Building an Interpretive Services Area Part 2

Customer Relationship Management, Vol. III, No. 1, March 1998

By Jeanan Yasiri

Hiring Independent Language Interpreters

Hiring qualified interpreters is a challenge at best. However, when contracting with independent interpreters, the task becomes even more difficult as the relationship between your organization and the interpreter requires all the loyalty assurances an employee should bring without the benefit of a permanent employment agreement.

Even when a service organization has qualified permanent interpretive staff on board, having a back-up list of independent interpreters is essential. The independent interpreter can mean the difference between meeting the needs of multiple consumers at once or losing that business due to a simple lack of communication.

The experience we have had in Madison, Wisconsin has provided our community with lessons that transcend industries and service areas. In Madison, the largest language needs are in the Spanish, Hmong and Deaf communities. Each of these communities has specific cultural requirements we have learned to address, but in each case, the absolute need for quality independent interpretive services is a need our consumers and businesses share.

The following list will help you in identifying points that are essential to working with an independent service or interpreter:

1) Check their qualifications.

This sounds obvious, but depending on the language you are looking to work with, the qualifications may be difficult to assess. For instance, while many interpreters are members of organizations like the American Translators Association, it is important to check on whether the individual is merely a member of the organization or has truly passed a certification exam which tests their skills.

In the case of interpreters for Deaf consumers, most states have an Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing that facilitates some assessment of local interpreters. Keep in mind though that Deaf consumers are more frequently requiring that interpreters in medical, mental health, and judicial forums be nationally certified. There are even some proposals before state legislatures which would require this. This can pose a unique challenge for the organization looking to hire qualified interpreters, as few independent interpreters have achieved this level of assessment. However, by conferring the local advocates on this matter, you can demonstrate your commitment to finding the best interpretive alternatives over time.

2) Establish a Community-Based Panel Assessment.

If you are finding that few of the independent interpreters in your service area have "certification" by a professional association, consider establishment of a community-based assessment panel. In Madison, we found that we had a glut of people offering Spanish interpretation at premium prices, but no measurable way of determining their level of competency. After much discussion with other service organizations and the local community-based group that represents Latino issues, we were able to establish an assessment panel that now handles this for us. Subscribing organizations are provided with a list of those independent interpreters that have gone through a rigorous assessment of their language skills and cultural knowledge as well as the individual's ethics and style in providing interpretation. The end result has been astounding. Some individuals who had been performing service for various organizations for years were found to have marginal to poor skills and ultimately did not make the cut. On the flip side, the prestige associated with completing the assessment process encouraged other more qualified candidates to come forward, be assessed and become part of interpreter lists.

Interviewing Questions for Hiring Interpreters

Each industry will have its own set of issues that will be important to address when interviewing independent or permanent interpretive staff. The following questions are intended to serve as a primer to get the conversation started.

Q. How would you determine the language needs of the consumer you are about to work with?

A. The interpreter should discuss the fact that there are usually various dialects within a language group and how the interpreter intends to determine which dialect, manner of speech the consumer is using. This will vary based on the language interpreted.

Q. Describe a time when a consumer for whom you were interpreting made an unreasonable request of you. What were the circumstances? How did you handle the situation?

A. This question gets to the fact that interpreters are often regarded by consumers as confidants and sometimes asked to perform favors that go beyond their role as an interpreter. It is important to know how the interpreter would handle such requests, from a customer service point of view.

Q. Describe an interpretation experience where you felt you had insight into a matter that no one else seemed to notice. What did you do about it?

A. An interpreter is intended to translate language and culture. If it is evident to the interpreter that the context of the statement is misunderstood due to cultural differences, they should state that they are removing themselves, momentarily, from their interpreter role and to explain the cultural shift that is taking place.

Q. What tools do you bring to an interpreting assignment to make sure that you are prepared?

A. Do they bring a dictionary, notepad or other tool that will help them in keeping the conversation clear? A lot of consumers will make lengthy statements, never allowing the interpreter to interrupt in order to interpret. In such a case, a notebook is necessary for note taking. Particularly in situations where technical terms are used, the most skilled interpreters have a dictionary available to make certain that language is accurate.

Q. As an interpreter do you consider yourself part of a team? As a team member would you provide information to other members of the team that could help them perform their job?

A. An interpreter is part of a team, however it is important to note that they are not to divulge information that the consumer is not communicating to the company representative. They are to communicate what the consumer is saying, not what the consumer said out in the lobby. This is critical as, without this basic tenet, the interpreter would be placed in the position of deciding for the consumer what is to be communicated. That is not the role of the interpreter and needs to be understood by consumer and company representative.

Q. Specifically describe your knowledge of the various cultures within the Latino community. (Insert any appropriate group as needed) Describe your knowledge of Deaf culture.

A. There are a variety of cultures within many ethnic groups. The Deaf population has a very specific culture which is important to understand and connect with before successful interpretation can take place, as well.

Q. As an on-staff interpreter, you receive a call from a Deaf patient. The patient complains that a company representative was rude to her in her recent appointment. She feels he was abrupt and short, and discriminating against her because she is Deaf. How do you respond?

A. This questions works to test the interpreter's problem solving and fact finding skills. Additionally, it tests whether the interpreter is quick to jump to conclusions and how they may handle a volatile situation. Interpreters are not intended to serve as advocates, however, from a customer service standpoint, there would be specific ways you would want any staff to handle such a call.

Q. You are interpreting for an appointment where the company representative is running behind. The client only speaks Spanish. Her bilingual husband is in the room during the appointment. When it comes time for the conversation, the husband answers for the client without giving you time to interpret, and the company representative acts upon those answers. What do you do?

A. The interpreter should make clear to all parties involved that he/she is there to interpret on behalf of the wife. If the wife elects to have her husband communicate on her behalf, that should be verbalized.

Q. Suppose you are in a situation and the client says, "I don't want you as my interpreter." What do you do?

A. A conversation will only be as successful as the two parties who are speaking make it. In the case of interpreted conversations, the interpreter plays a critical role. The interpreter should certainly gather information regarding the client's concerns, but if they persist, dismissing their involvement in the process is likely appropriate.

3) Check references within the community they represent.

Again, this point seems obvious but it's easily forgotten. Check references of previous employers and consumers that have been served by this interpreter. Ask community and advocacy groups as well as consumers how this interpreter is received in the community of consumers who will use their service. You wouldn't want to contract with someone who is considered a "gossip" or unprofessional by the community they represent.

4) Interview the applicant as you would an employee.

A thorough, one-on-one interview should be part of the standard process. An orientation of your company policies and procedures is also essential if the individual is to properly represent your organization.

5) Maintain a consistent communication line with the professional.

Don't lose sight of how often the individual is being used after the orientation. Keep track of the number of hours of service they perform for you. Survey customers and staff on their performance. Check-in with your independent interpreters periodically, as well. They will likely be able to tell you all kinds of valuable anecdotal information from your customer base that you otherwise might never learn.

6) Establish a compensation scale that is commensurate with experience.

Some interpreters will name their hourly fee while others will be willing to negotiate. It is best to have a fee scale in mind that moves up with the level of experience that an interpreter brings to the job. Once again, check with your community groups or other businesses who use interpretive services in your area. Ask what the market rate is for certain languages in your area. Without question, prices will vary based on simply supply and demand.

Hiring qualified independent interpretive assistance can help your organization overcome barriers to providing the most culturally appropriate service possible. The key is hiring qualified, professional assistance in this area. Your investment in assessing skills and style up-front will pay-off by attracting a consumer base that otherwise might not have known you cared to do business.

Interpretation Skill Assessment

If you have plenty of people offering to provide your customers and staff with independent interpretive assistance, but no way of assessing their skills, a Chicago area company is prepared to help. Online Interpreters, Inc. supports 40 languages and can help your organization determine the skills of those independent parties you're hiring.

"We are able to do screening over the phone or in person," says Kay Whipple, General Sales Manager. "We also can help in determining what skills need to be evaluated such as written skills versus verbal interpretation."

Online Interpreters has an extensive interview and selection process for their staff. They are prepared to tailor certain assessments for specific industries. The organization's human resources staff are certified by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Oral proficiency testers determine a candidate's skill in understanding cultural and social differences, performing paraphrasing, using idiomatic expressions and being grammatically correct.

"We also offer training programs for interpreters," says Whipple. A heavy focus is placed on the role of the interpreter and associated ethical issues.

Online Interpreters also provide over the phone translation service 24 hours a day, seven days a week through their 800 number call center. Their staff are all located at their Park Ridge, Illinois facility and are often involved in serving as the first point of contact for companies in need of having interpreters take their inbound calls.

"Many companies simply route the calls to us," say Whipple. "We take the order and help the customer through any applications. We take orders out of Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. Once the call is completed on computer it is downloaded back to the company."

Online Interpreters, Inc. can be reached at 1-800-307-1001.

"Putting the Patient First: Up-front with Advocacy and Community Service" is a new book co-authored by Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals (SOCAP) members Jeanan Yasiri and Bob Richards. (This book is available through the SOCAP Resource Center Bookstore). In addition to identifying a number of issues that physicians and clinic groups should consider when working with patient complaints, it addresses the increasing need for excellent interpretive services. This is the second in a three-part series that addresses the need to think multi-culturally and develop a quality interpretive services area.

Thanks go to Tim O'Donnell, Christy Mokrohisky and Pam Olson for their input.