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The interpreter’s goal is always to facilitate communication in the most objective way possible, but between the words of the source language and the target language, each interpreter must navigate a narrow grey area. In fact, to make their client’s meaning as clear as possible, interpreters frequently tailor their words to the cultural expectation of the listener. It’s common when interpreting from formal Japanese to English to distill the speaker’s use of formalized, deferring expressions into more succinct English expressions of formality.
In the subtle space of just a few words, interpreters step into the role of cultural guide, clarifier, and even advocate. While the example above deals with two different cultures speaking in the same register of formality, interpreters in the field may need to facilitate communication with communities that are only accustomed to using one register. An interpreter accompanying a medical professional in rural areas, for example, may adjust the colloquial or informal speech of their speakers for the doctor’s benefit. Just as a translator processing social work documents will render the original misspelled statement into correct written language in the target language, interpreters may find themselves performing similar small acts to put the speaker’s words in the best light.
It’s natural for an interpreter to correct a speaker’s minor mistakes as they go. If the speaker stumbles while giving a speech or misuses a word, the interpreter will continue according to the speaker’s intent. Interpreters must depend on their personal judgment to balance their role as cultural guide with their role as an objective interpreter.
Court interpreters especially must balance the need to make the speaker’s message clear and the necessity of maintaining total impartiality. This interaction is complicated if a non-English speaking defendant or witness sees the interpreter as a possible ally due to their shared language. Interpreters work in a professional capacity and, especially in court, do not have the luxury of altering the speakers’ true message. There is a danger of overstepping bounds in an attempt to culturally accommodate all participants in the conversation, as in the famous Lost in Translation scene (with translation available here).
In most cases, however, interpreters walk the line with incredible finesse and professionalism. If you are an interpreter, have you ever found yourself in a situation that required you to adapt the speaker’s words? Or have you been on the other end of a situation where interpreting was about more than facilitating communication? Let us know in the comments below!