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Arranging an interpreter

Assessing the need for an interpreter

Wherever possible the need for an interpreter should be determined prior to an appointment. It is important that staff who make the appointment ask if an interpreter is required.

Assessing how well a person can understand English is the first step in identifying the need for an interpreter. Even when a client appears to have adequate proficiency in English, a complex, stressful or unfamiliar situation may affect the client’s ability to communicate effectively. Similarly, although a Deaf or hard of hearing person may demonstrate fluency in written or spoken English, they may need, or prefer, to communicate in Auslan through an interpreter.

Engaging an interpreter is strongly recommended if the client:

  • requests an interpreter
  • cannot comprehend or respond to basic questions in English
  • is difficult to understand, or can only respond in a limited way
  • relies on family or friends to communicate
  • prefers to speak in his/her own language
  • speaks English as a second language, and is in a stressful, complex or unfamiliar situation.

To assess a client’s level of English language proficiency, the following basic questions may be useful:

  • Why are you here today?
  • Is English your first language?
  • In which country were you born?
  • How long have you lived in Australia?
  • How long have you been learning or speaking English?

If the client cannot respond to these questions fluently, or if the responses are difficult to understand, an interpreter is strongly recommended.

Determining the preferred language

While country of birth is a useful starting point, this does not necessarily indicate a client’s preferred language. In some countries several languages may be spoken. For example, a person from China may speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka or another Chinese dialect. Also, some people may have spent considerable time in a country other than the one they were born in, and may speak the language of that country.

The following steps may help to determine a client’s preferred language:

  • check for information about spoken or sign language on client files or referrals
  • if a client speaks sufficient English, it may be possible to ask what their preferred language is
  • Use visual aids that list languages. The client may be able to point to the relevant language. Identifying Languages posters are available for order or download.
  • If this fails, contact a language service provider who may be able to assist to identify the language through a telephone interpreter.

Some clients may request an interpreter from a particular country. NAATI credentialed interpreters are able to communicate with the full range of people who speak a particular language regardless of their country of origin. For example, an interpreter credentialed in Arabic is qualified to interpret for Arabic speakers from different countries where Arabic is spoken, such as Egypt, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

If interpreting is refused

If a client refuses the offer of an interpreter, it is important to try to clarify and address the reasons.

Possible reasons are that the client may:

  • have misunderstood why an interpreter is needed
  • feel confident communicating in English
  • prefer a family member or friend to act as an interpreter
  • know the interpreter assigned to the interview and feel uncomfortable
  • be concerned that they will have to pay for the interpreter
  • be uncomfortable with the gender, religion or ethnic background of the interpreter
  • be worried that their personal information will be disclosed
  • not want to be understood (eg. if the client fears prosecution).

You may wish to engage a telephone interpreter, or speak to friends or family where appropriate, to assist you in understanding the issues, and to explain why an interpreter is needed.

It may also be helpful to point out that:

  • the interpreting service is free
  • the role of a professional interpreter and their Code of Ethics means they must maintain confidentiality and impartiality
  • it is you who needs the interpreter to make sure you perform your role well
  • there are different modes of interpreting and asking whether the client would be more comfortable with a different mode to what you had planned.

If the client continues to refuse the offer of having an interpreter you may choose to continue with the appointment and document your concerns.

Choosing the mode of interpreting

There are three ways to provide interpreting services:

  • onsite (face-to-face)
  • telephone
  • videoconferencing

Remote interpreting (telephone or video conferencing) should be considered in the first instance, if appropriate. Remote interpreting is often a more efficient way to engage an interpreter unless the situation requires the interpreter to attend in person.

Clients have a right to request a particular mode of interpreting. Where possible and practical, the preferred mode should be used.

Onsite interpreting (face-to-face)

Onsite interpreters attend in person and should be engaged when complex, legally binding or lengthy matters need to be discussed. Onsite interpreting takes into account non-verbal cues (e.g. body language), and therefore is recommended in complex situations.

Telephone interpreting

Telephone interpreting is particularly useful in emergency situations and when immediate assistance is required. It is also useful for shorter, less complex communication. Telephone interpreting may be the only option in some cases (e.g. in rural and regional areas and when videoconferencing is not available).

Telephone interpreting can also be used to access interpreters in languages for which credentialed interpreters are in short supply. It can also be used to establish the language spoken and the nature of an enquiry before an onsite interpreter is booked. Telephone interpreting can provide increased confidentiality, particularly in smaller communities, and is also cost effective.

Telephone interpreting works best with landlines but can also be done with mobile phones. It is recommended that a telephone with two handsets or speakerphone be used where possible. Privacy and sound quality should be taken into account when choosing a location for the call.

Telephone interpreters are not suitable for Auslan clients. Calls to someone who is Deaf can be made using an ordinary handset through the National Relay Service (NRS) on 133 677.

Videoconference interpreting

Videoconferencing allows remote access to an interpreter, enabling face-to-face communication. It shares many of the advantages of telephone interpreting and offers some additional advantages given that it allows for non-verbal cues.

Although videoconferencing facilities are becoming increasingly available, this option is not always possible.

The Department of Human Services has Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) for Deaf and hard of hearing clients. VRI uses video communication technology and the internet to connect to an Auslan interpreter.

Booking the interpreter

The language service provider requires specific information to book an interpreter.

To book an onsite interpreter, the following information is essential:

  • client’s name
  • language/dialect required
  • preferred gender of the interpreter (if relevant)
  • date and time the interpreter is required – ensure you allow time to brief the interpreter beforehand
  • type of appointment, for example, a medical or legal appointment or court hearing, etc.
  • address where the interpreter is required to attend
  • name and telephone contact details of the person the interpreter needs to report to
  • nature of the matter to be discussed, for example, an aged care health assessment, a family violence police interview, etc.
  • anticipated length of the interview
  • the interpreter’s name, if a specific interpreter is required for continuity of care reasons.

When booking a telephone or video remote interpreter, inform the language service provider about the telephone or video system that will be used, for example, whether a speaker telephone, a VRI system or a dual handset telephone will be used.

For some clients, the gender, ethnicity or religion of the interpreter will be important. Prior to booking an interpreter, you may wish to ask the client if he or she has a preference.

In some smaller communities, the interpreter may be known to the client. This may present difficulties for the client and or the interpreter especially in sensitive situations. Knowing the name of the interpreter prior to the interview is useful to identify any concerns the client or interpreter may have.

In some circumstances an interpreter will be required immediately and language service providers are often able to provide a telephone interpreter in these situations.

Case study

A woman who spoke Korean as her first language went to a police station to report an accident. An unknown person had run into her parked car and left the scene without leaving their personal details. The police officer at the station was having difficulty understanding the client’s concerns, and suggested an interpreter be called to ensure that all accident were accurately recorded. The client refused the offer of an interpreter because she thought that she would be charged for this service.

The police officer, not knowing why the client was refusing an interpreter, asked the woman to wait and called a telephone interpreter. After a brief conversation with the interpreter, the police officer understood why the offer of an interpreter had been refused and was able to assure the client that she would not have to pay for the interpreter. With the help of the interpreter, the client was able to file her complaint and the police officer was able to collect the necessary information to investigate further.are significant.

When an interpreter is not available

At times it will not be possible to engage a NAATI credentialed interpreter. This may be because none are available in a particular language or because it is not possible to meet the urgency of the request. Rural areas in particular may experience difficulty in securing onsite interpreters.

In these cases:

  • if an NAATI credentialed interpreter is not available at the professional level (certified level from 2018), request an interpreter at a lower level and record the reason for this. Interpreters should not be asked to interpret beyond the skill level for which they are certified.
  • determine if there’s an option to reschedule the client’s appointment time to when a suitably qualified interpreter is available
  • if an onsite interpreter cannot be found for a rural or regional location, try to arrange a telephone interpreter

Reviewed 19 August 2019

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