As an interpreter, I do so much more than translating – SBS

“Call Arwa out of class quickly, I have a parent who doesn’t speak English.”

I was in the middle of a maths class and 17-year-old me couldn’t have been more willing to leave. But as I approached the front office, I could hear a man’s loud, frustrated voice speaking in Arabic. I knew instantly what I was being summoned for.  When I arrived, I saw a cluster of adults standing outside the principal’s office, trying to calm a man down as his daughter sobbed.

The school counsellor hurried me over. “Arwa dear, can you help us understand what he’s saying?” My heart dropped. This was too familiar — a teenager being asked to interpret for adults arguing about something. And that something looked hard.

I was in year 12 and the only student at my school with three-unit Arabic under my belt. I’d interpreted for my parents many times before, but this was different. I was going to be responsible for every word in a realtime argument. The pressure was crippling. I felt I had no choice.

As I listened to the man rant about his daughter being suspended, the counsellor explained school rules and I did my best to decode it into Arabic. I remember making errors and negotiating in my mind which parts were too hard to translate and just left them out entirely. No one knew, only I did. In the end, the father reluctantly accepted his daughter’s suspension. Then he turned to her and said in a menacing voice, “I’ll show you when we get home.” I froze as he cast me a look that meant, “Don’t interpret this.” He succeeded. I’ve never forgotten that day and the interpretation session that never should have been — or should it?

I remember making errors and negotiating in my mind which parts were too hard to translate and just left them out entirely. No one knew, only I did.

I consider being bilingual a privilege on every level. The ability to communicate in two languages or more means that your brain is wired differently to a monolingual speaker. Your mind is constantly searching for meaning in two different worlds.

The ability to negotiate words, sentences, meaning and context in real time isn’t a skill bilingual speakers are born with. It’s a skill you learn just like the skill of riding a bike. One that allows you to move freely and in concert with each language and its nuances, to understand the culture and respect its richness.

Five years ago, I decided to officially train as an interpreter at the age of 37.

Once I embarked on the role, to my surprise, I noticed a lack of public understanding of the services that professional translators interpreters provide to the community. Translation services are often seen as ‘special treatment’ — rather than essential support, or a way to level the playing field — for our multicultural society.

Then, there are the grey areas. I remember once overhearing a doctor telling a registrar to leave out certain information when dealing with a non-English speaking patient, deeming those facts “not really that important”, even though it was a part of their treatment plan. 

I remember once overhearing  a doctor telling a registrar to leave out certain information when dealing with a non-English speaking patient, deeming those facts “not really that important”

If it wasn’t important then why was it there? I wanted to ask. I was desperate to say something, but couldn’t. As an interpreter, my role is to translate with professionalism and impartiality, rather than raise issues or pass judgment — and those who flout the rules know this.

There are also subtler, unspoken pressures of the work. Those who share your language might wrongly assume that your role is to be unquestioningly on their side — even though some instances will require making known a problematic sentiment, like the father’s threat of punishment to his high school daughter “when they get home”. Without years of training, it’s impossible to know how to navigate those situations with tact, skills and professional conduct.

Historically, interpreters are those who work with speech, while translators preside over written texts. The two terms are often used interchangeably, even though a closer look would reveal that they require different specialist skills. Both professions, however, are the forgotten mediators. And our world history would be very different if we didn’t have them in conflicts and invasions, negotiations and alliances, war and peace.

That question of “Where does your loyalty lie?” is one that interpreters face all the time. Each situation opens us to potential judgement: Are you with us or them? I remember walking into an appointment once, where the English speaker jokingly said, “You guys are all related right? Make sure you translate everything, understand?”It was nothing short of a threat. His comment was deeply rooted in systemic racism — something we as migrants (and First Nations communities) in Australia face daily — no matter which side of the interpretation fence you’re on. 

It’s a privilege to be able to take a clear-eye look at all this through the lens of a migrant. It allows me to see where the issues are and address them as a professional and educator in my field. One of the biggest barriers for diverse communities today is access to services and information, and in particular translated information, on every level. How we treat our professional interpreters and translators is a real measure of how well we treat our migrant communities. If we fail to see this, then we fail to value the richness of the multicultural world in which we all live.

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