LanguageLine Blog

Use a Professional Interpreter Instead of Bilingual Family or Staff

Written by David Bethea | June 29, 2015

Lucia is a single mother of two, struggling to pay the bills and make ends meet by the end of the month.  She works two part time jobs, one that requires her to work third shift.  Her younger daughter is currently in second grade, and her son, Luis, is in sixth.  She’s proud to see them receiving the education she wasn’t able to receive back in Colombia, and that’s what keeps her going.

On her rare day off, she needs to do all her errand running, and she always takes her son along with her.  Although she knows a smattering of English, Lucia’s son is fully bilingual, having grown up in the United States.  So, he serves as her interpreter as she buys groceries, cashes her paychecks, runs to the pharmacy, and visits the doctor.

As far as Lucia is concerned, her son’s ability to interpret is invaluable. Without him, she would feel far less secure, and at the mercy of every monolingual American she met as she tried to carry out her daily activities.  But there’s a side to the story that Lucia hasn’t really considered, and it’s vitally important.

When it may not be a good idea for Luis to interpret for Lucia

Luis is a good kid, and he’s fluent in Spanish and English, so he’s happy to help.  But, he’s only 11 years old.  And, he’s grown up learning familiar conversational Spanish from his Mom at home and both academic and casual English at school.  As a result, he often paraphrases, summarizes, or restates things in Spanish that he hears in English because his vocabulary and understanding of both languages are limited and conversational.

Now, when they’re at the grocery store together and Lucia needs to know if they have more whole milk in the back, this situation doesn’t really matter.  Luis’ paraphrasing and restating of the question and answer doesn’t change much, and everyone walks away happy.

But what about when the pharmacist is providing Lucia with specific instructions about how to appropriately test her blood sugar levels using the new monitor she’s purchasing?  Or when Lucia needs to discuss a sensitive medical concern with her doctor?  Both mentally and emotionally, and for medical accuracy, should Luis be handling interpretation in those settings?

Not only is this a potentially uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, but what 11-year old is going to fully comprehend all the details of those conversations, much less be able to interpret both sides with accuracy and completeness?

The importance of accuracy and completeness

That’s the power that comes with using a professional interpreter, especially in these more serious situations where the risk of inaccurate and incomplete interpretation is high. 

A professional interpreter has been thoroughly trained to enhance their multilingualism with a complementary skill set that includes:

  • Specialized vocabulary (such as medical, legal, and financial terms in both the A and B languages)
  • Multitasking
  • Note-taking ability
  • Cultural knowledge
  • Ability to pick out key facts (like addresses, phone numbers, drug names, dosages, etc.) and relate them accurately

All of these skills combine to allow a professional interpreter to confidently handle any type of conversation, including those requiring in-depth comprehension and knowledge where getting it wrong just isn’t an option.

What about bilingual staff?

Having staff members who are bilingual seems like an excellent means of bridging this gap and eliminating the potential issues that arise when family members interpret.   But, some of the same limitations can apply in this case as well.

Although a staff member may be fluent in both A and B languages, they have likely never been tested or received the kind of specialized training a professional interpreter or linguist receives.  While they may know your products and services like the back of their hand, how much experience have they really had discussing them in detail in another language?  As a result, they may rely on summarizing or other methods to try and get the point across, but they’re not necessarily providing an accurate and complete interpretation.

Again, if they’re simply taking a lunch order, that’s probably fine.  But if they’re discussing intricate details of a loan contract, or medical instructions, there is a lot more at stake, including compliance, health and legal issues.

Your best option: bring on a professional interpreter

Without a doubt, when accuracy, sensitivity and complexity are factors, a professional interpreter is your very best bet.  With all the options available, such as telephone interpreting, on-demand video interpreting, and even onsite interpreters to join you at your place of business, there’s no reason to settle for the possibility of inaccuracy when working with family members or bilingual staff.

If you’re interested in testing and training your bilingual staff to bring them up to the level of professional interpreters, stay tuned for our next blog post which will discuss that very topic.  Sign up for our blog post updates so you don’t miss it.

We’d be happy to talk to you about professional interpretation services in many of our specialized industries including financial, insurance, medical, government and more. Or, download our InSight video Interpreting brochure to learn how professional video interpreting can benefit your organization.