Module 4: Building Conversations

4.7 Interpreters and Translators

TranslatorOne question that may come to mind when you serve a person or group of people whose language you do not speak is whether you need an interpreter or a translator. And if you do, which one is right for your needs?

By definition, interpretation is the conversion of the spoken word into another language, and translation is the conversion of the written word into another language. Usually, you’ll find someone who is either an interpreter or a translator, but not both.

The skills needed to be a good interpreter are very different from those of a good translator. Consider your particular needs as you plan. The Translation Toolkit created by the National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health provides numerous resources that can help you.

  • Telephone interpreter services are easily accessed and available for short conversations or unusual language requests.
  • Face-to-face interpreters provide the best communication for sensitive, legal, or long communications. Choose an interpreter who meets the needs of the patient (age, sex, and background). A patient might be reluctant to disclose personal and sensitive information, for example, in front of an interpreter of a different gender.
  • Bilingual staffers trained as interpreters can provide consistent patient interactions for a large number of patients.

Source: ICE Cultural and Linguistic Workgroup. Industry Collaboration Effort. (2004). Better Communication, Better Care: Provider Tools to Care for Diverse Populations. Retrieved 10/3/2012

Choosing an Interpreter

A trained interpreter is usually the best choice for communicating with a client who does not speak English.

Asking a bilingual employee for assistance may be the next best choice. But remember that just as there are cultural differences between people with the same skin color, there are differences in dialects among people who speak the same language. Here are some other caveats:

  • Just because a person speaks Spanish, for example, doesn’t mean he or she will be sensitive to subtle speech differences among Hispanic cultures.
  • A bilingual employee may not be familiar with cultural subtleties.
  • Because of other duties, the employee may not be able to work closely with individual families.

Avoid asking clients’ family members or friends to be interpreters if at all possible. This prevents problems such as breach of confidentiality and inappropriate paraphrasing. In addition, be sensitive to the fact that by asking a child to interpret, you may trigger difficulties because of apparent reversal of authority in the household.

Guidelines for Working with an Interpreter

  • Speak clearly in short, simple sentences.
  • Avoid technical terminology and professional jargon.
  • Look at and speak to the client rather than to the interpreter.
  • Maintain your role in the exchange.
  • Listen carefully to your client and watch for and respond to nonverbal cues.
  • Use comments and questions such as “Tell me about…” and “Did I understand correctly?” to elicit cultural information and avoid misinterpretation.
  • Remember that sessions with an interpreter take longer. Communication is the goal, so it’s worth the extra time.
  • Use the client’s own words rather than paraphrasing so that the person for whom you are interpreting receives the richness of the client’s context.
  • Avoid inserting or omitting information.
  • Have the client repeat the instructions or general content of the discussion to check understanding.