The Importance of Training for the Community Interpreter

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




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

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Dear Kathleen,

    What a heartwarming and beautiful post. Thank you. I speak as a mother whose child has been through counseling and is fully aware of the need to be “fully present,” and a professional who does believe in training.

    There are some initiatives out there on community interpreter training and I will provide them to you in private. I hope they prove useful to you.

    — Gio

  2. Kathleen says:

    Thanks, Gio!

  3. Sawsan abugosseisa says:

    Thank you Cathleen for sharing. I can fully relate to your experience as I have been there myself to the extent that I felt you were telling my story. I started interpreting for an organization that contract with community interpreters who received training at one of the well known programs. The organization believed that they were getting the best interpreting practices up and till I showed up. I offered to give free informational sessions to those interpreters but to no avail. I was able though to speak at a training sessions offered by the organization for its social workers and case managers about how to use and what to expect form a well trained interpreter. I do feel that informing the consumer of our trade about the proper interpreting practices is just as important and hopefully would encourage interpreters to perform up to the standard desired.

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  6. melanie says:

    hi kathleen thanks for the tip but am just a student in interpretation and translation and wanted to know what what are the challenges of community interpretation. thanks

  7. Priscila says:

    Thank you very much! I am very interested in this free basic training you are wishing to offer to interpreters I just recently completed the medical interpreting basic training and would truly appreciate any further advice. Where are you located? Thanks! Please contact me ASAP at

  8. Silvia says:

    Kathleen, hi! Thanks for spreading your experience. That’s really inspiring to hear. And I can’t agree more that you constantly need to improve your knowledge in a way to stay professional and educated – even university professor has something to explore 🙂 What about you? What are your ways to educate yourself in professional way? What are the influencers in interpreter’s industry per your vision? Perhaps, you can share some great tools or apps that are moving industry forward? I can share with you and others great helpers for me – blog – different interpreter-related stuff- and app Ineractio ( ) – tool is sending audio sound of the interpretation for users mobile phones by the downloaded app, so it could be very handy during multi-language conferences, seminars or exhibitions or any kind of international events or venues ( like church sessions or even multi-cultural weddings). What about you? What are your last discoveries for interpretation?

  9. Alex Marsh says:

    Great article Kathleen, thanks for sharing such important tips with us, a pleasure to read. You always get more from your interpreter other than his skills and competency in languages and culture. A professional interpreter has many talents and must be creative in many ways to produce a translation and interpretation project that is fit for a client’s satisfaction and needs. I have also read a fabulous post related to this blog and would like to share –

  10. Thanks for the inspiring post on training for community interpreters. Terrific details.! I am writing this post about an allied effort that I’ve had the honor to lead for two decades. I am asking for advice.. We are the Multicultural Association of Medical/ Legal Interpreters of Central New York (MAMI). Since 1998, MAMI has functioned as a community – based organization founded in Upstate NY to ensure equal access to services for speakers of limited English by providing highly-skilled language and culture aid. Focused on civil rights and interpreter quality, MAMI trains interpreters for many settings: medical, legal, mental health, schools, and others. We do our best to follow national guidelines, especially from NAJIT and NCIHC. Our financial model: charge for the interpreting services provided by our in-house trained interpreters. Get grant funding to afford offering our training courses, some 15 in all. Challenge: our financial model isn’t working so well in the current environment of lax quality enforcement and intense competition- mainly from for-profits seemingly focused on gaining profit rather than giving others a voice We struggle to find recompense for the time and money we invest in training (and supporting programs for providers and refugees). Competitors entice our interpreters with higher pay, Then, we cannot fill all interpreting requests- so appointment numbers go down.. We see a continuing role for our mission, ultimately to make community interpreting a credentialed profession. In our belief, only this outcome will give civil rights to speakers of limited English. Our business model succeeded ten years ago but no longer. Can users of this website give advice: how to boost revenues while preserving an organization’s role as guardian of interpreter quality and civil rights for the limited-English-proficient?

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