Tip Sheets

Reporting with media interpreters 101

By Margarita Martín-Hidalgo Birnbaum

Steve Mines

Katty Kauffman

Jyoti Madhusoodanan

When Jyoti Madhusoodanan worked with an American Sign Language interpreter for a story about deaf graduate students in the sciences, she didn’t know what to expect. She hadn’t used an interpreter for interviews before then, and wondered whether the responses would sound rehearsed.

Once the work began, Madhusoodanan said the interaction with her six sources was seamless. That may have been in part because Madhusoodanan shared some of the topics and even specific questions with the interpreter and the sources before the interviews, which she did over a video conference platform.

“I don’t think we lost any spontaneity because of it,” said Madhusoodanan, a science writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Preparing for the interviews in other ways helped too. Madhusoodanan said she read numerous articles that offered suggestions on reporting with language services professionals. Most were about working with interpreters in conflict zones, but Madhusoodanan said the one tip that stood out to her was “to focus on the source because it’s the source’s story, not the interpreter’s story.” Keeping eye contact with the sources allowed her to pick up on emotional cues, she said.

Legal and conference interpreters Katty Kauffman, who has worked for BBC and Reuters journalists, and Steve Mines, who has worked for reporters from The New York Times, have useful tips of their own. Because media interpreters play a critical role in gathering accurate and complete information, Kauffman and Mines say journalists should have a set of standard practices to safeguard the integrity of their reporting. Newsrooms, Kauffman said, would benefit greatly from having a how-to guide for working with interpreters.

Here are some best practices Kauffman and Mines say reporters should apply, as well as issues they should keep in mind when working with interpreters.

  1. Hire professionals. Kauffman, a Spanish speaker who has worked for secretaries-general of the United Nations, said reporters should hire career interpreters, and preferably, someone with a college degree who has general knowledge of codes of ethics. She recommends hiring interpreters who are native speakers of the language the source speaks — or who are almost as fluent as native speakers — because they generally are more familiar with nuances that may be overlooked by people who learned it as a second language.

    When looking for an interpreter, professional groups are a good place to start. Some have membership directories that allow you to look for interpreters specialized in a field. The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters, for example, has a public directory that allows you to search by language, certification type, and location, among other criteria. The American Translators Association’s public directory allows you to search by specialty. You can search for deaf language professionals on the interpreter directory maintained by the National Association of the Deaf and National Deaf Interpreting.

  2. Share information about the assignment. Mines, who has worked for the U.S. Department of State, may be more familiar than most interpreters about working with reporters because he hired them when he was a stringer in China. Mines, who is based in Austin, said that “the best interpreter is the most briefed interpreter— and the interpreter that understands where their limits of their background information may hamper or may benefit their understanding of what they’re having to interpret.”

  3. Talk about expectations. Mines’ reporting experiences in China also taught him that journalists and interpreters must have clear job-related ground rules before going into any assignment. That’s in part because many journalists may not have experience working with interpreters or, if they do, they may not have reasonable or appropriate expectations of language services professionals, said Mines, who is fluent in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

  4. Go over what’s off and on the record. There are matters of confidentiality Mines said journalists must address with interpreters before interviews. Because some sources share sensitive information with reporters, Mines said interpreters should know what may be on or off the record, such as information about medical diagnoses, criminal activity, and rape incidents.

  5. Interpreters aren’t jacks-of-all-trades. Regardless of the assignment or work environment, interpreters must focus their energy on rendering an accurate, impartial and complete interpretation, said Kauffman, who splits her time between Santiago, Chile and Washington, D.C. She discourages journalists from asking interpreters to be their fixers, drivers or even stringers because they risk making serious mistakes, crossing lines, and affecting the integrity of the information they collect.

  6. Interpreters aren’t cultural brokers, either. Now and then, there’s room for interpreters to act as cultural brokers. But Mines stressed that interpreters should only assume that role if reporters ask them to do so. And Kauffman said that when the interpreter is asked to change roles, the reporter should let sources know that the language professional now has a different job. “Just like in court, the perception of the press is fundamental,” Kauffman said.

For more information about reporting with interpreters, check out the resources below.