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Quick Tips for Using an Interpreter

As a victim or advocate, you'll likely have many occasions to use an interpreter. And when you do, you'll want your conversation to be as smooth and as accurate as if the interpreter weren't there at all. So, here's a few tips on how to make that magic happen.

Note: In conversations of legal or medical import, only professional interpreters should be used.

Note 2: If you are a victim reading this, even though we present these tips in terms directed to an advocate, these same tips apply to you and can guide you, too, whenever you use an interpreter.

1. Introduce yourselves. But don't jump into the business at hand. The minute or two you take to set the stage at the beginning is the key to easy communication across the language barrier.

2. Ask the interpreter if she (he) will be doing simultaneous or consecutive interpreting. In simultaneous interpreting the interpreter interprets and speaks at the same time as you speak. In consecutive interpreting the interpreter waits until you have completed a segment of speech and then interprets while you pause and your client listens. (Unless the interpreter is professional, and can do simultaneous interpreting in both directions without stumbling, ask the interpreter to do consecutive translating throughout, so as not to be switching back and forth.)

3. If the interpreter is not a professional, instruct the interpreter that once you begin, she or he should not take part in the conversation in any way. They should only interpret, phrase for phrase, as accurately as possible, what you and your client have to say. (If the interpreter is a professional, she or he will already know this.)

4. Physically place yourselves so that you are facing your client, and your client is facing you. Place the interpreter physically close to both of you, but not in a position that breaks the line of sight between you and your client. (Similarly, if you are using a telephone interpreter, you and your client should sit facing each other.)

5. Have the interpreter instruct your client to look mainly at you as she speaks and listens, and not at the interpreter. Likewise, you should look at and speak to your client, not to the interpreter. If you are using a telephone interpreter, sit so you can easily pass the phone back and forth.

6. Begin with a minute or two of light conversation to establish a reliable, steady rhythm before getting into the business at hand. In consecutive interpreting, it's also crucial to establish the quantity of speech in each segment before pausing for the interpreter to begin. (Two or three sentences is usually the maximum a non professional can handle accurately.) Have the interpreter instruct your client to stick as closely as possible to that same speech segment size in each round of conversation.

7. Keep it slow. If there begin to be mis-communications, stop, and slow the pace even more. Because of the slower rhythm, conversations using interpreters are often much calmer and smoother than conversations using only one language.

8. Don't push the limits of the interpreter. Keep the pace comfortable and reliable. Monitor the quality of communication. Stop and make adjustments at the first signs of mis-communication. The closer you can maintain an even pattern and keep focused on your client, the more the interpreter will magically seem to disappear from the conversation. In fact, when you use an interpreter well, you will even begin to forget that you and your client are speaking two different languages. It really is magic.

Feel free to photocopy and distribute this information as long as you keep the credit and text intact.
Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,


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