Interpreting, translating – what’s the difference? Most people use these words interchangeably, but an interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text. In consular work, officers who are not fluent in the local language must sometimes depend on local employees for both skills, but interpreting is by far the most difficult.
Interpreters must be discerning listeners. They must be able to process and remember several sentences, and repeat them accurately in another language. They have to possess excellent public speaking skills, and the ability to transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand. And they must be able to do this for speakers who are not trained to use interpreters, and so tend to speak in paragraphs.
Madam once watched a news broadcast of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, making a statement. He was slouched comfortably on a small stool. Next to him sat a younger man, his interpreter. As the ambassador began to speak, the interpreter sat up very straight, concentrating on Zaeef's face and voice, clearly preparing to accurately and completely render his boss’s Pashtun to Urdu. But Zaeef spoke and spoke and spoke without pause. The young man’s forehead creased, his hands tightened into fists, his back tensed, his eyes widened. After well more than a minute, with no break in sight, it was the interpreter who broke. He suddenly let out his breath, closed his eyes, opened his hands, and surrendered. There was no way he could do that job, and he knew it.
Zaeef and his interpreter in better days
As consular officers, we cannot afford to leave our interpreters – our local employees – so dispirited. After all, we need the information that the person we are interviewing will give us, and we need to pass accurate information back. So here are the rules, learned from (and checked by) many excellent FSNs/LESs and professional interpreters:
It is you and the customer who are having the conversation. The interpreter is not a member of that exchange. Look only at the customer, glancing at the paperwork or computer screen as necessary, but never look at or speak to the interpreter.
Use simple, clear sentences; no convoluted, complex, stream-of-consciousness, rambling.
Pause after every declarative sentence or two, and after every question, for the interpreter to catch up.
Wait for the whole response from the customer, and then wait for its interpretation.
If you want to consult with the interpreter about the possible veracity of the customer’s answers or for any other reason, get up and leave the window together, have that conversation, then return and resume.
Stand or sit to one side, slightly behind the officer; your presence should be minimal. Your voice is the officer’s tool. You as a person are not there.
Translate only the exact words used. Do not preface any sentence with ‘The consular officer wants to know…” or “She says that …”
If the interviewee addresses you directly, continue to translate exactly what he says. For example, if he says directly to you, in the local language, “Oh sister, please please help me,” what do you do? You repeat, “Oh sister, please please help me,” in English.
And please accept Madam's - and every officer's you have ever interpreted for - humble thanks and appreciation. After all these years, we still have no idea how you do that. Good job!