An interpreter uses tone matching while on a phone call with a doctor and a patient with a non-English language preference.

Hold My Hand from Miles Away

I speak to a distressed mother, faced with the unimaginable agony of a medical lose-lose decision. My voice slows down, and I deliberately take longer, deeper breaths in between my sentences. My tone is lower, and my voice is slower, more steadfast, more deliberate.

My eyes lock in on the mother in the corner of my VRI screen, forcing her to focus on me, pulling her from ruminations of paths she had never thought she would have to consider.

I am speaking this way because that is how the provider is speaking. The provider is the one slowing down; I am just relaying that same intentionality in another language for them.

Often how the information is presented is just as important as what that information is.

This is why, after 25+ years of interpreting filled with many difficult conversations, I am convinced now more than ever that to truly excel in our profession, we must learn the subtle techniques of tone and inflection matching.

Related: Eat Your Veggies and Respect Your Elders: How to Be Effective When Interpreting for Our Aging Population

Interpreting Is More than Semantics

Hear me out!

I am not talking about parodic mimicking. Without discernment and cultural application, such an approach may be misunderstood, be offensive, and completely undermine the goals that the English speaker may have had for the encounter.

I am simply asking you to consider that we deal with more than semantics in our profession. VRI interpreters often — though not always — have the benefit of witnessing nonverbal communication cues. OPI interpreters must rely on tone alone to grasp the entire meaning of the speaker’s message.

Regardless of our modality, it is our goal to accurately interpret the source language to the other party, conveying the tone, intent, and spirit of the original message.

Just like interpreting a word by carefully choosing the correct synonym to fit a particular context, interpreting the tone behind the message requires an interpreter to be flexible, knowledgeable, and culturally aware. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about tone matching.

Match Meaning-for-Meaning, Not Pitch-for-Pitch

It is true that some languages naturally sound “harsher” than others to native English speakers. A knowledgeable and nimble interpreter will assess the true meaning of the original utterance, considering what the non-English speaker meant when they spoke, and then will use the appropriate tone to convey the same intent in English.

Follow the Lead of the Speaker

It is not up to the interpreter to decide how the information should be presented. It is important to remember that, as professionals, we should be able to match the emotions of anger, frustration, sadness, etc., even if we personally disagree that the speaker is justified in expressing those emotions. At the end of the day, we need to support their communicative autonomy.

Stay Regulated for Dysregulated People

When things get heated, remember that you can express the speaker’s meaning and emotion to the other party without taking those emotions upon yourself.

Occasionally Tone Down, but Never Tone Up

This is especially true when dealing with escalated situations, such as first response or mental health encounters. Sometimes an interpreter is justified in expressing a certain intent or emotion accurately but with a lower level of intensity. However, you should never escalate the situation by intensifying the emotion through your renditions.

When done correctly, tone and inflection matching will produce better outcomes for all involved parties.

If you’re an interpreter who understands tone matching, we’d love to partner with you! See our careers page for more information.