Six Stories Of CCIP Interpreters In Action

The American University in Cairo
Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program (FMRS)
Cairo Community Interpreters Project (CCIP) presents 

Six Stories Of CCIP Interpreters In Action (Supported By Grants From ICASIT Through The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) 

Story no.1 – Interpreter Confidentiality
Story no.2 – Clinical Words & Related Cultural Values
Story no.3 – Interpreter and Varying Age-Groups
Story no. 4 – Interpreting for Pre-Literate Refugees
Story no. 5 – Multiple Interpreters for Public Seminars
Story no. 6 – Multiple Interpreters, Multiple Languages Conference on Family Planning

Story no. 1 – Interpreter Confidentiality

An interpreter helps a refugee tell an event that was central to her claim for refugee status that she never mentioned to anyone. He found it really hard to convince her that he would tell nobody but her lawyer about it.


Refugees waiting for interviews

My name is Amina. Six months ago, I walked into a UNHCR interview room, I was feeling pretty much at loss. Here I am, I thought, another pointless interview, what for, I wonder. How could I ever speak about what happened to me?

In Somalia, when people find out that that happened to you, you’re out. An outcast. I sat down, and the interviewer introduced me to the usual male interpreter. Why is it that you can never find a female Somali interpreter? As soon as the interviewer demanded to know what happened to me that made me flee my family and then my country, I felt like I wanted to throw up. Within hours the whole community would know.

As if I didn’t know Somali men. Always spying, always ready to judge their women. What happened after that, I cannot explain. The interpreter must’ve made a sign to the interviewer, who busied himself with the computer. He spoke to me slowly and carefully. He told me he understood my fear, but I should not be afraid, he would never ever tell anyone what I tell the interviewer. He also told me that he is a professional interpreter, he has been trained at the AUC, and he believes in his job and the importance of respecting everybody, no matter what they are or did.

I don’t know why I believed him, I just know that I first cried and started telling my story. My husband’s friend, a policeman, forced me to do it. I cried more. I found myself in the waiting room. The interpreter came in to speak to someone, and I noticed he ignored me. Recently, I met the interpreter at a wedding, and he pretended he does not know me. I wish I could say thank you for all he has done for me. I’ve been recognized as a refugee, and might be able to be resettled to the US.

Not only he behaved professionally. He also taught me never to judge. 

Story no. 2 – Clinical Words and Related Cultural Values

A trained interpreter explains the cultural values of the word “depression” to a doctor who had hired an incompetent translator.


Ethiopia is my country. I’ve been living in Cairo for a couple of years, and have gone through a number of interviews. Never had much faith in interpreters, to be honest. They all seem fine when you talk to them at the coffee shop downtown, I can do this and that, and don’t worry, you’re in good hand, and the like. I haven’t heard about many of them who do actually live up to your expectations, and I myself has always been disappointed by what I saw in most of the interview room I went through.

Anyway, I’ve got to say that one lucky encounter really made me change my mind. The doctor at the refugee health care center in Zamalek – a woman –  was going on and on about what I do and I don’t. I couldn’t believe it when she told me she thinks I’m a bit mental and I need to take a prescription. I looked at the interpreter not knowing what to say. I was furious. Is it ever possible that doctors are so incompetent in this country?

I told the interpreter I want to get out of here, and don’t even dream of translating this. The doctor must’ve noticed I was nervous, and asked the interpreter to step out for a second. She made a call and another Ethiopian came in. I know him because I went to a community meeting he organized, where he told us that he just graduated from some AUC course for interpreters and was now ready to translate for us if we needed him.

He asked me what the other interpreter had told me. He then asked me to be patient for a second, that he would talk to the doctor. He got back to me in a couple of minutes, and explained that the doctor didn’t mean to say I’m crazy. He told me that he used a word which we don’t have in Ethiopia, and the other interpreter didn’t know how to translate it. After that, we started from scratch.

I’m now seeing a therapist, I’m not taking any pill, and my relationship with the doctor has improved so much, as I have the feeling she understands my problems. When I make an appointment with her I make sure that “my” favorite interpreter is available. He’s always very discreet, calm, and never tries to speak on my behalf. He even told me that if I improve my English I can attend the same course for interpreters he attended. That’d be great!

Story no. 3 – Interpreter any Varying Age-Groups

A sixteen-year old interpreter – through her experience – understood the language of a group of minors and conveyed it to the interviewer. No one else could’ve done that.


Unaccompanied minors are vulnerable


I’ve been working as an immigration officer for many years now, and I know out of experience how difficult it is to interview child refugees, especially those who have arrived unaccompanied by their family. The distinction between dream and reality constantly blurs, but then is it not the same for adults when it comes to memories? Particularly when it’s painful to remember.

Adult refugees – often – end up believing what they have been telling everybody as to a certain situation. We all – to a certain extent  – do this. How many of us are really “truthful” when they are asked about their financial situation or to submit their CV. Anyway, this group of children came along for an interview one day, and…well, the interpreter was “just” sixteen year old. At first, I was quite skeptical. I always thought that having experience in life is a sort of prerequisite if you want to work as an interpreter. On the other hand, experience in life often lead people to being judgmental and (in the case of interpreters) speak on behalf of the asylum seeker.

“My” teen interpreter made me think a lot. The way she translated for a group of children (average age: 6) was just great. She’d been recommended to me by the AUC interpreters’ trainers, who advised me on turning the interview into a group conversation, if I wanted the interpreter to perform at her best. She was a child when translating my questions to the children, and an adult when telling me about their answer. Throughout the whole session she was very good at picking out (and making me aware of) nuances in terms of the kind of language the kids used and its meaning. She always smiled, even when the conversation got “difficult” – well, some of these kids lost their parents, others saw their parents being killed. She constantly asked me if I would want to re-formulate my questions, and made sure that my interviewees understood what I meant.

I’m not sure I have solved the paradox of reality vs. dreams in memory, but I certainly went through this interview with the strong feeling that communication had been enabled, and I could – through this very professional interpreter – reach into those children’s world and attempt an understanding of their experience. I am grateful to the AUC for training individuals who make my professional life more interesting, enjoyable, and…professional! 

Story no. 4 – Interpreting for Pre-Literate Refugees

An interpreter records the experience of a refugee who has no written language on a tape in her own language. With the help of a linguist, he transliterates it on paper, and translates it into English

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Dealing with preliterate refugees

Interpreters working as testimony writers is one of the major sources of headache for people like me who work in legal aid clinics. That is, refugees who think they can act as lawyers, take someone’s testimony, and “spice it up” if necessary. On one side, it is understandable that refugees in Cairo have a hard time at finding a job, and that testimony-writing can be a good source of income. On the other hand, so many asylum seekers suffer from this, as skilled interviewers are often able to spot any discrepancy between written and oral accounts of their life experience, and may accuse refugees of lying.

I happened to discuss the issue several times with representatives of the CCIP training course, and two years ago we decided to offer a number of sessions on ethics of interpreting. Such sessions have proven to be very useful, particularly because of the constant co-operation between AMERA, the legal aid clinic I work for, CCIP, and various refugee communities.

One example is worth being brought up: one day I got a phone call from one of the interpreters who work for us (he’s a CCIP grad), and he asked me if I could meet him at the AUC. It’s about tape-recording someone’s experience. It’s an experiment. We will work with Daniele, you’ll see. I gladly went there, and we had an asylum seeker speak Dillij (spoken in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, unwritten and endangered) into a microphone. Daniel transliterated his testimony (by using an international phonetic system) and asked the asylum seeker to read it aloud and pause every two sentences.

The interpreter, at this stage, orally interpreted the refugee’s account into English. His voice too was tape-recorded. In the end, we had two written version of someone’s experience as a refugee. The interpreter back translated the version in English so that our client could confirm that what it says is correct. An interview on the issue followed, and we taped it. The degree of accuracy reached by the interpreter throughout the whole session was considerable. He also showed ability to double-check on the cultural meaning of a number of words and expressions used.

By comparing the language produced during the interview with that produced during the testimony-taking process we were also able to understand the extent to which memories fluctuate and how interviewers and interviewees tend to have completely different views on the matter. It was a great experience, and it’s so comforting to know that someone is finally taking care of intercultural communication through an interpreter.


Story no. 5 – Multiple Interpreters for Public Seminars

A team of interpreters translate for a public seminar on at the protest or ‘sit-in’ being held by Sudanese nationals in front of UNHCR



On the 26th October 2005, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the AUC organized an open seminar to discuss a sit-in apparently organized by Sudanese refugees near UNHCR-Cairo. Four Arabic-speaking “representatives” of the protest group sat behind a long table sided by two CCIP interpreters and together with the seminar’s chair. A third CCIP interpreter sat alongside the seminar room’s wall.

The two interpreters sitting behind the table had the task of turning English into Arabic for the benefit of the four speakers. They used a technique called chuchotage, whereby the interpreter sat quite close to one of the speakers and whispered his translation to him. The third interpreter translated aloud Arabic into English for the benefit of the English-speaking audience. It was quite interesting to the Cairo Community Interpreters Project’s students to observe de facto conference interpreters in action. In this respect, it was noticed that the interpreters seemed to act more as community interpreters than conference interpreters in the sense that they were not detached from the situation. One possible explanation to this is that they shared the same nationality as the speakers. They probably also felt under pressure, as a large number of Sudanese nationals were present in the seminar room. Some of them appeared to know both Arabic and English.

The interpreters’ performance was object of discussion during several sessions of the current CCIP course. During such discussion, it emerged that our students had gained awareness of the fact that interpreting is quite a difficult task, and being bilingual is not exactly enough to accurately translate. The seminar they attended was a truly learning experience. They had the opportunity to ponder the answer to questions such as “what’s my understanding of consecutive interpreting”, “is practice and experience really important to be a good interpreter”, “am I aware of the impact of being under psychological pressure on the quality of my interpretation?”, “can I really control myself if I am emotionally involved in the working environment?”, “what shall I do if I lose my cool?”, and finally, “what are the consequences of my misinterpreting?”

Class discussion on the seminar also included reflection on the real possibility community interpreters have to learn and develop mechanisms to deal with situations similar to that witnessed at Hill House during the FMRS seminar. The following is an extract from the class discussion and shows how beneficial real situations can be beneficial to students of interpreting. 

One of the interpreters who translated aloud was not good at turn-taking: the reason for this is that one of the Arabic speakers (or “sit-in representatives”) did not pause to give the interpreter a chance to speak as agreed at the beginning of the seminar. Most likely, he was not aware of the interpreter’s task and ended up not paying much attention to him. Had the interpreter clarified his role for the benefit of everyone, this might not have happened. The fact that the speakers spoke without paying much attention to the interpreter probably made the latter feel that his presence was not important. The speaker should have shown some respect or consideration for the interpreter present

  • The working environment put the interpreter under stress. The audience often corrected the interpreter. This in particular can be disruptive to an interpreter, in that he feels his performance is being evaluated by bilingual individuals whose background he does not know. In other words, the fact that part of the audience spoke both English and Arabic made the interpreter aware that he could not afford making the smallest mistake without being judged. In addition, the seminar room was very noisy, and the interpreter could not probably help – at times – listening to people’s chatting and ignoring the person he was translating
  • The interpreters were all Sudanese. There is a chance that they were quite familiar with the kinds of problems at stake during the seminar. Emotionally speaking, they were vulnerable, and this certainly affected their performance
  • The seating arrangement – the interpreters was sitting alongside the wall in a corner between a large audience and the speakers without having the chance to make his presence clear to the speaker whenever he needs to stop him to start translating
  • Dialectal variations of Sudanese Arabic were occasionally used in the seminar room. This turned out to be a problem for the interpreter, particularly when the speaker spoke very fast or his pronunciation was not clear. Several mistakes in translation were spotted in this respect, and some of them were quite misleading
  • Only one of the speakers (or sit-in representatives) showed some awareness of the role of the interpreter. He often slowed down, sometimes exceedingly, to the extent that this had the opposite effect: the interpreter ended up having to translate fragmented sentences instead of complete sentences. One more it was pointed out in the classroom that it is fundamental for an interpreter to be able to work on meanings rather than words. Meanings, in this respect, can only be carried by complete sentences.
  • One of the speakers (or sit-in representatives) often switched between Arabic and English, and this posed a challenge to the interpreter, who often got confused.
  • It was concluded that the interpreters present in the seminar room played a double role: that of community interpreter and that of conference interpreter. Our students also concluded that it was not ethically correct to produce an event of such relevance with the assistance of untrained conference interpreters. That is, casual interpreters who often mislead the audience and did not accurately convey the message.

Story no. 6 – Multiple Interpreters, Multiple Languages Conference on Family Planning

An interpreter translates for a mini-conference on HIV and family planning plus coordinate a number of “shoulder-to-shoulder” interpreters working in a number of different languages



I’m a physician and I work at a refugee health centre in Cairo. I was invited together with other doctors, nurses, and medical interpreters from CARITAS, Joint Relief Ministry, and All Saints’ Cathedral to share my working experiences with FMRS staff and others. The main aim of the discussion was to develop interpreting in health care settings with the assistance of the professionals present. Important issues such as respiratory illnesses, stomach and heart diseases, and women’s health and pregnancy were explored, both from a medical and cultural/linguistic perspective.

The discussion was conducted in English and the audience was divided around five tables into five language groups. The rules of the game were quite simple: every participant should speak slowly and pause regularly. When s/he is done speaking, space should be given to the five interpreters (one for each table) to translate. Most of the participants did not speak any English, and a number of them did not know Arabic which the health professional were speaking. With the invaluable help of CCIP interpreters, no one was left out, and everyone was given attention as well as the opportunity to raise their hand and speak.

The interpreters also performed as cultural interpreters, in that they made sure that people’s comments, opinions and experiences were valued and that everyone was left with the feeling of having been listened to. They helped a great deal to enlighten participants about treatments of different diseases in different cultures. In some cultures, for example, people treat diseases like TB, diabetes, high blood pressure, gastritis with herbs. In others they prefer pills or medical prescriptions to herbs.

In addition, the way they think about this disease differs. Among refugee communities, TB for example is much feared, though it is treatable. The role of language, and the interpreter in such situations was then focused upon. One of the doctors present mentioned that language is very important to understand what the patient feels. So, the presence of a professional interpreter makes the situation easier for the patient and the doctor.

The interpreter should be aware of the cultural differences to be able to solve the problem of miscommunication that may emerge – and in fact it happens often – in such complicated situations. One of the nurses commented that the interpreter should build trust between the patient and the doctor to make things easier for both.

It is also is the interpreter’s responsibility to provide the patient with the information needed in order to understand why the doctor is acting the way he is. Most of the students present were keen to stress that honesty obliges the interpreter to interfere when necessary. If he sees that the doctor is not doing the right thing he should stop him. The issue of the psychology of the refugees was touched upon during the session.

A person’s psychological state can certainly have a direct or indirect effect on his physical state. For example, psychological disorder may cause stomach-ache or diarrhoea; and the patients’ psychological fears of certain diseases make their condition even worse than it should be. The interpreter should try to comfort the patient and make him ready to receive the right information about the disease he fears.

It was hard to end the session because everyone was so eager to discuss many other relevant topics! Also this was thanks to the CCIP interpreters who tirelessly worked for two hours, regularly taking turns with other trained interpreters.  After the meeting, I was given a list of AUC accredited interpreters I can call whenever I have a patient with whom I can’t communicate. You can’t imagine how relieved I feel!