How to Use an Interpreter

by Nanci Tangeman

My colleague was sitting outside our hotel in Moscow, waiting for a ride, when a street person approached him, apparently asking him in Russian for a handout. My colleague ignored him, hoping he would wander away. The street person asked again, this time in French. Again my colleague ignored him. Next the question came out in Italian, then in German. Finally, with an exasperated expression, the street beggar said to my colleague in flawless English, "Geez, don't you speak any European language?"

Living, working, and writing across borders means communicating with people with whom you don't share a common language. That's when it's smart -- and sometimes scary -- to work with an interpreter.

What's an interpreter?

An interpreter is not necessarily the same thing as a translator. A translator translates written work. Interpreters translate spoken communications, such as speeches, presentations, conversations, meetings, and interviews. Interpreters come in two general categories: Simultaneous and consecutive.

A simultaneous interpreter relays conversations, speeches, and presentations as they happen, in real time. Usually, this is done through electronic equipment (you wear headphones and only hear the speech in your language), but it is also often done with an interpreter whispering in your ear while your other ear picks up everything happening around you.

Consecutive interpreters are the most common type used by journalists in interviews, and are much less expensive than simultaneous interpreters. When using a consecutive interpreter, the speaker (or interviewer/interviewee) pauses after each phrase to allow the interpreter to relay it in your language. This is more often used in small groups or one-on-one interviews.

What CAN'T you do when working through an interpreter?

When using an interpreter, you cannot conduct a quick interview. When you're working with a consecutive interpreter, the interview always takes at least twice as much time: There are two sets of questions and two sets of answers.

Nor can you convey twenty years of experience in journalism to (or through) an interpreter who is barely twenty years old. Your interpreter will not be able to interpret the nuances of pauses, hesitations, or stammerings. For example, you will not always know if the interviewee backtracks and changes his answer; you will usually hear only the translation of his final, cleaned-up answer. You may not be able to sense whether to probe a subject further when hearing only the translated answer.

Your quotes will not be as colorful as they would be in your mother tongue. Your interpreter's vocabulary might be good, but it may not contain the breadth of words you've cultivated over the years. Maybe it was the "shimmering azure sea" that brought your interviewee to Phuket, but your interpreter may translate this as "blue ocean."

Where can you find an interpreter?

When you're traveling, hotel business centers are a good source of interpreters, as are embassies. Commercial services can book you a specialist as well. If you're working within a specific industry, you can usually get a recommendation from a company within that industry. Often, the person being interviewed will bring his/her own interpreter -- a nice money-saver for you and a good insurance policy for the interviewee. In this case, the interpreter is more likely to be familiar with the industry and the interviewee.

How much will an interpreter cost?

Prices vary in different locations, from different sources, even with regard to the language required. For instance, in the US, you can expect to pay $600 per day for an interpreter for a common European language. For less common languages, that price could range to $1,200 per day. This is the high end of the range. When you're abroad, you will pay according to the local rate, taking into account the source of your interpreter. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for example, an interpreter for Russian will ask from about $75 to $150 per day if you hire her through the business center connected to the US Embassy. If you hire her through a major hotel, expect to pay more.

You may also be expected to pay travel expenses, food and lodging, depending on the circumstances. In addition, you may want to tip the interpreter, especially if she was hired through a hotel or agency.

How do you choose an interpreter?

Recommendations are important. If you can, ask for a few references, and check them! You never know who you'll get, especially if you're working in an unfamiliar city.

Check qualifications. If you're working in a country with a professional interpreter classification, this can be a good indicator of quality; however, don't rule out interpreters without this qualification, especially if they have good recommendations.

Talk to the interpreter. Make sure the interpreter is fluent in both languages. This may seem elementary, but remember, your interpreter has to be able express himself or herself well in both languages. Have the interpreter orally translate written samples into both languages, in both directions. (If you cannot understand both languages, have a bilingual colleague sit in.) You're not only checking the translation here, but also getting a picture of the ease with which the interpreter handles both languages.

Listen to the interpreter. Can you understand his or her pronunciation clearly and quickly? Remember, you will be taking notes (some cultures shy away from tape-recorded interviews), reacting to the answer, and thinking of your next question, all at once. There's no time for deciphering a thick accent!

How can you prepare your interpreter for the interview?

Provide background information beforehand. Send brochures, a copy of your publication, and any other information that might help the interpreter prepare. If you have a list of questions, provide it to your interpreter ahead of time.

Meet before the interview. Spend at least half an hour reviewing your questions and technical terms. Try to schedule this directly before the interview; it will help you "warm up" to the interpreter's accent and also establish rapport.

Warn your interpreter about your interviewing style. If you are typically confrontational, if you rephrase your questions when you're not happy with the answer, if you deal with highly detailed or confusing data or descriptions, be up front about it. I worked with one timid interpreter who hated confrontation. Throughout interviews and negotiations, she would leave out all the "bad news" in order to avoid arguments!

Working outside your language abilities, even with an interpreter, is not easy. It takes more concentration, stamina, and patience than almost any other interview situation. It's difficult to describe the frustration you feel when your open-ended questions are met with "nyet" or "non" or even "s?" The best advice, however, is to find a good interpreter, prepare him or her, and keep your sense of humor.

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