Arbiters of Meaning: The Hidden Role of the Interpreter in International Qualitative Research

Peter Totman


As an international research practitioner, the author has always been curious about the position of the interpreter and what they bring to the research process. Often they slip into the room unannounced, ‘perform’ and then slip away again. The contrast between their discrete demeanour and the central role they play in defining the research experience is striking. The author has always made an effort to engage with these people – motivated less by good manners than plain curiosity. Who are these people? How do they define their role in the process? As we judge them and their performance, are they in turn judging us, the research community?

However, as is often the case, a specific catalyst was required to convert this general, rather aimless interest, into an intention to go further. In this instance the catalyst was a discussion about terminology. During the setup of a project the author mentioned the need to request an ‘interpreter’. A colleague looked momentarily puzzled, before making a correction: "Oh you mean the ‘simultaneous translators’? I never call them interpreters … because that is our role …"