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What Is Community Interpreting?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Community interpreting is a job or role that includes interpreting language for individuals or small groups in a local community. Those who use community interpreting services are often sets of immigrants in a community that is foreign to them. Community interpreters help these individuals to function within a society that speaks a language that is not their own, and one that they may not fully understand.

In terms of the specific type of interpreting that experts identify as community interpreting, this interpreter role can also be called liaison interpreting, or public-service interpreting. These labels speak to the idea that community interpreters are providing an essential service to the groups of people that they serve. Some may also call this type of interpreting “triangle” or “bilateral” interpreting, in that the interpreter plays a third role between the customer, or client, and language sources such as local officials, doctors, or others providing services in a local language.

A question that often arises is whether community interpreting is best done by native speakers of the local language, or of the foreign language. In truth, this really depends upon the specific skills and experience of the individual interpreter, as well as the situation for which the service is needed. In more technical scenarios, a native of the local language may have an advantage, since in order to accurately translate crucial or subtle information, he must first of all be able to perfectly understand it from the source; even if the translation is not totally idiomatic, the facts may be more likely to be accurately rendered. On the other hand, a native of the foreign language might be more suited to translating more general information in front of a slightly larger group, where a more idiomatic translation would be more valued.

Likewise, some also point to a lack of training in a significant number of community interpreting roles. While interpreters who have been specifically trained for this job role may not understand all of the idiosyncrasies of their clients, they benefit from knowing the native dialect and cultural pointers out of the community at large, which helps them to provide more orientation for immigrants or others in need of community interpreters. By contrast, untrained interpreters, often acting as volunteers, may be more familiar and comfortable to their clients, but may not have the same access and the same ability to produce successful interpretations.

One of the main benefits of working in this type of interpreting role is that community interpreters rarely speak formally to a crowd of people. This type of formal “conference” interpreting has some specific challenges. One is that the interpreter may be asked to remember long sentences or paragraphs at one time. There is also the inherent challenge of speaking clearly to a crowd of people. Community interpreters do not have to deal with these challenges and the style of their services is usually relatively informal.

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