Published: 17 Nov 2021  |  Category: Language  |  Stage: We have welcomed a family

Briefing and debriefing interpreters

It’s worth planning how you’ll be working with interpreters for appointments. Providing an opportunity for briefing and debriefing will be really helpful.

Preparing interpreters for the likely content of an appointment will help them do their job to the best of their ability. It can help them prepare for the language that is likely to be used, and give them context which will help them to interpret words accurately. It is also useful to allow time after the appointment to have a discussion with the interpreter, as there may be useful information they can give to help you to understand the situation, or there may be issues you can address which can help with future appointments.

You may also find our resources on Interpreting Options helpful. 

Briefing on the role of the interpreter

This briefing is designed to be read by sponsors to newly arrived refugees when working with an interpreter. In doing so, it may also enable interpreters to be clear on the requirements of their role and reassure them that this has been explained to refugees.

You may want to refer to this document at various points in the course of your work. Ensure that you are happy with what is outlined below, and that it suits how your Group will be working. 

The following points are suggestions that will hopefully make it easier for you to work with interpreters:

  • The interpreter’s role is to act as a channel of communication between people who do not speak the same language. They will not add, omit or change anything that is said, unless it is necessary to ensure the meaning of what is said is communicated effectively.
  • Expect the interpreter to communicate everything you say. Therefore, do not ask them to hold back anything you have said. You should also expect the interpreter to communicate to you everything that the other person has said.
  • You should not request the interpreter to do anything outside of their role. Do not ask them to give you advice, to advocate on your behalf or to do things for you.
  • Optional: If the person interpreting also has another role within the Group, for example, if they sometimes provide advice and other times interpret, it will be helpful for all to have clear expectations about what role they will be playing at different times. If this is the case, add the following:

[Insert name here] sometimes acts as an interpreter and at other times [insert details of other role here]. When interpreting, you should treat them only as a channel of communication and not ask them additional questions or ask them to do things for you themselves. If you do so it could confuse the situation and lead to misunderstanding. They will inform you when they are performing either role.

  • Use short sentences and pause to allow the interpreter time to speak. Be careful not to talk over them as they might miss some of the things you say.
  • Avoid using complicated language or other words that the interpreter may find difficult to communicate.

The interpreter will remain impartial and will treat anything you tell them confidentially. You should trust the interpreter.

What to consider when briefing and debriefing interpreters

It is good practice to brief interpreters in advance of appointments, and to spend time debriefing with them after they have finished. This does not have to be a formal process, just a conversation to discuss the relevant issues.

If you are working with bilingual volunteers, rather than interpreters, we would suggest that you have a similar conversation with them to enable them to carry out the role effectively, but you may wish to adapt the content accordingly.

Conducting a briefing helps to improve the quality of interpreting, as the interpreter will understand the context of the discussion, so they can anticipate some of the terms involved and how best to translate them. It also avoids them having to clarify issues during the appointment.
You should to bear in mind that interpreters may have been through similar experiences to the refugees you are supporting; briefing them about the appointment allows them to prepare themselves for the discussion, and raise any issues that they may find difficult to deal with.

The content should be determined by the volunteer using their judgement to decide what appears to be most relevant at the time. Often this will be based on their own previous experience of the individual interpreter and refugee and the relevant circumstances. The process can be enhanced by volunteers sharing their experiences of working with the same interpreters. The following is a non-exhaustive list of the type of things that could be covered:


  • Who is the appointment with? What language(s) do they speak? How many people will be there?
  • Where (if face-to-face) will it be? What are the physical dynamics of the room/space and where/how should you be physically positioned?
  • Does the refugee have any health condition that could affect the interpretation? (e.g. speech, hearing, mental health etc).
  • Can the refugee write in their own language?
  • What level of English does/do the refugee(s) have? Is the interpreter expected to interpret everything or allow the volunteer and refugee to attempt to communicate in English, only intervening when necessary?
  • What is the agenda or likely content of the appointment?
  • Is there any specific terminology that is likely to come up? (For example, do you expect to discuss a specific health condition or medication in the appointment? Interpreters may find specific words challenging, including in circumstances where there is no direct equivalent in their language. Briefing beforehand gives them time to have a think about how to approach these.)
  • Will there be concepts that may not translate into the interpreter’s language and how will they deal with this?
  • Does the interpreter need a break for any reason during the session (e.g. to pray)?
  • Is there anything the interpreter may find difficult to interpret?

Examples can be needing to discuss mental/sexual health issues or provision of birth control with a refugee but finding that the interpreter felt embarrassed and this caused them to struggle with interpreting well. Flag things like this with interpreters beforehand if you expect to discuss something like this. In most cases, just being aware in advance of anything likely to be difficult makes it easier for interpreters as it removes the element of surprise. Is there anything in the session that conflicts with the interpreter’s personal belief system or sense of right and wrong? Examples of this may be a refugee wishing to discuss divorcing their partner. The interpreter might feel a moral duty to persuade them not to, but they need to remain impartial to help refugees make their own decisions. Similarly, to the example above, removing surprise from the session can help an interpreter to prepare and remain impartial while interpreting the difficult subject matter. In the most extreme examples, a discussion beforehand has allowed the interpreter to decide that they will not be able to remain impartial and decline the session. Where this is a real possibility, it is best to plan the briefing in for some time before the appointment, to allow time for arranging a different interpreter if needed.


  • How does the interpreter feel about the session? Was there anything in the content of the session that they found upsetting? Do they expect to be thinking about the content of the session after it has ended?
  • What will be the volunteer’s future involvement with what was discussed?
  • Can the interpreter offer any further insight into the case? (For example, if they are from the same or a similar culture, can they offer any further insight from their cultural perspective?)
  • Were there any moments in the session where the interpreter struggled to remain in the role of a channel of communication? What understanding did the refugee have of the interpreter’s role?
  • Give specific, constructive feedback on their performance in their role as an interpreter, challenging any poor performance. This can be phrased gently or firmly, as the situation demands. (For example, if the interpreter started answering the refugee’s questions where the agreement was for them to interpret the questions for the volunteer to answer, it would be good practice to reflect specific examples back to them, explain what impact this had on the session and ask them not to do it again.)
  • Did the volunteer or refugee do anything that made it difficult for the interpreter to remain in their role? (Common issues that make the interpreter’s job difficult include people speaking for long periods without pausing or speaking over the interpreter.)
  • Were there any moments in the session where the interpreter struggled to remain impartial? Were there any moments where it looked to the volunteer that this was the case?
  • Reflecting on the terminology used in the session, what word/s in the interpreter’s language did they use to communicate difficult English words or phrases?
  • What is the exact meaning of the words used in that language? Why did the interpreter choose those words over other possible alternatives?