The Trials and Tribulations of a Community Interpreter: Conference Interpreting, here we go! – Part 1

By Pency Tsai


Enjoy part 1 of this candid story by Pency Tsai about broadening your horizons and dipping into other forms of interpreting outside your tried-and-true. It is a courageous and inspiring tale. Thanks for the Chinese Language Division for letting us share this article, which appeared in their Newsletter a couple of years ago. 



[Wooded forest]

As someone who has spent most of her time as a community interpreter, I can attest to the pressures that one faces, be it in a medical setting, a courtroom, or during discoveries.  Community interpreters face scrutinization from all parties when on the job.  Constant challenges about their abilities help to develop thick skin and strengthen their defense mechanisms. The need to be completely accurate and faithful to the source leads to internal processes that work like clockwork to reproduce carbon copy interpretation.

So what happens when this mindset is thrown into an environment where the flow of the interpretation is just as important as the content?  In a conference, with no opportunities to seek clarification, how does one handle themselves?  What problems can be expected?  I’d like to share with you some observations and some of my personal experiences. I’d also love to hear some feedback, as I’m new to this game and would appreciate my fellow colleagues’ professional insights into the world of conference interpreting.

So how do you flick the switch and go from a creature that has been trained to regurgitate everything as faithfully and accurately as possible and transform into a being that eloquently processes spoken words into a different language in such a way that the end result is an art-form that expresses the ideas and facts seamlessly to all listeners? How do we successfully go from community interpreting to conference interpreting instantaneously?

I always thought that I could transition between the two types of interpreting overnight. After all, interpreting is interpreting, right?  If only it were that easy.  The truth is, it takes a lot of work and effort to change habits and thought processes that have been burned into our minds over the years. We are creatures of habit and the repetitive actions that have become second nature are deeply ingrained in us. But the great thing about us is our capacity to change. We can adapt. It is possible.

“The truth is, it takes a lot of work and effort to change habits and thought processes that have been burned into our minds over the years.”

First of all, why dabble in conference interpreting when I’m perfectly content with my familiar community interpreting?  Why not?  We have the abilities to gain new skills and build upon them to enlarge our circle of life to include new and exciting worlds. As a professional interpreter, we can not be satisfied with just being able to survive in one narrow-minded field. Only by stepping into other disciplines can we improve our skill set and open up our minds to excel in all aspects of our vocation. We can make it in both worlds. Why are you reading this? Because you want to be better than the brown bears and the polar bears that can survive only in their natural habitat. You want to thrive on the Arctic ice and flourish in the wooded forests. You want to be a great community interpreter and a great conference interpreter.

Why? This is the question forward thinkers always ask first, because if you can’t answer this question, then you won’t have the proper sense of direction in attaining your goal. So, why is it so important to be able to change our mindset when interpreting in a community environment and when interpreting in a conference setting?

To understand this, an illustration of the two is needed in order to provide the contrasting styles.  Let me give an example of what I expect during a typical day in the office.  At immigration hearings, everything is recorded. Details are important and the expectation is that my interpretation is as faithful and complete to the original as possible.  We are not to exaggerate or omit anything, nor are we to embellish or change the meaning of what is said, including changes to the register.  After all, it is not supposed to be my line of questioning or my testimony that is to be captured.  In this type of environment, I must assert myself and interject when something is unclear or when my task is being hindered by someone who refuses to work with me to ensure that my interpretation is up to my professional standards.  You can imagine how much it would feel like my hands were tied behind my back if I could not exercise this freedom.


Stay tuned for part 2 of this candid story where The Bird goes more in depth on her experiences in the conference world.

Update (06/21/2017): Read Part 2 here.



[Pency Tsai]Pency Tsai has been interpreting and translating for nearly 10 years. Since her first foray into community interpreting six years ago, she has worked steadily to broaden her experiences in the field. Today, she enjoys taking on assignments ranging from courtroom and tribunal hearings to medical assessments and the occasional conference. The “Bird” is currently serving as the ATA Chinese Language Division’s Administrator.


Image by Michael Moroczek via unsplash.com

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/pency-tsai-trials-and-tribulations-of-a-community-interpreter/

%d bloggers like this: