Why Is My Interpreter Talking in the Third Person (and what does it mean)?

Jun 29, 2015

One of the very first protocols an interpreter learns is to interpret in the first person, speaking as if they were the LEP (Limited English Proficient) or client. For example, if the LEP says “I don’t know,” the interpreter must also say “I don’t know,” as opposed to “She doesn’t know” or “The customer doesn’t know.” In this role, the interpreter acts as the voice of those who cannot speak (in English) for themselves.

But what should the interpreter do if, for any reason, they need to interject themselves into the conversation?

In these situations, the interpreter should refer to themselves in the third person, and announce the change in speaker with “the interpreter is speaking.” This makes it clear that what follows is the interpreter, not the customer, so that there is no confusion and the intended message of the LEP is not misunderstood.

In what instances would the interpreter need to announce that they are entering the conversation?

Interpreters use a variety of tools that ensure their interpretation is correct and understood by all participants. These include interpreter “clarification,” “verification,” and “side note” tools.

Clarification

An interpreter will request clarification if they are unfamiliar with a term used. In a banking scenario, for example, an interpreter might say, “Ma’am, the interpreter is unfamiliar with the term. To remain accurate; the interpreter will need clarification.”

Verification

An interpreter will ask for verification if they are unsure what was said. For example, if the English speaker says, “The phone number is 795-9867,” the interpreter can say, “The interpreter would like to verify. Sir, did you say 795-9867?” The speaker can then confirm or correct the interpreter’s understanding.

Side Note

Finally, an interpreter may interject a side note – useful for avoiding misunderstanding or miscommunication between the English speaker and the LEP person. For example, “Sir, this is the interpreter speaking and as a side note, I would like to let you know that the LEP person doesn’t seem to know what you mean by hedge fund.”

These are just a few of the many tools an interpreter needs in order to be sure they provide accurate and complete interpretation. Interpreting is a complex task and should be approached as a profession, complete with extensive training and regular monitoring.

Want to read more about the skills needed to be an interpreter? Check out part 1 and part 2 of our blog series, What Makes a Great Interpreter!

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