Let’s take an example: a tourist is enjoying her holidays in a foreign country. She’s sunbathing next to the pool and gets up to go and order a refreshing cocktail at the bar. When she gets back, she realises that her things have gone, and she turns around to see a young boy in the distance running off with her backpack. 

After her initial confusion, she decides to go and report it at the police station. Once there, and with very little knowledge of the language, she tries to describe the situation: the contents of the backpack, what the boy looked like and the clothes he was wearing, if there were any witnesses to confirm what happened, etc. However, the communication is disastrous and, at times, verging on comical: neither the police nor the tourist can understand each other because they don’t speak each other’s language. 

In all communicative contexts, it’s vital that the parties understand one another so that there’s no room for misinterpretations or misunderstandings. As we’ve seen in the previous example, this is particularly important in delicate situations where a simple misunderstanding can have very serious consequences. 

What would have happened if the police had detained the wrong person due to incorrect indications? Or worse still, what if the tourist, instead of attempting to report a simple theft, was trying to report a more serious situation, such as assault or even murder? 

That’s why the role of linguistic mediators who offer interpretation services in such contexts is so important. In this instance, for example, it would have been very useful to hire a professional interpreter to act as an intermediary while making the report. 

At this point, you may be asking yourself what the difference is between a translator and an interpreter. The difference between these professions resides in the medium: while a professional translator translates written texts, an interpreter uses the spoken word. The former writes, the latter speaks. 

Returning to the theft example, the interpreter would have gone to the police station to orally mediate the communication between the law enforcement agencies and the tourist. 

The interpreter could mediate consecutively or simultaneously. In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter would listen to the words of the witness or the police in silence, taking notes if necessary, and on finishing their statement, would transmit the message in the language spoken by the other party. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter would transmit the information pretty much at the same time as the parties are speaking. As we’ve seen in other blog posts, like the posts on interpretation in courts and legal procedures and medical interpretation in hospitals, it’s very important that the interpreter acts professionally and is able to manage such a delicate situation. Knowing the two languages isn’t enough; rather, there are many other factors that must be taken into consideration. 

The following are some characteristics that set a professional interpreter apart from a person who simply knows the language within the communicative context: 

1. Knowing the language, terminology and culture. 

This may seem obvious, but it’s crucial that the interpreter has in-depth knowledge not only of both languages, but also of the specific terms used in those contexts and the characteristics of both cultures. 

The figure of the interpreter is often undervalued, as many people don’t understand that their cousin John, who lived in France for two months and has a basic grasp of the language, is not capable of acting as an intermediary in the communication between a French-speaking African immigrant and an English police officer, for example. 

In this case, not only is it likely that John is clueless of many of the concepts mentioned in such situations (the difference, for example, between robbery, theft and larceny), but it’s also possible that he’s unaware of there being cultural differences that can lead to misinterpretations. 

Leila Hicheri offers an example of the latter in an article on translation and interpretation in public institutions. Here, she tells how in a large part of Sub-Saharan Africa, the meaning of the word “brother” (frère in French) transcends family ties since it is also used for friends. It wouldn’t be strange for an immigrant to respond to a question saying that they have a brother despite being an only child. 

2. Remaining neutral and respecting the code of ethics to safeguard the rights of all parties. 

In addition to knowing the language, the terminology specific to these contexts and the cultural differences, a professional interpreter should be able to faithfully transmit the message and have a code of ethics safeguarding the rights of all parties. 

Prejudices and preconceived ideas often mean that we interpret situations in one way or another. 

Returning to the previous example, let’s imagine that John, who is not a professional interpreter but rather someone with vague knowledge of both languages, has a series of prejudices about immigrants who come to the UK looking for work. It’s highly likely that the way in which he interprets what the complainant tells him is influenced by these prejudices, and that can affect the entire report process. 

Professional interpreters must be able to put these prejudices to one side and undertake their work as impartially as possible. To do so, they should follow a set of principles and a code of ethics that advocates, among others, honesty, confidentiality and dignity. 

3. Managing stress. 

As we’re seeing, interpretations can be highly stressful situations, particularly in police settings. 

Witnesses or complainants are often nervous and impatient because they have just seen or experienced an unpleasant situation, outside their country and without knowing the language or what is going on around them. 

In these instances, the interpreter is the only person they can communicate with, and they usually do so in a desperate, aggressive or irritable way. It’s important that the interpreter is able to stay calm in order to carry out their work as professionally as possible. 

All this clearly highlights the importance of interpreters in police settings. If you ever need to make use of their services, you can always get in touch with a translation and interpretation company that provides this service, like Tatutrad. Because, as you’ll have seen, your cousin John, instead of helping, may in fact end up landing you in a bit of a mess.