Competency in two languages does not an interpreter make.
Now, how do I explain that (quickly, effectively, politely) to sincere opportunists who need communication to take place in two languages, only one of which they know? I’ll start directing them to this article. 🙂 Or, perhaps, to the article in Psychology Today.
I am an opportunist – if I know of a need and the resources are nearby to satisfy it, I will try to put the two together. I’m embarrassed to say that I once asked my aunt to loan me fingernail clippers she had recently purchased as a Christmas gift. The need to deal with a snagged nail outweighed my recall of appropriate in that moment. The good news is, she still loves me and I now keep at least one set of clippers within immediate reach at all times. We all do that – momentarily lose our grip on what is proper to satisfy what is urgent, or seems to be. It’s understandable.
I am conversant in American Sign Language, so I have a measure of bilingual competency. In specific settings, I can help one person understand what another person is saying. In low stakes situations, like “where’s the bathroom”, “what’s the price”, and “how did you become friends”, I can support communication, or, ‘interpret’. The higher the stakes, the less I’m qualified, and it’s a steep correlation. Even professional interpreters have to know their boundaries, such as whether they have enough vocabulary and topical understanding to serve in a hospital or courtroom. One grows into that capability with experience and deliberate study, but there’s more…
A missionary friend once told me that she completely switches modes between English and French – her mind is in one language or the other when in conversation. This, she said, is the secret to fluency, and others have told me the same. I had a crash course in this one day when a native pastor asked me how I was enjoying my visit in his country. We struggled for some time with his simple question, until my friend finally said, “He’s speaking English”. Once I stepped across the linguistic border in my mind to the English side, I understood clearly what the man was asking.
That linguistic border, and the time & effort required to cross it, is what separates interpreters from those with bilingual competency. Interpreters are trained and skilled in minimizing that borderland down to the width of a pasture fence. For others, it might as well be the Berlin Wall, complete with guard stations and three car lengths on either side of the line of demarcation. For me, crossing that border takes a few full strides – I can do it, but there’s too much distance and clutter for me to keep pace with two people who are working in one language each. Again, with experience and deliberate training, the skill can be developed in minds with more agility and less clutter than mine.
There is yet another aspect to interpreting, commonly overlooked. Linguists and sociologists will quickly tell how language and culture are intertwined. There are patterns of thought, concepts, and associated vocabulary that have a “chicken-and-egg” relationship with the culture they are in. For example, there are cultures that hold cows in the highest regard, and would no more think of grilling up a hamburger than we would of boiling our dogs. Elsewhere, my family once heard from a butcher that white dog is premium meat, more tender than dark dogs. A less gruesome example is the Scrabble game I played with a foreign friend, and my attempt to explain “dill” to someone whose whole repertoire of pickles were the sweet varieties.
Beyond reference & vocabulary is the potential for cultural gaffes, which in certain settings could create huge messes. There is a culture somewhere that uses the right hand only for restroom purposes, so offering the right hand as a greeting is actually an insult. Comedy sketches abound where a mispronunciation of a word changes the entire sentence. In ASL, there are signs that mean something different based on the slightest movement or difference of location or angle. See “Horrible Homonyms” for more examples (link pending). One pair is ‘SHY’ vs ‘PROSTITUTE’ – you really don’t want to get that pair crossed.
For these reasons and more, it is somewhere between inappropriate and foolhardy to ask someone to serve as an interpreter on the basis of bilingual competency alone. There will be times and places where a person such as myself can support communication, and other times and places where we must decline. That decision point is a negotiation between the people of each language and the person in the middle. I have friends who, knowing my skills and integrity, will ask me to be helpful, or as in a recent situation, get me out of the hot spot quickly. I appreciate their trust and support, and will not squander it stepping into situations I’m not qualified to handle.
Think of the differences between the following:
— fast food burger-flipper vs top chef
— first aid assistance vs surgical care
— school crossing guard vs police officer
— bilingual competency vs interpreter