To protect the integrity of information, interpreters need to focus on accuracy, impartiality, and completeness
By Margarita Martín-Hidalgo Birnbaum
When Steve Mines was a journalist in China, he relied on interpreters to help him in his reporting. Years later, those experiences served him well once the shoe was on the other foot. On a recent assignment, Mines interpreted for journalists.
After leaving journalism, Mines, who is fluent in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, became a legal and conference interpreter based in Austin. In preparing to assist The New York Times journalists interviewing Central American migrants in a Texas detention center, Mines drew on the best practices he picked up from working with interpreters decades earlier.
As Mines sees it, the task of interpreters who work with news professionals is “to give the tools to the reporter that they will need, linguistically, to get what they need to get out of the story.”
While media interpreters may be mostly associated with reporting from conflict zones, many assist journalists who cover stories about local health, education, crime, and employment trends. In the U.S., for instance, journalists who write about immigration hire interpreters to interview immigrants.
Regardless of the assignment or working environment, interpreters must focus their energy on rendering an accurate, impartial and complete interpretation. Because an already demanding job is made more so by the expectations of transparency in journalism, Mines is among language services professionals who argue that media interpreters who take on other roles cannot fulfill their ethical and professional obligations and may affect the integrity of the information reporters gather.
Before going into any assignment, interpreters should know what the expectations are — and set their own if necessary. Mines suggested that interpreters find out what reporters expect from them before the interviews, in part because some journalists may have inappropriate or unreasonable expectations of interpreters or may not have worked with interpreters. Reporting can be a messy business; it’s good for the interpreter to have a good grasp of their boundaries.
The interpreter’s professional lines may be blurred (or appear to be blurry) when media interpreters assist reporters in volatile environments such as war zones, or in emotionally charged situations, such as the aftermath of a fatal car accident, an earthquake, or a mass shooting.
It’s not uncommon for reporters to ask the interpreters they hire to also be their fixers or drivers, or even stringers. Katty Kauffman, a Spanish-speaking interpreter who has worked for BBC and Reuters journalists, recalled an assignment wherein a journalist wanted to hire her to be her interpreter and fixer. She declined to do the latter, telling the reporter she didn’t have the relevant skills. Kauffman said she was hired to interpret anyway.
Kauffman discourages media interpreters from assuming a variety of roles because they risk making serious mistakes, crossing lines they shouldn’t, and affecting the credibility of journalists in the eyes of their sources and readers.
“Just like in court, the perception of the press is fundamental,” said Kauffman, a longtime legal and conference interpreter who splits her time between Santiago, Chile, and Washington, D.C. “If you’re that good a fixer, your connections are that good, and you can get the insider knowledge and you can get the people you can get to, you’re probably not as impartial as you need to be to do a completely accurate and completely impartial interpretation.”
There may be situations where it may be appropriate for interpreters to act as cultural brokers. But Mines stressed that interpreters should only assume that role if reporters ask them to do so. According to Kauffman, when the interpreter is asked to change roles, the interpreter and the reporter should together establish the ground rules of what that will entail. The reporter’s sources should also know that the interpreter now has a different job, Kauffman said.
“Any time you’re wearing two hats,” cautioned Kauffman, “those waters get muddied.”
Thorne Anderson is a photojournalist who has worked with interpreters covering the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To navigate those dangerous environments, Anderson said he asked fixers to also provide interpretation services because it was more important to work with someone who could talk him out of trouble than someone who could speak English well.
But Anderson, whose work has appeared in Newsweek and The New York Times, said that interpreters who offer themselves as jacks-of-all-trades don’t perform any task well. He added that it’s unrealistic and unfair for journalists to expect one person to deliver 100 percent of the time when they are required to provide a variety of services.
“It’s exhausting for an interpreter to work for a journalist,” said Anderson, an associate professor at the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. “If you can remove from them the obligation of keeping you safe, remove from them the obligation of transportation and the obligation of getting from one place to another, then they just have more energy to put into interpreting.”
Prepare, prepare, prepare
While the standards of practice and ethical guidelines that apply in interpreting for journalists may not be as rigid as those that are followed in court hearings and other more formal settings, Mines recommends that media interpreters adhere to some of these. For instance, Mines said interpreters should always check their political leanings, religious beliefs, and other biases at the door.
It’s critical that interpreters prepare thoroughly ahead of the reporting assignments and know what they are walking into. For example, interviews with asylum seekers or families of murder victims, can be emotionally and physically demanding.
Because Mines was aware of the news stories about Latin American migrants placed in detention centers, he had a sense of what the reporters would be asking in their interviews. Still, he would call them to learn more about the questions they intended to ask and topics they wanted to cover.
“The best interpreter is the most briefed interpreter,” said Mines, adding that those who are better prepared also are aware of the ways in which “background information may hamper or may benefit the understanding of what they are having to interpret.”
There are also confidentiality matters to consider. Because some sources share sensitive information with reporters, Mines said interpreters should know what may be on or off the record, such as information about medical diagnoses, criminal activity, and rape incidents.
“Interpreters play a delicate role, in that language allows them to earn, in many cases, the trust and the confidence of the people for whom they are interpreting,” Mines said. “They may hear things that the people that they’re interpreting for wouldn’t say if it weren’t in that exchange of trust.”
Anderson addresses this when training interpreters who are part of a reporting project in Mexico. The interpreters are taught to take the focus off themselves to allow the reporter to earn the source’s trust, said Anderson. Because the interpreters play such an important part in the reporting process, they are expected to be as committed to accuracy and transparency as the reporters are, Anderson stated.
“I think that’s essential to the success of our project,” Anderson said.
To learn more about interpreting for journalists, see links to articles and materials below.
Margarita Martín-Hidalgo Birnbaum is a Spanish-speaking translator and interpreter (credentialed for federal and state courts) based in Dallas. She’s also a freelance journalist, and her most recent stories have appeared in WebMD, American Heart Association News, and The Dallas Morning News. Her personal and professional experiences include living and working in Central America, including Guatemala and El Salvador.
Images credit: Courtesy of Thorne Anderson, Steve Mines and Katty Kauffman, respectively. Published with permission.
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