Who’s your client?

Interpreters have many clients. I don’t mean who pays. I mean who is the beneficiary of your interpreting services. Yes, we do see whoever hires us as the “client,” but as a professional service, that is not the most precise way of defining a “client.” Nevertheless, we can use that as a starting point to figure out who is our client, and then explore how that relationship has a bearing on the actual interpreting performance we provide.

Generally, those who contract interpreting services are either agencies or institutions, rarely an individual. Agencies are intermediaries between the interpreter and some other end user of the interpreter’s services, so their role is limited as is the interpreter’s responsibility to them. The agency tells the interpreter where to go, when, and for what sort of event, and the interpreter agrees to provide a service in exchange for a given fee. Ideally, the interpreter and the agency will have negotiated all these conditions and put them in writing as a binding contract for professional services. Whether you provide services for the same agency on a regular basis, or only one time, your conditions—such as honorarium, cancellation policy, and so forth—should be in some sort of written form that not only protects you but is also a reflection of your professionalism.

Institutions can be a hospital for a healthcare interpreter, some court or administrative office for judiciary interpreters, and so forth. It is more difficult to set your own rates and other conditions when contracting with institutions, but it is not impossible. Whether the institution is publicly funded and therefore working with a limited funding allocation of taxpayers’ money, or is privately owned and answerable to a board of directors or CFO, as an independent contractor you are still in charge of your own business and can decide whether or not to accept conditions preset by an institution. Remember that you can always say, “thanks, but no thanks.”

Of course, if you are an employee, you have no option but to abide by your employer’s policies and job conditions, but you knew that and agreed to such boundaries when you accepted a job with that entity. If you disagree with your employment conditions, you should probably revisit your decision to take that job, because changing corporate culture—and by “corporate” I really mean anyone who hires interpreters on a full-time basis, whether public or private—is always an uphill battle and is not always successful.

None of these, however, are your intended listeners when you are interpreting, and that is the client I want to explore with you. We often think of the non-English speaker (NES) or Limited English Proficient (LEP) individual as our clients. The fact is that, unless we are at a conference where the English speaker is the presenter and our only listeners are specific members of the audience, our intended listeners will be both English and non-English speakers. In medical settings, those can be the healthcare provider and the patient or a patient’s parent if we are talking about a minor, or maybe the spouse. In educational settings, those can be the school administrators or the teachers and the students or the parents of those students. In legal settings, it gets complicated.

Inside a courtroom, you can have clients you never even thought about, like the jurors who are listening to your rendition of testimony from the witness stand. We tend to think of the court—meaning the judge—as our “client.” However, the service we are providing is not only for the court’s benefit. When we are interpreting the testimony of an LEP witness, for example, the concept of client is extremely fluid. When we are interpreting into the foreign language, our client is the LEP individual, but when we are interpreting the foreign language into English, our client, meaning our intended listener, is first and foremost the attorney asking the questions. But there are peripheral clients as well. One is the judge, who must make certain rulings and findings based on your renditions, particularly when there are objections from the opposing side. That opposing side’s attorney is also a peripheral client who is relying on your performance to devise a cross-examination strategy. There may even be a defendant, or plaintiff if it’s a civil case, who is listening to your renditions and would be a collateral client as well. Then there’s the court reporter, a very important client because that is the person creating the official record of the proceedings. Finally, you have the rest of the court personnel and anyone in the audience, all of whom will also be paying attention to your renditions. These are all your clients to one degree or another because they are relying on your interpreting services to be able to understand the testimony of an LEP witness.

There are other instances in which only the LEP individual will be listening to your interpretation of the proceedings taking place. Whether you use equipment or whisper to provide simultaneous interpreting for an LEP defendant—or plaintiff, as the case may be—that one person is your sole client and the only one relying on your performance in order to be an informed participant in the proceedings. If it’s a criminal matter, then you are the only access that individual has to any due-process right to be informed, to be present, to assist in his or her own defense.

When people who do not speak the same language need you so they can communicate with each other, they are both equally dependent on you, they are both your clients, and you have a professional responsibility to provide your best services to both, regardless of who pays. The bottom line is that in any scenario in which someone needs an interpreter, that means someone needs more than just language access; they need access to health, to education, to information, and to justice.


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: palmajanis88@gmail.com

Main photo from “How to become a better listener” by Phil LaViolette at resourcily, under CC BY-SA 4.0. Body photo from “Audience” by Susan Oaks at lumen Communication for Professionals, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

5 thoughts on “Who’s your client?”

  1. Arunee Ponpradit Moir says:

    My clients are usually Thai immigrants whose case are/having been in Immigration court proceedings. Some of my clients are Thai immigrants who have encountered with USCIS officers.

  2. C Carrera says:

    Thank you for this. Never thought about all the peripheral clients that way 🙂

  3. Janis Palma says:

    Hi Arunee. Don’t forget that the immigration officer is also a client when you are interpreting from Thai into English. The point of my piece is that you should consider who is listening as a “client””,” not just who hired you.

  4. Carmen Mustile-Talarico says:

    Great post, as usual and thank you.
    I have a question about the court interpreter who looks at the jury while rendering in a clear audible voice the LEP testimony
    (In court/person trial)
    Is this correct? Addressing the jury?

  5. Reme Bashi says:

    Great article! I wrote something similar a while ago, in the sense that many times, people think the LEP is the client, when it’s actually everyone who’s listening, Unless of course, you consider only the business perspective of the client being the one who hires the service. A great point to highlight, thanks for a good read.

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