My friend is bilingual, why can’t she interpret? Why can’t I have a friend or family member interpret?

Is it really necessary to hire a professional interpreter if there’s a family member available to interpret?


Family members, friends, coworkers and community members should never serve as interpreters. There are a number of potential risks: loss of confidentiality, inaccurate interpretation, breach of ethics, and legal liability. Using a family member or friend negatively affects everyone: the LEP person’s care or service, the family member providing the interpretation, and your agency or company.

Being an interpreter is a profession, not just a talent. Professional interpreters receive intensive formal training and are bound by the ethical standards of confidentiality and accurate interpreting. Professional interpreters are not just bilingual – they are thoroughly trained to know specialized vocabulary and cultural idiosyncrasies, to remain impartial, and to conduct themselves in a formal manner. These skill sets allow them to confidently handle any type of conversation, including those requiring in-depth comprehension and knowledge where getting it wrong just isn’t an option. If you were in a country where you did not speak the native language, would you want just anyone interpreting for you before you underwent an emergency medical procedure?

What about using my bilingual staff?

Using bilingual staff members may seem like the perfect solution to not using family members or friends and saving money on professional interpretation – but many of the same limitations arise in this scenario.

Bilingual staff members may be fluent in the language but have not received the same specialized training as professional interpreters. Most importantly, there are major conflicts of interest as they oftentimes are not serving the needs of the LEP because they are bound by the interests of their employer. Impartiality is impossible.

Many agencies formally recognize the importance of using only credentialed interpreters. For example, The Atlanta Board of Education recently enacted a new policy that directs all of the state’s public schools to use only trained certified interpreters that are to act as a “neutral party.” It also plainly states, “Schools may not rely on or ask students, siblings, friends or untrained school staff to translate or interpret for parents.”

Using professional interpretation and translation services helps mitigate risk when dealing with LEP persons, particularly in healthcare and legal settings. By not using an interpreter, an agency or provider assumes the risk for the potential loss of confidentiality, misdiagnosis, and/or uninformed consent for treatment or services. This oversight can lead to increase in liability, healthcare or legal costs, and poor health or legal outcomes. Professional interpretation and translation services can decrease the risk of malpractice lawsuits or other litigation that result from a lack of clear communication between LEP and providers.

In order to get the most out of your experience with a trained interpreter, below are some helpful tips:


  • The interpreter will interpret everything you and the non-English speaker say as accurately as possible, without adding information, editing or summarizing.
  • The interpreter will use the first person (“I” – speaker) and the second person (“You” – listener) whenever possible.
  • Should the interpreter encounter difficulty in translating certain words or phrases, she/he will ask for clarification.
  • The interpreter will attempt to communicate the inflection or emotion of your client’s speech.  If the interpretation does not fully reflect the emotional content, the interpreter will try, without editorializing, to state his or her impressions.
  • The interpreter will not advocate for you or your client.
  • The interpreter will withdraw voluntarily from a case if she/he feels unable to be impartial or protect the client’s confidentiality.


  • Before you and the interpreter meet with your client, explain the nature of the appointment to the interpreter. Tell the interpreter what topics you will be discussing and in what sequence. Is there any important information you are trying to find out? What do you hope to accomplish overall?
  • Address questions directly to your clients when you speak (“When did you see the doctor?”) not to the interpreter (“Please ask him when he saw the doctor”).  Even though the client might not understand what you are saying, a great deal of information is conveyed through body language.
  • Speak slowly and clearly, and pause frequently.
  • Remember there is not a word-for-word correspondence between languages. The interpreter might need to use three sentences to interpret what you have said in three words.  Give the interpreter time to present information in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.
  • Encourage the interpreter to ask for clarification if necessary.

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