top of page

Working with Interpreters: A Guide for SLPs

Working with interpreters can be a challenge for SLPs

When a language barrier exists, the presence of a professional interpreter is essential. Health and social care facilities may assume that hiring a person who is bilingual is sufficient to meet interpreting needs. Good interpreting involves much more than simply being able to speak the languages of both parties and interpreters should be formally trained.  Working with interpreters can be challenging for therapists and they too should receive some training.

Having studied translation and interpreting as an undergraduate and worked extensively with interpreters as a Speech and Language Therapist, I have become aware of what makes for a good interpreter and one that requires improvement. I’ve also learned how I and other therapists can work more effectively with interpreters. Here are some of my top tips for interpreter training which I hope will be of benefit to other Speech and Language Therapists who work with interpreters.

Body Positioning

A common mistake is that the interpreter sits a distance away from the patient/client or in front of them beside the therapist. Where possible, the interpreter should sit to the side and slightly behind the patient/client.When the interpreter does this, the emphasis is placed on the message, not on them. Sitting in this position also reduces distraction and allows the therapist and the patient/client to engage each other not the interpreter. The interpreter’s role is after all to interpret what the therapist and patient/client are saying to each other.

Speaking in the First Person (Correct Technique)

Some interpreters may speak in the third person rather than in the first person. For example they may say something such as “He said that he is feeling better but he still has a pain in his leg” rather than “I am feeling better but I am still have a pain in my leg”. This is an indirect message rather than a direct interpretation of what the person has said. An interpreter should always interpret in the first person. This is a standard of professional interpreting. Speaking in the first person allows the interpreter to become more transparent, gives a more accurate and direct message and reduces third person confusion.

Never Add, Omit or Substitute

Interpreters should directly translate what the speaker is saying. They should never add, omit or substitute any part of the message even if they feel it is redundant, irrelevant, inappropriate or rude. By adding, omitting or substituting part of the message, the interpreter alters and takes away from the original message, perhaps even changing its intent.

Handling Side Conversations

Sometimes the patient/client may wish to engage the interpreter in conversation. They may be interested in them and want to know about them and they likely find it more natural and easier to engage with them as they can speak their language. Similarly, the therapist may wish to engage in some social chit-chat with the interpreter and vice versa. In each of these scenarios, one of the parties is excluded. Side conversations should be rare and should never exclude the other person. When everything is interpreted, suspicion and confusion are reduced and nobody feels awkward or left-out. Furthermore, when the interpreter does not engage in side conversations, professional role boundaries are maintained.

Clarifying the Message

The interpreter may not always understand what the speaker has said and may need to clarify. Regional accents, unknown slang or colloquialisms and unclear or mumbled speech can be challenging for interpreters. Furthermore, working with clients/patients with aphasia, apraxia of speech or dysarthria can be particularly challenging for an interpreter who needs to understand in order to effectively interpret. It is important that the interpreter tries to clarify the message appropriately. They should never leave the other party out when doing so and should explain that they need to seek clarification. “As an interpreter I need to clarify something that he/she said”

Managing the Session

An interpreter will find it hard to accurately interpret if there are not sufficient pauses in the conversation. Many people do not fully realise that an interpreter needs pauses in a conversation to interpret and may continue to speak at length without giving them enough time to do so. In such cases, the interpreter needs to feel free to interject and ask the person to pause to allow room for interpretation. This will create a better flow and most importantly, it will reduce/eliminate omissions and the need to summarise parts of the message.

Tone, Register & Style

Words are only one part of communication. Interpreters should not only interpret what is being said but also how it is being said. In other words, they need to replicate the register, style and tone of voice of the speaker. By doing so, they will prevent confusion and deliver a more accurate message that conveys what the speaker truly means.



bottom of page