Definition of Community Interpreting

Interpreting has always been an integral part of social and business activities, but it was recognized as a particular science that called for specialized training of professionals in the middle of the 20th century. Since then, various kinds of interpreting have been a subject for researchers who made attempts to reveal all of its peculiarities and characteristics from various perspectives. However, community interpreting is a relatively new field of interpreting that may be deemed understudied as compared to conference interpreting. Moreover, the focus of researches in relation to these two different fields of interpreting is quite different. Studies of conference interpreting are aimed at revealing peculiarities and characteristics of the process of interpreting, as well as neurological, linguistic, and psychological features and qualities of interpreters and the best techniques and methods they employ. In turn, studies of community interpreting tend to focus on the role of interpreter and various controversial issues related to community interpreting and interpreters’ roles in various settings. The overwhelming majority of researchers agree that community interpreting is a quite controversial field in terms of the public’s perception of the interpreter’s role.

Thus, the current paper is aimed at analyzing the role of a community interpreter using different studies, as well as providing a definition of the concept of community interpreting and a brief overview of the community interpreter training with a view of better understanding the controversies related to the field. In general, community interpreters perform various roles depending on the setting and discourse, which necessitate different approaches to the process of interpretation and stakeholders involved, yet it is absolutely evident that their role should not and cannot be reduced to a mere verbatim translating machine. The paper consists of such sections as Introduction, Definition of Community Interpreting, Role of Community Interpreters and Debates Relating Thereto, Community Interpreter Training, Further Studies Relating to Community Interpreting and Its Role, and Conclusion.

Many controversies concerning the role of community interpreters arise from the fact that there are debates over the definition of the concept of community interpreting. Moreover, a great deal of ambiguity stems from varying levels of development and recognition of community interpreting throughout the world, thus proving the lack of unified approach to the field. Hence, countries and researchers in terms of their attitudes towards the concept “range from those that deny existence of the issue (an ever diminishing number), through countries that rely on ad hoc services, to generic language services, to fully comprehensive responses of training, service provision and accreditation” (Buendia 2010).

In general, there are many definitions of the concept, but all of them are united by the fact that community interpreting is an extremely broad field “that enhances equal access to public and community services for individuals who do not speak the language of service” (Bancroft et al. 2013). As a rule, communicative interpreting is consecutive, but there are instances when it is simultaneous though the latter cases are rare (Pekanheimo, Kauhala, & Ojala 2013). The definition given in the Canadian National Standard Guide for Community Interpreting

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Services seems to be the most objective and all-encompassing:

Bidirectional interpreting that takes place in the course of communication among speakers of different languages. The context is the provision of public services such as healthcare or community services and in settings such as governmental agencies, community centers, legal settings, educational institutions, and social services. (Healthcare Interpretation Network 2007)

Although the term ‘community interpreting’ is most commonly used when referring to the above contexts of interpretation, there are other terms that are sometimes used interchangeably with it and denote virtually the same thing. However, such ambiguity of terms creates additional complications for comprehension and identification of the role that the community interpreters play. Some of such terms include dialogue interpreting, liaison interpreting, court interpreting, medical interpreting, business interpreting, ad hoc interpreting, media interpreting, telephone interpreting, TV interpreting, and sign interpreting (Jiang 2007). The above listed notions are employed when there is a clear intention to emphasize some peculiar aspect of the interpretation process. For instance, dialogue interpreting implies that there is a dialogue between the participants, but fails to focus on the setting (Jiang 2007). Liaison interpreting emphasizes “the link or contact between different groups of speakers who do not speak the same language” and is often interchanged with such terms as escort or delegate interpreting (Jiang 2007). Court interpreting, medical interpreting, business interpreting and similar kinds of interpreting draw attention to the institutional aspect and setting of the interpretation (Jiang 2007). Sometimes, the latter types of interpretation are singled out as different from the community interpreting due to a huge variety of studies focusing on different settings and availability of specific features peculiar to this or that institutional aspect. However, the majority of researchers support an idea that these interpretations are only peculiar types of the community interpreting. The term ‘ad hoc interpreting’ emphasizes spontaneity, but it is usually used to denote interpretation rendered by bilingual non-professionals who want to help in respective circumstances (Jiang 2007). Media, TV, and telephone interpreting focus on the medium employed in the process, while sign language interpretation implies the use of the sign language, i.e. interpretation between two different semiotic systems (Jiang 2007). Moreover, the definition of roles of community interpreters becomes even more complicated if to take into account that some kinds of interpretation may overlap, for instance, legal interpreting and community interpreting, in addition to complications caused by development and publication of quite different and even sometimes contrary codes of ethics for community interpreters. The following section of the paper is aimed at summarizing and analyzing the most wide-spread roles of community interpreters as defined by interpreters themselves, professional unions, and researchers.

Role of Community Interpreters and Debates Relating Thereto

The role of an interpreter in community interpreting continues to be a subject of debates. There are various views on this issue and these views vary depending on situational context, parties involved, and the country where the interpretation takes place. Thus, there are proponents of an idea that community interpreters should perform the role of “translating machines”, i.e. delivering verbatim interpretation of everything said by all parties involved without taking into account the cultural and other differences (Leanza 2005). Such a view is the most prevailing in the context of court interpreting when judges may demand an almost word-for-word translation. However, such approach remains highly debated and doubted among professional interpreters and researchers who point out the impossibility and invalidity of such interpreting performance due to the lack of consistency and inability to convey the original intended message in the language of translation in such case. Thus, the overwhelming majority of contemporary professional interpreters and researchers in this field tend to suggest that community interpreting “can facilitate intercultural communication, construct bridges between different symbolic universes and facilitate the process of migrant integration” (Leanza 2005). Various researchers have been engaged in determining the role of community interpreters over the years and some of their findings are presented below with a special focus on their universal applicability to community interpreting in general.

European and American code of ethics for community interpreters seem to be quite different in terms of their emphasis on the interpreter’s role. The Finnish code of ethics for community interpreters complies with other European codes of this kind developed and published by professional unions. Thus, according to it, one of the main requirements for interpreters is to be “impartial, remain outsiders to the situation, and do not let their personal attitudes or opinions affect their work” (Pekanheimo, Kauhala, & Ojala 2013). They are to take into account “the nature of the situation”, but should not care for any other tasks but interpretation itself (Pekanheimo, Kauhala, & Ojala 2013). Besides, they “do not leave out anything or add anything irrelevant” (Pekanheimo, Kauhala, & Ojala 2013). The code does not mention anything relating to cultural mediation and intends to ensure that interpreters remain a quite detached third party in any instance.

In turn, the Canadian National Standard Guide for Community Interpreting Services emphasizes the significance of the interpreter possessing highly developed linguistic and interpretation competence, but it also provides the following role that community interpreters should adhere to: “The interpreter must be able to understand and convey cultural nuances without assuming the role of advocate or cultural broker” (Healthcare Interpretation Network 2007). There are virtually no other mentioning of cultural mediation role of interpreters, yet the guide encourages them to do anything they deem reasonable to ensure effective communication of the parties, which implies that interpreters are not prohibited from taking a more active role than an impartial verbatim translating machine. However, this point of cultural mediation and assumption of the role of advocates by some community interpreters is rather controversial as well. Many governmental agencies, especially the ones dealing with asylum decisions, are reluctant to communicate openly with interpreters and provide them with relevant preparatory information as they consider them to be advocates of immigrants though as a rule this is not the case. Therefore, not only community interpreters, but also institutions they are working with require clear determination of the interpreter’s role in order to avoid confusion and prevent conflicts in the future.

Many researchers suppose that community interpreting should not be entirely impartial and detached and offer their typologies of community interpreter’s roles. One of the studies distinguishes five possible roles that community interpreters can perform in the healthcare setting, including those of translator, cultural informant, culture broker or cultural mediator, advocate, and bilingual professional (Leanza 2005). The study points out that the role of a translator is least efficient in the healthcare setting as both sides of the communication often require interpreter’s assistance for understanding cultural differences and making quick decisions that would benefit all stakeholders. Roles of cultural informant and cultural mediator are most frequently needed to “help both parties arrive at a meaningful shared model” (Leanza 2005). The role of the advocate is intended for interpreters who prefer to be actively involved in rendition of social services and go beyond their interpreting functions as “in a value-conflict situation, the interpreter may choose to defend the patient against the institution” (Leanza 2005). The matter is that real-life situations do not allow interpreters to remain translators only; as their primary function is to ensure effective and productive communication despite any cultural differences that the parties may have, hence necessitating them to perform a role of a cultural mediator to a varying extent.

Most recent studies have moved beyond the debate on whether interpreters play any role in community interpreting different from other types of interpretation in the debate on what this role should be in particular and what consequences it might have. Hence, the overwhelming majority of researches agree that it is up to the community interpreter to decide whether to “actively involve himself, or abstain from such involvement” (Jacobsen 2009). The practice also proves that interpreters assume more active roles than official norms and guidelines prescribe. Cecilia Wadensjo supposes that community interpreter’s role lies in being both a translator and coordinator (Jacobsen 2009). Interpreters adopt various roles concerning reception and production “as a reaction to the principal participants’ assumptions” about their proper role (Jacobsen 2009).

Another study by Leanza defines four primary roles of community interpreters, including those of a system agent, community agent, integration agent, and linguistic agent with the latter being deemed least effective in most settings (Jacobsen 2009). A study by Hale considers the question of the interpreter’s role to be highly controversial because of the “lack of a strong, unified profession that could counteract the different role expectations of users of interpreting services” (Hale 2008). Despite this admission, Hale distinguishes five roles of community interpreters: “advocate for the minority language speaker”, “advocate for the institution or service provider”, gatekeeper, “facilitator of communication”, and “faithful renderer of others’ utterances” (Hale 2008). The choice of the role partially depends on the interpreter’s positioning and level of engagement and partially on the community’s expectations and requirements. In any case, an interpreter should carefully consider possible consequences of assuming this or that role in community interpreting so as to benefit the parties involved to the greatest extent possible without inflicting harm or unnecessary stress on oneself. Thus, the process of choosing and performing a particular role in community interpreting may be considered a search for the balance between personal interests and ethics of an interpreter and interests and expectations of the two parties involved in the interaction and requiring his/her assistance.

Most researchers agree that community interpreters should not “act as mindless machines”, but they cannot agree on definite roles that such interpreters can and should assume (Jacobsen 2009). The most reasonable approach practiced by many successful US community interpreters is to assume different roles in different settings and with account to current circumstances. For instance, the healthcare setting often calls for cultural mediation and a higher level of interpreter’s engagement in the interaction process, while court interpreting remains among the most impartial and verbatim types of community interpreting. Moreover, interpreters should be able to assess potential consequences of their assuming different roles and whether these roles would be beneficial or detrimental for the communication process. Thus, as proved by a wide variety of approaches to the raised issue, even discussion and presentation of various roles interpreters may play in community interpreting is a highly subjective and controversial process.

Community Interpreter Training

The question of interpreter’s roles in community interpreting is essential nowadays and should be given appropriate consideration in the process of training of future professional interpreters who want to work in the field. Therefore, future community interpreters should be educated on possible roles they may take and consequences of such decisions. So far, most training programs focus on technicalities of the interpretation process, as well as peculiarities of various settings where interpreters may work. However, it is essential to cover a range of roles allowable within these different settings. For instance, the Twin Cities Interpreter Project launched in Minnesota focuses on peculiarities of community interpreting in various institutional settings (Nicholson 1994). Other American community interpreting training programs and related institutions include the Bilingual Access Line, the Center for Interpretation and Translation, the University of Delaware Interpretation Program, and some programs implemented by governmental agencies (Nicholson 1994). A huge progress of these programs lies in the fact that they focus on ensuring smooth cooperation of interpreters and institutions’ representatives, hence providing at least a vague outline of a role community interpreters are going to perform when cooperating with these institutions.

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Further Studies Relating to Community Interpreting and its Role

Community interpreting remains a relatively young field of translation studies that has been recently recognized as completely different in functions and underlying features from conference and other kinds of interpreting. Therefore, it has to be thoroughly studied in the future with special focus on controversial and debated issues, including the role of interpreters in community interpreting. Moreover, respective and appropriate codes of ethics should be developed for community interpreters as the existing ones resemble those intended for conference interpreters because of their emphasis on impartial and detached nature of interpretation. The above studies, as well as real-life experiences of community interpreters prove that it is not possible to follow the prescribed official guidelines as they do not comply with expectations of stakeholders and contextual needs of the interpretation. The main function of any interpreter is to convey the intended message by means of the language of translation, i.e. pragmatics is given preference over verbatim translation of lexemes. Furthermore, many institutional settings that require services of a community interpreter do not need merely an adequate translation of information, but rather cultural mediation and explanation of some cultural norms and behaviors that one or both parties find strange and incomprehensible. Globalization and intense migration have made community interpretation of high demand in various institutions and interpreter’s roles should be developed and explained to all stakeholders according to the current needs. Therefore, existing studies on community interpreting may be deemed insufficient in this respect and further researches on the role of community interpreters have to be carried out taking into account practical experiences and opinions of interpreters, communities, and institutions involved in the process.

The present paper has provided a brief overview of the problematic and controversial issue of the role that interpreters play and should play in the process of community interpreting. Taking into consideration available literature and various viewpoints on the issue, it may be concluded that community interpreters cannot afford remaining mere translating machines that provide an utterly impartial and detached verbatim translation. On the contrary, they should be able to perform a variety of roles depending on the setting and circumstances. The most essential requirement for community interpreters is to possess cultural competence in both original language and the language of interpretation in order to be able to bridge the gap between the parties. Moreover, community interpreters often work with people who are not used to interpretation of any kind, hence being unaware of its specific features. Community interpreters should therefore be able to adequately assess and respond to the needs of the parties they are translating for with a view of ensuring effective communication. However, universal typology of interpreters’ possible and preferable roles with regards to community interpreting would significantly facilitate and improve their work all over the world as today this information is insufficient and in some cases prevents interpreters from performing their duties professionally.

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