This post is a little longer than most, but it illustrates the emotional and contradictory aspects of my work as a Spanish-English interpreter. My most frequent type of gig is with social workers from Children's Protective Services (CPS) on visits to the homes of monolingual Spanish speakers either to investigate allegations of abuse, or to follow up on families who are "in the system" and receiving counseling or other services from different agencies.
Ideally, an interpreter should be nearly invisible. We are instructed to use the first person when translating, preserve the speaker's tone and register (that is, degrees of emotion and ranges of informal to informal speech), and otherwise create an impression on the listener that matches the speaker's own speech. We try to seat the parties so that they are next to each other and can speak to each other face to face, and we try to imitate the speaker's body language to add to the impression that the principals in the interview are speaking to each other, not to the interpreter. A two-way street, not a traffic circle. That, at least, is the ideal.
This brittle ideal shattered in an encounter some weeks ago and left me in the middle of a professional and emotional dilemma.
A social worker and I had arranged to meet at an apartment for an unannounced home visit, a follow-up on a series of encounters concerning numerous confirmed cases of neglect and noncompliance in the family in question. My interpreting of the interchange between the social worker and the mother followed our guidelines fairly well until a backup social worker and the police arrived to take the children into protective custody. It was my job to interpret to their mother the bad news.
The mother screamed and begged for another chance, not from the social worker, but from me. Neighbors and their children streamed into the apartment to investigate the commotion, confusing even more the mother's cries and the distraught screams of her children. I had to insist to the mother that the social worker, not I, was in charge and that I was an impartial (!) interpreter. By now on her knees, she alternated between grabbing the social worker's hands and then mine, pleading and in tears.
At the same time, the policeman was using his own limited Spanish to gather up the children and also to demand that the neighbors leave the premises. In the midst of tussles between the mother and policeman, the children clustering around their resistant mother in the corner and the intervention of the neighbors, it fell on me alone to translate the policeman's orders, the case workers' demands for the mother to sign papers, the mother's screamed arguments to defend her children, and to make whatever efforts were still possible to maintain the key players' comprehension in a deteriorating "speech act."
Melanie Metzger, in her book Sign Language Interpreting, discusses the impersonal, impartial image of the interpreter as a result of the professionalization of interpreting, and how the image of a professional interpreter has included the roles of helper, conduit, communication facilitator, and bilingual, bicultural specialist" (p.22). She asserts that, because interpreters are "faced with the goal of providing access to interaction of which they are not a part, while they are, in fact, physically and interactionally present," their very work creates the Interpreter's Paradox (p.47): communication between two people --even that between the interpreter and an interlocutor-- affects the relationship between them.
This is really the paradox of any profession. You are present, therefore you are involved.
Speaking for one person to another makes you the agent of the speaker, a role that becomes even more complicated when only one of the parties has paid you to be there. Far from the peripheral stance of the impartial interpreter, to be the only bilingual person in such a situation is to be the focal point. The center has moved, and any chance that remains for communication is in you, precisely where it must not be.