As a novice interpreter, I’ve been aimed at getting conference assignments since Day 1. I’ve always remembered how inspired I was at hearing seasoned conference interpreters’ anecdotes about interpreting for heads of states or among the first people to have witnessed a historic moment. I want to be one of those successful conference interpreters!
However, the path leading to the successful conference interpreters’ club is not easy. Since I’m still awaiting for the State Department’s interpreting exam results, I have had to take on some community interpreting assignments. This is where I began to have a much deeper understanding of social responsibility.
All my Chinese-speaking community interpreting clients are first generation immigrants, speaking very little English. They can only communicate with English-speaking social workers, nurses or dentists via the interpreter. In situations like this, both parties (the client and the care-provider) give their wholehearted trust to the interpreter, expecting him or her to deliver quality meaning. It also means that the client's’ lack of local-language skills could easily have themselves be the ultimate victim of poor quality interpretation and/or professionalism.
A few months back, a client told me about one such experience. Their interpreter had suggested that the client not follow a court-order, because ‘no one would find out’. Sure enough, someone did. The client ended up paying the price. I still remember my shock at hearing such lack of professionalism.
A few weeks ago, an elderly client expressed thanks at me for not scolding her for using her cane incorrectly in a demonstration to the nurse. Apparently, a prior interpreter had done just this.
Incidents like this help me realize, regardless of significant payment disparity, community interpreting is not inferior in comparison to conference interpreting. Interpreting in a conference setting makes me feel important, because I could be the voice of a reputable political figure or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. However, community interpretation provides me with a sense of doing something equally important, because I could be the voice of an immigrant who can’t otherwise communicate their needs and rights with a representative from the country where he or she lives.
One of my mentors is a Russian conference interpreter. She once told me, in the community of conference interpreters, everyone is aware of the risks in dumping. Community interpreting, while not offering the glitz and glamor and-quite frankly-monetary benefits of conference interpreting, is not so much an exception to this rule, but a complement to it. Classroom ethics training ticks boxes. Community interpretation engages the soul. I am very proud of be a member of this community.