1 (617) 528-7400 ClientService@Linguist.com

How to Keep Interpreters from Stepping on the Therapy Process

Imagine a situation where, as a therapist, you’re working hard to build trust with a patient whose native language is not yours. And your language is not theirs.

You suspect they desperately need help. They may have experienced significant trauma, even physical or sexual abuse, in getting to their new country. Perhaps they’ve been here a while but finally worked up the courage to seek therapy, or they received the support to enable them to come forward.

Yet the process typically requires a patient to communicate in a second language, or for you to learn a new one. This is not ideal. Often our most traumatic memories are locked deep inside, accessed best — or only — by our native tongue.

” … interpreters can sometimes interfere with the counseling process [if they] do not understand psychotherapy or their role”


For these situations, foreign language interpreters can be a blessing. They are used often in trauma therapy situations where children, immigrants, or other non-natives are at a disadvantage by not knowing the therapist’s first language.

However, as Lisa Aronson Fontes detailed in her insightful article in Psychology Today (referenced below) which spurred our thoughts on this matter, interpreters can sometimes interfere with the counseling process. She cites several examples where interpreters who do not understand psychotherapy or their role inadvertently step on the process. For example:

  • An interpreter comforts a weeping client not to get upset;
  • An interpreter imposes their own value judgments on what is being relayed and advises the patient to modify what they are saying;
  • An interpreter “cleans up” the clients’ language — suppressing curse words, baby talk, incoherent phrases, or discussion of sexual matters;
  • An interpreter fails to convey certain statements – trying to “protect” the client or the client’s community from losing face;
  • An interpreter answers a client’s question without conveying the question to the clinician;
  • An interpreter fails to convey a clinician’s comment or question, believing it is inappropriate or overly intrusive.

So how do you safeguard against this “unintended” interference?

Linguistic Systems has developed a Code of Conduct that all interpreters must understand, acknowledge, and agree to before being placed in a job. The agreement stipulates, among other things, that the interpreters must:

  • Render a complete and accurate interpretation of the matter discussed, without altering, omitting, or adding anything, and without additional explanation or clarification, unless explicitly requested during the interpreting session;
  • Limit themselves to interpreting, without giving legal or other [medical or therapeutic] advice;
  • Faithfully preserve and convey the meaning of what is being said, including style, register, idiomatic expression, even tone of voice. Each spoken statement, including those that may appear obscene, rude, rambling, misleading, incoherent, or false, should be interpreted and rendered precisely and accurately as spoken in the source language;
  • Protect and uphold the confidentiality of all privileged information obtained during the assignment;
  • Ask permission from the parties to explain any potential interpreting problems that arise, and state the reason why such explanation is necessary;
  • Correct any potential errors in interpretation that may arise;
  • Conduct themselves in a professional and courteous manner.

No agreement can be a complete safeguard against interpreting issues that may arise. But by sharing written expectations with interpreters and by requiring their acknowledgement and agreement in advance, an agreement is a key training and compliance tool that helps interpreters to go into a job with the right mindset.

“Translating Trauma: Foreign Language Interpreting in Therapy” was published March 23, 2017 by Psychology Today. It was authored by Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., a Senior Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of numerous publications including the books: Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, Interviewing Clients Across Cultures, and Child Abuse & Culture: Working with Diverse Families.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Linguistic Systems has 7,500 translators and interpreters available to support you. All are carefully screened, tested, and certified, and they cover 120+ languages.