As an interpreter, one thing that I have realized over the years is that our language skills and knowledge are regularly tested. Recently, during an interview with an agency, I had to ‘perform’ in Spanish. The interviewer wanted to first talk in Spanish about general topics, and then we did some medical role-playing. I know you are the curious type, and I will end your suspense now. I did pass the interview. Hooray! Are native Spanish speakers or those of different languages tested the same?
As part of a career move, I am changing from face to face interpreting into phone and video interpreting. Seems easy enough. It isn’t! I have realized just how much I depend on visual clues for comprehension, and I am sure that I am not alone. Now I am dependent on the voice to know if the patient is happy, sad, angry. I can no longer see the tears welling up in the eyes. I don’t know if the patient has a confused look on their face from either screwing up the interpretation or just not understanding what the doctor has said.
And, to top it off, in face to face interpreting it is only myself analyzing quality. Did I do well? What mistakes did I make? What were the vocabulary issues? This isn’t so in phone or video interpreting. Why? Quality control people are listening in on your calls. No pressure, right? More than ever before I am questioning myself. Did I add anything? Were there any ommissions? Did I royally screw up? So that you know, the answer is yes to all of these. I make mistakes. I can feel myself turning red from embarrassment when it happens.
Now, as a phone interpreter, I have the advantage of having the Internet at my disposal. This should make interpreting a breeze, right? I can instantly look up vocabulary, or type into Google an unfamiliar expression to see if anything pops up. I, personally, have found that it is both an advantage and a distraction. While doing my best to keep up with the speaker, I am attempting to type in that unfamiliar term into the dictionary I have open on the screen. So, here I am focused on that damned term I have no clue how to interpret and the speaker is going on and on. Ugh!
In following proper protocol, I am to say ‘interpreter speaking.’ ‘The interpreter needs to look up an unfamiliar term.’ Then, there is that uncomfortable silence while everyone hears the clicking of the keyboard as I frantically try to find a meaning for the unfamiliar term. My keyboard, by the way, is extremely loud when I know that others are listening to me type. All the while my mind is spinning with questions, such as, why didn’t I already know that word? Haven’t I heard it before? Aren’t interpreters supposed to know everything?
Each call is a test. I get the desired ‘A’ job well done on some, and others, well, let’s say I could have and should have done better. It is these ‘other’ calls that make you question yourself and your abilities. You want to make the call go away and start again. You can’t. You have to accept that you messed up, learn from it, and move forward hoping to do better on the next call.
As you may know (and if you don’t, you do now), Spanish is my second language, and it is always being tested either by myself or others. Sometimes, I will admit, it is a bit frustrating. I am still questioning myself on vocabulary, grammar correctness and, of course, the most difficult, at least for me, the pronunciation and intonation. Will I ever be able to speak without an English accent? Others, like the interview mentioned at the beginning, are testing my language skills as well as my interpreting skills. Are they looking at the same criteria that I do for myself? I haven’t asked, but presume it is the same or at least close.
Each Spanish course completed, each certificate received, graduation from the university and the crème de la crème, the passing of the coveted CCHI (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters) medical interpreter exam has always been a test to prove my Spanish speaking abilities, as well as knowledge of interpreting. Do other professionals feel they are constantly tested? I am not sure, to be honest, but I suspect not near as often as interpreters.
I used to think that with just one more class, one more certificate, one more course, I won’t have to go through this ‘testing’ again. Guess what? It never ends. If others are not testing me, I am testing myself. I am always asking myself what else I can do to improve? What started many years ago as a desire to learn a language turned into a passion for continuous improvement, a career in interpreting, and a lifelong journey.
Interpreting is the same as language learning. The lessons are forever. There are always courses to take, webinars to join and conferences to attend. And, you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I question is my journey compared to others. Do native Spanish speakers, for example, worry about their English pronunciation or intonation? Are they constantly working to improve their English accent? Are they, the Spanish speaker, continually learning new vocabulary in English as I do for Spanish? What is different about our language and interpreting journies? What is the same?
When in groups, or during regular phone conversations why does the conversation commonly occur in English? Is it because I have that European look of an English speaker? Are my pronunciation and intonation the cause? Is it that the ‘Spanish’ speaker is more comfortable speaking English? Is it me? Is it them? I don’t know, however, it is something that I have always wondered. Perhaps it is just a test. Who knows?
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.