Why Emotional Intelligence Matters in Interpreting

By United Language Group

Interpreters play an essential role in helping people who speak different languages communicate in a wide range of scenarios, such as business meetings, emergency medical calls, and legal support. In addition to their role of translating, interpreters must also interpret human behavior and emotions in the most effective way possible. This is when emotional intelligence comes into play.

Emotional intelligence is an individual’s ability to identify and express one’s own emotions, while also understanding and influencing the emotions of others. It is especially important in high-pressure situations, when understanding others’ emotions could be the difference between success and failure. In a medical environment, emotional intelligence could mean having a good bedside manner, while in a legal support role, it could mean effectively sharing the facts of an emotionally charged case with legal counsel.

Many interpreting sessions, especially in a business environment, will likely not have the emotional weight of a legal or medical situation. However, even in these circumstances, an interpreter must be aware of emotional intelligence to help both parties achieve the desired outcome. Here are a few reasons why emotional intelligence matters when interpreting.

Interpreters deal with emotionally sensitive topics

Communicating emotionally sensitive topics while speaking the same language can be challenging enough. Add multiple languages into the mix and the stakes (and chances of error) become much higher.

Interpreters involved in a legal case may have to help victims recount trauma to a lawyer or a judge. Medical interpreters may have to tell patients about a life-threatening diagnosis, or respond to an emergency medical call. Interpreters will have to exhibit emotional intelligence by remaining calm in the face of a stressful situation, demonstrating empathy toward the people they are helping (such as a doctor and a patient), and giving the individuals in the interpreting session space to express, rather than suppress, their emotions.

Interpreters must understand linguistic nuances and maintain cultural sensitivity

Interpreting sessions do not have to involve emotionally sensitive topics to require emotional intelligence.

Different languages have different levels of formality, and an interpreter will need to use his/her emotional intelligence to adapt to the appropriate level of formality so as not to offend anyone.

For example, the English language does not have an “honorific” form in the way that languages like Korean and Japanese do. If an interpreter is taking part in a business meeting between a Japanese client and a British client, but the British client is using informal English because he/she intends to convey friendliness, but the interpreter may use the honorific form when translating to Japanese to show respect instead—conveying the British businessperson’s intended goodwill appropriately adapted for the audience.

Interpreters must use appropriate body language

Language interpretation can take place in person, over video, or over the phone. In cases where the interpreter can be seen, active and engaged body language indicate that the interpreter is listening carefully to both parties and trying to help them come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

An interpreter should always maintain eye contact, and show other signs of understanding, listening, and empathy—leaning forward slightly, nodding, and smiling if appropriate. By contrast, actions such as folding arms, sitting too far back, and not looking the client in the eye can make clients feel like they aren’t being listened to and the interpreting session might be ineffective.

Interpreters must make the client feel at ease

Interpreters who show emotional intelligence can foster trust and help clients feel more at ease. The more comfortable clients feel with an interpreter, the more information they may be willing to share—both with the interpreter and with the second party they are addressing.

An interpreter can create an environment based on trust and understanding when he or she allows non-native speaking individuals to freely share their thoughts and emotions. Emotional intelligence of an interpreter is the foundation to successfully navigating the challenges of communicating across languages and cultures. 

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