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Tips for Working with Interpreters

Today we hosted a fantastic Talks on Tuesdays webinar on culture and cultural competence, presented by Cecily Rodriguez from the VA Dept of shutterstock_136753463Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The webinar will be archived on our Talks on Tuesdays 1014 page soon if you missed it. Several questions related to working with language interpreters were asked during the webinar, so I thought I’d post some tips. Many of you have had a great deal of experience collaborating with families who speak foreign languages, so I’d love to get your suggestions too.

Here are a few tips from the webinar and from other resources to get us started:

Brief the interpreter on specific terms that will be used that might be unfamiliar to the family Do this before the actual visit with the family. Words that are part of our early intervention lingo, like eligibility determination, cognition, developmental services, or even Individualized Family Service Plan should be discussed to prepare the interpreter to be able to provide accurate information.

Insist on exact translation – Ask the interpreter to translate exactly what you say and what the parent says. This way you don’t miss something important. This can also help avoid an interpretation that is tainted by the interpreter’s opinions, even when well-intentioned.

Look at the parent speaker, rather than the interpreter – I always found this to be difficult because my natural inclination was to look at the person whose language I could understand. Looking at the parent helps to establish your relationship and shows respect as well.

Avoid asking the interpreter to “tell” the parent something – Instead, talk to the parent as you would any other parent and pause for the interpretation. Starting your conversation with “Tell Mr. Silva…” is not respectful and gets in the way of direct communication.

Never use children as interpreters – Our presenter today emphasized this tip. She said that using children puts them in a very uncomfortable position. Children don’t have the knowledge base or maturity to interpret and may find themselves asking questions or saying things to their elders that are not appropriate in the family’s culture.

Be very careful with electronic translation systems – This was a new tip to me provided in our webinar today. Our presenter shared a powerful example of how an online translator only barely provided the gist of what was said because it couldn’t translate the meaning behind the words. Be very careful using these tools because they aren’t intended to be used for real communication with families.

Rather than asking the parent “Do you understand?,” ask “Is there anything I can explain better?” – I stole this tip from Kim Lephart, a PT in northern VA (one of our guest bloggers!) who shared this tip recently (Thanks Kim!). It’s a great way to reframe how we find out from families if they understood while avoiding embarrassing them if they did not. It also puts the onus on us rather than the family. In the end, it really is our responsibility to ensure that the family understands and can fully participate in the early intervention process.

What other tips do you use when working with interpreters? How do you find well-trained, qualified interpreters in your area? 

If you participated in today’s cultural competence webinar, what is another tip that you learned?

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For more information about cultural competence, visit the Cultural Competence topic page on our VA Early Intervention Professional Development Center site. Check out the Resource Landing Pad page too for landing pads on Cultural Competence and Dual Language Learners

If you have other good resources you use, please share them in the comments below!

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7 Comments to “Tips for Working with Interpreters”

  1. I would add that it’s important that the interpreter stay focused on their role during the visit. I once had an interpreter who also was a kind of informal liaison in the Latino community. She and mom would engage in personal discussions during our therapy session, which made it difficult for everyone to stay focused.

    • I think that’s something to talk about when laying the ground rules before the visit, don’t you think Maureen? I would bet that it would be challenging for the interpreter to stay in the role of interpreter for you when he/she knows of resources the family might need. That’s a real challenge.

  2. Agreed, Dana! It was a learning experience. I definitely knew I needed to set up ground rules the next time I had an interpreter involved in a therapy session. Things went more smoothly once everyone knew what their roles were.

  3. I am trying to find a job as a translator. Do you have any recommendations on where to look and which organizations to work with? I am native Arabic speaker.

    • I think finding a position as a translator probably depends on where you are located. I would recommend checking with your local early intervention program or public school system to see if they have openings or can direct you to a resource. Good luck!

  4. First, thank you so much for this information you provide on your website, it is very valuable for me and staff working with interpreter particularly in early intervention, early childhood screening and evaluations were children -parents-therapist-interpreters are involved. I am Spanish trained interpreter I do use techniques and follow standards of practice when providing my services. However, I have some questions on this type of setting and I hope I get some answers.

    Should interaction between children and therapist be interrupt by interpreter trying to render the message to children’s parent?
    When children and therapist (evaluator) interact, should I (as an interpreter) interpret what is being said to the parent, so she/he knows what their kids is being asked?
    When children and therapist interact should I interpret for the children the questions being asked by the therapist.
    Should therapist evaluate language barriers on the children before getting early childhood screening, meaning which language does the kids is more proficient on and what language should I use when giving him instructions for the test. So, the therapist have an idea if the interpreting services are needed during the evaluation where interpreter has to render the oral input/message to the kid or to the therapist?
    If interpreter in needed during the evaluation process, interaction between therapist and children, will that affect the results of the test if children get nervous, shy, no willing to participate because of the presence of the interpreter.
    Should I wait for the therapist to give me instructions to when interpret important questions for children?
    What if the children feel uncomfortable and no being participant during the evaluation or acting shy because of the presence of the interpreter and interpretation in different languages, how should interpreter participate/act to avoid or these issues?
    When asking background questions, family questions, health history to the children’s parents, should the children being evaluated be present at the moment of the questionnaire, even though questions my make parties feel uncomfortable.
    During the evaluation procedure or therapist children interaction, should interpreter be outside of the room and wait until further instruction from the therapist. Should interpreter only be needed during parent and therapist interaction, evaluation’s results, screening overview, parents’ questions and answers with the therapist so in that way we release/eliminate pressure, anxiety on the children being evaluated.
    I do thank you so much for taking your time reading these questions and giving me some tips.

    • Thanks for the great questions, Albert! In early intervention, I find that direct interpretation of what the parent and therapist say – to each other and to the child – is most effective. That way, the therapist and parent can have a conversation and build a relationship. If you have to explain something or provide additional context, let the therapist know. Ideally, the therapist should be working with the parent too, supporting the parent in engaging her child, rather than just working with the child the whole session. In that case, you would interpret back and forth between the parent and therapist. If one or the other speaks directly to the child, you would interpret that too. It’s always a good idea to speak with the therapist before the assessment or first session to talk about how you will work together. Yes, someone on the EI team should find out about the family’s primary language before the assessment. We are required to make every effort to provide services in a child’s/family’s native language, which helps us determine the need for an interpreter and which language will be used. I believe that you should be present for all steps in the process – evaluation and intervention visits. The child and family will need to warm up to all team members, and you are an important part of the team. Follow the therapist’s lead and remember that you are an important facilitator of communication. If a child is shy, it really is the therapist’s job to help him warm up and work with the parent. Sometimes, we take the time to ask the parents questions (history, background, developmental) at the beginning to take the pressure off of the child and allow him to get used to the new people in the room. It is fine if the child is present. The therapist may try to engage the child in play to help him get comfortable. I’d encourage you to stay in the room, sit by the parent, and make sure that communication flows. Honestly, the need for interpretation can make the process take longer, but that’s necessary to make sure the parent is fully informed and all team members, including the family, are able to participate. Here’s a link to a great video about working with interpreters in home visiting programs. I hope it’s helpful!
      https://youtu.be/vp01thQBbeY

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