Updated: Oct 22, 2019
‘How to communicate effectively with my client while using interpreter services’ is one of the most common questions I get asked in my field. Many providers feel uncomfortable while using interpreters – it’s understandable! Let’s be honest, sometimes it can be a little awkward. But remember that your client will notice if you are uncomfortable and that will inhibit your ability to build a strong rapport with them, and ultimately may limit their trust in you, so let’s all agree to EMBRACE THE DISCOMFORT. People raise a lot of valid concerns regarding working with interpreters and below are a few of the most commonly asked questions and some suggestions for how to make the interaction go as smoothly as possible.
Why is language access important?
I cannot say enough about the importance of providing appropriate access to language services. First, it is important to understand your agency’s legal requirements. According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any agency that receives federal funding must provide “meaningful access to individuals who are limited English proficient…” (Office for Civil Rights, 2015). Many agencies have also adopted the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services, or CLAS standards, which outline best practices for providing culturally and linguistically sensitive services (Office of Minority Health, 2018). Providing equitable services to clients regardless of their spoken language is a crucial component in the provision of trauma-informed, non-discriminatory, safe, and effective assistance to all members of our communities.
How do I know if the interpreter is good? What do I do if I think my client doesn’t understand something?
It can be hard for us to know how good our interpreter is when we don’t speak the second language and cannot assess their competency. It is important to always use certified interpreters for in person encounters such as in the courts and in medical settings, and only use verified interpretation companies for over the phone and VRI (video remote interpretation) encounters (more on this later). Assessing for your client’s comprehension of what you discuss via an interpreter is crucial in determining how successful the encounter was. One way to do this is to empower your client to share with you when or if they are having trouble communicating or understanding the interpreter. Your client will certainly be able to tell if the interpreter is an effective communicator or not. Sometimes, however, you may have a client who feels uncomfortable speaking up due to cultural norms. In this case, a great way to assess for comprehension is to ask your client to repeat back to you what their understanding of the conversation was in order to ensure the message was received. Another way to avoid miscommunications is to brief and de-brief with your interpreter. Always tell them what the nature of the encounter will be so they can prepare themselves mentally for the contextual and lexical requirements of the conversation. De-briefing with them after the session is a great way to gain clarity if there were any moments where communication lagged or you and your patient struggled to understand one another. Remember, interpreters are also cultural brokers, meaning they should be able to provide consultation on cultural norms. Feel free to inquire about culture-specific cues you picked up on during the encounter. Other ways to avoid a communication breakdown are to use simple language, avoid jargon, slang, acronyms, and idiomatic expressions, speak at a relatively slow pace and pause intermittently to allow for interpretation.
How do I build rapport with my client while using an interpreter?
Be sure to engage and actively listen to your Limited English Proficiency (LEP) client just as you would if they were speaking English. Speak directly to the patient and always speak in first person. Make eye contact and be sure to face them while you are talking to them if it’s an in-person encounter. If you appear to be communicating primarily with the interpreter instead of with your client, your client will do the same and you may struggle to build a trusting relationship.
What do I do if my agency doesn’t have a telephonic interpretation service?
There are many telephonic interpretation services available. If you are interested in setting up a plan for your agency, do your homework on the services available. Important questions to ask are how they handle privacy, what kind of training do the interpreters receive, what languages are offered, and remember to always negotiate a price!
If you have any questions on working with interpreters or how to improve your agency’s linguistic services, feel free to contact Virginia Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Human Services Coordinator I
Hispanic Outreach Program Esperanza (HOPE)
National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Medical University of South Carolina
 (OCR), O. f. (2015, December 14). Limited English Proficiency. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/special-topics/limited-english-proficiency/index.html
 Health, O. o. (2018, October 2). The National CLAS Standards. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health: https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=2&lvlid=53