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  • Yelena McCafferty


Updated: Jan 2, 2021

“If you think it's expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur” – this slogan has being doing the rounds on social media in various formats for a while, with a clear message highlighting the importance of using only qualified professionals. This is true for interpreters too and it is reassuring that some organisations, which use interpreters on a regular basis, train and issue guidelines for their staff to follow when working with interpreters.

Many of them have the same advice at its core, and one of the recommendations is to brief the interpreter before any interpreting can commence. The importance of briefing is demonstrated, for example, in an awareness film produced by Cambridgeshire Constabulary where one of the situations shows how things can go wrong if the briefing stage is omitted. Amongst other things, Nursing Matters online advises practitioners to establish the mode of interpreting - consecutive or simultaneous - prior to the session.

The handbook published by the British Psychological Society draws the attention of psychologists to a vital issue which is very often overlooked. Working with an interpreter means communicating through a third person, which in itself can feel like a challenge and may require an enhanced repertoire of skills. As the pace of the session gets slower to allow for the interpreting, it becomes easy for the practitioner to lose concentration or train of thought so the discussion may seem disjointed. The presence of an interpreter can certainly change the dynamics of a therapy session or any other appointment. Nursing Matters reiterates the same, encouraging nurses to interact with the patient, rather than focus on the interpreter. With this in mind, seating arrangements should be considered in advance too.

Most guidelines on using interpreters recommend avoiding acronyms, colloquialisms, idioms, proverbs, even if they would work as an ice-breaker, as some of them may not have precise equivalents in another language. The Inns of Court College of Advocacy, which published a series of films focusing on good practice and pitfalls of poor practice of using interpreters, promotes use of plain language, keeping questions short and asking only one question at a time.

It’s natural that various guides insist on using only qualified interpreters and refraining from resorting to relatives and friends, and the British Psychological Society goes on to explain some rationale behind this. Apart from the possibility of a relative or friend lacking good interpreting skills and proper training, having to interpret puts them under inappropriate pressure, especially if they are children. In addition, they may be unclear about confidentiality, boundaries, and may even pursue their own agenda and be selective in what they interpret.

Working with an interpreter also means building trust and rapport, especially if a number of sessions are required, so it’s best to try using the same interpreter throughout the same case, with the same patient or client. On the other hand, professionals should bear in mind that interpreters may suffer from vicarious trauma after working on lengthy stressful assignments, therefore ideally users of interpreters should consider offering support to interpreters as part of their clinical responsibility in a health setting.

While guidelines are thought through and issued by public service organisations, it’s unlikely that our corporate clients would go to great lengths to do the same, and indeed, there is probably no need as they may deal with interpreters only occasionally. What can we do on our part to assist effective communication prior to an assignment?

My personal rule is to email every direct client I am about to work with for the first time a web link to the interpreting guide I have designed and published on my website. It gives a fairly simple explanation of the types of interpreting; clients initially often ask for a simultaneous interpreter. However, after further discussions it may transpire that it’s a consecutive interpreter that they would require as they do not intend to use booths or other special equipment but they would still have the benefit of having everything interpreted, with no omissions, just with pauses.

Clearly there is no need to write several pages about the way we work, nonetheless, mentioning the importance of having background information, allowing for breaks and water, time awareness as meetings with interpreters take longer, are very practical things to include. Such guides could be largely based on our experience, and interpreters may even summarise the guidelines previously written by public service organisations and adapt them for our commercial clients in a user-friendly way. I believe prompting our clients to refer to our own concise guide prior to the first assignment is a sure sign of a competent, efficient and helpful interpreter. It is also another step in securing a strong working relationship for more projects to come in the future.

A version of this article has been published in the January-February 2017 issue of the Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Clients and interpreters should start cooperating before an assignment.

[Tip: If you need to book an interpreter, call us on 0207 043 6940 or email]



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