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Understanding language services

What are language services?

‘Language services’ enable communication with clients who have limited English, are Deaf or hard of hearing. Language services include:

  • oral or signed information conveyed from one language into another by a NAATI credentialed interpreter
  • written information in languages other than English translated by a NAATI credentialed translator
  • written English to Auslan ‘sight translation’ by a NAATI credentialed Auslan interpreter
  • audio transcriptions of written English documents translated by a NAATI credentialed translator

Language services improve access to government services for people who prefer, or need to communicate in a language other than English or in sign language.

What are language service providers?

Language service providers are agencies that arrange to supply interpreting and translating services. A list of language service providers can be found online on the Community Directory.

What is an interpreter?

An interpreter is a qualified professional who enables communication between people who speak or sign a different language. Interpreters take a spoken or sign language and convert it accurately and objectively into another language to enable communication between two parties who do not share a common language. A translator on the other hand only deals with written information.

Interpreters interpret everything that is said or signed and must not add, modify or exclude information. This means they will interpret statements even if they are incoherent, nonsensical or unclear in the original language. Interpreting is not always word-for-word because some concepts may not exist in other languages and thus may need further explaining.

An interpreter should possess training in interpreting and a formal credential.

Interpreters play a critical role in delivering services to people with limited English, Deaf people and people who are Deafblind. Interpreter services can be delivered in person or by telephone or videoconferencing.

Interpreting for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing

Auslan is the sign language of the Australian Deaf community. Sign languages are unique to each country. Auslan is not simply English using the hands; it involves a distinct grammar and syntax. Deaf people typically tend to acquire sign language as their primary means of communication in addition to the written or spoken language of the wider community. They are not necessarily fluent in written English and thus English proficiency should not be assumed.

Deaf interpreters are trained and certified users of Auslan who are able to convey meaning from Auslan to a highly visual form of gesture. Deaf interpreters usually work in conjunction with an Auslan interpreter, thereby requiring at least two interpreters for the communication. Examples of where a Deaf interpreter may be required include:

communication with children (when their language is not yet formed)

refugee and migrants arriving from other countries where the sign language is different to Auslan.

Types of interpreting

Consecutive interpreting

Consecutive interpreting is the most common type of interpreting, where the speaker and the interpreter speak one after the other. The interpreter listens to a few sentences and then relays this in the other language. The speaker then continues and the process repeats.

Sight translations

Sight translations involves an interpreter providing oral and instantaneous interpretation of a written text, such as a consent form.

Simultaneous interpreting

Simultaneous interpreting is most commonly used at conferences. The interpreter interprets at the same time as the speaker continues to talk, so that the speaker and the interpreter speak simultaneously.

Most interpreters are trained in consecutive mode only. If a simultaneous interpreter is required, this should be specifically requested.

Machine automated interpreting and translating tools

Machine automated interpreting and translating tools undertake translating or interpreting with no human involvement and can, for example, automatically translate information on a website from one language to another.

Victorian Government policy strongly recommends engaging NAATI credentialed interpreters and translators and currently advises against the use of automated interpreting and translating tools, which cannot at present be guaranteed to be accurate. While some machine tools are improving, they still have a reasonably high chance of incorrectly translating information.

Machine automated interpreting and translating tools may be unable to take into account:

  • variations in dialect and language
  • linguistic preferences of communities
  • actual meaning (i.e. word for word translation does not consider overall comprehension)
  • specific cultural references
  • other nuances such as politeness level.

Victorian Government policy states that interpreters and translators should be NAATI credentialed at the Professional level (from 2018 the Professional level will be replaced by a new Certified level).

Commonwealth Government free medical interpreting services

The Commonwealth Government provides interpreting services free of charge through TIS National, to non-English speaking Australian citizens and permanent residents when communicating with service providers.

For example, when private medical practitioners provide Medicare-rebateable services and their reception staff arrange appointments and provide test results. Also, pharmacists dispensing Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) medications can access the free interpreting service.

Practitioners working in state-funded healthcare services do not have access to TIS free interpreting services; interpreting services for these professionals are funded by the relevant state government.

Further information on eligibility for free interpreting services provided by TIS National can be found on the TIS website.

The National Auslan Interpreter Booking and Payment service (NABS) is funded by the Commonwealth Government to provide free interpreting services to people who use sign language for private health care appointments. Funding for this service will transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for some people who use sign language interpreting services.

Find further information on NABS and changes relating to the NDIS.

Credentialed interpreters

In Australia, the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) is responsible for ensuring the quality of interpreters. Interpreters are required, as a condition of their ongoing accreditation, to act in accordance with the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AUSIT) Code of Ethics. Auslan interpreters are required to abide by the Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association (ASLIA) Code of Ethics.

These codes define the values and principles guiding the decisions that professional interpreters and translators make in practice. A credentialed interpreter is required to remain impartial and should not express an opinion or act as an advocate for either party. Other key principles of the codes include maintaining confidentiality, professionalism and striving for excellence through regular professional development.

NAATI provides an online directory of credentialed interpreters who have agreed to have their names included.

ASLIA also provides a directory of Auslan interpreters.

Interpreter credentials

NAATI credentials are evidence that the interpreter is competent to practise at a specified level.

Victorian Government policy states that interpreters and translators should be NAATI credentialed at the Certified Interpreter / Translator level.

For languages of communities that have settled more recently in Australia, and also for less common languages, NAATI Certified Interpreter / Translator level interpreters may not exist or are in short supply. In these cases lower level NAATI Certified Interpreters may need to be engaged.

Further advice on credentials is included at Appendix 1.

Victorian Public Service language allowance

The Victorian Public Service (VPS) provides a language allowance to eligible staff who have passed a language aide test or hold a NAATI credential (Victorian Public Service Enterprise Agreement 2016 section 31.4, page 50).

To be eligible, staff must be in roles that involve regular direct client contact and they use their other language. Also they need to have passed a relevant NAATI test. Staff should speak with their manager if they feel they are eligible to apply for this allowance.

More information on the VPS Language Allowance program can be found at

Role of language aides

A Community Language Aide (sometimes referred to as a “bilingual worker” or “multicultural education aide”) is an employee who uses a language other than English in the course of their work to assist clients. However, language aides do not necessarily hold NAATI credentials and should therefore not be expected to perform the role of a credentialed interpreter.

Community Language Aides should only assist with low-risk and non-critical communication, generally of a basic customer service nature such as providing directions, making appointments or obtaining basic personal details such as name and address. They must not interpret information that is legally binding or puts either the client or the organisation at risk.

For example, asking a client to sign a consent form is simple but the consequences of poor communication are potentially serious, so a credentialed interpreter should be used.

There are important differences between the role of a Community Language Aide and a NAATI credentialed interpreter. A Community Language Aide would normally not have the formal qualifications and skills of a credentialed interpreter and would not be expected to meet the same accountability and professional standards as interpreters.

The language skills of Community Language Aides should be verified by the employer in the language other than English. This can be done through a NAATI Community Language Aide or interpreter test to ascertain whether the staff member’s language skills are sufficient for their role. The test is not a credential in interpreting or translating and should not be construed as such. For more information please email NAATI at

It is also important that Community Language Aides undertake training to understand the boundaries of their role. Organisations should maintain a database of Community Language Aides in their employment so staff can access them quickly and easily.

Departments and funded agencies may also employ bilingual staff who have NAATI interpreting credentials and have been employed specifically for their language skills, such as ‘Karen health education worker’. These staff may be engaged as interpreters up to the skill level of their NAATI credential. NAATI credentials should be verified during the recruitment process.

Community Language Aides should only provide language assistance when the outcome of a situation has no risk of adverse effects for either the client or the organisation. It must be made clear to all parties that a Community Language Aide is not a NAATI credentialed interpreter.

Community Language Aides should not be engaged:

  • to communicate information that is legally binding or puts at risk either the organisation or the client
  • when a client has requested a credentialed interpreter

Interpreting in Critical Contexts

Critical contexts involve confronting or sensitive subject matter that requires skilled interpreters who have undertaken specialised training and are able to interpret in complex situations.

Critical contexts can include interpreting in situations relating to family violence, sensitive policing, court, human services or health matters (such as sexual health and mental health matters).

Interpreter impartiality, independence, professionalism, high skill level and adherence to ethical standards are even more important in these contexts.

It is never appropriate to use family members, friends or children as interpreters in critical contexts given the risks. In the case of family violence, a person will often not feel comfortable to disclose the extent of the violence they have experienced if the interpreter is known to them, and especially if a family member is doing the interpreting. It will also be difficult for a family member or friend to remain impartial, maintain confidentiality and accurately convey information. This will compromise the duty of care to the client and risk important information not being shared.

There is also the risk of unintended harm, and exposure to emotionally distressing information, resulting in vicarious trauma to the family member or friend. Children are especially vulnerable, particularly if they have experienced family violence.

The following are important considerations when engaging an interpreter for critical context:

  • A NAATI Certified Interpreter/Translator should be used wherever possible
  • The interpreter should have specialist training and experience in the specific context (for example, family violence, health or legal specialisations). This may involve an added cost that recognises the interpreter’s specialist skills
  • Gender should be considered carefully and be the choice of the client. Where possible, a female interpreter should be booked for women in addressing family violence and women’s health matters
  • Without exception, two separate interpreters must always be provided if both the alleged perpetrator and victim require an interpreter for family violence and other justice matters (including policing and court matters)
  • The interpreter must not be known to the clients in critical contexts. For small communities, where anonymity is not possible, telephone or video interpreting should be pursued (interstate if necessary)
  • Under no circumstances should alleged or convicted perpetrators of family violence be engaged to interpret
  • Clients should be asked if they would like to know the name of the interpreter beforehand, particularly for small communities, to enable any confidentiality or conflict of interest issues to be addressed
  • Face-to-face (onsite) interpreting should be used provided it meets the above conditions. Telephone or video conferencing interpreting services may be a suitable alternative if onsite services are not available.

Interpreters should be briefed beforehand on the purpose of the interaction and any sensitive matters, for example risk that the client may self-harm or become violent. It may be helpful to agree on a ‘signal word’ which the interpreter can use to convey safety concerns during the interview.

Interpreters should be offered structured opportunities to debrief after the interview, especially when the subject matter is confronting, or threatening, or strongly emotive. This will help manage stress, maintain wellbeing and alleviate the risk of vicarious trauma to the interpreter.

In addition to meeting the client’s interpreting needs, it is important that the services being provided are also culturally responsive.

Case Study 1 

Q: A police officer is called by neighbours who have heard shouting, banging and crying next door. He arrives to find a husband, wife and eight year old child, all of whom migrated to Australia a year ago. The wife cannot speak English, while the child and husband have limited English. The officer explains that he has been asked to investigate due to the noise. When asked if there are any issues, the husband says that everything is fine, but the fearful body language of the child and mother, as well as broken crockery on the floor, make the officer suspect family violence.

The officer explains that he needs to hear the wife’s perspective through an interpreter, who he attempts to call by telephone. As he is unable to arrange an interpreter quickly enough, he asks the husband to interpret.

The wife doesn’t say much. The officer also attempts to ask the child questions, but the child is tearful and hides behind his mother. As he has assessed that there is no immediate risk to the wife or child, the officer gives his phone number to the wife and the husband separately and says that they should make contact if there is anything that they would like to discuss. He also requests their respective mobile phone numbers. The following day he asks a female colleague to call the wife with the assistance of a NAATI credentialed female interpreter who specialises in family violence interpreting and speaks the wife’s native language. The wife happens to be home alone and is able to talk freely through the interpreter with the female officer. She is clearly uncomfortable but mentions that things have been a bit stressful at home. Were the decisions made on interpreting appropriate?

A: The officer should not have asked the husband to interpret as he is a family member and a possible perpetrator of family violence. He is unlikely to convey the wife’s responses accurately and impartially. More importantly, the wife would not have felt comfortable to disclose her experience of family violence to the police officer through her husband. Because an interpreter was not immediately available and there was no immediate risk to the wife or child, the officer was right in following up at a more appropriate time. If an interpreter had been available to attend at the home, a follow-up interpreter assisted interview, with the wife alone, would be highly recommended. The officer’s subsequent choices in engaging a female colleague and a NAATI credentialed female interpreter with specialist family violence skills during the day when the husband was likely to be at work were appropriate.

Case study 2

Q: An obstetrician had an appointment with a client who was able to speak a limited amount of English. Usually the obstetrician and the client are able to understand each other quite well. However, on this particular day, there was a problem that caused the client great distress and she was not able to communicate well in English for the obstetrician to understand. Her 11 year old daughter also attended the appointment, and although the obstetrician knew she could speak English, chose to engage an interpreter to assist with communication. Was this the right decision?

A: Yes, the decision to engage a NAATI credentialed interpreter rather than the client’s 11 year old daughter was a good one. Government policy states that it is not acceptable for family, friends, or children to interpret complex or sensitive information. The potential risks to the client, the child and the service provider in this situation are significant.

Role of family and friends

Family members, friends, carers, and other support persons should not be used in the place of a credentialed interpreter because of potential breaches of confidentiality, possible misinterpretation, conflict of interest and roles, potential loss of objectivity and unintended harm or exposure to emotionally distressing information. Friends and family members generally do not have the required language competence, particularly for technical or complex medical or legal terms, and are not bound by the same standards of conduct as credentialed interpreters.

All communication should be through a credentialed interpreter even if there are bilingual family members or friends present.

Friends and family can play an important and helpful support and advocacy role. This should be acknowledged, valued and understood as separate from, and complementary to, the role of the interpreter. Engaging a credentialed interpreter enables family and friends to focus on their advocacy and support role.

Some clients and their families may not feel comfortable having an interpreter assist with communication. It may be necessary to explain the role of the interpreter and the professional standards they are required to meet, including confidentiality and impartiality.

Every reasonable effort must be made to use a credentialed interpreter before a family member or friend is asked to assist. If the matter needs to be dealt with immediately and an interpreter cannot be arranged in time, it may be necessary to ask the family member or friend to assist. However, a credentialed interpreter should be engaged as soon as practicable to ensure information has been accurately conveyed. The decision to ask a family member or friend to assist must be recorded.

Children and interpreting

It is not acceptable to ask children under 18 years of age to interpret. Children are unlikely to have the required language skills and are unlikely to be in a position to interpret exactly what is said. It will be difficult for them to remain impartial, maintain confidentiality and accurately convey information, which can compromise the duty of care to the client.