Risks When a Client Corrects an Interpreter

I invited him to a side conference so I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of the students. I pointed out the error. What happened next was totally unexpected…


I was teaching a photography class to a group from South America. My Spanish skills within the photography specialty were okay, but I preferred an English-to-Spanish interpreter to get it right.

I was in my late 20’s (some 30 years ago). He had 20+ years experience as a trained professional interpreter.

I had worked with many interpreters. Normally, a teaching session through an interpreter was like a dance, a tango. I’d speak a complete idea and pause. An interpreter picked up the cadence and recreated my idea. This teaching session, however, wasn’t going as smoothly as I expected.

This teaching session was far from normal. It wasn’t going as smoothly as I expected.

This interpreter didn’t pick up my cadence. Instead of recreating me during my pause, he prompted me to continue. I didn’t want this awkward relationship to affect the photography students. I continued… Time and again when I paused, he prompted me to continue as though he were a student absorbing the lesson.

Then at some point, he asked me to pause. Apparently, his “in buffer” was full. He finally spoke everything I’d said. It was like he was trying to learn photography for himself and become the teacher. I adapted to his pace and continued the session.

Then it happened. I had presented an important point about the camera’s “f-stop” aperature. I spoke the phrases,

“The larger the number, the smaller the hole. The smaller the number, the large the hole.”

The interpreter continued absorbing. Then he stopped me and started speaking. Somewhere in the middle of the many sentences he had collected, he got to that phrase. He said,

“Los números más grandes son agujeros más grandes. Los números pequeños son agujeros más pequeños.”

Please forgive my Spanish as I try to recreate in writing what he said. I think you can get my point. For those who don’t grasp Spanish, my interpreter said, “The large numbers are large holes. The small numbers are small holes.”

That’s exactly the opposite of what I had said!

I wasn’t confident in my Spanish to teach the entire course but it was good enough to detect that blatant error. Some of the students had understood my English and they looked confused.

I stopped. The risks were too high to just roll the dice. The students needed the right information. I invited him to a side conference so I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of the students. I pointed out the error…

If you’re an interpreter reading this, what would you have done in that moment when a client identified your error in the privacy of a side-bar consultation?

* This is an updated version of the article first published August 19, 2019 on Linkedin's Pulse, Risks When a Client Corrects an Interpreter's Errors.

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