The Importance of Training for the Community Interpreter

This article by Katharine Allen, co-President of InterpretAmerica and former contributor to The NAJIT Observer, was originally published on October 11, 2013. The subject covered is of great importance to us: professional training. The article remains relevant despite the lapse of time since its original date of publication.

By Katharine Allen © 2013

There is quite a bit of talk lately among those of us in the interpreting profession about the professionalization of community interpreting. In Great Britain and Canada, community interpreting, also referred to as “public service interpreting” is an umbrella term encompassing any kind of interpreting for the public sector, and includes judiciary and medical interpreting. In the United States, we separate legal and medical interpreting, and use the term “community interpreting” to refer to any other kind of interpreting among LEP or deaf individuals and representatives of the institutions associated with health, housing, education, family, 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.

Such training is becoming indispensable. The professionalization of community interpreting is an idea whose time has come.

Training for Community Interpreters

I must say, I am all for it! I live in an area that is mainly served by a small handful of certified interpreters and a larger group consisting of either untrained self-employed or ad hoc interpreters, or equally untrained bilingual social services personnel. I have found that the lack of the most basic knowledge of proper interpreting techniques is profound, and I take advantage of each and every opportunity for teaching interpreters and clients how it’s done. All the skills we use in court or in medical interpreting—use of first person consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting for the LEP who is not being being addressed directly—must also be mastered for use in community interpreting. Just because the assignment does not take place in a courtroom or doctor’s office doesn’t give one permission to use “he says/she says,” or allow an LEP person to just wait in silence while an English conversation of importance to the LEP is going on.

Taking advantage of those really good teaching moments

An excellent opportunity to do some education on correct community interpreting presented itself to me two months ago.  Although, I work mostly in the courtroom, I always welcome the chance to work in other venues. So when XYZ agency called, desperate for an interpreter for a mental health counseling session scheduled for the next day, I accepted. I was told that all of their “regular” local interpreters were busy with other assignments. Grudgingly, they accepted my terms, which they informed me were much higher than they were used to paying. I would be interpreting for the Spanish-speaking mother of a teen-age girl who had tried to commit suicide.

I arrived 15 minutes before the time of the appointment, and was somewhat taken aback to find that the mother and daughter had already arrived and that the counselor was talking to them, using the daughter as interpreter for the mother. It was not a good sign.

As I usually do, I asked Mrs. Jones, the counselor, if she had worked with interpreters before. “Of course; XYZ always sends us excellent interpreters,” she replied airily.

I knew we were in trouble when the first words out of Mrs. Jones’ mouth were: “Ask Mom how Janet’s doing at home.” As nicely as I possibly could, I asked her to address the mother directly. “Just pretend I’m not here.” Surprised, the counselor complied. We reached another snag when I interpreted the mother’s answers in the first person. Mrs. Jones, very confused, asked me: “Is it you who are answering, or is it her?” Again, I explained that I would be interpreting the mother’s words exactly as she said them. “Just look at her,” I told her, “and pretend that it’s her answering you.” Before long, things started to go very nicely indeed, and both the counselor and the mother began to get into a back-and-forth rhythm most conducive to good communication.

Then it was the daughter’s turn. Mrs. Jones began to address the girl in English. I, of course, commenced a running simultaneous interpretation of their conversation, but after a few minutes, the counselor turned to me and said: “I’m not used to this. Why are you interpreting to Mom? I’m not talking to her right now.” I explained to her that “Mom” needed to be fully present for this interview of her daughter and that what I was doing was making that possible. Looking very dubious, the counselor went on and after a while seemed to forget I was even there.

At some point, there was a slight pause in the conversation, and Mrs. Jones said something like: “Well, then,” which I duly interpreted. She was utterly amazed. “Do you even interpret my filler words?” “Everything,” I told her. “Look,” I said, “this is how it’s done. I have been a professional trained interpreter for 15 years, and I can assure you that this is the correct way for an interpreter to facilitate communication.” Of course, I also let the mother know what these exchanges between myself and the counselor were all about.

The remainder of the session went great. Since the mother could hear and understand everything, she was able to fully participate in the session, providing information that could be vital for her daughter’s treatment, and listening to her daughter tell the counselor things she had been uncomfortable to tell her mother directly. There were tears and hugs.

What Was Learned

At the end of the session, Mrs. Jones said: “You have to understand. I have actually had interpreters fall asleep during these sessions; they don’t interpret anything to the parent. I have never had an interpreter do what you’re doing. I really appreciate this, and I understand now how important it is.” I told her as simply as I could that she should insist that any interpreter use first person in consecutive interpreting and that the parent or guardian must not be forgotten in the process.

I felt great about having been able to educate at least two persons—the counselor and the mother—about how proper interpreting must be used for genuine communication. I am hoping that the next time Mrs. Jones requests an interpreter from the XYZ agency, she will insist that the interpreter have some training, and that when the interpreter arrives, Mrs. Jones will request that correct interpreting procedures be followed. I also hope that Janet’s mother will understand that she has the right to know what is being said in all interviews with her daughter at which she is present.

I would love to be able to reach out to the XYZ agency and to others like it, but as they say, “Good luck with that.” They’re looking for the fastest and the cheapest; quality or even correct interpreting technique is really of no concern. If their clients don’t know the difference, who cares? This attitude must change, but I think it will be a long process.

Educating the Untrained Community Interpreter

We may not be able to reform the agencies that employ untrained interpreters for community work just yet, but there is something that I think I can do to reach out to the interpreters in my area who work for these agencies or for themselves. I am thinking very seriously about providing a free basic educational orientation for interpreters who don’t really have a grasp on the skills they need to truly serve in this capacity.

This would be only a first step toward improving the situation. I don’t know exactly how to get the word out, but I am considering various ways and means. I don’t even know how many would come, since a lot of longtime interpreters in my area don’t think they need any instruction, but even if just a few show up, I will have made some impact.

If anyone reading this post has any ideas or experience as to how to reach out in this way, please contact me!


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

Mikkelson, Holly. (1999)  Interpreting Is Interpreting — Or Is It. Originally presented at the Graduate School of Transaltion and Interpretation, 30th Anniversary Conference,  Monterey Institute of International Studies, January 1999. Retrieved from
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
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

Pöchhacker, Franz. (1999) Getting Organized’: The Evolution of Community Interpreting. Interpreting Vol. 4(1), pp. 125–140. Retrieved from

Valero Garcés, Carmen and Martin, Anne (Eds.). (2008) Crossing Borders in Community Interpreting: Definitions and Dilemmas. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Co. Preview at

14 thoughts on “The Importance of Training for the Community Interpreter”

  1. Gladys Matthews says:

    Hello Katharine,
    Thank you for reposting this article. It boggles the mind that there are still a great number of interpreters who do not know the basics of the profession.
    Also, I am glad you explained what the term community interpreting encompasses, which, as you know, might not find consensus. I’ve read extensively about it and find it fascinating.
    Thanks again!

  2. Kathleen Morris says:

    Loved your article, Katharine. I go through this exact situation time after time in Juvenile and Abuse and Neglect courts in Cook County, IL courts.

    Illinois state law,specified that LEP parents be provided with interpreters during court hearings and attorney interviews. We are always,short staffed. Most hearings are eventually assigned an interpreter, but the same is not true of attorney and probation officer interviews. Some attorneys and judge ate surprised when I interpret everything, whether the parent is being addressed or not. They are usually very appreciative, though in the beginning they did not understand the need for the interpreter to even be present while interviewing the juvenile, much less for interpreting Q&A Z,

  3. Nicholas Ferreira says:

    Good post, Kathleen. I should point out that in many parts of Canada, there is official separation between community, medical and court interpreting. Whether or not the market here is large enough to support three separate professions and their certification exams remains to be seen, but at least that’s how it stands on paper. Strides are being made to educate community interpreters, mainly through the Language Interpreter Training Program (LITP), which covers so much in the 180-hour course. Slowly, but surely 🙂

  4. Jiya says:

    Thank you! It doesn’t have to be, with only very few changes our training could be both on distance and with on-site meetings in other parts of Sweden. But it’s a money issue (no surprise).

  5. Nice blog, I really like your topic and its really useful in My working project.

  6. Arshi Khan says:

    Its very effective and helpful article. Thank you so much admin. Keep it up

  7. Elisa Mass says:

    I appreciate this so much. My goal is to get everyone educated on how to work with an interpreter. It is difficult at times in the area I work within. People are not open and do not have much knowledge of what we do and why we do it. I was working in public health for 13 yrs. I also worked as a patient outreach worker. It was tough at times to separate myself from either roles. Considering how much there is a need for a bilingual to help educate and inform the patients. Being both can be overwhelming, but rewarding. I hope to teach people in this town some skills and respect for our profession.

  8. kritis says:

    thanks for the information dear

  9. jenny gupta says:

    thanks for your great post.

  10. mahi megh says:

    nice job and great content. thanks

  11. dipi kapor says:

    yes, that’s good.

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