Working With Interpreters

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Anyone using the services of an interpreter or translator should be clear about the difference between the two, as well as the role each plays in aiding communication. Often referred to as community or social interpreters, interpreters and translators do more than just interpret or translate information, they also build bridges between very different cultures and societies.

Interpreters, including sign language interpreters and deaf-blind interpreters, are skilled and trained professionals who convert "oral or signed information" into another language, including sign language. Translators are skilled and trained persons who convert "written information" into another language.[1]

The role of both interpreters and translators is to ensure clear communication between the health care professional and the displaced person who are speaking or signing different languages. Their goal is to convert oral, signed or written information “meaning for meaning” and not purely “word for word”.[1] This implies that interpretation and translation must be done with some context of the message being conveyed, as well as the emotions and expressions conveyed in the delivery. While the “delivery method” (e.g. oral, signed or written) may differ between the two professions, both should reflect the cultural terms, expressions, and idioms that provide meaning to the content. Both must capture any expression or nuance in the meaning of the original content. In certain instances, concepts will have no linguistic equivalent, but the interpreter and translator’s job is to find an equivalent way of conveying the message with accuracy and completeness.

In addition, interpreters and translators can alert the creator of the original message to suggest a different approach. For example, if a health care professional is using complex medical terms that have no linguistic equivalent in the displaced person's language, the interpreter or translator can ask the health care professional to use less technical terms, and ensure understanding of the message being relayed.

Types of Interpretation[edit | edit source]

Consecutive Interpretation[edit | edit source]

This is by far the most common type of interpretation in the context of displaced persons, particularly in an interview to determine refugee status. An interpreter listens to a segment of speech or watches a segment of sign, then repeats what they have heard in the language of the receiver. The speaker then resumes the statement, before pausing again to allow the interpreter to interpret. In this way, the interpreter alternates with the speaker[2] (in contrast to simultaneous interpretation described later). The length of what an interpreter can retain before rendering their interpretation will depend upon the complexity of the statement being made, and their experience with interpretation. A new interpreter will need to keep the segments short (no more than a sentence or two). A more experienced interpreter will be able to take in longer segments.

Summary Interpretation[edit | edit source]

Summary interpretation is a condensed form of consecutive interpretation and one that requires considerable experience and skill. The interpreter listens or watches attentively to a lengthy statement, takes notes, and then provides a summary in the language of the audience. This implies using judgement as to what needs to be said and reformulating it in a more concise manner, perhaps even changing the order of the points made by the speaker. It may be necessary to use this type of interpretation when there is a discussion between two or more people, which cannot be interrupted (examples: a meeting or conference). It is far less precise than consecutive interpretation (described above). It is not appropriate for a refugee interview, or whenever detailed information is important. 

Verbatim Interpretation[edit | edit source]

Verbatim interpretation implies a word-for-word or sign-for-sign or sign-for-word interpretation after each phrase or sentence. The interpreter thus gives an exact translation of the speaker's words or signs, rather than interpreting the speaker's meaning. It is mainly used in court settings. In refugee interviews, verbatim interpretation is useful to convey precise procedures or a factual statement.[3] For example, a verbatim translation is useful to convey the definition of a refugee. “Monitoring” is closely related to verbatim interpretation, but involves a written text. In this case, the interpreter simultaneously translates a statement that is being read aloud from a text. For example, the interviewer reads back the recording of the applicant's statement. At the same time, the interpreter translates word-for-word from the text, thus allowing the claimant to check on the accuracy of the written statement. This type of interpretation is chosen in order to exclude any possible misunderstanding on either side.

Simultaneous Interpretation[edit | edit source]

With simultaneous type of interpretation, the interpreter listens to the speaker or watches the signer and translates at the same time. It may require equipment such as soundproof booths, microphones and headsets, as well as technical support staff. It is the type of interpretation that is used in a multilingual conference setting but is rarely applicable to interpretation in a field setting.[4] “Whispering” is another type of simultaneous interpretation, but one for which no technical equipment is required. The interpreter translates a statement while the speaker continues to speak. To do this, the interpreter must be close to the listener's ear and use a low, regular tone (“sotto voce”).[5] For obvious reasons, whispering is suitable for only one or two persons. For example, whispering can be used at a ceremony, public gathering or group meeting. Simultaneous interpretation is a difficult technique that requires a high degree of concentration, a good short-term memory and a high level of language skills. Experience and intense practice is needed to master this technique.[4] 

Typical Situations Where Each Apply[edit | edit source]

The type of interpretation or translation chosen will depend upon the circumstances e.g. translation of legal documents or interpretation for interviews (refugee status), ceremonies, meetings, etc. In many situations, a combination of types of interpretation may be required.

The following is a good example of using different types of interpretation: The Minister of Health has come from the capital to meet with a group of refugee leaders at a major camp. Concerns have been expressed by the refugee leaders. Upon arrival, the Minister for Health makes a general statement on which the interpreter takes notes and provides consecutive interpretations. The Minister then invites the leaders to voice their concerns. The interpreter stands next to the Minister and whispers simultaneously the translation of the various statements and questions. Before leaving the meeting, the Minister makes a concluding statement. The interpreter reverts to consecutive interpretation, speaking out loud once more.

Roles of the Interpreter[edit | edit source]

Community interpreters can facilitate clinician-patient interaction in a number of ways. In any visit between a health care provider and family members, a skilled interpreter can:[6]

  • Help ensure that everyone understands both words or signs and the meaning ‘at the moment’, as they are being used.
  • Provide a clear and precise interpretation of the care provider’s questions and the individual’s answers, while being open to additional questions about what responses might mean.
  • Assist the communication process without leading it. An interpreter should not be 'in charge of an interview', which may happen if the interpreter was a health professional in their former country.
  • Understand the individual's or family’s situation and specific issues, and be able to supply some cultural background for the health care provider (e.g., why a particular individual or family may be responding a certain way during an interaction).
  • Steer the health care provider away from actions or words that might be culturally inappropriate and help to prevent or clarify misunderstandings on either side.
  • Explain the role of the health care provider to the family and encourage them to ask questions.
  • Respect the confidentiality and integrity of everyone involved. An experienced interpreter will often start an interpretation session with introductions, explain their own role, and provide assurance that everything to be discussed will be kept private and confidential.
  • An interpreter can also help establish links within the individual's or family’s local cultural community if such a network is available and the family consents to this level of involvement.

Advantages of Using an Interpreter[edit | edit source]

For a displaced person adjusting to a new country, developing a language skill set is just one of many major concerns. Displaced persons must cope with the stress of building a life in their new country with potentially little to no support systems, and may also have to grapple with the traumas and hardships they have experienced in their country of origin and on the journey to reach their new home.[6]

A Period of Adjustment[edit | edit source]

Many displaced persons may have trouble adjusting to the shift in perspective that is often required to live in a new culture. Customs, speech and behaviour might be very different from those of the displaced person’s home country. If there is no one to interpret what displaced persons are seeing and hearing, it may become difficult to meet even their most basic needs.[6]

Displaced persons require access to education, health care, emergency and legal services, just like any other citizen. In relation to accessing health care services, having certified medical interpreters at the hospital and telephonic interpreters at emergency dispatch centres or community-based health care centres would go a long way toward providing displaced persons with timely and effective aid. By using interpreting services, health care providers would be able to better communicate, and administer the best course of treatment.

Help in Healing[edit | edit source]

There are many reasons why displaced persons might be forced to flee their home country. Disasters, conflict, war, poverty, famine and political upheaval, among other catastrophes, often displace large numbers of people and force them to seek safe haven in an adopted country. Events such as these can leave a person with serious psychological and emotional trauma, which they may not be able to deal with on their own. But in order for health care providers to provide help and support, they must first overcome any existing language barrier.[6]

Health care providers, and in particular, mental health professionals, need to gain as much information as possible to provide the best care. Engaging the services of a professional interpreter can help ensure that the lines of communication remain open during any treatment sessions so that the health care provider can best determine how to proceed in the healing process.

Community Integration[edit | edit source]

For displaced persons, feeling that they are fully involved in the community in which they live can be a huge step in the process of adjusting to their adopted country.[6] Becoming an active member of the community can allow a displaced person to regain a sense of mutual trust and dignity.

Many displaced persons choose to live among people of their own ethnic group. Feelings of displacement can often be abated if an individual is surrounded by people with whom they share a linguistic or cultural heritage. But some displaced persons either cannot or do not want to live among people of a similar background. Naturally, if this is the case, a displaced person’s neighbours may end up speaking a different language from the displaced person themselves.

Local governments or neighbourhood organisations can help cross existing language barriers by hosting orientation or community-building events in support of a displaced person population. But they will need to supply interpreters so that displaced persons can become familiar with their new neighbours without the pitfalls of having to communicate in an unfamiliar tongue.

The Need for Professionals[edit | edit source]

For many displaced persons, resources are in short supply and finding interpreters can be difficult.[7] For this reason, friends or family members who speak the language of a displaced person's new country are often pressed into service for their interpreting and translating ability. But it is not sufficient to use family or community members as interpreters to facilitate a dialogue, particularly in relation to health. These individuals, while they might mean well, lack the expertise to provide thorough and precise interpreting services. Professional interpreters are trained to maintain their accuracy and neutrality, focusing only on getting the message exactly right and not letting emotion colour the interpretation.[6]

Of course, many displaced persons will not have the means to acquire an interpreter by themselves. Government and non-profit agencies may need to help displaced persons by providing them with interpreting services. After all, until a displaced person’s language skills improve, using an interpreter is one of the best ways to adjust to their new home.

Challenges for Interpreters in the Context of Displaced Persons[edit | edit source]

Linguistic/communication, cultural, and emotional issues are considered three of the main challenges for interpreters. Research demonstrates that many medical professionals feel that language barriers can have a negative effect and impact on the quality of care they provide and lead to a more stressful work environment. The stress levels of medical professionals were significantly reduced when working alongside interpreters to address issues relating to language barriers. This highlights just how important interpreters are for the work of health care providers; it can mean the difference between low- or high-quality care for patients. Make sure to appreciate just how helpful your interpreters are; they can make your job easier and reduce language barrier-related stress.[8][9]

Research has shown that stress can impact the productivity and well-being of interpreters, and can eventually lead to burnout. An important factor that can cause stress relates to ethical values; it can be mentally draining to translate questions, events or statements which could be considered morally wrong, offensive, controversial, traumatic, or taboo and to battle thoughts of how or if they should translate such things. Please remember that translating the experiences of your patients will also have a psychological impact on interpreters. Ensure that interpreters are well-supported and do not burn out.[10]

Many individuals providing interpretation services during asylum-seeking procedures and for displaced persons in medical and psychosocial care settings are displaced persons themselves. They may have post-traumatic stress disorder, have experienced primary trauma or have first-hand experience of traumatic events. Some may have also experienced secondary traumatisation or been exposed to the traumatic experiences of others while providing interpretation and translation services. It is, therefore, worth remembering that interpreters you work with may have already experienced trauma, and are at risk of further trauma when interpreting and translating the experiences of others. It has been found that factors associated with improved resilience in interpreters and translators are: male gender, a sense of coherence, and social support. Females and those without much social support are most at risk of resiliency issues relating to trauma.[11]

Key Points for Communicating with Interpreters[edit | edit source]

  • Shorten the sequence of your sentences. Do not use long sentences with many words.
  • Adjust the kind of language that you normally use – e.g. less medical or formal words, instead use layman’s terms.
  • Make sure that information is not lost in translation. It is easier if you stick to short, concise sentences.
  • Interpreters should not feel the need to filter what they are translating. No matter how crude, harsh, or offensive, interpreters should still translate exactly what was said by the patient – this enables medical professionals to gain a full understanding of how the patient is feeling.
  • It is the medical professional’s job to work out what is going on if the conversation is going off-topic, they should make sure they are in control.
  • Following on from the point above, the professional should encourage the interpreter to translate EXACTLY what the patient has said at all times, but ensure only the important necessary details are told.
  • It is crucial to make sure that the interpreters you work with have breaks and adequate rest. Breaks are very important for interpreters as mental fatigue can massively affect the quality of translation. Also please consider the potential psychological effects of either past experiences or interpreting the trauma of patients. It is important to make sure that interpreters do not burn out. [14]

Summary[edit | edit source]

Interpreters and translators have a significant role in shaping the integration of displaced persons throughout each phase of the migratory process. They may provide support in several ways, teaching displaced persons to adapt and socialise within their new community. They bring a sense of social acceptance and provide an opportunity for displaced persons to talk about their experiences. Thus, their role and importance should be prioritised for health-care services for displaced persons. Family members, in particular children and young people, should not be relied upon to act as interpreters.

Resources[edit | edit source]

Guidelines[edit | edit source]

Video Series[edit | edit source]

Video series by Clarity Interpreting, which provides a range of tips around interpreting.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. Quoc NL. Factors Affecting Consecutive Interpretation: An Investigation From L2 Learners’ Perspectives. Journal of Positive School Psychology. 2022 Oct 19;6(10):791-812.
  3. Reyna VF. A scientific theory of gist communication and misinformation resistance, with implications for health, education, and policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2021 Apr 13;118(15):e1912441117.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Satvoldievna UD, Sharabidinovna OU. Conceptual problems of simultaneous interpretation. Проблемы современной науки и образования. 2020(2 (147)):36-8.
  5. Baker M, Diriker E. Conference and simultaneous interpreting. InRoutledge encyclopedia of translation studies 2019 Sep 20 (pp. 95-101). Routledge.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Tribe, R. Working With Interpreters. Physioplus. 2022
  7. Pöchhacker F. Pathways in Interpreter Training: An Austrian Perspective. InChanging Paradigms and Approaches in Interpreter Training 2021 May 26 (pp. 43-63). Routledge.
  8. Bernard AC, Summers A, Thomas J, et al. Novel Spanish translators for acute care nurses and physicians: Usefulness and effect on Practitioners Stress. Am J Crit Care. 2005;14(6):545-550.
  9. Bernard A, Whitaker M, Ray M, et al. Impact of language barrier on acute care medical professionals is dependent upon role. J Prof Nurs. 2006;22(6):355-358.
  10. Hubscher-Davidson, Severine (2020). Ethical Stress in the Translation and Interpreting Professions. In: Koskinen,Kaisa and Pokorn, Nike eds. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Ethics. Routledge Handbooks. Abingdon: Routledge.
  11. Kindermann D, Schmid C, Derreza-Greeven C, et al. Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Secondary Traumatization in Interpreters for Refugees: A Cross-Sectional Study. Psychopathology. 2017;50(4):262-272.
  12. VoicesAcademy. PREVIEW: "Interpreting for Refugees in Social Service Encounters" with Kathleen To. Available from:
  13. FIT Europe. Interpreting for refugees: Realities and challenges for a community interpreter. Available from:[last accessed 30/08/20]
  14. Medical Volunteers International (2019) Inservice Training by German Sign Language interpreter, Lesvos Greece.
  15. Sarah Clarke. How to use interpreters effectively. Available from:[last accessed 30/08/20]
  16. Arizona SLHS. Tips on Working with Interpreters in the Healthcare Setting. Available from:[last accessed 30/08/20]
  17. Clarity Interpreting. Interpreter Training (Part 1). Available from:[last accessed 30/08/20]
  18. Clarity Interpreter. Interpreter Training (Part 2). Available from:[last accessed 30/08/20]