Often being bilingual is confused with being able to interpret professionally, or being able to evaluate interpretation. Sometimes law firms hire bilingual paralegals to help aid in communication with their clients. Similarly, many doctors’ offices have bilingual assistants to aid in communication with their LEP patients. Even though such an employee is a great asset and can be helpful when interacting with the client, they should be wary of providing interpretation, especially for any depositions or inside the exam room.
Interpreting requires extensive training and a rich linguistic background. Saying that anyone bilingual can interpret is like saying that anybody with hands can paint or sculpture. An interpreter does not only interpret the words literally, but the meaning behind them, tone of voice, mood, and body language cues. Interpreters also receive training in specific areas like medicine or law to familiarize themselves with an industry specific vocabulary and concepts.
Another common practice, especially for uncommon and rare languages, is to bring in a family member or friend to interpret for the LEP. However, this solution is plagued with the same issues, if not more, than using a bilingual employee. Most likely the individual is not familiar with interpreting ethics or standards of practice and they may not know necessary specialized terminology (e.g., legal or medical) to provide accurate interpretation. Conflict of interest or certain bias also come into play when a family member or friend is utilized for the interpreting role.
The same is true for document translation. A bilingual may be an invaluable resource to help determine which documents may need a thorough translation. However, just being bilingual does not make someone a qualified translator.
Certain linguistic nuances are very difficult to translate and sometimes the translation will not be literal or verbatim. It is important to understand that the goal of the linguist is not to translate “word for word” but “meaning for meaning,” especially when dealing with language or culture specific expressions that do not translate literally.
Both interpretation and translation go beyond being able to use two or more languages in a conversational and/or professional setting. Linguists spend years of training and experience to obtain the necessary skills and expertise to be able to interpret accurately. It would be a disservice to the LEP individual to use an unqualified bilingual, especially in legal and medical settings where the stakes are high.