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Separated by a Common Tongue: Foreclosures Trap Translators in the Middle April 1, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Translation Sites.

Ted Wozniak alerted the GLD list members about an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal Online – and no it isn’t an April Fool’s joke. The article is entitled Separated by a Common Tongue: Foreclosures Trap Translators in the Middle. The title is obviously a mistake, because the article actually features the job of PHONE INTERPRETERS – not translators – and their role in mediating between the financial companies and the growing communities of Asian and Latin American immigrants. It is an interesting article that talks about how business is booming, but it is also generating more stress and guilt trips in the interpreters. Some of my favorite quotes include:

While they once had to do little more than relay a standard sales pitch, now they must mediate in what is frequently a sensitive cross-cultural negotiation.


All the interpreters are allowed to do is translate, word for word. Sometimes that includes insults. “You know where you can shove the house…,” an exasperated homeowner told Spanish-language interpreter Yolanda Almader recently. “We tell our interpreters to interpret everything” uttered by customers, says Craig Wandke, interpreter-operations manager for Language Line. “Profanity is the only exception.”


But translators aren’t allowed to insert their personal feelings into the conversation. The company’s code of ethics bars interpreters from making unsolicited comments, showing bias or volunteering explanations. “We have to remember at all times that we are word movers, not interveners or advocates,” says Mr. Wandke, the interpreter-operations manager. He says the job is hardest on the “most caring individuals” because “they want to clarify above and beyond.”



1. anon - April 1, 2009

I wouldn’t call that a mistake. In the business, I know there is a clear distinction between translator and interpreter, and you could convincingly argue that an article about the business should use its terminology, but the common usage doesn’t necessarily make that distinction.

2. jillsommer - April 1, 2009

I couldn’t disagree with you more, anon. If you read the article there isn’t a single occurrence of the word translator. The author consistently used the term properly. I believe the mistake in the title was the result of a sloppy editor. I for one constantly correct people because they think I am an interpreter when I say I am a translator. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that an esteemed newspaper or magazine, such as the Wall Street Journal, use the proper terminology when writing about a translator or an interpreter. They are after all our target audience – businessmen who need translators. And the two occupations utilize two entirely different skill sets. I am a good translator and a pretty bad interpreter, because I don’t have the verbal language skills and am not silver-tongued and quick with a retort. I prefer to sit behind my desk and find the perfect word. I’m the person who comes up with what I should have said about five or ten minutes later. An interpreter I am not…

3. anon - April 2, 2009

In the common usage, translator means “translator or interpreter”. I agree that “interpreter” would have been better, and it would be more clear if everyone made a distinction between translator and interpreter, but the common usage of “translator” is not wrong just because it is inconvenient. In other words, I agree that it is a poor title for the article, but not an error.

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