Working with interpreters

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Working with interpreters

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Interpreting: What is it?
Interpreting is to speech (or signing) what translation is to the written word. Unlike translation however, interpreting usually requires you to come up with the goods straight away rather than having a chance to play around with things and check in the dictionary or thesaurus if you get stuck. The BPS has produced guidance for psychologists working with interpreters in mental health settings. This wiki is based around just some of the issues raised in the BPS guidelines (Tribe & Thompson, 2008) as well as personal experience and knowledge.

Interpreting should be offered to people who do not speak English as a first language (as they may not know that this is available to them, or may find it hard to ask for it) but it should also not be insisted upon.

How does it work?
Within the context of one-to-one clinical work, the most likely form of interpreting that you will come across is consecutive liaison interpreting. This means there is a single interpreter working in an out of both languages, who then speaks in between the practitioner and client, rather than doing the job simultaneously (this is possible, but would be trickier!). Interpreting just into your own first language can be a challenging task in itself – so going back and forth between languages creates an extra burden. BSL (or other sign language) interpreters are more likely to work simultaneously, as the difference in medium of communication makes this a lot more feasible.

The BPS recommends you undertake training if you are going to work with interpreters. However, if that isn’t possible in time for the work, then try to prepare yourself with reading up on topic or consulting more experienced colleagues.

This is important in all cases: but particularly in cases from a small language community, it is important to be mindful of the client’s potential wariness in disclosing sensitive information, especially if they doubt the interpreter’s professionalism. You should consider whether the client and interpreter have already met or are likely to do so again in the future outside of the work.

Choice of interpreter
The most important thing is to check that the interpreter is appropriately qualified. But this includes checking that the interpreter speaks the correct language, and dialect. It’s best to try to match for country / region too. Imagine if you were from Aberdeen and your interpreter was from Alabama!

It is best to use professional interpreters wherever possible, but in those cases when a family member or friend are interpreting particular care needs to be applied. And you should never have a child interpret, full stop. Your service may have clear guidance on finding an interpreter, but if in doubt the National Register of Public Service Interpreters and the Chartered Institute of Linguists would be good places to start. Similarly, appropriately registered BSL interpreters should be sought (e.g. CACDP).

Where appropriate you should also try to match for gender and age – but this may not always be appropriate. For example, if a male client has specifically requested a female psychologist/therapist, then having a male interpreter is unlikely to be helpful.

Briefing / de-briefing
Allow a decent amount of time (at least 10-15 minutes) ahead of the session to brief the interpreter its purpose, as well as for them to brief you on any technical, linguistic or cultural issues that may be important.

A major issue for interpreters is having the relevant vocabulary. Particularly if the interpreter isn’t used to working in your field, they may not have the right vocabulary – in either one of, or indeed both of the languages. To minimise difficulties it is helpful if you can give them a head’s up in advance of common terminology that you may use so they can prepare. Ideally, that would involve having this discussion before the day it is needed, but at the very least it is something to talk about in an initial briefing session. The other way you can help is avoiding psychologist-speak and using clear language appropriate for a lay-person, and avoid using quirky metaphorical or idiomatic phrases (such as proverbs and sayings), which may be difficult to convey in another language unless you can ensure that this is understood by all.

Another factor is memory. When you are interpreting a short sentence, this is not too much of a problem – an interpreter is likely to have a well-developed phonological loop! However, for longer amounts of speech, interpreters will often take notes in their own form of shorthand to jog their memory. This is another reason why clarifying vocabulary in advance can be useful, so if necessary they can develop their own symbols for words they are likely to need. Clarify with the interpreter in advance what will happen with their notes after the end of the session.

Make time for the interpreter after the session. Remember they may not be used to the type of conversations that mental health workers have and aren’t going to be able to talk about it in separate supervision. So it is important to remember the interpreter’s wellbeing, considering what support will be available and how you can provide them with some supervision.

What to do in the session itself
It’s a good idea to spend some time at the start of your work making sure all three parties have a good idea of how things will work and important issues such as confidentiality are raised. Trying to sit in a triangle with the chairs placed at equal distance from one another will help both technically and also to foster a collaborative atmosphere. Each of you should feel comfortable asking questions if something is unclear.

Interpreting can be a tiring business and can also interrupt the flow of a conversation. So make sure you are aware of this and how you will need to allow extra time and also realise the effects it has on everyone’s concentration.

Another useful point to consider is the use of the first person (‘I’, ‘we’) versus the third person (‘he/she’, ‘they’). It has been suggested that it is useful for the interpreter to stick to what you say, e.g. ‘I now want us to look at…’ rather than ‘(She says) she now wants us to look at..’. However, different interpreters may have different preferences and it might be best to discuss this in advance. Often, interpreters will switch between using first and third person – and this is something you can monitor as it may hold clues to what is happening in the relationships between each of the people involved.

Use of tranlsated psychometric tests
Psychometric tests are normed for specific languages and countries / cultures. And even if you find the official translated test, can you guarantee that say an Urdu-language test and manual that is normed for Pakistan is also valid for a British-Asian Urdu speaker in Birmingham? Therefore extreme caution needs to be exercised when using translated tests.

Further reading
Tribe, R. (2007). Working with interpreters. The Psychologist, 20 (3), 159-161.
Tribe, R. & Thompson, K. (2008). Working with interpreters in health settings: Guidelines for psychologists. Leicester: BPS.

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Content checked by qualified Clinical Psychologist on DATE
Last modified on 07/08/2010
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