How to Work With an Interpreter: An Insider’s Guide

how to work with an interpreter

So, you need to hire an interpreter, do you? If you’ve never used one before, you might not be quite sure how to work with an interpreter. In fact, you probably have some questions about what to expect and how to act.

That’s okay – any seasoned interpreter will tell you it’s quite common. They’ll also tell you (off the record, of course) that even people who have hired interpreters before still make mistakes. However, these mistakes can affect the cost and quality of the interpreting services received.

With that in mind, here’s an insider’s guide on how to work with an interpreter. Read this before your next appointment. Your interpreter (and your budget) will thank you!

What to Expect From an Interpreter

The interpreters’ job is to facilitate spoken communication between people who speak different languages. (Translators, on the other hand, work with written documents.)

You should expect your interpreter to interpret conversations accurately, of course. They should also remain neutral, without inserting their own viewpoints or opinions. As a matter of professional ethics,  they should keep conversations confidential unless the law requires otherwise.

8 Guidelines for How to Work With an Interpreter

The vast majority of interpreters strive to create a good experience for people on both sides of the conversation. Still, they sometimes find themselves silently channelling Jerry Maguire: “Help me, help you!”
Help your interpreter (and everyone else) out by following these guidelines for how to work with an interpreter.

Consider client preferences when hiring an interpreter.

Your client may have preferences in terms of who to use as an interpreter. For example, they may be more comfortable with a male versus a female, or vice versa. Try to accommodate their preferences if possible.

This is particularly important for medical interpreting sessions, or for legal interpreting when sensitive matters are being discussed. You don’t want your client or patient to omit information that might be important simply because they don’t want to talk about it in front of an interpreter.

Start by introducing yourself . . .

Interpreters are people, too! In fact, they are highly trained professionals and should be treated as such. Introduce yourself. Also, try to allow time for a quick “pre-session” to brief the interpreter on the purpose and nature of the conversation whenever possible. The more prepared they are, the better.

But then speak directly to the other person.

Remember, the interpreter’s job is to interpret what you’re saying exactly as you say it.  Speak directly to your conversation partner, not the interpreter. If you say “Tell Mr. Rodriguez  ___”, the interpreter is going to say “Tell Mr Rodriguez ___”. The interpreter will just say it in Mr Rodriguez’ native language.

Obviously, that’s confusing. And it’s likely to upset your conversation partner because it feels like you’re talking about them even though they’re in the room. It will also make the conversation or phone call longer, and therefore more expensive.

So, look at your conversation partner. Speak directly to your conversation partner.  And let the interpreter do their job.

Speak slowly and clearly, and be patient

There’s no way around it. Meetings, conversations and appointments that require an interpreter take about twice as long as they would without one. Make sure to schedule enough time.

If you don’t like repeating yourself, speak slowly and clearly, so the interpreter can hear you the first time.

Stop speaking every few sentences.

Every few sentences, stop, take a breath and let the interpreter interpret what you just said. If stopping at the end of a sentence doesn’t come naturally to you, this may take some effort. Make the effort. Your interpreter will thank you.

Avoid idioms, slang, humour and word salad.

After the United States elected Donald Trump president, there was a flurry of articles about how difficult it was for interpreters around the world to interpret presidential interviews and speeches. Whether they’re trying to translate coarse language and off-colour slang or trying to figure out how to parse a sentence that looks more like a paragraph, President Trump leaves routinely leaves interpreters scratching their heads.

Don’t be like Donald. Use clear language. Avoid idioms and figures of speech, which may not have an exact equivalent in the other language. Don’t serve your interpreter a word salad – speak in short, clear sentences.

One person talks at a time.

When everyone’s talking at once, it can be difficult to understand anyone. Now imagine everyone’s talking at once AND you’re trying to translate what’s being said into another language. Does your head hurt yet?

Meanwhile, sign language interpreters are amazing. But they only have two hands. It’s unrealistic to expect them to accurately interpret for a bunch of people talking at once.

Relatedly, you should expect the interpreter to interpret everything said in the room. If you don’t want it interpreted, just don’t say it.

Provide written materials ahead of time.

If you’re giving a speech or referencing written materials, provide them to the interpreter ahead of time. Relatedly, remember that interpreting and translating are two different skill sets. Important documents like consent forms or contracts should be translated ahead of time.

Do your homework, but respect your interpreter’s expertise.

Cultural differences can hamper communication, and it’s your job to research beforehand and avoid common issues. That said, your interpreter may alert you or ask you to rephrase culturally inappropriate questions or statements. Respect their expertise.

Interpreter Etiquette

The following guidelines are quite simply good manners when working with an interpreter.

Give your interpreter a break.

Interpreting is hard work! It takes quite a bit of mental effort and can take a toll on your voice. For all-day engagements, your interpreter will need breaks. Plan on at least 10 minutes an hour.

Don’t ask for additional services.

It is not your interpreter’s job to assist your conversation partner with anything other than the meeting or appointment you’ve hired them to interpret. It’s not their job to give the other person a ride or call a cab or do anything outside of their contracted assignment.

Telephone interpreters are the last to hang up.

Generally, the interpreter will wait for the person who initiated the call to initiate the closing of it.  They are also the last party to exit the call, in case further assistance is required.

How to Work With An Interpreter: Working with Sign Language Interpreters

When working with sign language interpreters, all the guidelines listed above still apply. Here are some additional considerations.

All signed languages are NOT equal.

Make sure you know which your client uses so you can book appropriately.

Position the interpreter in front of or next to the speaker, not the person who is Deaf or hard of hearing.

They need to be able to see both of you.

Don’t try to make the Deaf or Hard of Hearing person read your lips.

You’re paying for an interpreter for a reason: to make sure your conversation partner can communicate with you in the language of their choice. Use the interpreter.

In group conversations, make sure only one person speaks at a time.

Sign language interpreters are amazing, but they only have two hands. Make sure all participants are aware that they need to keep interruptions and interjections to a minimum. This will ensure the Deaf or hard of hearing participant isn’t left out.

Looking for an interpreter?

At K International, we can help you arrange for top-notch interpreting services in 250 languages, including British Sign Language. Choose from a range of interpreting options to meet your needs, including video remote interpreting and on-demand telephone interpreting. All delivered without any hidden fees and to our exacting standards.

Ready to learn more? Contact us to talk about your interpreting needs today!