Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Series: Tools to Consider When Working With Interpreters

Larissa Mañón Mervin

Chelsea DeMoss

By Larissa Mañón Mervin and Chelsea DeMoss, with assistance by Betsy Divers, Aaron Jacobson and Jennifer Robinson

Part I: What to Consider When Working with Interpreters

By Larissa Mañón Mervin, with the assistance of Aaron Jacobson and Jennifer Robinson [1]

When ensuring access to justice, an attorney should consider a variety of factors. One of the most important factors is access to foreign language services when a client speaks limited English. According to Charlotte Stories, over 40 million Americans speak Spanish at home. [2] In N.C., the most common foreign languages spoken after English are Spanish and French.[3] Therefore, it is imperative that we consider “language justice” when ensuring our clients are represented as best as possible. The term language justice means the fundamental right to have one’s voice heard in their native language.[4] Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change defines the term further, by the following three characteristics:

  1. The ability to speak in the language we are comfortable with.
  2. “the ability to create multilingual spaces, not just providing interpretation and translation which are important tools but making the political and intentional decision to set up spaces and organizations and relationships so that the English language is not prioritized.”
  3. “the recognition that language can be a site of connection but also of trauma and so this last part of the definition about what language justice means focuses on decolonization and a healing approach to language.”[5]

Since effective communication is a necessary foundation to the attorney-client relationship, practitioners should strive to incorporate language justice into their practices. Once an attorney has decided to do so, the obvious question is “how?” While there are many tips one could use to incorporate language justice into their practice, this blog post specifically addresses one component of it, which is the importance of understanding how to work with an interpreter. While not exhaustive by any means, here is a list of tips one may find useful when working with interpreters[6]:

  1. Start preparing ahead of time. It takes time to gather the necessary resources to ensure a great fit for your needs. Make sure you are not waiting until the last minute to secure translation or interpretation services. This is especially true when you ask a professional to translate a document. That takes them time. Do not expect for professionals to always be able to provide quick turnaround times.
  2. Ensure that you are securing an interpreter that the client fully understands. Many different languages have a variety of dialects depending upon where the individual is from, and many different countries have a variety of languages within that country. Do not assume that the dominant language from a client’s country of origin is what they speak; always consider indigenous populations. For example, in Latin America, there are many indigenous communities where Spanish is not the primary language. You want to be sure that your client fully understands the interpretation before moving forward. You also want to be sure to have a system in place for them to signal to you if they do not understand so that you can get an effective interpreter for them. Two ways to do this are to practice ahead of time with the interpreter if you have the availability to do so, and to empower both the client and the interpreter to stop or inject as necessary.
  3. Slow down! It is easy to get caught up in the rhythm and flow of interview questions or hearing questions, but it is critical to remember that the interpreter needs to time to effectively translate what you are saying and vice versa. Pause long enough for all parties to understand the translation. This is also gives you the chance to redirect the conversation as necessary. Along the same lines, be sure to schedule extra interview time or prepare the court for extra hearing time if interpreters are involved. Do not expect to use the same time allotment you would have used without an interpreter.
  4. Interpreters are human and make mistakes! Just like the attorneys utilizing their services, interpreters sometimes say the wrong things. If possible, it is helpful to practice beforehand to clarify questions and intentions. It is also incredibly helpful in a hearing (when possible, of course) if the attorney knows the language their client is speaking. That way, if something is translated incorrectly, the attorney can quickly catch it and ask their question a different way or address the issue if the interpreter and client were incorrectly paired.
  5. Hire professional and certified interpreters or see if one can be used pro bono. Do not assume that a proficient or bilingual staff member knows how to conduct official interpretations. Certified interpretation is a specific skill set that someone has been trained to perform. Casual conversation is much different. While casual conversation may be incredibly helpful in developing a relationship with the client at initial stages of representation, in other parts of the representation, it can be damaging. If you can only afford to have your proficient or bilingual staff members conduct interpretations, be sure you properly train them. There are courses available that teach the art of interpretation.
  6. Talk to your client, not the interpreter. The interpreter is simply there to interpret. By not addressing the client directly, it appears as though they are not a part of the conversation when their words are the most important words in the room. Going back to the last point, a certified or professionally trained interpreter will know to interpret word for word as if they are the person speaking, whereas someone who simply knows the language might be tempted to slip into “he said, she said.”
  7. Be committed to language justice! Do not consider it an afterthought; rather, carefully create your work plan with it in mind. One way to do this is by ensuring you have staff who are dedicated to the particular job function of interpretation. Alternatively, if you cannot afford to hire staff for the purpose of interpretation, make sure the staff who have dual job functions (to complete their substantive workload and interpret/translate) are properly compensated and given an adjusted workload to account for that. Expecting staff members whose primary job function is something completely different to translate documents and interpret for their colleagues, without providing mechanisms to make it feasible for them, unfairly puts additional responsibilities on them which they may not have been hired to perform. At the end of the day, the client is the one hurt by this dynamic, as they will either have to wait until a staff member does additional time beyond their normal work load, or worse, get paired with someone they do not understand.

While we understand that it may not be logistically possible to incorporate all of these tips at once, especially given budgetary constraints when doing pro bono work, these are simply tools to consider incorporating, as possible. What are some tips you find useful? Feel free to comment below. Let’s keep the conversation going to ensure the best representation possible for our foreign language clients.

Part II: Trauma-Informed Interpreting

Written by Chelsea DeMoss, with the assistance of Betsy Divers[7]

Another important component to access to justice work is trauma-informed lawyering.  People frequently seek legal assistance at times in their lives when they are highly vulnerable. Pro bono clients may have experienced various traumatic events throughout their lives that are directly and/or indirectly impacting their interactions with you as an attorney, and almost any legal interaction could entail exposure to trauma and re-traumatization. When serving clients who speak limited English, attorneys should consider how to provide language access in a way that is trauma-informed.

This initially requires becoming informed about trauma-informed principles in general, and attorneys engaging in pro bono services should consider taking a training on trauma-informed representation. With respect to the intersection of trauma-informed principles and working with interpreters, I wanted to share some broad guidelines I have learned while working at an organization specializing in trauma-informed legal services.

  1. If possible, work with interpreters who are trained in the provision of trauma-informed services. If one of you is not aware of the application of these principles, they can negatively impact the other’s efforts.  Furthermore, being informed on trauma-informed values will help both you as attorney and the interpreter set aside what you “feel” is helpful and instead rely on what has been studied and understood to be helpful.  For example, my organization’s Language Access Coordinator shared that interpreters working with traumatized clients can often feel a temptation or instinct to “comfort” a client in a way that oversteps professional boundaries, such as physical demonstrations of care or the provision of verbal advice.  However, such “helpful” behaviors from an interpreter could actually have an opposite, detrimental effect, both in terms of the trauma survivor’s recovery process and the legal process.
  2. If possible, pre-brief your interpreter. Interpreters will be able to interpret more accurately if they are aware of context such as the nature of proceedings, involved parties, and any special terminology. Interpreters may also need time to emotionally and mentally prepare if they are going to be interpreting a client’s processing of traumatic events. Remember that the interpreter is human too, and susceptible to vicarious trauma, and interpretation is an incredibly mentally and emotionally taxing task. If you expect a particular consult or legal encounter to be lengthy, you may want to set a plan for scheduled breaks or a signal for when the interpreter needs a break (including when there is something they need to discuss with the attorney privately). Finally, if you are working with a new interpreter, try to establish your expectations for interpretive practices up front.
  3. Be clear — between you, the interpreter, and the client — about the role of the interpreter. Give an introduction to prepare your client to work with an interpreter: explain the difference between the role of attorney and interpreter, give clear expectations about how the interpretive process will work, and explain that confidentiality extends to the interpreter as well.[8] This empowers your client through knowledge, and reinforces the importance of their voice in telling their own story.
  4. Guiding the legal interaction is your responsibility as the attorney. Interpreters are a conduit for communication, not the source or analyst of communicated material. If a client responds to a question with information seemingly unrelated to the question asked, interpreters may be tempted to reiterate the question rather than interpreting the answer. But it is your task as the attorney to sift through information and determine what is relevant, and you should establish up front with your interpreter that they need to interpret all responses as given. Make sure the interpreter you are working with interprets all statements, even if they are incoherent, rambling, obscene, etc. It can be disempowering for your client and diminish their voice if an interpreter edits, summarizes, or filters what they said. Furthermore, you as the attorney need to hear everything your client says in order to clarify and follow up as needed, to evaluate how they would potentially present as a witness, and to ensure you are providing competent representation and effectively pursuing the client’s goals. If the interpreter you are working with appears to be having a separate conversation with the client or adding/subtracting from the interpretation in either direction, take a moment to reiterate to the interpreter that you need everything to be interpreted.
  5. Bridging cultural gaps is your responsibility as the attorney. Interpreters may have cultural expertise that can be helpful in facilitating effective communication, but this should not displace reliance on the client to interpret their own experiences. If an interpreter does offer cultural insight, make sure to include your client in the discussion. For example, the interpreter you are working with may indicate that a word used by your client can have a different connotation in your client’s country of origin. Do not make assumptions about the client’s intent, but take the opportunity to rephrase the question to clarify with the client what they meant.
  6. Ensuring your communication is effective is your responsibility as the attorney. Do not expect interpreters to explain or restate things that were said, particularly when it comes to legal terms and procedures. Make sure you simplify, use plain English, avoiding excessive jargon, and explain all legal terms you do use. Ask follow-up questions to confirm that the client clearly understands what you as the attorney are trying to convey, and observe the client for non-verbal cues indicating whether the client understands. Make sure to tell the client that you want to know when they do not understand something, and try to do so in a way that is empowering and considerate of the fact that they may be reluctant to admit a lack of understanding (i.e., asking “did I explain that in a way that makes sense?” rather than “do you understand?”)
  7. Emphasize the need for direct communication between you and your client. Speaking to the interpreter over your client’s head can diminish your client’s voice/presence and undermine their participation in their own case. Furthermore, it is difficult to maintain transparency and build trust with your clients when you are having side conversations with the interpreter and talking about, rather than to, your client.
    1. Address questions directly to your client, i.e., ask “did you call the police?” instead of “ask her if she called the police?” The interpreter should interpret in the first person when interpreting for you and the client alike.
    2. If you are meeting in person, then be sure to maintain eye contact with your client while speaking instead of looking to the interpreter as an intermediary. Positioning can help facilitate this, with the interpreter sitting beside and preferably a little behind your client to encourage eye contact between you and your client.
    3. Do not let the indirectness of interpretation distract you from appropriately engaging in the conversation. Do not rely on the interpreter to set your client at ease, build rapport with your client, or appropriately exhibit empathy. Be cognizant of your tone of voice and body language, and the fact that your client can understand your non-verbal cues even when they do not understand the spoken words.
    4. Make sure your client knows that interpretive services are there for their benefit, and can be relied on as frequently or infrequently as your client desires during an encounter (this can be particularly important with non-native English speakers who are nevertheless fairly proficient). Make sure they understand the importance of accurate communication, and empower them with choice.

In general, try to treat your client with limited English proficiency as you would any English speaker.  The presence of an interpreter is no reason to deviate from your standard procedures and your ethical and professional obligations. Attorneys engaging in pro bono work likely already know from personal experience that all lawyering is cross-cultural, and there are always differences in values, beliefs, background, diction, identities, and culture between lawyers and clients. In all situations, I have found that it is most important to treat your clients of all backgrounds with compassion, dignity, and understanding. Please share your experiences, as we all continue learning and striving to seek access to justice for our clients and communities.

Resources on trauma-informed principles and lawyering:

Resource on trauma-informed interpretation:

[1] Aaron Jacobson is a Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Farmworker Unit where he serves migrant and seasonal farmworkers in North Carolina. Jennifer Robinson is a Staff Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Battered Immigrant Project where she serves immigrant survivors of abuse. Larissa Mervin is a Domestic Violence Supervising Attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Charlotte office. To learn more about each attorney’s practice area, visit www.legalaidnc.org.

[2] Scott Jensen, The Most Commonly Spoken Foreign Languages in The Carolinas, Charlotte Stories, September 30, 2020, The Most Commonly Spoken Foreign Languages In The Carolinas – Charlotte Stories.

[3] Scott Jensen, The Most Commonly Spoken Foreign Languages in The Carolinas, Charlotte Stories, September 30, 2020, The Most Commonly Spoken Foreign Languages In The Carolinas – Charlotte Stories.

[4] Pancho Arguelles of Colectivo Flatlander, Susan Williams and Adina Hemley-Bronstein of Highlander Research and Education Center, with help and support by Ditra Edwards of the Praxis Project, Tomas Aguilar from Colectivo Flatlander and Andrea Arias Soto. Elandria Williams contributed the reflection on African Americans and language justice; Pamela Mejia and the Berkeley Media Studies Group helped with the Communication section. Communities Creating Healthy Environments, Language Justice Toolkit: Multilingual Strategies for Community Organizing, at 2, language_justice_toolkit.pdf (nesfp.org). For more information on incorporating language justice into your practice, we encourage you to fully review this toolkit.

[5] Groundswell, What is Language Justice and Why Does it Matter in Oral History Work?, July 25, 2018, PSN Reportback: What is Language Justice and Why Does it Matter in Oral History Work? — GROUNDSWELL (oralhistoryforsocialchange.org).

[6] This list was compiled based on the practice experiences of the author, Aaron Jacobson, and Jennifer Robinson, and is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all possible tips.

[7] Betsy Divers is the Language Access Coordinator & Training and Education Specialist at JusticeMatters. Chelsea DeMoss is a family law attorney at JusticeMatters. To learn more about JusticeMatters and/or request a training on trauma-informed legal representation, visit https://justicemattersnc.org.

[8] If you are not using certified interpretive services, this may not be the case. Make sure you, the individual who is interpreting, and the client all understand how attorney-client confidentiality and privilege will extend to the individual who is interpreting between you.