A Closer Look

Working With Spoken Language Interpreters in Educational Settings

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First, a few facts about this growing specialization.

  1. Most school districts in the United States do not properly vet the language proficiency of their bilingual staff before allowing them to work as educational translators or interpreters.
  2. The majority of those currently working in spoken educational interpreting or educational translation have only a high school diploma or an Associate of Arts degree.
  3. A majority of school districts in the United States do not provide training or only provide minimal training to those bilingual employees who work as translators and interpreters. Thus, these employees may not know about codes of ethics, modes of interpretation, and many of the basic elements of how the professionals in the field of translation and interpretation work.

All these practices are problematic on some level, but let’s address the first problem of how to refer to the professional with whom you will be working. Translation is a written transferal of a message from one language into another. The oral equivalent is called interpretation. Generally, these are two separate professions which require two different skill sets. Some people do both, but it is not the norm. Listed below are some recommendations for working collaboratively with interpreters in educational settings.

A school psychologist working with an interpreter should have a briefing before and after the encounter in order to ensure that these two professionals ascertain how they will work together for the best outcome for the limited English proficient (LEP) client. The school psychologist should use the first briefing to inform the interpreter of the issues that will be discussed during the interpreted encounter so the interpreter can properly prepare. As a professional, the interpreter should come into the session informed and armed with the terminology needed to perform the interpretation, but this requires preparation beforehand. Note that the default code of ethics for school interpreters is the same as that of medical interpreters in the United States: Confidentiality is guaranteed. The briefing after the encounter should be used to debrief about the interpreted session and plan for the next time these two professionals will work together.

Some other best practice recommendations for the school psychologist to consider are:

  1. Use simple and short sentences during the interpreted encounter to help the interpreter perform well. Simple, short sentences also bring the language register down to a level that is more comprehensible a nonnative speaker of English (the client).
  2. Avoid using idiomatic expressions. These are difficult to transfer to another language and lend themselves to misinterpretation.
  3. Avoid using professional jargon. If technical terms are unavoidable, please explain them, and use concrete examples to help both the interpreter and the LEP client grasp the concept you are expressing.
  4. Avoid asking yes/no questions to determine if you were understood by the LEP client (i.e., do you understand me?). A more effective way to ensure comprehension is to use the teach-back method: Ask the LEP client to express what you said in their own words. If they can do this, they understood you and the interpreter is doing their job well. If not, this could signal either that the interpreter is not conveying your message properly or that you need simplify so that the LEP client can understand, or a combination of both these factors.
  5. Watch carefully for body language signals of lack of comprehension on the part of the LEP client and take appropriate measures to correct this issue. But be wary as well of reading body language through your own cultural lens.

We hope these recommendations will help you get the most out of your collaboration with spoken interpreters and have positive outcomes for the LEP clients.

About the Author

Dr. Holly Silvestri
In addition to having significant experience in the field of secondary and university education, Dr. Silvestri has run her own LSP agency as well as freelancing for other agencies and government entities. A master community interpreter trainer, currently she works as Senior Coordinator for Translation, Training, and Curriculum at the National Center for Interpretation at the University of Arizona. She has also taught in their undergraduate Spanish Translation and Interpretation program. Her working languages are Spanish, French and English. She is a founding member of American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education, an organization dedicated to the professionalization of those who interpret/translate in school-based settings in the United States of America. She is currently co-chair of the Ethics and Standards Committee of AAITE where she is spearheading the creation of a national code of ethics and standards of practice for this interpreting specialization.