Interpreting is not just simply converting the words spoken in one language into another. Interpreting is a skill above and apart from the ability to speak and understand two languages. You must fully understand not only what the person is saying, but also the reason they are saying it, the background to and purpose of the conversation or meeting, and the nuances of the words chosen to make a point. Then, you must convey all of this quickly and accurately in another language. Interpreting is more like explaining what somebody has said than just repeating it in another language.
If phrases like “being in hot water” or “being on the same page” are translated directly into another language word for word, it would lead to confusion at best, and quite likely to a grave misunderstanding.
An interpreter should be a transparent presence during the conversation. Ideally, the two (or more) people speaking different languages should be able to converse as well as if they were doing so in their own language.
However, there is an often held misconception about interpreters. If is often thought that they are neutral, unbiased, and have no input in the conversation. This is almost never the case. Think about it. The interpreter is almost always being paid by one of the parties and is a de facto member of their negotiation team. They are there to help their employers—the people paying their fee for the day—achieve their goals.
So, it makes sense to ensure that you have your own interpreter with you even if you are told that the other party will be providing an interpreter. Before going to the meeting where the interpreter’s services will be used, you should sit down with them and explain the background to and purpose of the meeting. You should give them an idea of who the other person or people will be, and what type of issues or problems are likely to arise during the conversation. Even if the interpreter is just being hired for the day, consider them a member of your team, and remember that the level of their service will go a long way to deciding the outcome of that meeting.
People from the office who speak a little of the other language, or college students looking for some extra cash are often used as interpreters. This is usually a big mistake. The probability of a meeting going the way you want it to is much higher if you use a professional interpreter than if you use the closest or cheapest person you can find.
In addition to fluency in both languages, knowledge of the technical terms used in the field, an understanding of the other person’s culture, and a full understanding of the purpose of the meeting are vital to successful interpreting. Good interpreters are not cheap, but they are worth it!