Preparing Your Team for Better Interpretation

To serve your community, you need to be able to speak clearly to everyone in it, and the number of community members who are limited English proficient is increasing. Between 1990 and 2015, the population of Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons in the United States grew by 80 percent, and is continuing to grow. Due to this increase and the growth of globalization, the Department of Labor estimates the number of interpreters and translators employed in the U.S. will grow by 19 percent by 2028. No matter what business or public service you’re in, you are either already using translators and interpreters, or you will soon need to.

How can you prepare yourself and those you lead to get the most out of interpreting services? Let’s look at some of the ways you can contribute to a faithful interpretation. After all, it takes two to tango.

Minimize the use of or explain idiomatic expressions

Many common English expressions carry an implied meaning beyond the literal wording. Even among people who speak the same language, there are often subtle differences in meaning, which can be “lost in translation,” or take time to explain to the LEP person. For example, if you were a doctor advising a patient to quit smoking, it would be better to say “Stop smoking immediately” than “Quit cold turkey.” Keep in mind that not all expressions in English have an equivalent in the other language.

Explain jargon and introduce the meaning of acronyms
Clarify when using technical terms, acronyms, or jargon when speaking through an interpreter. This will not only save time (as the interpreter will not have to explain them) it reduces the chance that the LEP person will be confused. Not all acronyms or jargon translate well in the other language.

In some cases, you may have to translate a technical term the way you might explain an idiom. The same may be true of regional terms and expressions. Try to simplify your speech as much as possible, and watch for terms that seem self-explanatory to you, but may not be readily apparent to someone outside your field.

Allow time for interpretation, and don’t interrupt

An interpreted conversation may take twice as long as a conversation between two speakers with a common language. As a result, some participants grow impatient, often without realizing it. They begin speaking before the interpretation of their previous statement is finished, or while the LEP person is responding.

The timing, length of the utterances, and pacing of the conversation needs to be left in the hands of the interpreter. They are experts in their field, and you can rely on them to ensure information is conveyed in as timely a manner as possible. If you feel the interpreter is not keeping up with the interpretation for whatever reason, bring it up respectfully and address your concerns.

Watch for personal biases — Everyone has them

Yes, everybody! We’re all human, and our minds dislike unanswered questions, so they tend to fill information gaps with unwarranted assumptions. In addition, situations where an interpreter is required are often situations that are difficult: Legal conflict or criminal prosecution, medical emergencies, etc. This added stress and difficulty can create underlying emotions that lead to subtle bias.

Examine your attitudes and practices, and those of your team, to look for the following:

  • Personal bias toward the interpretation process itself, such as a belief you could do it well or better.
  • Bias toward the skill of the interpreter, such as belief that they are not a true expert, but just someone who knows an additional language.
  • Resentment or ill feelings about the fact that an interpreter is legally required.
  • Resentment or ill feelings about the costs of interpretation.
  • Bias based on the gender, race, ethnicity, or appearance of the interpreter or LEP person. True, few people will carry clear-cut prejudices, but it’s worth your time to search for relationship friction or internal assumptions and examine why they exist.
  • Bias based on immigration status. While it’s perfectly legitimate to support or oppose particular immigration policies, no one can afford to let that opinion affect how they relate to undocumented immigrants or those who have come to the U.S. legally. Make sure team members view the LEP person they’re conversing with as just another patient, witness, customer, etc. Speak directly to the LEP person in the same way you would speak to an English speaker.
  • Bias based on socioeconomic differences. Most of us carry biases related to poverty and place of residence/origin, such as believing those from poor areas or certain countries tend to be less educated. These may even be conclusions supported by demographic evidence, but we should always see each person as a unique individual and avoid assumptions.

Remember your interpreter is a team member

Bringing interpreters you commonly work with in on these conversations can help you work more effectively as a team and deliver better service. Keep in mind that your interpreter is a highly trained expert, and they are eager to help you succeed. The interpreter is an impartial professional whose main job is to render the message how it was said, without adding or omitting, and striving to maintain the tone and intention of the original message. Remember, interpreting is not as easy as it seems, and is often quite stressful, but your collaboration can help to make a difference.