What Kind of Language Interpreter is the Worst?

And indeed… clients always want to hire the best interpreters and avoid the worst: it is only natural, due diligence is a reasonable business policy.

yay-6394716 (2)We have already written about best hiring practices in one of our previous posts (see the link at the bottom of the page). However, there is another quite ironic scenario that may happen.

‘Let us assume, first, that the interpreter is not good. His or her performance will be flawed and it will be relatively easy to tell: pauses, umm, err, hmm, not sufficient knowledge of the topic or terminology, poor interpersonal skills, sometimes even missing entire sentences. This is definitely not an option and such an “interpreter” must be replaced as soon as possible.

‘Unfortunately, because of relatively easy entry access to the profession, too many bilinguals without special interpreter education, appropriate skills or abilities call themselves “interpreters.” Some may be at best useless and at worst dangerous (imagine that your life depends on accurate interpretation in a courtroom or in a hospital). Usually such people are relatively easily weeded out over time: in our profession reputation is everything and no interpreter in sound mind would agree to work with a known unqualified colleague.

Such “interpreters” are also easily detected by a client, because they are just too obvious. Another, much more subtle, case is when the interpreter is not bad, even good sometimes, but not good enough.

First of all, because of lack of skills, performance is very uneven: some passages are OK, and others are off: rather unreliable. Such an interpreter creates an “illusion” of communication, in the sense that all the words seem to be there (at least as it may seem to a bilingual client). Such an interpreter does not make any major pauses and speaks rather fluently and with some confidence.

However, when you listen to such an interpreter and dissect his work, you cannot but sense immediately that some subtle nuances are lost. The interpretation may have appearance of being accurate, but it is not: some words are substituted by others, ideas are not conveyed accurately, and emotional context is lost.

You can see it, however, only if you are an experienced colleague: interpretation is happening too quickly for a bilingual in the audience to be able to track all the inaccuracies and little mishaps.

A monolingual delegate has no chance, because, the interpretation “seems” accurate, and the only way to detect a problem would be to notice the lack of logic in the interpretation, or – if you are a technical expert –  to notice that the facts are off or that information is technically inaccurate.

This is what the worst kind of interpreter is. languagge signs

He or she torpedoes the discussion, especially if it is nuanced important negotiations, by distorting information in such a way that the parties begin to discuss interpreter’s “version of reality” instead of the topic in the agenda.

One good example is misinterpreted terminology: two delegations try painstakingly to understand what the other side thinks about that mysterious word. In severe cases, delegations start getting visibly frustrated, because they are not communicating. They do not realize, however, that it is miscommunication not because of different positions, but simply because of poor interpretation.

What could you as a user of interpretation services, do to prevent this? First of all, use best hiring practices for interpretation services. One of the laws of the market is that quality is expensive (even though a big price tag is not a guarantee of good quality either).

But one way or another, you only get what you pay for, so hiring cheap interpreters on the “gray market” just because you want to save money is a clear recipe for disaster.

See more on due diligence in hiring simultaneous and consecutive interpreters here.    


InterStar Translations is a boutique translation agency specializing in conference simultaneous and consecutive interpretation.We are based in San Francisco, but our services are available in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington DC, New York City and other major cities in the USA, as well as internationally.