Fontes, Lisa A. (2008) Child Abuse and Culture & (2008) Interviewing Clients Across Cultures

Fontes, Lisa A. (2008) Child Abuse and Culture: Working with Diverse Families. New York: Guilford Press

Fontes, Lisa A. (2009) Interviewing Clients across Cultures. New York: Guildford Press

I’m not going to write a long post about these two books, but it’s not because I don’t find them useful.  In fact, my primary reason for posting is to strongly recommend them to interpreters and to all professionals who work in multicultural or multilingual settings.  There’s a fine line between exploring cultures and descending into generalizations and stereotypes.  There are few non-interpreters who really ‘get’ interpreting and interpreters.  Fontes, in my opinion, does an excellent job in both areas.

She provides specific examples from a variety of cultures, but does not instruct service providers to behave in certain ways with certain groups or say that certain groups believe certain things–rather, she underlines the fact that there is cultural variation within all groups, and that the service provider or interviewer’s goal must be to be aware of and sensitive to cultural variation, rather than making assumptions about values or behaviors based on ethnicity, religion, or other factors. She offers positive suggestions for self-examination and culturally-sensitive behavior, and even provides examples of specific wording for use in different contexts. The sample cases she uses provide examples of both positive and negative encounters.

The sections on the need for interpreters and working with interpreters are thorough and extremely useful. The author has clearly not only worked with interpreters, but is well-acquainted with professional interpreters and understands issues related to training, ethics, and language ability.  I rarely read a chapter on “how to work with interpreters” written by a non-interpreter without a few winces, but that is not the case in these books.

I selected Interviewing across Cultures as a textbook for a course I recently developed, and I have been recommending both books to the professionals and educators of professionals that I am acquainted with.

These books are also invaluable for interpreters.  For me, one of the major things that dialogue interpreters need to learn (and to internalize) are the schema or scripts that govern discourse in different fields. Dialogue interpreters are frequently called upon to interpret cross-cultural interviews of the sort Fontes explores in both books. Questions are asked in different ways, and with different purposes, in different types of encounters. As we as interpreters seek to interpret meaning for meaning, it is of utmost importance that we understand, inasmuch as possible, the meaning behind questions, and the reasons they are formulated in specific ways.  This understanding is aided by our knowledge of the situation we’re in, and the extent to which we are aware of the special characteristics of the situation.  Some of this knowledge comes with experience and observation, but it is also possible (even necessary!) to acquaint ourselves with the types of encounters we most frequently interpret.  Fontes explains how interviews differ from regular conversations in the first part of Interviewing across Cultures, and this is a good introduction to basic concepts of dialogue interpreting and the idea of situated practice in interpreting. My third-semester interpreting class looks at schemas/scripts and how they differ in various settings. We also look at how misunderstanding or misinterpreting the intent of a question can lead to distortions either in meaning or in the way the encounter proceeds.  I ask the students to read portions of Interviewing across Cultures as part of this exercise, especially the chapter which addresses profession-specific issues (ie, police, social work, etc.).

In addition to their useful content, the books have another point in their favor: they’re both written in a clear, approachable style, and make quick reading.  The author cites references and includes a bibliography, so those interested can read more, but the writing is not overly scholarly, and is much more likely to engage than turn away the casual or not-fully-convinced reader.