dictionary. As I had three days before the job, each evening I would sit at my desk and study those materials. I compiled my own glossary and learnt all the terms. It helped a lot because the client turned out to be a carpenter and mentioned such words as ‘wedge’, ‘saw carriage’ and ‘trimming table’ during the interview. I fulfilled my task quite competently as I knew those words both in English and in Russian.

(2) One of my assignments involved gastroendocrinology terminology. As I was not well familiar with this field, I decided to read the corresponding articles of the Macquarie Home Guide to Health & Medicine, a very handy book for such cases. I always work with a pen and a note-book open, and as soon as I come across a new and important term I put it down in my glossary. I also studied charts in the Macquarie Guide and in The Family Medical Reference Book for Australians (ed. by Dr J. Wright), and during the interpreting such words as ‘flatus’, ‘oesophageal varices’ and ‘hepatomegaly’ did not petrify me.

(3) The Consumer Claims Tribunal deals with very difficult cases, and knowing that, I decided to look through different legal materials I had at my disposal. I studied the corresponding leaflets included in the EAC (Ethnic Affairs Commission) folder lent to us after the orientation course in December 1995, the sections on consumers of the Macquarie Easy Guide to Australian Law and Handbook for Legal Interpreters (by Ludmilla Robinson). It was not an easy task to study all the relevant terminology and procedures, but I had a few days before the hearing, so it was manageable. (By the way, the knowledge acquired in the process helped me in other situations later on as well). It was indeed a difficult case: the parties were bitter and hostile to each other, they often tried to speak before I could interpret and the real estate agent was using a language quite different from what is called ‘plain English’. His very purpose was to confuse the other party and me, he was obviously enjoying his linguistic ‘superiority’. However, I did the best I could, and although I was not 100% satisfied with the final result (due to psychological rather than linguistic factors), I knew that without the prior preparation I would have failed. The important thing was that I managed to deliver the message, and I am glad that both the judge and the other party were aware of the trick the R.E. agent was playing on them.


Solving problems in three difficult assignments


(1) One of my Legal Aid assignments was an interview with a mother and a daughter, both of whom were mentally disturbed, as I soon realised. Their entire experience in Australia consisted of arrests, detentions and AVOs (Apprehended Violence Orders). They were even in a way proud of it and showed it to me. The daughter was particularly unstable, her mood was switching from happiness and content to misery and aggression. They were stubborn and illogical. They denied some obvious things already established by the court. They also tended to speak at the same time, over each other. I interpreted everything I heard and did not fall into the temptation to side with the very rational and logical lawyer. I was polite and neutral to everybody, and although that couple fell out with the lawyer in the end, I did not take sides or express any surprise, and I interpreted their final rude words as exactly I could. The next time when I interpreted for them, already with another lawyer, they did not have hard feelings against me, and because the lawyer knew they had a mental problem (she read the psychologist’s diagnosis to them which they took well (!)), she coped with the situation much better and they were grateful to her. She was firm and competent, and achieved her goal of making them follow the proper procedure. I did not express any bias or surprise either and just did my job. I was not upset as I was not there to make any judgment. I was there to make communication possible, which I did.

(2) When I interpreted at a counselling session in the Family Court, the separated couple was agitated and spoke very fast and in long passages. The counsellor and I tried to call them to order, but soon I realised that the best way to cope with the situation was to interpret simultaneously. It had a calming effect on the speaking party, as it was hard to speak when there was so much noise. So they started using shorter sentences. However, for me it was easier to interpret simultaneously because they would often confuse things, start a new sentence without finishing the previous one, it was all raw emotions. By interpreting simultaneously I was able to transfer as much information as possible and as accurately as possible, and it also revealed to the officer the exact nature of the dispute. Neither party objected to this mode of interpreting, which I personally do not particularly favour in such situations (my idea of simultaneous interpreting is to work in a sound-proof booth with appropriate equipment: headphones, a microphone, etc.). But we, interpreters, have to use this technique sometimes to achieve better results. I couldn’t have interrupted them twenty times, could I?!

(3) During business talks a shower of unknown complicated personal names, names of companies, information on financial and commercial deals was poured onto me. I felt really bad because I could not do my job properly and the clients did not seem to understand my problem. One party even showed irritation on several occasions. I almost felt sick. So I decided to interrupt them and inform them of my problem. They stopped, I wrote down those frequently mentioned names and they started to use a simpler language. I was able to finish the assignment, and the parties came to an agreement. When saying goodbye to me, one of the clients said that I did my job superbly, particularly considering that I lacked any background knowledge. However, I was not pleased with the result and I regretted the fact that I had accepted this assignment at such a short notice (at a two hours notice in fact). I had been assured it was going to be a general discussion, and probably it was for the clients, but not for me. I can imagine now what their specialised discussion might be! Objectively, it was not my fault that I could not do my job 100%, and what I was pleased with was my assertiveness – that I interrupted them and got the information that allowed me to do my job adequately, and this is the minimal requirement for an interpreter.


Dealing with nervousness in front of an audience (three situations)


(1) When I was asked to interpret a lecture on psychology before an audience of 50 students from Russian into Spanish I accepted the job as I like the challenge. But soon I realised how difficult the topic was and how much preparation I needed. I studied the corresponding chapter of a text-book, compared the texts in both languages, and learnt the essential vocabulary. However, I felt quite nervous before the 50 pairs of eyes who put trust in me expecting me to bridge the communication gap and supply them with the necessary information for their course. I was lucky that the lecturer was a friendly middle-aged man who started with a joke and the ice was broken. Also, his way of presentation was excellent, he made the required pauses and chose simple but exact words to deliver the message. My nervousness was gradually disappearing, and it was completely gone 15 minutes after, when he spoke on four types of temperament (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic) and on the Pavlov’s conditioned reflex. The topic had always fascinated me, I felt inspired and did a good job. The lecturer and the students were pleased.

(2) When I was interpreting (Spanish-Russian) in an art museum for a group of tourists I overcame the initial shyness and nervousness, as I submerged my mind in the ancient and glorious culture represented by the objects described by the guide; I was removed from reality and had the tourists as a vague background only. The admiration for the national history and culture, people who lived in that epoch and the masterpieces created by them inspired me, my speech flowed, I found the right words, and I think the guide and I made a good team together. The tourists applauded at the end of the tour.

(3) Once in a Sydney court I met a very hostile defendant and I felt the hostility of many people in the audience. They were her friends and relatives, as I soon realised. I was upset initially, but I remembered all the requirements of our profession and concentrated on the job only, on the words, and not on the people in the courtroom. My emotions were separated from my mind and I interpreted (English-Russian) in a methodic and dispassionate manner. I did not pay much attention to all those tears and cries, I did not allow to interrupt myself, and soon the defendant understood my attitude and concentrated on the substance of the case instead of the personality of the interpreter. I brought the assignment to an end without any major problem.


Ten situations when my professional ethics could have been compromised, and how I responded in three of these situations.


(1) In an office of the NSW Department of Housing a client was very angry with the allegedly negligent attitude of the officers. He began shouting, and used foul language but, thinking I was on his side, asked me not to interpret obscenities. I ignored his request and interpreted everything. The interview was cancelled. By using this sort of language he showed disrespect both towards the officers and myself.

(2) After a Consumer Claims Tribunal hearing, one of the clients said that he was very happy with my work and offered me a lift, obviously in the hope of obtaining some additional information and possibly using me for some other purposes. I declined explaining that we were not allowed to do so.

(3) After a court hearing, a client, in the hope that I would do a better job for her, as the hearing was to last several days, said that she had wonderful recordings of modern Russian songs and marvelous films on video tapes and that she would like to share it all with me: I could contact her at any time and she would be most happy to oblige. I replied that such contacts were considered unethical for professional interpreters.

(4) After an ORP (On-Shore Refugee Program) interview, the Immigration officer asked me for my opinion about what I had just heard in the room and whether I believed the applicant was eligible for a refugee visa. I was very surprised, however I said very politely that I was not there to make any decision or judgement but I could brief him (without any personal comments) on the general ethnic situation in this post-Soviet republic on the basis of the information provided by the media. And I briefed him at his request. He was satisfied with my behaviour. The next time I interpreted for him he did not ask me for my opinion.

(5) When I completed a medical assignment, the patient said that she liked me very much and she would like to recommend me to her clients without using this ‘stupid agency’. She asked me for my personal phone number. I said that although there was no perfect organisation on this planet, I did not think badly of this particular agency. And certainly I could not give her my personal phone number because at that moment I was representing the agency, and not myself as a private practitioner. However, I said that we were allowed to give the agency’s number and she could try to book me for the next assignment. But I warned her that there was no guarantee that I would be sent to interpret for her as it was not me who allocated interpreting assignments. The lady liked this detailed and definite explanation, and we parted on friendly terms.

(6) After an assignment, the client started to make negative comments about the interpreters who had been with him before. He called them incompetent and arrogant, but, he added, I was different from those ‘good-for-nothing lazy-bones’. I explained that that particular agency applied strict criteria when recruiting interpreters, they were all NAATI accredited and they had had specialised training. However, if he did not like a particular interpreter he could lodge a complaint which would be carefully considered by the agency. He changed the topic, and we said good-bye to each other.

(7) During a Housing Department assignment a client, when the officer went to get her file, asked me to read the information on the computer screen. I refused and explained that we were not allowed to do this.

(8) During another Housing Department assignment (I work there frequently), a client, when the officer was absent looking for her file and making photocopies, asked me to tell her ‘the truth’. Obviously she did not believe the officers and said to me that I knew more about the real situation with allocation of flats. I refused to give her such information and suggested that she ask the officer when he came back.

(9) When in a hospital a patient was given a form to fill out, she asked me to do it for her. I refused because we were not allowed to do so, but I said she could ask the nurse to help her and I would be interpreting. The patient was happy with the arrangement, and when the nurse returned she willingly filled out the form asking the patient the relevant questions which I interpreted.

(10) When I came for a home visit assignment, the patient realised that I was the interpreter and invited me inside for a cup of tea with delicious chocolates. I thanked her and declined politely. I explained that I was allowed to enter a private flat only together with the nurse. The patient was not offended, and when the nurse came we entered the flat together and had a friendly conversation with the patient.


One professional situation when I felt prejudiced towards another person


The client I once had was smelling strongly of sweat, was scruffy and was picking her nose – an abhorrent sight for me. I felt antipathy towards her, but when the time for interpreting came I suppressed my senses and feelings and concentrated on the job which I did adequately. However, I was relieved when it was over and treated myself to an expensive lunch as a reward.


Three situations where I had to explain the cultural significance of certain comments or behaviours


(1) One of the Housing Department officers was very annoyed when he saw the client from whom he expected a letter and not a personal visit. He said those people were wasting his time and he had such a tight schedule! I explained to him that because of their experience with the Soviet bureaucracy many people from the former Soviet Union considered that any matter of some importance should not be dealt with through correspondence or telephone; they were sure that only a live conversation could solve their problem. They were prepared to wait patiently for hours on end, whereas the vast majority of Australians would be indignant if this were to happen. When I explained this to the officer, he changed his attitude and listened to the client without any visible irritation.

(2) After a consultation, the lawyer saw the client to the door and, when the client was just outside the room, was intending to shake hands with him. But the client refused, and making a gesture, invited the lawyer to go out of the room. The lawyer thought that the man was going to play a trick on him which was clearly incompatible with the lawyer’s dignity. He stopped smiling and was about to say something rude to the client. To save the situation, I had to intervene. I explained that some Russians considered it a bad sign if they shook hands over the threshold: they thought they would quarrel with this person or have a bad day. So the man was not playing a trick on the lawyer, he was prepared to shake hands anywhere but not over the threshold. The lawyer was relieved and did what the client wanted with laughs and funny comments.

(3) When a Russian male client saw an Anglo-Australian female lawyer take a heavy box with papers and carry it to another room, he rushed towards her and most resolutely grabbed the box from her. She felt offended, as she thought he was bossing her. She considered this behaviour an expression of male chauvinism. I intervened and explained that Russia was not that advanced in feminism, and over there it would be considered unmanly for a male to act in a different manner: ‘strong men’ were expected to help ‘weak women’ and women would be grateful to men for such assistance and would consider it a most natural behaviour. The lawyer let the box go and with some amusement, but no longer indignation, saw the client bring his plan to a successful end. I am not sure whether she liked the situation but at least the interview did take place and she did not show any bias.


One professional situation when a complaint was made against you


So far no complaints have been made against me (fortunately for me as an interpreter but unfortunately for this section of examples). However, I decided to make something up in order to anticipate the danger. The interpreter is sick but, afraid of the consequences for his career, does not cancel the job and goes to the courtroom. Naturally he does his job badly, as he’s unable to concentrate. The judge adjourns the hearing and complains to the interpreting agency. The interpreter is reprimanded and removed from the assignment. The agency loses trust in him and from now on watches his behaviour with suspicion. His chances of promotion are reduced. He realises that the consequences now are much more severe than if he had cancelled the appointment producing a medical certificate. He has learnt his lesson.


Comments on agencies


(1) Consumer Claims Tribunal

Very stressful. Enormous amount of information unknown to me. Sometimes unfamiliar names are mentioned, and technical terms and a lot of numbers. Note-taking is of paramount importance. The interpreter often has to remind the parties that they should make pauses to allow for interpreting. Some clients want to maintain contact with the interpreter outside the courtroom, and the interpreter should be assertive in this situation and refuse to do that.

(2) Family Court

Also stressful, but the situation is more predictable; at least the interpreter does not have a headache because of an avalanche of new names, technical terms and numbers. Note-taking is less important than in the Consumer Claims Tribunal. In all situations, we should stick to the AUSIT Code of Ethics (it is quite explicit, and I do not think it is appropriate for me here to describe its provisions), come to the assignment psychologically and linguistically prepared, and if possible, with some background knowledge (to be briefed by the doctor or lawyer, to have read the materials of the case, etc.). However, we should be prepared for the worst and deal professionally with difficult and unexpected situations.

Copyright@1996 Vadim Doubine

M: 0458 240 933




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