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Phone Interpreting: Problem Solving Approach

On-demand phone interpreting has been on the rise due to its ability to bridge communication on the spot. Traditional, when an onsite interpreter is engaged for a police interview, or a criminal proceeding, accuracy is paramount as it will help the police and the court, people who don’t understand the language, to evaluate the credibility of a person. 

In phone interpreting, most calls are to assist non-English speaking customers with their communications with utility companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations etc to access services and discuss issues. Accuracy is still important, but it is less important than in those settings above. In fact, over emphasis on accuracy and completeness will lead to waste of time, poor value to consumers and poorer user experience.

Imagine a non-English speaking customer is rambling on and on about a gas bill, instead of answering questions the English speaking consultant/service provider is asking; and the English consultant is unable to direct the flow of the conversation. The result is after 50 minutes over the phone we are still not going anywhere. 

This is where discourse management comes into play. Shouldn’t the English consultant be the one managing it? Ideally yes, if the English service provider is able to engaged the non-English speaker, and the interpreter’s role will just be interpreting. But if the consultant is not able to engage the non-English speaker, the interpreter, being the only person aware of what is happening on both sides, the moods of both parties, becomes naturally the person to manage the flow of the conversation in the two languages. The interpreter becomes a member of a team whose goal is to assist the team to solve a problem, like a co-pilot for the consultant.

A colleague told me recently about a scary home visit. An OT was going with an interpreter to visit a patient just discharged from the hospital. Unbeknownst to them, the patient’s jealous wife has mental illness and became more and more agitated as the OT proceeded to touch her husband in the course of delivering the therapy. The wife appeared uneasy in the eye of the interpreter, holding something in her hand behind her back. The interpreter did not alarm the OT, thinking it is not her job to do so. As they were walking out of the home, the interpreter took a casual glimpse of what had been in the wife’s hand.  It was a shiny knife!

In my view, as long as the interpreter is letting the parties know which part of the speech is interpreting of the consultant/customer’s speech, which part is the contribution from the interpreter, there will be no ethical issues. The traditional passive role defined for the interpreter just as a conduit is obsolete and can sometimes be harmful if it stops the interpreter to value add from a cultural and linguistic perspective, resulting in withholding of important information that could be key to solve a problem, regardless whether it is onsite or over the phone.

If it is not right for a nurse to withhold some important observation about a patient from a doctor simply because prescribing treatment is the job of the doctor, why should it be right for the interpreter to do so? Service providers need to work as a team to provide the best value to their customers. The interpreter is part of this team, not an outsider, or bystander.  


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