Three Things Media Gets Wrong About Interpreting

retro TVThere is rarely a political drama, sci-fi story, or fantasy saga that does not involve communication across languages. It is, therefore, fair to say the general public is aware of interpreting as a profession. However, these fictional tales are often written by people not intimately familiar with language industry; nor is interpreting usually central to the story. Still, they are often the only sources of information for many people, giving the audience a woefully inadequate understanding of interpreting.

Calling Interpreters “Translators”

C-3PO, image by Gordon Tarpley

Using interpreting and translation interchangeably is not unique to the media — in a way, this is an accurate representation of the confusion about these terms. You might remember that interpreters deal with the spoken word, and translators work with the written word. Often, even in situations where a fictional character is supposed to know the difference, they will inexplicably mix the two up.

One of the most salient examples is the C-3PO protocol droid from the Star Wars universe. He (it?) is fluent in virtually all forms of communication in the galaxy and interprets for the main characters traveling to distant worlds, yet he is routinely referred to — by himself and other — as a translator.

Of course, Star Wars is a fictional universe, and technicalities of language work are but a minor point. Still, this franchise has attained cult status in the US and abroad, and this minor inaccuracy shapes how thousands of people see interpreting and translation.

Ad-Hoc Interpreting

Pregnant woman with dughter
Image by Juan Galafa/SnapStock

Another insidious idea one can glean from popular media is that any bilingual person can act as an interpreter on an as-needed basis. The UK series Call the Midwife shows a scene where a teenage daughter is forced to interpret for her pregnant Spanish-speaking mother. When the nurse asks about the woman’s last menstrual period, the girl exclaims in disgust, “I’m not asking her that!” While all too common, using family to interpret in medical contexts is highly discouraged due to conflicts of interest and a lack of specialized knowledge.

In a more outlandish example, the TV show House of Cards features an episode where the fictional President of the US hosts the (barely fictionalized) President of Russia and the opposition punk band Pussy Riot. One of the band members makes a bitter toast at the dinner table — to be interpreted into English by another member of the band! This situation reflects neither best practices nor reality. A high-profile venue like the While House would certainly have professional interpreters, and communication would not be left in the hands of an interested, untrained party.

Ignorance Of Interpreting Ethics

A common offense against interpreting as portrayed by the media is the total ignorance of professional ethics and best practices. Time and again, interpreters in the media will summarize, speak in the third person, or add their comments.

Tokyo nightlife
Image by Kevin Poh/flickr

Think of Game of Thrones‘ character Missandei — a former slave who serves as an interpreter to Daenerys Targaryen, one of the protagonists. In her attempt to soften the message of a belligerent slave trader, Missandei omits slurs and insults uttered by him. It is later revealed that Daenerys understands the fictional language, High Valyrian, after all.

A different breach of interpreting ethics is satirized in Lost in Translation, a film about an American actor shooting a whiskey commercial in Japan. The director gives the actor, portrayed by Bill Murray, a long impassioned pep talk in Japanese, which the interpreter summarizes with one short phrase.

Both of these situations, and many others, do come up with untrained, ad-hoc interpreters. One can only hope people are careful not to accept what they see in the media as normal, adequate interpreting.

Is there anything else that comes to mind as the stereotypical portrayal of an interpreter in the media? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Published by Maria

Russian health and human services translator based in Rochester, New York

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