Interpreting beyond cultural barriers

By Jade Wu

I remember vividly the first class I had as part of my paraprofessional interpreter course at South Bank Institute of TAFE.

Our teacher, a professional interpreter and translator for over two decades, frankly declared to us, “if any of you here believe that being an interpreter means that you only need excellent language skills, you should stop thinking that now”.

Now, after working as an interpreter for over six years, I truly understand the meaning behind that statement.

There is so much more involved with being an interpreter. Every day is different and exciting with a wide variety of work available.

Interpreters work with a diverse group of professionals that are, for the most part, very appreciative of the work we do. Occasionally I have come across people that really do not understand what we do or treat us like machines.  

I really do feel like the cultural bridge between people, whether I am working face-to-face or over the telephone. My cultural background is Chinese and I find that Chinese culture can be very different to western culture.

For example, I remember working with one client who had to ring a gas company to ask them to cancel a bill. He spent over 30 minutes explaining his position to the operator.  

Then the operator asked him directly, “would you like us to cancel your bill?”, my client would not answer yes or no and continue to explain.

I had to interrupt the call and explain to the operator that directly asking an organisation to cancel a bill can be embarrassing and even shameful to a Chinese person, as we are not accustomed to fighting for our rights.

I then had to explain to my client that it is okay to say yes and that being so direct would not have consequences. After the call reached the hour mark, the yes was said and the problem resolved.  

It has been my experience that a lot of elderly clients feel very intimidated or nervous when they meet or talk with English-speaking professionals. It requires a lot of them to move out of their comfort zone.

On another occasion, a client told me to literally interpret everything they said without asking questions. The professional we were meeting with then had me ask the client what they meant by saying such things.

As an interpreter, I become a client’s voice and help them to gather their thoughts so they can be understood clearly.

However, sometimes I feel inadequate as I struggle to find the right words to convey the intensity of a client’s expressions.

Once, during a police interview, the detective asked the alleged why he had assaulted the other man. The alleged person replied that other man had cursed at him, saying that “you are a stupid dog”.

After I interpreted this, I realised the swearing sounded so much worse in Mandarin than in English. The police officer was finding it difficult to understand why this remark would trigger an assault.

I then told the officer, that “even though it doesn’t sound very bad in English, it is very bad cursing in Mandarin”.

After that assignment, I realised that I needed to do some more work on expanding my knowledge of insults and curse words.

There are plenty more stories I could tell. I love this profession and I find that every day is different and challenging.

I’d like to call on my fellow interpreters to hold our heads high and do our jobs with a sense of pride and joy, knowing that every day, we are bringing a little bit of sunshine to someone’s life.

Jade (Ya Lin) Wu is a professional Mandarin - English interpreter working in Brisbane. She has been interpreting for over 6 years since gaining her first NAATI accreditation in 2010. Jade also has a degree in Commerce and is married with three children. 

Published: 29/08/2016