Working with Interpreters

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Working with Interpreters

In our work as health and community service providers, it is sometimes necessary to seek the services of an interpreter to better communicate with clients who speak little or no English. It important that the interpreter be viewed as being there to assist the service to function as it should, rather than just being for the benefit of the client.

An interpreter is a person who conveys oral messages, concepts and ideas from one language into another language (including sign language), with a high degree of accuracy, completeness, objectivity and sensitivity to the cultures associated with the languages of expertise.

A translator is a person who transfers written material from one language to another.

Interpreting is the action of transferring spoken words from one language to another.

Choosing an interpreter

Choosing an appropriate interpreter can depend on factors such as language, dialect, gender, religion and ethnicity. It is important to use interpreters that are properly accredited through the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI), an independent body which sets the interpreting and translation profession’s standards in Australia.

There are currently 33,000 accredited translators and interpreters in Australia, with accreditations spanning 117 different languages. To find an accredited translator or interpreter, visit NAATI’s online directory.  However, not all interpreters are qualified or accredited as Australia does not have appropriate accreditation for every language. Learning how to work effectively with interpreters will help you recognise where interpretation is unprofessional or insufficiently skilled.

Accredited interpreters should be used because:

  • it will ensure accurate communication between people who have different language needs
  • effective professional practice requires both parties to have a clear understanding of each other
  • in times of crisis or stress, a person’s second language competency may decrease
  • all Australians have the right to access services freely available to English speaking Australians – irrespective of their ethnic background and first language preference.

Unskilled interpreters, or those who are not properly accredited, can pose a legal danger by omitting or adding dialogue, deleting relevant cultural information, giving personal opinions or engaging in extraneous discussions that exclude either the client or the practitioner.

Family members should not be used as interpreters due to potential personal and emotional involvement. Also, clients may not feel comfortable sharing personal information in front of a family member.

For a list of languages and the countries where they are spoken visit Nations Online.

For deaf or hearing impaired clients, visit the Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association (ASLIA).

Situations when you should use an interpreter:

  • when it is obvious that the person does not speak English
  • when a person can communicate in English, but in a limited capacity (they may not understand specific terms, informed consent or medication compliance)
  • when the person can communicate in English, but is more comfortable with their own language
  • when the person is under stress which may affect their ability to communicate in English
  • when the person brings with them an ‘I need an Interpreter card’
  • when in doubt.

Styles of interpreting

There are several different styles of interpreting. The most common one that is used within health and welfare services is consecutive interpreting, where the interpreter and speaker speak one after another. Interpreters can interpret by telephone, video conferencing or face to face.

If a consumer refuses an interpreter, you should ensure they are aware:

  • that your organisation will pay for the cost of the interpreter
  • of your legal obligations and the benefits to them as the client
  • they have a right to choose an interpreter and can request a specific interpreter
  • they do not have to provide their real name
  • that interpreting options include telephone interpreters and video conferencing.

During the session when an interpreter is present you should:

  • remember you are in charge, not the interpreter
  • introduce yourself and the interpreter to your client
  • explain the role of the interpreter and what is expected of him/her
  • explain confidentiality and professional obligations
  • speak directly to the client, looking at the client not the interpreter
  • speak clearly and not too fast
  • use plain English, avoiding jargon or slang
  • give only two ideas at a time
  • not rush, making sure there is enough time for adequate interpreting.


  • use ‘teaching back’ techniques to ensure that the client has understood the information presented to them and that there are no concerns. For further information about teaching back techniques please refer to this resource
  • pay attention to the dynamics between the interpreter and the client and ensure that there is no conflict of interest
  • check if the client understands their rights and responsibilities when using an interpreter
  • raise your concerns with the interpreter’s provider agency if you have concerns about the interpreter’s professional and ethical conduct.

What Do Clients Need to Know About Interpreters?

For more comprehensive information and guidelines about the use of interpreters please refer to the following link.

PEACE Multicultural Services can provide training on the use of interpreters as part of in-service training. Contact us on 08 8245 8100.