Teaching interpreting in community settings

I came to community interpreting much like many of us did back in 1980s-era North America. I spoke another language, Spanish (although my mother tongue was Italian, it was not in much demand), had some time and wanted to help.

Armed with my good intentions and bearing not much else in terms of interpreting skills, I applied to be a volunteer and set off to help immigrants and refugees. The going salary at that time for community “interpreters” was nil — interpreting in public services was pretty much a giving endeavor. But it didn’t take long before I hit the wall where altruism meets competency and found myself a little too much out of my depth. I had been sent to interpret for a male inpatient who had been at St. Paul’s Hospital for some time with an indeterminate set of ills and pains. St. Paul’s Hospital was a major teaching hospital based on the edges of Vancouver’s downtown east side. The patient, a refugee from El Salvador, was a middle-aged man I first encountered upon entering the hospital room that I had been directed to by the nurse at the station. He was in his hospital gown, sitting on the side of his bed with his legs hanging down. I was the only other person in the room with the patient until the doctor arrived a few minutes later. The agency that sent me had told me that the appointment would only be 30 minutes long, but once the staff, residents and others found out that an “interpreter” was present, I suddenly found myself confronted with a wall of health care professionals wanting to ask specific questions of the patient. About a half hour into the appointment I realized that if I continued I might actually cause more damage than do good.

It was such a pivotal moment for me — an epiphany that crystalized my understanding of the true power and critical role of an interpreter in the community and health care setting. I was the only one in the scenario who was able to hold me accountable to the accuracy of the information being transmitted. I could have said anything, or made any error, and no one would have known. I could have put ego forefront and made accuracy negligible and no one would have been the wiser. More importantly, I realized that I could omit critical information that could have serious repercussions on the patient’s health and wellbeing. I was overwhelmed with the fear of this realization.

I apologized to the doctor, called the interpreting services through which I volunteered and asked them to find another volunteer who was fluent in Spanish and also told them “no more health care appointments, please — I’ll stick to welfare applications.” Spanish, a language that I learned during a six-month volunteer stint in Ecuador, was not a language that I had ever studied. No one had ever screened my language or my aptitude for interpreting, or given me any training beyond telling me how to complete my volunteer paperwork. I was recruited and let loose to help the poor immigrants and refugees.

I realize that the experience presented above is one in which a lack of linguistic fluency was a predominant factor in the failure to advance the session, but it was also a case of being completely unprepared. Fluency alone, or even just having a theoretical appreciation of the role of the interpreter, cannot fully prepare one to work at a community level in such emotionally laden and intense encounters. Community interpreting embodies the same ethical principles and standards of practice as interpreting in other settings. It’s in the application of the practice from booth, or courtroom, to doctor’s office wherein the nuances lie. Community interpreting, which in Canada is generally defined as all settings at a community level, must also address the dynamics of interpreting at close-range and the myth of the invisible interpreter.

The volunteer-based, public service genesis of community interpreting contributed to its lowly status in the hierarchy of the language industry — but it also contributed to a profound understanding that interpreters working in community and health care settings had to be equipped with an additional set of skills that involved the psychological and socio-cultural components. Interpreting in community settings can be one of the most challenging areas in the field. Not only are your cognitive and linguistic abilities brought to bear, but also your emotional, psychological and interpersonal skills.

Interpreting in the community is often experienced as a collaborative effort since it lends itself to cooperation. The setting is one in which, generally speaking and more so in the health care environment, all of the parties present want to achieve the same outcome. This collaborative emotion in which the encounter is couched creates a feeling of teamwork and can easily facilitate the interpreter moving into a role quite outside of the professional boundaries. In court situations, or legal settings in general, the environment is adversarial. In business or diplomatic settings the interpreter’s role can take on an additional escort detail, or cultural clarifier role and is usually “partial” to one side in terms of alliances. These latter settings in and of themselves help interpreters remain formally detached. In community settings, the interpreter must work harder to enact the standards of practice because the context lends itself to drawing the interpreter into the dynamic.

Within two years of the assignment I describe above, I became the manager of the very same department for which I had been an interpreter. Simultaneous to my being appointed as the manager and due to funding shifts, the department, a smaller service within a larger immigrant service agency, lost all of its federal funding as a volunteer service and I was tasked with creating a financially sustainable enterprise. I built a team, redefined the mission and goals of the department and set out to negotiate contracts. But first we had to clean house and review our interpreter base. Reflecting back on my own experiences as a volunteer, I was fully aware that we could no longer operate the same way we had been operating if we expected to not only be treated as “professional” but also to be compensated for our services. We culled the list of interpreters from over 400 volunteers to less than 100 interpreters who had dedicated their time and studies to whatever resources and training existed at the time. But more importantly, we had to build our own curricula that addressed the very unique and interesting demands of interpreting within a community setting. 

So how do we train community interpreters to be invisible yet empathetic, collaborative yet impartial? The first iterations of any curricula we developed during those early days included many activities around values and cross-cultural dynamics. And to this day those are important components in the training. Understanding the influence of culture and values in the interpreter-assisted setting is critical to maintaining the distance that interpreters require in order to remain faithful to their primary role — understanding one’s own biases and values and how to drop them at the door. But also understanding institutional values and cultures, and the interplay between client expectations of a system, the practitioner’s own set of values, the interpreter’s awareness of the context in which they are working and the systemic values and expectations. These variables intersect a seemingly straightforward encounter in which the interpreter is expected to use their interpreting skills to convey the message. One of the most successful teaching tools that I have used is simulated activity — role-plays, case studies and group discussion — that aid the student to not only hear, but also truly internalize the role of the interpreter. The success in utilizing these types of activities comes through the development of realistic scripts and scenarios that replicate events from the field.

Community interpreting is interpreting at close-range. The community interpreter has to learn how to navigate through complex systems and ranges of emotions. It is straightforward enough to teach interpreters working in community settings the ethical framework and the standards of practice, but to leave them with simply that would be unjust. When we teach interpreters that they must maintain their role boundaries, and that they must be respectful of persons and professional in their presence, we must also work with them in simulated activities such as role plays that demonstrate the myriad of ways in which this is accomplished. And even then, we are sometimes stretched to provide a satisfactory course of action to every “what if…” or “it happened to me once…” because actual human encounters are always dynamic.

Training interpreters is an ongoing endeavor — professional development workshops where peers can learn from each other and from experts must form a part of the scheme that is necessary to support and educate not only interpreters but also us as educators about the complexities faced in the field. Delivering the message that one has been diagnosed with cancer or that a pregnancy has to be terminated within feet of the listener’s physical presence, and often in small offices, or telling a client that they are no longer eligible for financial support or that their children are being taken into government exacts a toll on the interpreter, and tests their ability to  remain impartial, detached and intact.

Community interpreting was born out of the need for public services to engage, inform and interact with increasingly diverse linguistic populations that arrived as refugees and immigrants. To this end, community interpreting has had to be responsive. This means that we are often recruiting from a base that may not necessarily have the established sets of skills and education necessary for interpreting in terms of linguistic fluency or educational status. We have had such positive feedback from individuals who have been interpreting for years without any training, as sometimes happens in the rush to respond, but who are now receiving that training.

To quote one student: “My friends ask me what there is to learn. My friends say ‘you are just speaking from Punjabi into English and back. It’s just talking.’ I told my friend, ‘you have no idea how much I have learned.'”