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A checklist for working with interpreters

Whether you work in healthcare, social care or criminal justice, today's multi-cultural society has made working with interpreters an ever-more important part of the job. Effective communication is vital, whether you're a doctor, nurse, allied health professional, social worker or probation officer.

So, how do you make sure key information isn't lost in translation? Here are our top 10 tips...

1. Choose your interpreter carefully

It's not just about using a professional interpreter who speaks the right language and is experienced in your field of work. Many languages can have significant regional variations or dialects and you also need to be sensitive to cultural differences. For example, some female patients or service users may be more comfortable talking to a female interpreter, particularly if the conversation involves personal health issues, childbirth or relationships.

2. Be prepared

Take time to brief your interpreter fully before you meet with the patient or service user. Give them a clear overview of the reasons for the discussion, what you want to achieve and what level of detail you are looking for. Agree some ground rules. For example, you might encourage the interpreter to intervene if a misunderstanding occurs or seems likely. You can also agree the seating arrangement. A triangular set-up is usually favored because this means that everyone can pick up non-verbal cues.

You should also check that the interpreter is comfortable with asking any difficult or personal questions. For example, if you're a health professional or social worker, you may be asking about sensitive topics such as female genital mutilation.

3. Stay focused

Despite the language barrier, remember that your relationship is with the patient or client. Direct your questions and responses at them, not the interpreter. Speak naturally and at your normal pace. Try to react naturally too, as you would in a normal two-way conversation. Body language is an important part of communication.

4. Keep the focus on you

It's common for patients or service users to talk to the interpreter rather than to you. To refocus their attention back to you, use their name, move your chair closer to them, position yourself in their eyeline and use facial expressions/body language to maintain a connection with them.

5. Confirm understanding

Don't just assume that the patient or client has understood what the interpreter has said, particularly when it's a long statement. Ask them to confirm they've understood and clarify where necessary.

6. Give yourself time

Working with an interpreter will inevitably take longer than a simply two-way discussion. Allow plenty of time so that the consultation is not rushed. Try to keep your questions and comments as succinct as possible so that you don't put the interpreter under pressure.

7. Stay serious

Be friendly, but don't try to make jokes or light-hearted comments to break the ice. They're unlikely to translate well and you're more likely to create confusion than reassurance. Remember, humour doesn't easily cross ethnic or cultural boundaries.

8. Be plain speaking

Whether you're a nurse, a social worker or a substance misuse worker, you're probably already aware how important it is to make yourself clearly understood. But it's particularly important to bear in mind when communicating via an interpreter. Be careful to avoid technical terminology, acronyms and buzzwords.

9. Don't blame the messenger

Remember, the interpreter is not responsible for what the patient or client says or doesn't say. Don't get irritated or impatient with them if you don't get the responses you were hoping for.

10. Stay on-task

The interpreter will be ready to translate everything you say. So, make sure it's relevant. Don't go off on a tangent or chat with colleagues about other topics.

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