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An interpreter talks about the importance of her job

Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


Adapted from an article by Samuel Ramos published in The Source, Vancouver, British Columbia, August 2012.

It's hard for Fenella Sung to imagine a world without translators and interpreters. Sung, a certified Chinese‑to‑English translator and interpreter in Greater Vancouver, has been a part of courtroom proceedings, immigration cases, medical procedures and large business deals between the private and government sectors for over 20 years. In each case, she doesn't want to be seen, just heard.

"I tell my clients to treat me as if I'm invisible. I am just your voice," says Sung. She has just two rules for her clients: look directly at each other and not at her; and speak directly to each other and not at her. Once the rules are in place, she doesn't want to be acknowledged.

Interpreters and translators are a vital part of daily operations, according to Sung, an affiliate member of the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council. She represents one of the many unsung heroes whose skills play an important role in making sure linguistic differences don't hinder the lives of people living in a globalized world. "We are a hidden treasure. If all the interpreters and translators stopped working for one single day, the world would stop spinning," she says.

The impact of the invisible voice

Going to the supermarket or to the bank doesn't require a certified interpreter, but in legal or medical situations Sung encourages clients to hire one.

She says that around 20 to 30 languages are interpreted in Greater Vancouver on a daily basis. She is among the 675 translators and interpreters who are recognized by the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia (STIBC). There are more who have not been recognized, but are still practicing, according to Joann McKinlay, STIBC's executive director.

McKinlay says her organization provides a list of members who are certified in over 80 language combinations, and who signed a code of ethics to agree to act professionally and ethically. But she admits that there are too many occasions where a professional interpreter is not called, which can lead to problems.

"Even a child may be called to translate," says McKinlay. She and her colleague, Sung, are all too familiar with stories of translations gone wrong.

The horror of being lost in translation

"If we are certified, we know our [boundaries]. We know our role," says Sung in reference to the importance of being a good interpreter. She knows that non‑English speakers will ask a family member to interpret for them, because they think the person has their best interests at heart, but she says this leads to problems. "Some seemingly minor stuff might be insignificant to the family member, but to a health care provider, it might be important," says Sung. [The patient] runs the risk of being misdiagnosed."

She added that most family members become too emotionally involved and think they know better than the patient. In fact, she says they're doing more harm than good, and it's always better that the patient speak directly to the doctor. An emotionally detached interpreter, in this case, allows for the doctor and patient to meet as if they spoke the same language, but Sung doesn't blame family members for acting on the basis of their emotions. "It's hard for family members to step back and realize that they should be invisible," she says.

Disaster can occur even with interpreters who are not family members. McKinlay says there are too many cases of a client whose case was affected by substandard translation or interpreting. She recalls a court case where the interpreter mixed up "he was hitting on me" with "he was hitting me." "Fortunately, there was another interpreter there and they took over," she says.

Bridging cultures together, with one single voice

What propels Sung to excel at her work is her desire to connect people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. "I like to find the similarities rather than differences in people," she says.

In the mid‑nineties, Sung was hired to interpret for a headstrong and matriarchal Chinese woman at an immigration interview with a female immigration officer who was Caucasian. Once the official part of the interview was done, the two women continued to speak to each other. The Chinese woman's application form stated that she had a 20‑something‑year‑old daughter. The immigration officer commented that she also had a daughter around the same age, who was unmarried and too career‑driven. The mothers lamented the fact that their daughters were not even interested in finding a boyfriend, and they worried that their daughters would never get married. It dawned on Sung that the mothers had completely forgotten about her, but she was comforted knowing that they relied on her.

"In the end, a mother's role is the same no matter where you were born or where you come from. They were chatting like they were neighbours or childhood friends, and they were connecting through me, and didn't even know it," she says.

Being caught in between

Sung explains that in order to be an effective translator or interpreter, you must be culturally sensitive to both parties being represented. She says that it's no use knowing a language if you don't know the cultural meaning behind it. She gives the example of the English phrase, "think twice before you speak." "In Chinese, twice is not enough, so if you want to have the same impact, you have to say 'think thrice,' or you risk losing the Chinese clients' interest," she explains.

Sung adds that professional interpreters should be immersed in both cultures so as to do justice to the language. Speaking for a living can be an exhausting endeavour. She says that although she's in the zone when she's at work, once she gets home, the last thing she wants to do is speak—in any language. "I don't even want to answer the phone. You don't want to talk. You want to use sign language," says Sung.