Why are interpreters so mean?

Why are interpreters so mean?

I, personally, do not work with many other interpreters. I am the only one in my office and so the only other interpreters who I meet are through professional organizations and such. The type of people who participate in organizations like JAT or Ohio Honyaku are generally friendly individuals who are very open to discussion and interested in building relationships with their clients and with other translators/interpreters. However, that doesn’t seem to make up the majority of the profession.

While I have never met these “mean interpreters” before, I hear about them from my Japanese colleagues all the time. Apparently, a large portion of our profession is made up of people who do not like to help others. I have heard various stories where the interpreter says “what he just said wasn’t important” or “why don’t you just say it yourself?” instead of actually translating what was said. Several of my colleagues have termed the interpreters at one particular company as “scary” and joke that they would rather not understand the meeting than have to deal with them. But that’s not all. If you read this account of a journalist who was held against his will in immigration in Japan, you will see another example of an interpreter (the one provided for him by immigration officials) acting rude and refusing to translate what was said. Which begs the question: WHY?

One of the main reasons I went in to this profession was to help people. I like being able to make people understand each other (to the degree to which understanding can be achieved through linguistic means). I also like being able to pass on knowledge to an individual that they would not have been able to acquire otherwise. I suppose its foolish of me to assume that everyone started the same way. But I know for a fact that every one of those interpreters knows what its like to NOT understand a language. There are very few true bilinguals (ones who were raised from infancy with both languages). Even the individuals who grew up in the U.S. (or Americans who grew up in Japan) should be able to remember what it was like when they first got there. They should know how hard it is to not know what’s going on around you and do their best to help their client understand the conversation that they find themselves in. They should not lord their language skills over their client as if they had something better to do than interpret this meeting. Maybe they do. But that doesn’t change the fact that their client needs their help. Basic human empathy should guide them.


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