There’s a story about the brilliant Renaissance artist Michelangelo. He was asked about the difficulties he must have encountered in sculpting his masterpiece, David. Michelangelo replied with an unassuming description of his creative process:
“It is easy,” he said. “You just chisel away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
Today is “International Translation/Interpretation Day,” as christened by the United Nations in 1991.
Linguists deserve to be celebrated each day for their heroic work, and especially this day in 2020, a year in which their contributions have meant the difference between life and death.
More than ever, the word “interpreter” is used in our society. The term is often thrown off casually without understanding what a human, professional interpreter actually signifies.
We thought that today would be an opportune time to define “interpreter.”
Yes, they are technicians, but there is also an art to what they do. For this reason, we’ll use Michelangelo’s approach and chisel away everything an interpreter is not before arriving at what we feel to be the word's true definition.
An Interpreter Is Not Simply Bilingual
Bilingualism – the ability to speak more than one language fluently – brings with it a level of proficiency that is sufficient for most standard, everyday situations and conversations.
But a bilingual person does not a professional interpreter make. This is because professional interpreters have accomplished a level of fluency far beyond what the average bilingual individual would ever need.
Professional interpreters are trained to provide more than just a basic explanation of what someone is saying. Instead they deliver a complete and accurate interpretation of exactly what the individual is communicating meaning for meaning, with all the flavor and emotion of the original statement. Doing this requires exceptional listening and memorization skills, concentration, note-taking, multitasking ability, and a profound empathy for the other parties involved in the session.
Many professional interpreters are also trained to handle highly specialized interpreting situations that require complex vocabulary with nuanced meanings. For example, the medical, legal, and financial industries all have a unique set of industry terms that the average bilingual person would never know.
An Interpreter Is Not a Translator
“Interpreter” and “translator” are often used interchangeably; however, they play separate but equally important roles in the language-access world. An interpreter works with the spoken word, whereas a translator works with the written word.
There are some similarities in their roles. Both work with a source language and a target language. Both extract a message from the source language and convey it in the target language. Both are linguists, and both require professional qualifications.
There are distinctions; however, that go beyond the spoken and written words. An interpreter may be required to interpret from and into their mother tongue, whereas translators work in a single direction. Interpreters tend to operate in real time, whereas translators are not required to do their work on the spot.
An Interpreter is Not Artificial Intelligence
There has been much news lately about investments in artificial intelligence and automated translation and interpretation. The battle between professional, human interpreters and machine learning has been portrayed as pitched warfare – an either-or battle for which there can only be one winner.
The reality is much more nuanced. We see a future in which machine interpretation and translation are perfectly acceptable for routine tasks; for example, filling out applications or scheduling services. But as the undertaking becomes more complex, the need for and desire to have a human interpreter will increase. Picture a health diagnosis, a discussion about finances, or a parent-teacher conference. All of these are dynamic scenarios in which a human interpreter is preferred.
As we said above, interpretation is much more than a science. It is an art, as well. At the heart of “interpretation” is the word “interpret,” meaning there is room for judgement, decision-making, and intuition.
The greatest mistake one can make in assessing their language-access needs is perceiving interpretation as a mere exchange of words, much as one would exchange one currency for another. The reality is that as much as any profession, interpretation requires a high degree of critical thought.
This Is an Interpreter
We’ve learned that an interpreter is not merely a bilingual; nor are they translators or artificial intelligence. So what is an interpreter?
Beyond their daily duties, an interpreter provides language access that faithfully drives higher-value experiences at the critical moment of need. They have an inherent belief that all people should be welcomed, regardless of language, culture, or ability.
They know that to be understood is to be empowered. Their work is inherently human, in that it enables all people to express themselves wholly and equally, helping dignify the full voice to which they are entitled.
They are also LanguageLine’s heartbeat and we thank them for their contribution to a better society.
This is an interpreter.