This is one of the most common questions that interpreters get from clients. It’s even one that some interpreters themselves can be unsure about how to answer…and that is really weird. If we switch the words around a bit to, say, law, we don’t see such confusion. Do I need a lawyer or a person who knows about law? There are seemingly obvious times when someone would need a lawyer, and other times when paying for such professional services are overkill. The same goes for almost any professional service industry, like dentistry or even auto mechanics.
Here’s our guideline. You need an interpreter when the message is bigger than yourself. If this seems a bit vague, allow me a moment to unpack that a bit.
Start with bilinguals
There are lots of them. Some speak their second language so well that it’s hard to tell that they’re not a native-speaker. Others are bilingual only in certain situations, like buying coffee or taking a taxi. So, there’s all kinds of bilinguals, but the one thing they all share is a sense that they can, in fact, communicate in their second language.
All interpreters are bilinguals, but they do something different than bilinguals do… Interpreters speak for others only when other people/organizations/institutions speak together.
Are bilinguals and interpreters different?
Describe your best friend in two words. You could say anything, right? When I asked myself this question, I came up with words like ‘happy’ and ‘smart’. Now, do the same thing, but look at your best friend in a mirror while you do it. What comes to your mind now? Probably words based on what you can see in the mirror. For me, different words came to mind, like ‘bearded’, or ‘smiling’. Bilinguals speak like we all do - from the self-perspective (without the mirror). Interpreters interpret from the other-perspective (with the mirror).
Interpreters are bilinguals, but never both at the same time. I am a bilingual when I decide what to say. I am an interpreter when you decide what I say. As such, interpreters put aside all of their emotions and thoughts on what and who’s being spoken about, and interpret according to their functional role.
But what’s all this about the message being bigger than yourself? Most interpreting involves some kind of organization or institution. On one-end of the scale, there might be two governments communicating to each other across their respective languages. On the other end, there might be an individual and institution speaking together, such as happens in a court room or hospital.
The message is bigger than any person when there’s this white elephant in the room, called the institution. It’s not just two friends sitting down and having a chat. The message becomes bigger when a judge and defendant speak, because those people are part of what goes on in a courtroom – and so an interpreter is needed. Take the judge and the defendant outside and put them by the backyard pool talking shop – no interpreter might be needed (but perhaps a bilingual is!). Same goes for doctors and patients. Same goes for bilateral trade negotiators.
Use an interpreter when the message is bigger than you and the person you are speaking with.