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Interpreting and Translating Centre

Guidelines for working with interpreters

Why use an interpreter?

Three reasons:

  • While many people can communicate in several different languages and dialects, English is the official language in which Australians conduct business.
  • Interpreting services are essential to ensure that all Australians have equal access to services, especially critical services where the life, liberty or health of the person is at stake.
  • Encouraging someone to speak to you in their first language is way to show them respect. It means that you are empowering them to express themselves in a way that will help you understand them better, not the other way around.

Aboriginal language interpreting

It is an international human right for Aboriginal people to understand and be understood in their first language. (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - Article 13)

The establishment of the new Aboriginal Language Interpreting Service is one of 41 actions identified to enhance the lives of Aboriginal South Australians under South Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Action Plan. It is another step closer to Closing the Gap.

When to use an interpreter

  • Where you may be using contemporary western concepts, such as in the health or legal professions (amongst others), as many of these words and concepts cannot be interpreted directly in several languages.
  • Where the situation or context of your interactions may heighten the need for an in-depth understanding of what is communicated. For example, the speed of which your client is expected to understand technical English concepts, comprehend these and reply appropriately — such as in courtroom settings.

Ask your client if they would like an interpreter

Always ask your client whether they would like to use an interpreter during your interactions with them. When asking, understand that you need to demonstrate a level of sensitivity.

Some non-English speakers may not understand the role of the interpreter or how to use one. There may also be some concerns about confidentiality or how community members may use the information about the non-English speaker.

Approaching your client about using an interpreter

  • Ask “what language do you speak most at home?”. If your client says that they speak a language other than English, this is an indication that they may need to use an interpreter today.
  • Explain the role of an interpreter. You can say something like:
    • “An interpreter is someone who speaks your language and speaks English, and has had training to understand the difficult words you might hear today.
    • The interpreter is here to help me to understand you and so that you can talk to me in your language.
    • The interpreter must follow some rules; they are not allowed to take sides and must keep the message the same and not add anything or leave anything out when interpreting. They also have to keep everything that we talk about a secret.”
  • You can try asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you think about me using an interpreter today to better understand you?” This will make it easier for you to decide whether an interpreter should be used. If your client has difficulties answering the question, stop the interview and arrange for an interpreter to be present.
  • If your client indicates that they would like to use an interpreter, stop the interview and arrange for an interpreter to be present.
  • If your client indicates that they do not want to use an interpreter, you need to assess their comprehension of English.

Assessing a person’s comprehension

Assessing a person's language skills can be difficult and is normally done by trained linguists. Most people in Australia do speak some level of English and can answer simple questions with “yes” or “no”. However, they may still need an interpreter.

To help you gauge someone’s level of comprehension and determine whether an interpreter should be used during the interview:

  • Ask your client open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about another time you came to the hospital” or “What was it like when you went to court last time?” Encourage your client to respond in longer sentences if they answer in only a few words.
  • Ask your client open-ended questions that invites their opinion, such as, “What do you think is making you sick?” or “Why do you think you are here?”
  • Try writing down some sentences in English and asking your client to read it and explain what the sentences say.

How to use an interpreter

Set up the booking

When you make the booking with the Interpreting and Translation Centre, make sure that the bookings officer has been given the correct instructions such as:

  • names
  • date
  • time and duration of the booking
  • address
  • contact information.

If the booking is going to happen over the phone, ensure you have a location without background noise or interruptions during your booking.

Before the interview with your client

  • Introduce yourself to the interpreter and introduce anyone else present, and their role.
  • Allow enough time to brief the interpreter before the start of the job. The more prepared the interpreter is, the more smoothly the conversation will flow.
  • Brief the interpreter with information such as:
    • your client’s (the non-English speaker’s) name, age, gender and community of origin (possibly skin name also to assist in identifying kinship and avoidance relationships, if your client is an Aboriginal first-language speaker)
    • the purpose of the interaction and expected outcomes
    • technical concepts or terms which may be used during the interview, such as medical conditions or procedures, end of life, legal concepts or more.

During the interview with your client

  • After the interpreter has been briefed, introduce them to your client and explain why the interpreter is being used.
  • Speak directly to your client. Conduct the interview as if the interpreter were not present.
  • Use short sentences in plain English, avoid technical jargon where possible. Short sentences will give the interpreter time to comprehend the dialogue and interpret it more accurately.

After the interview with your client

Provided by:
Department of Human Services
Last Updated:
12 Aug 2020
Printed on:
27 Sep 2023
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