Cultural barriers to effective interpretation and translation

The organization Unite For Sight dedicates two modules to assist researchers in interacting and breaking through cultural barriers with the clients that they serve in other countries. “Interpreters often have a better understanding of the cultural norms of the community than the researcher,” module 5 of the research course states. This is an important implication, in the sense that there is a lot of responsibility on the interpreter or translator to be culturally competent in order to do his or her job.

In module 6, the Unite For Sight research course discusses cultural pitfalls that are entirely on the interpreter or translator’s demeanor and ability to effectively communicate not just across languages but across cultures.

“Employing interpreters as “cultural brokers” in research raises methodological issues around the meaning of concepts which may ultimately impact the quality of results,” the module states (See Unite For Sight). Some common pitfalls that Unite For Sight has identified include:

  • The interpreter taking issue with the client’s answers and unconsciously passes judgment onto the client, which could lead to a barrier in communication.
  • Differences in age and gender, which may interfere with regular interaction, especially in countries where these social barriers are very prevalent.
  • The interpreter’s paraphrasing or summary of the message may contain the interpreter’s point of view. This is also an ethical issue. Interpreters should strive to stay as neutral as possible, and protect the fidelity of the message.

In addition, there were special radio reports broadcast on New York Public Radio discussing the need for cultural competency in the healthcare setting, especially in large cities of the United States. This is also applicable to smaller cities and even rural communities in Iowa.

As of today, Des Moines has refugees, asylum-seekers, guest workers and permanent immigrants hailing from all continents, with the largest number of them being from Spanish-speaking nations. The report details some medical interpreters’ experiences and leaves the reader with several lessons (See City of Immigrants).

When working with the immigrant community, keep in mind:

  • What country and region of the world your client is from and be mindful of the very nuanced differences – this helps in choosing your words and the way you address people.
  • Your client’s religious beliefs: for example, Muslim women may be more comfortable with a female interpreter, there may be religious expressions in your client’s speech, etc.
  • Your client’s family and community: the opinion of these groups may vary in degrees of importance.
  • Your client’s age and the way that his or her culture interacts between young and elderly.
  • Gender relations within your client’s culture.

This is by no means the end of this discussion — what are some of the cultural barriers that you have identified in interpretation and translation?

P.S: Here’s a quick article from Australian media on “Body Language of the World” and how to avoid committing faux pas with your body around other cultures

Also, a great set of questions to ask yourself about cultural sensitivity in cross border deals, from the folks at Vaibmu

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Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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