Tips for Communicating Through an Interpreter

Tips for Communicating Through an Interpreter

Below is a collection of tips for service providers working with interpreters in refugee and immigrant aid contexts.  With feedback, the list can be adjusted and expanded.
1. Brief Pre-Meeting with the interpreter before entering the meeting with the client, in order to:
  • briefly explain the subject of the meeting, any key points that will be covered
  • allows the interpreter to prepare for terminology or cultural issues

2. Seating arrangement:  Sit so that you are in direct eye contact with your client, and the interpreter is off to the side, not aligning too closely with either one, nor blocking direct contact between the two.  It helps to not put a desk or a computer/laptop directly between you and the client.

3. Interpreter’s Opening Statement: Allow the interpreter to start the meeting with their opening statement, which explains to both parties how to communicate through an interpreter and what to expect from the interpreter.  The Interpreter Opening Statement should be said in both languages of the meeting, and should take less than one minute to do, in the two languages.

4. Do not speak directly to the interpreter during the meeting itself.  Look and speak directly with the client, address the client as “you”.

5. Do not look at the interpreter and speak about the client as in, “Ask her if she….”  Rather:  speak directly to the client, ask questions directly to the client.

6. Speak in single sentences, with space between for the interpreter to render the interpretation, don’t talk for too long of chunks, nor too short of chunks.

7. Be aware to make questions phrased clearly as questions, to assist the interpretation.

8. Be aware of acronyms and explain them, do not ask the interpreter to explain them for you.

9. Do not give up your direct connection with the client:

  • do not conduct side conversations with the interpreter that exclude the client.
  • do not allow the interpreter and client to conduct side conversations that exclude you.
  • keep your eye contact and communications directed at the client directly.
  • don’t forget that you are always conveying nonverbal communication directly to the client, in how you look at them or don’t look at them, smile at them directly, or not, etc.

10. Do not ask the interpreter for their opinion about the client’s case or information or background.  If the interpreter and client are from the same culture or speak the same native language does not give the interpreter special knowledge insight about whether the client is telling the truth or whether they are mentally sound, etc.

  • Trained interpreters will have practice at providing any relevant cultural brokering in a manner that maintains their neutrality, without inserting their personal views or personal interpretations of cultural phenomena.

11. Do not use the interpreter for COI or fact verification (even “cultural facts”) regarding a specific case they are interpreting for. Makes interpreter into a witness of facts verifier of truth, and no longer a neutral conduit of info stated by others.

12. Use one interpreter in the testimony documentation phase, and a separate interpreter for the back-translation verification of the testimony as written. This will help identify any mis-translations or misunderstandings in communication that may have gotten into the refugee petition case.

13. Interpreters need dictionaries! Specialized terminology must be researched and learned.  Please provide interpreters access to dictionaries, glossaries, and the internet to research online complex terms or legal concepts in their languages.

Guidance when in doubt about the communication process:

“How would I handle this situation if this person and I spoke the same language?”