Working with interpreters

An interpreter is a person who converts verbal or signed words from one language to another. If you are helping or working with newcomers, you may find yourself also working with interpreters.


Photo: iStock/FangXiaNuo

What is the role of the interpreter?

An interpreter must be impartial. Interpreters promote effective communication and clarify language and cultural misunderstandings, but they should never act as an advocate or give advice while they are interpreting for you. It is something you can emphasize when you are working with interpreters.

Interpreters must treat every interpretation session as confidential and can decline to take on work if it is outside their professional expertise or if there is a conflict of interest.

Interpreters and translators help to capture the cultural terms, expressions, idioms, intention and nuances of a message. Some concepts don’t have a linguistic equivalent; in these cases, they must find other ways to convey the message as accurately as possible.

Working through interpreters

When you are working with interpreters, there are several key things you can do to improve overall comprehension.

How to speak when working with interpreters

  • While you are speaking, look at the person you want to talk to rather than at the interpreter.
  • Use the first person.
  • Speak in short sentences.
  • Pause between every 2 or 3 sentences.
  • Focus on speaking slowly.
  • Try to speak in a normal tone of voice. Sometimes people speak extra loudly rather than extra slowly when they are trying to convey a message, but this actually can raise tension rather than helping communication.

Watch a video about working with interpreters

This video shows how a social worker uses an interpreter in a home setting with a newcomer family.

How to connect when working with interpreters

As you saw in the video, it is important to introduce yourself and give a little bit of background about the meeting. Remind the interpreter to interpret each sentence you say rather than just the information they think is important. If you know ahead of time you will be using certain phrases or words, provide a list of these words to the interpreter before your meeting. Keep in mind that interpreters share ideas and concepts and not always exact words.

Also ask your interpreter to use first person when interpreting for both you and the person you are talking to, rather than “he said” or “she said.” If the interpreter is from the same ethnic background as the person you are communicating with, ask him/her to tell you if you say something that is culturally inappropriate or if he/she thinks you may have a miscommunication because of cultural differences.

You may notice that it takes the interpreter longer to explain what you have said than the time it took you to say it. This is because other languages may use more words or may not have direct equivalent terms so the interpreter may need extra time to explain concepts.

After your session, be sure to thank your interpreter for his or her assistance. Continue building a relationship with the interpreter by requesting the same interpreter for each session.

Be sensitive to privacy issues

Whenever you are talking about sensitive subjects or asking sensitive questions, explain to the person or family through the interpreter why you need to know the information and how it will help them.

If you are using a community member as an interpreter, be very aware that newcomer communities may be small and tight-knit. The two families may know one another socially, and it may feel as if they are losing face if sensitive issues are discussed in front of the interpreter.

Be culturally aware

Here is some advice from a Bhutanese interpreter: “Try to avoid using a reference that requires cultural understanding. Some interpreters may not fully understand your particular culture. Give examples that are translatable and relatable to [refugee and immigrant] populations.”

Tips for when an interpreter is not available

Here are some tips that may help you communicate across language barriers:

  • Use pictures/images/drawings as much as possible.
  • Be very aware of your facial expressions.
  • Avoid double negatives.
  • Avoid statements like, “I wish I could …” or, “If I wasn’t … .” Instead, state what you will do or what you won’t do.
  • Take time to learn about your newcomers’ backgrounds. If you show respect for a few small cultural traits, families will be more likely to trust you.
  • While jokes may be hard to translate or share, you can still use humor. Laugh at yourself, laugh at your poor pronunciation, smile!

If you get stuck, and you have a mobile device or computer to hand, type what you want to say into Google Translate, select a language to translate it into, and show the result to the person. They can enter a response in their own language if needed.

Rather than asking non-native speakers if they understand, always ask them to repeat back to you the important information so they can show you they understand. When you ask, “Do you understand?” nearly everyone will reply “yes,” especially because in some cultures it would be rude to say no, as it would imply you did a poor job of explaining the material.

A free human interpretation service

Tarjimly is a great free interpretation app for refugees, asylees, and the people who help them. The free service will connect you instantly with one of Tarjimly’s many volunteers who speak the chosen language as well as English. You can download the app from the Apple Store or from Google Play. The program uses Facebook Messenger, so you need to log in with Facebook before you can use it.