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Five tips for working with interpreters

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Interviewing sources with different linguistic backgrounds can present challenges for reporters. Relying on an interpreter can mean missing verbal subtleties like changes in tone, telling word placements and other cues that journalists often use when interviewing subjects.

In a Poynter Online post, reporter Laura Shin offered advice on how to gather accurate information when relying on third-party translations.

Here are IJNet's takeaways:

Choose your translator wisely

Important characteristics to seek in a translator include a strict commitment to accuracy, an appreciation of cultural differences and a thorough knowledge of conversational English. “If your translator has only an academic background in English, their vocabulary will be substantially different from someone who has lived in America and watched a lot of American TV,” New York Times reporter Barry Bearak told Poynter.

Prepare the translator before each interview

Make sure the interpreter is fully prepared by explaining the interview's purpose beforehand, reviewing the questions and discussing any potential cultural roadblocks. "Don’t just use her language skills; also use her cultural knowledge to see whether any age, gender, class or regional differences could hamper the interview," Shin wrote.

Maximize communication with your source

Even though the interpreter is doing most of the direct communicating, it is still important to have maximum contact with the subject to establish intimacy. At the beginning of the interview, ask the source if they speak your native language, and if so, how much. When asking questions, face the source, not the interpreter. "Put the interpreter to the side. You want to be making eye contact with that person as they’re talking, and nod your head, so they’re looking at you," Rajiv Chandrasekaran told Shin. Chandrasekaran was The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004 and covered the war in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.

Listen for summarizations

Sometimes interpreters will give abridged versions of each answer, Shin wrote. "If your source appears to be speaking longer than your interpreter’s translations, ask the interpreter to give you a full translation," she writes. War correspondent Anna Badkhen Badkhen told Shin that if she senses that the translator is summarizing, "she will dissect the answer into parts and repeat them back to the person to make sure she hasn’t missed anything and to give him or her an opportunity to fill in gaps."

Discuss each interview after the fact

Review the session with your interpreter immediately afterward to ask about any potential modifications, and to get his or her opinion on the source's honesty. "I usually ask, ‘So what do you think of who we’ve just talked to?’ And they’re always picking things up that I didn’t pick up," Bearak told Shin.

Read the article from Poynter here.

Poynter Online, IJNet’s partner and the website of the Poynter Institute, is a school serving journalism and democracy for more than 35 years. Poynter offers news and training that fits any schedule, with individual coaching, in-person seminars, online courses, webinars and more.

Photo CC-licensed, courtesy of Horia Varlan on Flickr

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