Published: 17 Nov 2021  |  Category: Language  |  Stage: We are writing our application

Interpreting options

Guidance on the different types of interpreters how you can access and work with them effectively.

There are various different ways you can work with interpreters. You could work with paid, volunteer or bilingual volunteers (who work with the family in their own language, and also interpret when required). They could carry out their interpreting either face to face or over the phone. Whichever option you choose, make sure that the interpreter you work with will be able to easily communicate with the family you’re welcoming. For example, there are a lot of different Arabic dialects and someone speaking Moroccan dialect may not be able to easily communicate with someone from Syria.

How to find interpreters

Providing interpreters so that your Community Sponsorship Group can communicate with the newly arrived refugee family is an essential part of the support you will be offering. Although it can seem difficult, there are many different ways to find interpreters in your area. This guide will give you an idea of how to access interpreters and key things to think about.

Once you have decided how you will work with interpreters, for example, if you will work with volunteers, professionals or a mix of both, do ensure that you read our good practice when working with interpreters resource. 

It’s also useful to think through what type of interpreters you will use for different situations. If you are visiting the dentist with a family member, it would be advisable to have an interpreter with you. If you are explaining the school registration process, this might be possible with a telephone interpreter. If you are trying to explain how to find a specific shop or how much something costs, a translation app may be suitable here. Please note that the interpreter you provide for Home Office monitoring visits must be available in person.

Bilingual Volunteers 

If you recruit volunteer interpreters, they will be an excellent addition to your team. They can donate their skills and time to you and help refugee families alongside the rest of your group. However, when considering when and how you involve interpreters who are volunteering there’s some important things to think through; for further information on this, please access the additional resources available on the right hand side.

Make sure you advertise that you are looking for bilingual volunteers: put up posters locally, ask your group members to share that you are looking for volunteers, or approach your local media to share what you are looking for. Speak to your local further education colleges, universities and advertise on volunteering websites such as

Performing the role of a volunteer interpreter well requires a degree of self-discipline, so volunteers can understand which role they are performing at which time, and to stop themselves from speaking on behalf of the refugee. For example, if they are translating something the refugee has said, it could also be tempting to correct them if they feel they have said something wrong. The volunteer may do this for perfectly good reasons, and in some situations, it may be the right thing to do. However, it also demonstrates the level of influence that they have over that individual.

The refugee could feel obliged to take the volunteer’s advice, even if they disagree with it. They may also become reluctant to make their own decisions if they know they can get advice from a bilingual volunteer. The volunteer will need to ensure that the wishes of the refugee they are supporting are their primary concern. The volunteer’s role is to ensure that the refugee understands their options, and the consequences of any action or decision that they take. The refugee should feel the volunteer respects their right to choose and will convey their choice to the relevant parties as accurately as they can. The bilingual volunteer will want to avoid the refugees becoming dependent on them, as this will slow their integration and mean they rely on the sponsor’s support for longer.

As a Group, you may want to ensure that appointments are spread evenly between bilingual volunteers and other group members to prevent them being overworked, or the refugees becoming overly reliant on one person. You might want to allocate more time to support these volunteers because of the increased demands placed on them.

Face to Face Interpreters

There will be some occasions where you will need to provide face to face interpreters. This will be at the airport on arrival day, for your monitoring visits with the Home Office and for essential appointments. Whether you ask volunteers to assist you in these face to face appointments or choose to pay an independent interpreter will be at your discretion. Community Sponsorship Groups have shared with us that it can be really useful to utilise paid-for (otherwise know as professional interpreters) for appointments, where you have to explain particularly complex or disappointing news to the family you are supporting.  

If you are paying for an interpreter to attend appointments, remember to factor in costs for their travel, time for their travel and prepare for the appointment in advance in order to ensure that you cover what you need to as quickly as possible. Professional interpreters can be very expensive and costs can mount up but it may be the most reliable source for interpretation for some Groups.

You should arrange to meet the interpreter in advance and arrive at the appointment together. If the interpreter arrives before you, they should not go into the house without you as this will blur boundaries of their role. This may be difficult to do, as refugees are often very keen to welcome familiar faces into their home, so think about arranging to meet a short distance away (e.g. at the bus stop around the corner).

You and the interpreter should leave the session at the same time once it has been completed and have a short debriefing session to see if the interpreter has any information they wish to add or clarify. For paid interpreters, it is essential to agree start and end times for the interpreting session, including any time spent debriefing after the appointment.

Broadly speaking, children learn English quicker than their parents. Avoid relying on children in the family you support to translate for their parents; this won’t be appropriate for many of the discussions you will be having.

Telephone Interpreters

As part of your sponsor obligations, you must provide 24-hour access to interpreters for the first seven days after the refugee family’s arrival. This can be a big ask of volunteers to be available to fulfil this obligation when it’s a service which may not necessarily be needed. Many Groups have asked for volunteers to be available during the day but used an on-call telephone service overnight. Some organisations and Groups operate their service using only telephone interpreters, and Groups have told us that they find telephone interpreters invaluable when providing 24/7 interpreting advice in the first week.  

Costs vary between services; for some you pay a one-off subscription and then pay further charges depending on what is used (usually charged per minute), for others you pay a flat rate for all calls.

The advantages of telephone interpreting are:

  • Cost – for short appointments it will be cheaper than face to face interpreting.
  • Flexibility – some companies provide 24/7 interpreting.
  • Short notice – you may be able to get an interpreter on the line almost immediately.

Remember that you may be able to find volunteers who can provide telephone interpreting. 

The disadvantages of using telephone interpreters are that it makes it harder for the conversation to flow naturally as they cannot pick up on any non-verbal communication, and it is harder for the refugee to develop a relationship with them. You may also find that for long appointments using a telephone interpreter could be just as, or more, expensive than paying for one to attend in person.

You may find that refugees are more comfortable with face to face interpreters, and there may be a process of negotiation about what kind of interpreters you will provide depending on the circumstances. For example, you might agree that for longer appointments you will generally use face to face interpreters where possible, but for shorter discussions or meetings at short notice, you will work through telephone interpreters.

Interpreting Apps

Many Groups have told us that they use Google Translate for some of their day to day interactions with the family they are supporting. This can lead to some funny situations where the words do not translate as you mean them to. is a phone app that provides translation services directly to refugees either in writing, via voice memos or video calls. Services are provided by volunteers across the world. You should advise the family you are supporting to make use of this. 

It is likely to take the family some time to learn English after their arrival; try to not rely too much on technology for all interpreting, instead, assist the family in communicating in English, practicing common words and phrases.

Finding Interpreters

Community Sponsorship Groups have used a variety of telephone and face to face interpreters, including The Big Word, Language Line, Absolute Translation, and you can find many options on the Institute of Translating and Interpreting website. You should find the organisation who works best for your Group, discuss costs and how they work in advance and budget carefully for interpreting provision. Some Groups rely almost entirely on telephone interpreters. You should decide what works best for your Group in your neighbourhood.

Ask your Local Authority who they use for interpreter appointments with the refugees they support and connect with others working with refugees in your area, who may have access to an already created network of interpreters.