Expectation vs Reality: How to Minimize Frustration in Unexpected Interpreting Scenarios

Have you ever shown up to an interpreting assignment only to find out it was not at all what you expected? Perhaps a quick “follow up” appointment was really a mental health assignment, or a “meeting” was actually a meeting with a lawyer to navigate a difficult legal proceeding?

As interpreters, we have developed expert-level skills in understanding unspoken (or unsigned) communication. It has become nearly second nature to absorb the message, adapt it to meet the register as well as cultural, linguistic, and environmental needs of the moment, and facilitate real-time communication. The complexity of this task cannot be overstated.


We prepare for each assignment to the best of our abilities, and when something completely unexpected happens, it can be difficult to navigate professionally. There are a couple of ways to approach this: prevention or response.


In an ideal world, preventing a misunderstanding is key. It is in all parties’ best interest for the interpreter to have as much pertinent information as possible before the assignment. It is incumbent upon the agency contact to educate the consumers about the reasons an interpreter needs to know the nature of an assignment.

Unexpected Interpreting Scenarios

Preparing specialized vocabulary and developing strategies for rigorous or rich content is paramount for high-quality interpretation. In addition, protecting the interpreters’ integrity by not knowingly placing them in a situation beyond their skill set is an essential part of the coordinating process.

If you’re not sure of the scope of the assignment, you can prevent confusion and frustration by trying the following:

1) Ask questions! Ask the interpreting agency if there is any further information about the nature or content of the assignment. If there is any doubt, ask the agency if it is possible to seek clarification from the original requestors.

2) Do your own research. It sounds very basic, but once you receive the location details, do a quick online search to be sure you know where you’re headed and what services that location offers. If you are not a mental health interpreter, and the location is a counseling center, contact your agency right away to work through the concerns before you arrive.

3) Do NOT accept assignments if you feel unready. You are an independent contractor, and while agencies want to help you grow and stretch your skills, it is your responsibility to know and clearly communicate your limits. Even the most seasoned, certified interpreters have some “no go” assignments, and that professional boundary is crucial in order to appropriately follow the Code of Professional Conduct.

4) Practice your craft deliberately. If you are feeling a little apprehensive about how you’ll accurately convey the information, tap into your predictive skills and find deeper information about the topics you’re likely to encounter. Is the assignment at a cardiology clinic? Great! Look up resources regarding the circulatory system. Is it training for a warehouse job? You can polish the clarity of your presentation of OSHA and workplace safety.

This is all well and good in a perfect world, where requests for further information are met with clear responses every time… but what about those times when you’ve already arrived at the job site, and things are not at all what you expected? The key is how you respond. YOU are the experienced interpreting professional, so it is your job to help the clients navigate this unexpected hiccup with grace. As the linguist, you have the tools to be the diplomat that guides everyone in unfamiliar territory. 

Once things have gone awry, how can you respond professionally to ensure the best possible outcome?

1) Stay calm. It is not an intentional or malicious error that placed you in the assignment – it was a simple mistake or misunderstanding of what was actually needed. The blame game serves no one, and is likely to heighten tensions in an already fraught situation.

2) Contact the agency. They absolutely need to know that the service requested was incorrect or lacked crucial data. Let them know how you’re feeling (overwhelmed and unable to interpret this assignment, or perhaps surprised, but feel capable of doing the interpretation justice?) – the more they know, the better they can support you and know what to look for in future requests from the clients. Talk with your agency about expectations regarding assignments that are not in your individual wheelhouse.

3) Keep all parties informed and educated. Remember – this client may not be familiar with the interpreting process, and may not immediately understand why a “simple” meeting with a lawyer to draw up papers genuinely NEEDS a legal interpreter. Try to use terms from their specialty to draw parallels (just as you would not use a corporate attorney to practice family law, interpreters can be similarly specialized). If all else fails, cite the Code of Professional Conduct, and explain your ethical duty as an interpreter.

Alternately, if you feel comfortable interpreting, but the assignment was not at all what was expected, gently inform all parties that it is important to disclose accurate information to the agency to ensure the best fit for future interpreting requests.

4) Follow up with the agency when you leave. Whether you have completed the interpretation or ethically removed yourself, the agency will want to be sure that you’re doing well, and they need to know how to follow up with the client. Rescheduling and reinforcing your ethical boundaries is important, and the sooner the agency can support both you and the client in that way, the more impact it is likely to carry.

In the end, our professional reputation as interpreters is often tied to our flexibility in handling less than ideal situations. We already have the skills and in-depth knowledge to plumb the depths of language, but we must also hone our abilities in critical thinking and diplomacy in order to be the very best interpreters we can be.
How do YOU handle the unexpected? Share your thoughts in the comments!

both you and the client in that way, the more impact it is likely to carry.
In the end, our professional reputation as interpreters is often tied to our flexibility in handling less than ideal situations. We already have the skills and in-depth knowledge to plumb the depths of language, but we must also hone our abilities in critical thinking and diplomacy in order to be the very best interpreters we can be.

How do YOU handle the unexpected? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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