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Notes on interpreting by non-accredited bilinguals vs by interpreters

By Patricia Avila

This article has been adapted from a training session designed by the author.

What is interpreting?

Within a linguistic context, interpreting is defined variously as:

  • “The oral transfer of messages between speakers of different languages …” (Gentile, Ozolins and Vasilakakos)
  • “…  a form of [t]ranslation in which
  • a first and final rendition in another language is produced on the basis of a one-time presentation of an utterance in a source language.” (Pöchacker)
  • “…  the translation of the spoken word
  • …”, with translation defined as “a conversion process from one language to another, in either the written or the spoken mode.” (several authors, paraphrased by Hale)
  • “The act of providing spoken (or signed) versions in one language that convey, in another language, the content and intentions of the statements by a speaker.” (from AUSIT’s Interpreting – Getting It Right brochure)

Why are these definitions relevant?

Because therefore, when one person is ‘conveying something’ said or signed in  one language to another person in  another language, by speech or signs, the act of interpreting is happening; usually   in one or other of the following  scenarios:

  • a) The ‘interpreter’ is adequately trained and accredited. As a result, s/he can be considered able and empowered to deliver interpreting services according to certain standards, including a standard of conduct as prescribed by a code of ethics. (For example, in Australia, the AUSIT Code of Ethics is the accepted ethical framework under which interpreters provide their services.)
  • b) The ‘interpreter’ is not accredited or trained. Even if s/he is a fluent and well-educated bilingual and is interpreting as best s/he knows how, the interpreting and its outcomes may not be what the community expects, or adhere to appropriate standards, including taking into account ethical considerations, as mentioned  above.

However, if something were to go wrong  in either of the above ‘interpreting’ scenarios, the ‘interpreter’ could be found negligent and would be legally liable— whether they had qualifications in interpreting or not.

Therefore anyone engaged in the act of interpreting should be aware of:

  • a) the expected standards and relevant ethical principles involved, and
  • b) their boundaries and limitations, which should be defined according to the complexity, context and requirements of the interpretation setting, and the messages to be conveyed.

When is assistance with verbal (or signed) communication not interpreting?

Basically, when the communication is taking place entirely in one common language. For example, a bilingual support worker speaking a language other than English (LOTE) to a recently arrived member of a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) community who also speaks that LOTE. The support worker may be introducing the new arrival to essential processes and systems in our society—for example, showing them how to take public transport to TAFE, or take their children to school—all the while speaking in the shared LOTE.

Such assistance is very valuable; using a language that a new arrival is familiar with in such situations can greatly decrease the stress that s/he experiences while settling in Australia. However, such support workers are amongst those who frequently find themselves, sometimes reluctantly and often inadvertently, asked or expected to provide interpreting services.

The importance of identifying interpreting scenarios

In the end, the conundrum is not really who is an interpreter and who isn’t, but whether a person at any given time is delivering interpreting services (dealing in two different languages) or not (dealing in one language only). If the person is ‘interpreting’ according to the definitions given above, many considerations should be taken into account.

Although interpreting may appear to be  an easy task, it is not. Many cognitive skills come into play, and not all bilingual people can engage in interpreting adequately, especially without training. In Latin America, Europe, Japan and China, interpreters working at a level of community interpreting equivalent to that experienced in Australia are required to have undertaken a full-time four-to-five-year degree course at a tertiary institution.

As Australia has long been the final destination of refugees and migrants from all corners of the world, our universities and TAFEs offer interpreting and translation degrees in many of the languages spoken here, but not all. As a result, it would be near impossible for every interpreter to comply with the rigorous educational standards that apply elsewhere.

NAATI was created to provide testing for those aspiring to be interpreters. It sets minimum benchmarks of competence and accuracy, and the recipients of interpreting services by NAATI accredited or recognised interpreters can at least get some idea of their levels of linguistic skills. NAATI is currently undertaking a revision of its testing and accreditation processes; in the future, all aspiring interpreters will need to undergo a specified number of hours of appropriate training before they are deemed ready to sit NAATI accreditation tests.

As mentioned above, bilingual workers do sometimes perform ‘interpreting’, irrespective of whether they are trained and/or accredited to offer these services. They do so for a variety of reasons—for example, reluctantly, to satisfy their employers, or willingly, because they are ‘on the spot’, and want to help. Ideally only accredited interpreters should be doing this work, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the acquisition and application of the knowledge and skills required, as well as the professional ethical obligations, take years of specific training and experience. In addition, anyone doing this work should have the appropriate Professional Indemnity Insurance (and in some cases Public Liability Insurance), to protect them and their employers/agencies in case of litigation. However, factors including cost and convenience frequently propel bilingual support workers to act as interpreters.

Certain simple and/or urgent interpreting tasks can be undertaken by a bilingual person until a qualified interpreter can assist, but great care has to be exerted as to the level of complexity of the ‘messages’ that need to be interpreted and the level of risk involved—to the CALD client, the agency looking after them, and/or the ‘interpreter’ themselves—in the event that these messages are misinterpreted.

It is very difficult to ascertain when the content of any exchange will be and remain simple throughout. Risk will always be present, as parties cannot be assured that what they have said has been accurately rendered into the other language. Staff from NGOs, settlement and other agencies, and bilingual workers themselves, should be trained to recognise and assess the differences in complexity and potential  risk of various interpreting contexts.

They should be expected to decline to undertake any interpreting task that goes beyond a simple conversation, without prejudice to, or belittlement of, the bilingual worker; especially as anyone who engages in interpreting, whether they are accredited or not, may be subject to legal liability, as mentioned above.

In summary, anyone who provides interpreting services of any kind should:

  • be empowered to decline requests for interpreting that may put them and their clients at risk
  • have the option to decline any interpreting task that may represent a real or perceived conflict of interests for them, or that may impinge on their own beliefs and/or impartiality
  • be aware of the basic ‘dos and don’ts’ of interpreting, in order to minimise risk to all parties involved
  • seek (or be provided with) training, in order to ensure the appropriateness and suitability of the services they deliver
  • endeavour (or be encouraged) to sit the appropriate NAATI accreditation tests (or seek NAATI recognition, if testing is not available in their language), in order to formalise their skills in interpreting.

Anyone who is already providing interpreting services, who enjoys doing so and feels they have the makings of a good interpreter, should be encouraged to seek support from their employers to formalise their skills via the NAATI accreditation process.

In this way they will be supported to deliver quality services and work within appropriate ethical and duty-of-care frameworks, increasing not only their  effectiveness, but also the enjoyment they derive from their work, whilst also decreasing risk.

Patricia E Argüello de Avila is an international conference and community interpreter, professional translator and an interpreter educator. She was recently appointed as an AUSIT Fellow and is a member of the inaugural NAATI Technical Reference Advisory Committee (TRAC).  She can be contacted at patriciaeavila@yahoo.com. This article first appeared in the summer 2016 edition of AUSIT's In Touch magazine and has been republished with permission.