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Creating a Safe Space for Foreign Language Therapy

Creating a Safe Space for Foreign Language Therapy

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. 

Interpreting: Ordering the Right Service

Interpreting: Ordering the Right Service

How to select between simultaneous, certified, consecutive, escort, whisper, and telephone interpreting

What do you ask for when you need someone who can speak another language for an individual client deposition or medical appointment? – for a conference? – for a patent lawsuit in court?

When they need language services like these, many people contact our office requesting a translator. Some even qualify that by asking for a “translator on site.”

But translations are written documents, and the people who do them are “translators.” And it is also possible to request that a translator be provided at a specific company site to do a written translation. All oral work, however, is called “interpretation.”

There are several different kinds of interpretation, depending on the mode and purpose, and most interpreters are qualified for only some of these types. The most demanding mode is simultaneous interpreting, usually reserved for large conferences that may require several different language pairs (e.g., English/French, English/Spanish, English/Portuguese) and use equipment (headphones, etc.) and booths to isolate each interpreter and avoid interference from other language pairs.

The interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker in the source language does, but is usually a sentence behind the speaker. He/she must hear, register, and remember what the speaker is saying, while at the same time interpreting into the target language the content of the speech a few seconds earlier. The audience can listen to the interpreter via specific headphones geared to that language pair.

It helps to have the speech written out beforehand, but if there are rapid exchanges of information in two languages, the interpreter must think very quickly, assimilate the information in one language, and interpret it into another. This requires very specialized skills and training, and the number of interpreters who can do this is very limited. Most simultaneous interpreters work a full day or several days.

Also demanding is certified court interpreting, which often requires the simultaneous skill, although sometimes consecutive interpreting is sufficient. Consecutive interpreting is the most common mode and is used for depositions and medical appointments as well as for court. The attorney or doctor speaks first, and the interpreter listens carefully to what is said in the source language, and then interprets it immediately afterwards into the target language.

People do not speak at the same time, which makes it somewhat less stressful, but the interpreter must be familiar with the terminology of the subject to be interpreted, as well as both source and target languages. Most consecutive interpreters work by the hour, with a two or three-hour minimum.

Escort interpreting is yet another mode. Here the interpreter must walk around a facility or place with the people he/she is required to interpret for. Mobile equipment (microphones and speakers) are required, and the interpreter may have to function in either a consecutive or simultaneous way, depending on the situation.

In addition to these types of interpreting, sometimes clients require a whisper interpreter. This mode is often used at meetings where interpreting for only one or two guests is required. The interpreter sits next to them and whispers her/his interpretation into their ear. No equipment is needed.

Finally, many medical facilities (and others) use telephone interpreters. These are on-call interpreters, prepared to provide consecutive interpreting over the phone in their language pair for specific subjects. They normally work only a few minutes at a time, as long as the phone call or medical appointment takes, but can be available for somewhat longer periods if necessary.

The type of interpreting you need depends on the given purpose or event. It is always helpful, however, to provide written materials or background information to help the interpreter prepare for your event. No matter how competent and appropriate the language professional is, the written documents will enable the interpreter to prepare in advance of the event and ensure the most suitable interpretation for your needs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Linguistic Systems is an industry leader in multiple forms of interpreting. Trust us with your next interpreting project.