How to work with an interpreter

Both interpreters and users of interpreter services can take proactive steps to ensure that a session stays on track. Professional interpreters follow certain protocols to ensure this, and users of interpreting services can elicit these protocols when they are not followed. Interpreters provide their services in a variety of fields, so the examples provided come from several fields to illustrate these principles. Interpreting is interpreting, as Holly Mikkelson says.

I have interpreted the following exchanges in some sessions:
– You surely must have understood what you were doing when you signed this document. After all, you were working with an interpreter!
– Well, they interpreted for me, but I didn’t really understand that this is what it would mean!

How can we reduce the likelihood of this situation?

First, I introduce myself as an interpreter and make these statements:

– I am the voice of the interviewee in English and the voice of the investigator in Spanish.
– I am not there to explain or clarify anything, but I am there to help them both communicate clearly.
– I am there to interpret everything: insults, joy, side conversations, everything.

I find ways to not get too chummy in the waiting room but still be courteous. After I’m done with paperwork, I might say:
– I’m going to sit here [a couple of chairs away] and prepare for the session. I’ll go in with you when they call your name.
While I am sitting in the waiting room, I read up on the pertinent medical terminology from the Merck Manual for Home Health in English and in my language or read the newspaper online.

When we go in to the appointment, I tell the doctor, “In the waiting room, I told the patient that…” and don’t stop until I have given the introduction above plus this:
– I use a notepad to assist me in remembering what they say, but destroy the notes immediately after the event to protect your privacy. I often leave them in the HIPAA confidentiality bin at the office itself when I work in a medical setting.
– Please speak directly to each other. I am ready to interpret for you.
Doctors actually love the transparency of this introduction!

I step out with the staff because the patient has a right to privacy and would have brought a friend if desired. Or because I want to avoid side conversations. Or because I am treating the patient with the same level of professional respect as the rest of the members of the medical team. I give whichever answer seems to be most well received, but I get out of the room with the provider and wait outside the door for the provider to go back in. I explain this only if I have to.

This introduction takes less than a minute and sets things up so the interpretation goes smoothly. When I am not allowed to do this, it creates at least five minutes of disruption.

In depositions, attorneys usually lead their way through these introductions themselves. When an interpreter isn’t doing this, the person who called for the service should initiate this conversation if possible. I love how one of my clients does this.

I work with an insurance investigator who always asks the same questions, and the interpreted sessions always go smoothly.
The introduction starts like this:
– It is really important that we have clear communications and that responses are truthful.
– If you don’t understand a question, you shouldnt answer it but instead, ask me to ask it again.
– Do I have your permission to record this session?

During the session, if necessary, the investigator also sometimes asks if the interviewee and the interpreter are having any difficulty understanding one another.

Then the investigator closes the session with these questions:
– Is there any additional information you’d like to add?
– Did you understand all my questions?
– Did you answer my questions truthfully?
– Did you know I was recording our conversation?
– Did I have your permission to record?
– Do I have your permission to stop recording?

Verifying understanding

The best way to verify understanding may be to ask open ended questions, known as teach-back. Some examples providers could ask might be:
– Could you tell me how you will take this medication when you get home?
– Could you show me how you will do this exercise?
– Let’s see… I think I may have lost track of our conversation. Could you tell me what we have talked about so far? (This puts the English speaker in a position of not being the one in power and control and lets the non-English speaker bring up the points that were of interest so far.)

As interpreters, we are there to interpret, not to explain… and we’d like to stick to interpreting as much as possible. However, when we need to clarify our understanding in order to interpret, we use one of two phrases:
– The interpreter requests a repetition.
– The interpreter requests a clarification of…

The insurance investigator has introduced me saying, “I love working with Helen. She just interprets. She gives it to me straight even when things are confusing and trusts that we can work it out. And we always do!”

This is what you can expect of certified and qualified interpreters.

Learn more about the different services interpreters and translators provide and the certifications required on this page.

The ethical basis for this post can be found in the principles of (representation of qualifications and role), confidentiality, impartiality, transparency, interpreting everything and professional demeanor. More detailed information about these issues can be found in the Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Oregon Courts and in the National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care.

Some foundational concepts:
It’s always good for interpreters to be prepared for the appointment by knowing what kind of appointment they are going to interpret for ahead of time so they can study for it adequately.

It is better to work with professional certified and qualified interpreters.

The the Tips for Working with Telephonic Interpreters posted on LEP.gov by the Federal Compliance Section of the US Department of Justice give excellent guidance on how to conduct an effective session.

The Department of Justice has prepared an excellent video called Communicating Effectively with Limited English Proficient Individuals. More videos can be found at this site.

Post by Helen Eby, OSTI President