A Hug for the Interpreter: My First Experience with Social Services Interpreting

First experiences, when they are positive, leave a taste and a longing for more. Bethany shares one such experience with us in her unique writing style, like building a puzzle, one piece at a time. Originally published in February 2013, this article remains timeless for the message hiding between the lines.

It had been a terrible morning. After driving through the pouring rain for over a hundred miles for a tricky violation of probation hearing, all I wanted was to go home. Unfortunately, I had committed myself that afternoon to something I just knew I would hate: interpreting for a social services agency on a home visit to the parents of a child with hearing loss. Not only that, but it was all the way at the southern end of the state—eighty miles there and back.

A Good Deed

How had I gotten myself into this? I mostly work as a legal interpreter either for the courts in my own and neighboring states, or for private attorneys and certain agencies at depositions and workers’ compensation hearings. Sometimes I interpret for the occasional medical appointment or hospital visit, but this would be my first time interpreting for social services in a home setting.

The agency that had called me had always been very good to me: they invariably paid the amount stipulated in a timely manner, and they requested my services for legal assignments four or five times a month. When they called in frantic search of an interpreter for the home visit, I had to say yes. I felt I owed it to them after all the well-paid assignments they had sent my way. Without going into details here, I was told they would not be able to pay my usual rate. I told them I understood and was prepared to accept a much lower remuneration than usual.

So when I finally reached the shabby little trailer in the middle of nowhere with the help of my trusty GPS, I was not in the best of moods. The parent specialist reached the house at the same time I did, and we knocked on the door. A young woman opened it and let us in.  At the risk of sounding cliché, I will say that it was like a door to a new world of interpreting for me.

A New Kind of Interpreting

The inside of the trailer was scrupulously clean and neat. The mother and father, the specialist and I all sat down, and the three of them, with my help, started to talk about three-year-old Miranda and any advances she had made recently at home and with the speech therapist. All three were totally absorbed in working toward one goal: teaching the little girl to begin to phonate, or vocalize sounds. She already knew simple signs (“I want,” “please,” “thank you”), had some hearing capacity, and could say “mamá,” “papá” and “Elí,” her older brother’s name.

The specialist instructed them on a series of exercises to do with Miranda for a brief period every day. The exercises had to do with the consonants “b,” “p,” and “m.” Sometimes there was a little difficulty because the pictures used didn’t always correspond to the Spanish word. For example, the picture might be of a bee, but the word in Spanish is abeja, which of course starts with the letter “a.” It didn’t seem to get in the way, though, since both parents knew some English from TV and from their kids. Everything went very smoothly indeed since the specialist spoke directly to the parents and paused in the appropriate places for the parents to react and answer. In their sincere desire to help their little one, the parents put aside any shyness they might have felt and questioned and spoke without hesitation.

Enter Miranda

After about twenty minutes, we were joined by Miranda herself, who had woken up from her nap and come to see who all these people were. She was an adorable elf dressed in hot pink jammies, with ponytails sticking out from each side of her head and tiny pink hearing aids in her ears. Her huge brown eyes seemed to take us all in, and then she swooped down on the pictures and toys spread out on the floor. This was Mom and Dad’s chance to begin to put in practice what they had just learned from the specialist.

Well, we certainly had a lot of fun. To some extent, I had to put aside my role of objective, distanced interpreter, because Miranda automatically included me in the games. We showed her pictures of things whose names started with “b,” “p,” and “m.” We made animal sounds to go with her toy duck, lion, horse, kitty, and cow.  We all joined in the applause when she managed an “m” for mamá and a “p” for perro (dog).

Finally, it was time to go, and there were hugs all around from Miranda, even one for the interpreter.

New Beginnings

When I left the trailer and started the forty-five-minute drive home, I felt just great. It struck me that this little girl will grow up trilingual, knowing Spanish, English and American Sign Language. Wow.

Since then, I have completed many social services assignments, some just as enjoyable, some not so much, but I rarely turn them down if I can spare the time. I even have a few pro bono gigs. You see, Miranda helped me realize that good interpreting is important not only in serious court cases or life and death medical situations, but in something like helping a little girl learn to speak.

The kind of interpreting I have described above is sometimes called “community interpreting.” In Great Britain and Canada, community interpreting, also referred to as “public service interpreting,” is any kind of interpreting conducted in the area of legal, health, local government, social, housing, environmental, education, and welfare services. Judiciary and medical interpreting are considered subsets of community interpreting. In the United States, we tend to separate legal and medical interpreting, and use the term “community interpreting” to refer to interpreting among LEP or deaf individuals and representatives of the institutions associated with health, housing, education, welfare and general social services. Currently, the field of community interpreting is developing rapidly, and there are various movements underway to train and certify community interpreters. I have included a few references for further reading.


Bowen, Margareta (2003)  Community Interpreting. In Mary Snell-Hornby, Hans Hönig, Paul Kußmaul,  Peter A. Schmitt (Eds.) Handbuch Translation. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag. Retrieved from http://aiic.net/page/234

Mikkelson, Holly (1999)  Interpreting Is Interpreting — Or Is It. Originally presented at the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, 30th Anniversary Conference,  Monterey Institute of International Studies, January 1999. Retrieved from http://www.acebo.com/papers/INTERP1.HTM  Be sure and check out the extensive bibliography.

Mikkelson, Holly (1996)  The Professionalization of Community Interpreting. Global Vision: Proceedings of the 37th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association. Monterey Institute of International Studies. Retrieved from http://www.acebo.com/papers/profslzn.htm  Again, the references are invaluable.

Mikkelson,Holly (1996)  Community Interpreting: An Emerging Profession. Interpreting: International Journal of Research and Practice in Interpreting (1.1), 125-129. Preview at http://books.google.com/books?id=VwZDjqa9s4wC&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=the+professionalization+of+community+interpreting&source=bl&ots=bo2G82s93y&sig=DFo_awdbF5Cce0erlTbG1zXJSOU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=_zMmUabUFsmx0AHQ_IHgDw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pöchhacker, Franz (1999).  Getting Organized’: The Evolution of Community Interpreting. Interpreting Vol. 4(1), pp. 125–140. Retrieved from  http://www.scribd.com/doc/97416324/Pochhacker-Getting-Organized-in-Community-Interpreting

Valero Garcés, Carmen and Martin, Anne (Eds.). Crossing Borders in Community Interpreting: Definitions and Dilemmas. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Co. Preview at


Kathleen Shelly is a Delaware translator and interpreter certified by the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. She has a master’s degree plus doctoral work in Latin American literature from the Ohio State University, and was a college professor for 12 years.  She has been a member of NAJIT since 2005. Kathleen is one of The NAJIT Observer founding authors.

14 thoughts on “A Hug for the Interpreter: My First Experience with Social Services Interpreting”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Thank you, Kathleen. Your piece brought tears to my eyes. That feeling of breaking down barriers and helping others cross thresholds lifts all misgivings.


    1. Kathleen says:

      De nada, Gio! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Thanks, Kathleen, it was a very inspiring story. I am also an interpreter and I feel that those liaison interpreting assignments where the three parties melt into one driven by the joint goal of communications are certainly the most rewarding ones. I remember one in particular, last year, where parents of children with severe mental and physical disabilities met a representative from a US company that manufactures foot-ankle-leg orthosis that would allow their children to walk. Very moving. Best regards from Madrid (Spain)!

    1. Kathleen says:

      Thanks, Esther!

  3. Jaye Stover says:

    After interpreting in court for many years, which can be brutal, I also love community interpreting where our hearts can be so engaged.

    1. Kathleen says:

      Yes, indeed, Jaye. It’s great to be able to do both!

  4. Rose winslet says:

    Whether digital or not, there are types of hearing aids that fits people with hearing loss. This will depend to the degree of their loss, their lifestyle and budget. Some people will prefer digital hearing aid because of the quality of technology it offers, but others will still prefer the analog because it may be cheaper or so. But importantly, seeking out an audiologist is the first step if you want to treat or prevent hearing loss. They will advise you what type of hearing aid is best for you.
    Reference: http://www.hiddenhearing.ie/

  5. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for the interesting information, Rose!

  6. Lynn says:

    I have had many similar experiences. Being primarily a court interpreter, in the last couple of years I have started interpreting regularly for an agency that provides in-home family therapy (often court-ordered). I was reluctant at first, but the pay is actually as good as for court, so I accepted. Sometimes the situations are very emotional and/or unsavory, but it has been gratifying to participate in helping mostly good families that find themselves in deep trouble to work through their problems and come out stronger on the other end of the process. And, I’m glad that I am able to help overcome the linguistic and cultural obstacles without being responsible for resolving the legal and mental health problems!

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    I am a bit of a crybaby, so its not surprising, but I did have tears after reading Bethany’s experience!

    1. Observer Editor says:

      My apologies, Ramon, this beautiful article is the work of our author Kathleen Shelly and I mistakenly attributed it to Bethany. Too many good authors, one gets confused. We do appreciate your words. Thank you!

  10. Hug is the best form of interpretation which can deliver the feeling from one heart to another.

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