As journalists, our language facility is key to every aspect of our jobs, from reporting to writing. But the second we have to interview subjects who speak a language we don’t understand, we can’t depend on our own skills of observation, interviewing and listening. We’re left to rely on an interpreter.
Working with an interpreter is an essential skill any time you’re reporting in a country with a primary language you don’t speak. It’s also increasingly important in the United States, where the number of foreign-born Americans has been rising since 1970 and is currently around 38 million.
Here are the challenges journalists face when working with interpreters — and tips for dealing with them.
The difficulties of working with an interpreter
1. Accuracy: The biggest and most obvious danger of working with an interpreter is that you’ll get facts wrong or misquote someone — a serious mistake when interviewing anyone, let alone a prominent figure.
2. Tone: An interpreter’s tin ear can lend a tinny feeling to your story. In a phone interview, Barry Bearak, a New York Times reporter who served as a foreign correspondent in South Asia and Southern Africa, recalls covering the aftermath of a hurricane in the Dominican Republic while working for The Miami Herald:
“I went to some village and just about everything had been washed away. I interviewed some man who had lost everything, and tears were coming out of his eyes and he was moving his hands to and fro, and the interpreter said something like, ‘I estimate the damage to my dwelling to be substantial.’” Bearak asked his photographer, who happened to speak Spanish, to interpret from that point on.
3. Bullshit detecting: When interviewing someone in your primary language, you pick up on hesitations or stammerings, hear when they start to say something and then backtrack or sense when they are putting things diplomatically, and these clues help you know when to probe further. Using an interpreter hinders your ability to read between the lines.
4. Color: Unless your interpreter is diligent about translating every single sentence, including offhand remarks or under-the-breath mutterings, your ability to add color to a scene will be impaired.
Considering cultural differences and barriers will likely already make it difficult to understand a story, it’s crucial to set ground rules with your interpreter and anticipate pitfalls. Here are some tips on how best to work with an interpreter.
How to find and train an interpreter
1. Start with recommendations. Unfortunately, depending on how remote of a location you are reporting in, landing a good translator can be a crapshoot. If you’re working for an organization that has bureaus around the world, it will likely already have reliable translators in the area, but if you’re freelance, you should ask other colleagues who have reported in the region.
2. Look for someone who speaks conversational English. “If your translator has only an academic background in English, their vocabulary will be substantially different from someone who has lived in America and watched a lot of American TV,” says Bearak.
3. Get a translator who will help you navigate cultural differences, or, if you’re in a politically unstable region, won’t put you in danger. War correspondent Anna Badkhen says she prizes translators who are not hot-headed: “I try to make sure that this isn’t a person who will put us in danger,” she said by phone. “I feel responsible for the lives of the people I work with.”
4. Make sure the interpreter understands the importance of accuracy. If your interpreter doesn’t have experience with journalism, explain that accuracy has to do both with both the big picture and nitpicky details. Emphasize how important it is to get the words exactly right and, if the topic is complex, to understand it completely.
“Make the point that if you’re going to put something in quotation marks, it has to be an exact translation, and not a paraphrase, of what they actually said,” says Bearak.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004 and covered the war in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, has the interpreter jot down his own notes, particularly about words he didn’t know how to translate, so he can look them up later.
5. Ask your translator to “get in character.” This means that when translating, she should say, “I looked for my mother,” not “He looked for his mother.” Request that your translator never paraphrase.
6. Ask your translator to translate everything he or she hears, no matter how offhand the remark. As Bearak wrote in a 2003 memo on working with a translator circulated internally at The Times: “Explain to them that a seemingly irrelevant remark like, ‘Praise Allah for this new window,’ helps you capture the flavor of a scene.”
Before the interview
1. Explain to the interpreter the purpose of the interview. If she knows what you are looking for, then she will be able to help you get it.
2. Review all your questions with your interpreter. Doing this will keep him from being surprised or confused during the interview, according this article by the Institute for Education in International Media. If you’ll be using any technical or obscure words, he can learn them beforehand. Plus, if you plan to ask any sensitive or tough questions, he can help you come up with a strategy for asking them.
3. Ask your interpreter whether she thinks any cultural issues might arise during the interview. Don’t just use her language skills; also use her cultural knowledge to see whether any age, gender, class or regional differences could hamper the interview.
4. Plan to record the interview when it’s important enough. Given time constraints in the field, this is not always possible, but for key interviews, you may want to record them and have your interpreter re-translate them to ensure accuracy.
During the interview
1. Begin by explaining what the story is about. Omar Fekeiki, a special correspondent and Iraqi translator for The Washington Post from 2003 to 2006, was almost kidnapped when interviewing people who didn’t understand the purpose of the story. He managed to escape, and after that, always explained “why we were writing the story and explained how we were going to voice their issues and problems,” he said in a phone interview. “I always think it is better to be honest with people and they can decide whether to talk to you or not.”
2. Describe the interpreting process and find out how much English your source speaks. Introduce both you and your interpreter, and explain that you’ll be asking questions, the interpreter will be relaying them, and that the same will happen for the source’s answers. Also ask the interviewee directly, “Do you speak English?” to see whether he or she can respond and how well. Depending on how good his or her English is, you may be able to conduct some parts of the conversation more directly.
3. Face the interviewee. “Address your questions directly to [the source] even though the interpreter is doing the translating,” Chandrasekaran says. “Put the interpreter to the side. You want to be making eye contact with that person as they’re talking, and nod your head, so they’re looking at you.”
4. Speak simply, slowly and clearly. This is so your interpreter can accurately relay your questions. Plus, your source, if he or she understands some English, may comprehend you directly.
5. Make sure everyone sticks to the process you outlined at the beginning. Make it clear that it’s important to you that the interpreter can keep up with both you and the source. Set a pace that ensures each person has the floor when he or she speaks and waits for his or her turn. Badkhen says that if the source isn’t giving the interpreter time to translate, she has her translator stop the source and say, “Excuse me, I need time to translate.”
6. Have an ear out for incorrect or incomplete translations. Watch out for these red flags:
“When you hear something surprising, repeat it just to be sure accuracy hasn’t meandered,” Bearak said in his 2003 memo.
If your source appears to be speaking longer than your interpreter’s translations, ask the interpreter to give you a full translation. Badkhen says if she still feels that the interpreter is summarizing, she will dissect the answer into parts and repeat them back to the person to make sure she hasn’t missed anything and to give him or her an opportunity to fill in gaps.
In cases where your source understands a bit of English but isn’t comfortable speaking it, he may attempt to correct the translation — a big red flag. If so, ask him directly whether his words are being accurately relayed.
After the interview
1. Go over the interview with your translator immediately. Bearak notes in his memo that they will often correct themselves. Plus, you can ask questions about any responses that confused you.
2. If the story involves a long chronology or otherwise complex material, go over the facts repeatedly with your translator. Bearak wrote in his memo: “If you’re not aggravating your translators (making them complain, ‘You’ve already asked that!’), you’re not being precise enough.”
3. Get your translator’s opinion on the source. Since your bullshit detector is turned off, tune into your interpreter’s. Bearak says, “I usually ask, ‘So what do you think of who we’ve just talked to?’ And they’re always pick things up that I didn’t pick up” — namely, whether the interviewee was being evasive or had an axe to grind.
4. When you write, tell the reader what language was spoken and that a translator was used. As Bearak said in his memo, “the reader deserves to know that the words have passed through the translation process.”
5. Have the translator read the story before you turn it in. At that point, he or she may have further corrections.
A last note
Bearak’s 2003 New York Times memo on translation was full of gems on the subject. He ends it with an anecdote that illustrates the importance of translation and the pitfalls of having words put through what could be a fallible filter.
“One of the best quotes I ever heard came from one of the worst translators I ever used,” he writes. “In late 1999, I had gone into the remote Panjshir Valley to find Tajiks who had been chased off their land by the Taliban. … Thousands had been murdered. Houses burned, crops destroyed. People had escaped on foot into the Panjshir in a terrifying journey. Going across a narrow bridge at night, a mother fell to her death over the edge, jostled by the crowd. I interviewed her son, who was only 12. He described how he had become separated from his mother on the bridge. ‘I listened for her voice for a long time, and then I went on,’ he said.
“I’ve always found that quote to be heart-breaking in its poetic simplicity. But did the simplicity come from the boy or a translator with a limited vocabulary?”
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Omar Fekeiki worked at The Washington Post from 2003 to 2004. He worked there until 2006.