4 Tips for Working With Interpreters

An African woman wearing a business suit.

The young man seemed depressed, a fish out of water. At Avenues for Homeless Youth’s transitional living program in Minneapolis, he kept to himself, wouldn’t eat in public, and responded sparingly to questions from staff. Though he spoke English, staff felt he might benefit from a connection with someone from the East African community, from which he hailed.

Hoping to break through to him, Avenues staff hooked him up with an Amharic- and Oromo-speaking interpreter from a county-run multicultural service center. Soon, the young man’s demeanor and outlook changed, says Program Director Hanna Getachew-Kreusser. Staff were able to get the young man back to school, looking at college, finding employment, and participating in skills-building sessions, including acting class.

The transformation grew out of trust built by the interpreter, Getachew-Kreusser says. “It validated us that this person from the community could vouch for us, how safe we are.”

Avoid Using Youth as Interpreters

Having access to culturally competent interpreters who understand the context of social services is incredibly important when working with youth and families from linguistic minorities, say Getachew-Kruesser and Lori Runge, program director at Walker’s Point Youth & Family Center in Milwaukee. Newly English-speaking youth may not be completely comfortable discussing highly personal issues in English, they say, and youth fluent in English may have families who are not.

By using interpreters, program staff can avoid the temptation of asking young people to interpret for their own families—which can add pressure to tense situations, Getachew-Kruesser says. And interpretation services can offer assistance for speakers of many more languages than programs could cover by hiring multilingual staff.

You can find on-call interpreters through your county or municipality human services department or by searching online for a for-profit interpretation service. Many times, interpreters are available by phone.

4 Tips for Working With Interpreters

1. Hire a former volunteer. Runge regularly needs interpretation for Spanish-speaking families, and she says Spanish speakers are in high demand as interpreters in Milwaukee. To make sure she has someone on call who really understands her program, she hired a former volunteer as a consultant.

Because the consultant is familiar with the details of Runge’s program, including how intake and family sessions work, Runge says, “She can better explain questions we might be asking that might seem imposing or intimidating to someone.”

Having a dedicated on-call person also makes it possible for Runge to incorporate interpretation at the very beginning of a case, and have a consistent presence all the way through. When a family that needs interpretation comes to the program, Runge says, the consultant calls them and schedules a time for them to go through intake, with her present.

2. Explain your philosophy and expectations. Even if you can’t hire a former volunteer, or need help with a half-dozen languages, you can ensure that interpreters understand your processes and philosophy and are better able to explain them to youth and families. One way to do that, Runge says, is to ask your interpretation service to regularly assign the same interpreters to your organization.

If you can afford to pay for the interpreters’ time and the service will allow, you might suggest they take the same orientation you provide to volunteers, Runge says.

Or just spend a little time with them before their first assignment explaining your agency’s philosophy and processes and what you expect from their services, Getachew-Kruesser says. 

“It’s important for us to … make sure they pause and ask clarifying questions,” she says, “It’s not the speed that’s important but that we get all the message that we need to get, and the need of the client is communicated clearly.”

3. Check in with youth.  To gage how well interpreters are interpreting when you don’t speak the language, watch their dealings with youth, Getachew-Kruesser says, and make a point to ask young people if they’re happy with the interactions.

“Sometimes clients will say something to you, whatever limited language they have,” she says. “‘I don’t want this person.’”

4. Give youth choices. Whether because of culture, religion or sensitivity about certain topics, youth may want an interpreter of a particular gender. Let youth know they have the option to make such a request, but don’t assume you know what they want without asking them, Getachew-Kruesser says.

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