This is a guest post by my colleague and a good friend, Ewa Erdmann (@transliteria). Ewa is a qualified and experienced freelance English-Polish translator with both linguistics and legal background. She provides translation, interpreting, website localization, editing and proofreading services for individuals and businesses. You can learn more about Ewa if you visit her website transliteria.com. And I absolutely love Ewa's blog where she shares her experience with the readers. Happy reading! And comments are welcome, as always :)
For the last few months, I have had a pleasure to be involved in a large number of interpreting jobs within the HR specialisation. Sometimes it just happens that - for one reason or another – there is an accumulation of translation or interpreting jobs in a given area in a short period of time, and this is exactly what happened to me.
Being intensively involved in the employment specialisation as an interpreter, I have witnessed a large number of difficult situations within various companies caused purely by the language barrier or which could be easily resolved if not for the problems with communication. Observing both frustrated employees and HR managers who were facing sometimes very tricky decisions they had to make, I became even more aware of two important issues:
1. The language barrier not only poses a significant hindrance when it comes to problem solving but it can considerably harm the position of both an employer and an employee. For example, it may lead to situations where both parties feel they have been offended or even victimised. Then it is even more difficult and at times impossible to explain what the problem is, to present each position of both parties, not to mention achieving mutual understanding and desired solution at this stage.
In some observed cases, it were the little everyday problems with communication or small misunderstandings that, when accumulated over time, consequently led to a serious dispute or to chronic lack of understanding. Especially worrying is the fact that occasionally one or both parties fail to make any effort to understand each other. What is more, it also happens that one of the parties (usually the employee) pretends that they don’t understand what they are told, therefore, intentionally flouting any threads of communication that could be tied.
With no attempt of at least one of the parties to establish any verbal communication on every day basis, there is no or a poor chance to achieve mutual understanding when it comes to solving a problem. At this point, there are two options: either the employer-employee relation is being resolved leaving one of the parties in a disadvantaged position or an interpreter is being called in to facilitate resolving the dispute and to re-establish mutual understanding. This leads us to the second issue, namely:
2. Given the gravity of the situation, the interpreter’s performance may play a decisive role in the resolution of the problem and, by the same token, determine someone’s future, e.g. whether an employee will be dismissed or not. Therefore, the problems interpreters encounter need to be dealt with efficiently and flawlessly. Now, what are the difficulties an interpreter has to face when mediating between an employer and an employee?
answer not related to the question – in an event of a dispute, a complaint or an appeal, there is a need to resolve some issues and it usually is conducted in an answer-question manner. As straightforward as it sounds, an interpreter can face a problem even at this stage: an employer asks a simple question, which is then accurately translated by the interpreter, whereas an employee decides to say what they had prepared to say, completely ignoring that this is not related to the question they have just been asked. It usually happens when the communication had been poor for a longer period of time and it brought about complete lack of mutual understanding between the parties. In this case, even though the question employer asked is rather straightforward, the employee starts to refer to some incidents from the past and makes a long speech mentioning all the other problems that have accumulated over time. This significantly hinders the re-establishment of mutual understanding and prolongs the process of resolving the issue. Moreover, since the question remains unanswered, the employer thinks that the message has been inaccurately conveyed by the interpreter.
The role of the interpreter, however, is to translate what has been said and not to interrupt the speaker explaining that they are not actually answering the question, so what happens most of the time is that the question is asked again, this time with a request to provide a clear answer. What interpreters can do to avoid such a situation? Make sure the questions are translated in the possibly most accurate way, triggering the kind of response that is expected by the asker. Even the slightest discrepancy can change the nature of the answer that will be given.
lack of context – even if the information the employee is providing constitutes a relevant response to the question, the way they are communicating the message can be puzzling for the interpreter: some of the issues are mentioned without any context or by way of a mental shortcut. The risk here is that without a broader picture, the message can be mistranslated so the interpreter’s role is to ask for more context in case of any doubt.
jargon – it is common knowledge that every industry has its own jargon and the interpreter’s job is to be familiar with the specific vocabulary and be able to use it. In some cases, however, particular companies have developed their own jargon that is known only to their staff. While this may facilitate communication between the employees, it poses problems to anyone else outside the company. Again, in case of any doubts, the interpreter is obliged to ask for any necessary explanations.
anglicisms – foreign workers in the UK come across English specialist terms related to their work on an everyday basis, and since in most cases they have not encountered them in Polish, they acquired the English ones and interweave them into their everyday speech even when they speak Polish. The problem is that they also slightly modify the pronunciation of these terms, blend them with Polish words or conjugate them according to the Polish grammar rules. In effect, what they come up with is understandable only to them or their Polish co-workers. Interpreters in this case should ask for an explanation.
The language barrier very often poses a threat to healthy relations between English employers and Polish workers. Lack of understanding and poor communication make solving any problems particularly tricky, and in some cases impossible. Interpreters are then called in to help resolve any arguments and re-establish mutual understanding. Yet, in order to accomplish the task, they have to provide a flawless performance despite the abovementioned difficulties. Once they encounter any of the problems, they should be aware of how to deal with them, i.e. make sure they get the broad picture of what is being said, be familiar with jargons characteristic for a particular industry and, when need be, ask for a necessary explanation.