Guidance on how to work with interpreters effectively.
This resource is designed to help you understand the role of interpreters, and to help you explain this to both them and the refugees you are supporting. It explains what an interpreter should and should not do, and some of the challenges that you and they will face when working with newly arrived refugees, such as maintaining boundaries.
The content of this resource applies equally to both professional and volunteer interpreters, and any bilingual volunteer should be aware of these principles as they may be required to act as an interpreter at times. If you are using professional interpreters, they should be aware of the standards they need to maintain, but we would still recommend you read this document and confirm their understanding of these principles. As with any profession, standards can vary from one individual to another, and you should set out your expectations to each interpreter that you work with.
The interpreter’s role
The interpreter’s role is to be a channel of communication between the refugee and your Community Sponsorship Group. Their interpretation should be an accurate translation of what is being said, neither adding, omitting, or changing anything, unless it is necessary to ensure that the meaning of what is being said is effectively communicated.
The interpreter should not give advice or offer their opinion to the refugee during the appointment.
Paid interpreters should be aware of this but it doesn’t hurt to remind them (and the refugees you are working with) that this is the case. If you do not explain this, some interpreters may think that you are more relaxed about this principle. Also, if you don’t explain this then refugees may be tempted to ask their new interpreter questions directly.
It is a good idea to gently remind all parties of these principles before you start a new appointment.
If the interpreter does have useful information to provide, such as factual information from previous appointments or cultural information, you should agree before the appointment how and when you would like them to tell you this. This could be either by asking to pause the session or waiting until it has finished.
You will need to explain to interpreters that their role is to interpret what is said in direct speech, without adding, omitting, or changing anything. They will also need to understand that it is not their role to provide advice or offer additional support.
Interpreters may be able to add useful information, but they should make it clear to you when they want to do so, and you should agree in advance if they can do this during the appointment or afterwards.
Where possible, it is good practice to avoid working with interpreters who have a personal relationship with the refugees you are supporting. This is to ensure neutrality, objectivity, confidentiality and to avoid conflicts of interest.
This may be more straightforward when paying for professional interpreters. But in close knit communities, it may be unavoidable that interpreters will have some sort of personal relationship to the refugees you are supporting.
This doesn’t mean you can’t work with these interpreters. It just means that you should be very clear that when they are interpreting for you, they are there in a professional capacity and should stick within the boundaries of the role.
Many interpreters find these boundaries helpful, as it prevents them being placed in an uncomfortable situation, such as being asked for help directly.
If an interpreter fails to stay within these boundaries, then you should raise this with them. If an interpreter consistently fails to stay within boundaries then you may have to consider whether you can continue working with them. You can use your own judgement on how to approach this situation.
The sponsor’s role
When working with interpreters, you should try to maintain control over the session. Some interpreters may try to take control of the session, with perfectly good intentions. For example, if you are conducting a tour of the local area the interpreter might feel they know the areas that the refugees will want to visit.
You may find the interpreter’s advice useful and want to take it on board, but you should make it clear that they should raise this with you first, and you will then decide how to proceed. In practice, this can be done in a relaxed, informal manner that makes the interpreter feel they are part of the process. You should value the input of the interpreter as they may have important cultural or local knowledge; just make sure you have the final say, as ultimately, it is the Group who is responsible for supporting the refugees.
Problems with interpreters
If a refugee is unhappy with an interpreter for any reason, then they should feel able to tell you this. They may not be able to do this directly during an appointment but should be made aware that they can do so at any point. You may have to trust your instinct and use your judgement about whether it is appropriate to continue with the session. You should also have a procedure in place to allow the refugees to tell you if they have any problems or complaints about interpreters.
Wherever possible, you should avoid relying on one interpreter, so that a refugee can tell you if they have a problem with them.
If you need to raise a problem with the interpreter, this should be done directly and clearly. This can be done gently at first but, if the problem persists you may have to take a more formal approach.
Sometimes refugees will ask for a particular kind of interpreter, such as someone of the same gender or someone who speaks a particular dialect. You will need to consider the reasons for this request, including whether it is reasonable, and whether it is practical or possible to meet it.
For example, if a female refugee requests a female interpreter because she needs to discuss medical issues, you may want to try and arrange this as otherwise she may not disclose relevant information and you may not be able to support her correctly.
It may not always be possible to meet these requests if, for example, you have a limited pool of interpreters. Sometimes, you may have to have a conversation with the refugee about the reasons why you are unable to meet their request and set out alternative options, if there are any, such as working with a telephone interpreter or delaying the appointment until an appropriate interpreter is available.
There might also be times when you feel the request is not appropriate, or that the individual refugees might benefit in the long term from becoming accustomed to interpreters of the opposite gender, or ones who speak a slightly different dialect. You should feel able to have a gentle conversation with the person concerned to explain your thinking and open up a discussion with them about this.
Booking an interpreter
When booking an interpreter, you should provide them with enough information to decide whether they can accept the appointment, such as where, when and how long the session will last.
Sometimes this could also involve establishing whether the interpreter might struggle with likely content of the session, or if the interpreter already knows or has a personal relationship with the refugee. For example, if you know that the appointment will involve complex medical terminology you should raise this with the interpreter. Or if you know that the appointment is going to contain traumatic information, you might want to warn them of this before they agree (without giving any confidential information).
Interpreters working with refugees are likely to be exposed to difficult situations or asked to translate distressing information. This process can be difficult for everyone involved but can be especially difficult for interpreters who may be from a similar background and have experienced similar events themselves, or know people that have.
You can use the de-briefing session to ask the interpreter how they feel about the session and anything they had to translate, and possibly schedule a further meeting or telephone appointment if they wish to discuss difficult content further.
Some interpreters might ask not to be used for certain appointments as it may bring up difficult memories for them. If this is the case, you should respect their decision.
If an interpreter or volunteer is unhappy with each other’s practice, the concern should be discussed in private as soon as possible, away from the refugees, and resolved where possible.
If the concern cannot be resolved in this manner, it should be raised with the lead of your Group immediately. An example would be a concern of a serious nature around harassment or other seriously inappropriate conduct, which you should not attempt to resolve informally.
If a refugee has a complaint about an interpreter, you should have a process in place for them to report this which should be explained to them in the arrival week, as well as translated and included in your Welcome Pack. You can access a template complaints policy in English (and translated into Arabic) on our website.
Keep in mind that you will be developing your own complaints procedure which may differ from the above. You will need to ensure that all Group members, volunteers, and the refugees you are supporting are familiar with and feel comfortable implementing it.
What you can expect of the interpreter
- Confidentiality – all interpreters should understand the need for confidentiality and be familiar with your Group’s own confidentiality policy.
- Impartiality – interpreters should not try to influence refugees to decisions or encourage them to change their mind.
- Equal opportunities – your interpreters should respect equality of opportunity and provide a high level of service regardless of ethnic origin, gender, nationality, marital status, employment status, class, disability, health status, sexuality, age, religion or political beliefs.