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On the Line in Any Language:

Telephone Interpreting Tips

(Originally published February 2012)


The use of telephone interpreting has increased exponentially over the years as a means of supplementing in-person interpreting to provide valuable insight and often legally required language access. Its use is particularly helpful to convey quick bits of information over a very short period of time. So, how does it work and what do you need to know to ensure the use of over-the-phone interpreting is both appropriate and effective? Here is some information to help you with this process.


What is the history of phone interpreting and how did it get started?  Telephone interpreting first emerged in 1973 in Australia in response to the dramatic increase in immigrants and the resulting need to communicate across language barriers. Telephone interpreting was first introduced in 1981 in the United States and underwent enormous growth in the 1990’s due to immigration trends as well as lower long distance costs and greater toll-free access. In recent years, there has been a heightened emphasis on the enforcement of language access mandates and guidelines, which has resulted in an increased demand for in-person and phone interpreting. For example, the US Department of Justice has issued official reminders that all recipients of federal money, including private companies, must comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes providing "meaningful access” to limited English proficient persons (LEPs). States and other government agencies, like the US Department of Health and Human Services, are following suit by creating their own language access laws or policy guidelines.


What are the common uses for phone interpreting? The most common use for phone interpreting is when there is no time or availability (e.g., in very remote locations) for a face-to-face interpreter to arrive. This often happens in emergency medical situations. Others include legal and educational settings. For example, a parent-teacher conference is about to begin and the parties realize a language barrier exists. Or, a brief deposition is about to take place, the interpreter booking has been overlooked, and a phone call is the quickest way to rectify the situation. Call centers also frequently use phone interpreting to address customer questions and connect parties in remote locations.


What are the pros and cons of using phone interpreting services? In general, face-to-face interpreting is ideal whenever possible to best engage all parties and facilitate effective communication. Over-the-phone interpreting does have its benefits. It is optimal when information needs to be conveyed very quickly or for very brief conversations. It is also helpful in remote locations or for very rare languages when it may be difficult to find a face-to-face interpreter in the area. It is also very useful in emergency situations, medical or otherwise. Phone interpreting does have its limitations. Because of the lack of visual cues, phone interpreting can be a bit more challenging and require more words to explain a situation. For example, visual cues like wincing or pointing to indicate when or where a person is experiencing pain are not immediately apparent over the phone. Body language and other nonverbal cues can also be very important in business and legal contexts, especially when communicating across cultures.


Telephone interpreting is also not the best solution for such situations as: initial meetings or appointments where a lot of information needs to be conveyed, when delivering bad news or trying to resolve significant conflicts, for individuals that are hearing impaired, or for group meetings.


How does phone interpreting work and what technology is used? Typically, the interpreter is in a remote location and the interpretation is conducted via a conference call. The other parties involved may or may not be in the same location. The technology and/or access information is provided by the language services provider (LSP) and can vary greatly. Some services require an investment in such equipment as phones and headsets in order to work with the telephone interpreting system. While others, such as what Syntes uses, do not require an investment in technology, just a 1-800 number and an access code that is unique to each client.


What qualifications and skills does a telephone interpreter need? Interpreters should have at least 3 years of consecutive interpreting experience, have subject-matter expertise, and be particularly adept at conveying information without visual cues. The requirements may also be dictated by the guidelines of your particular industry or organization, such as many legal firms that require certified legal interpreters.


What is the role of the interpreter in this context? The role of the telephone interpreter is the same as that of the face-to-face interpreter: to provide clear, concise communication between the English speakers and the limited English person by conveying exactly what is being said. The interpreter should not engage in personal conversations, interject opinions, or embellish. The role of the interpreter is to make sure both parties understand what is being said, and if needed, ask for clarification. The interpreter is a facilitator, a catalyst, an instrument that will assist in two people that cannot understand each other having a conversation.


What are some guidelines when working with a telephone interpreter? As when using a face-to-face interpreter, address the other person engaged in the conversation directly, not to the interpreter. Be sure to use clear, concise language and avoid the use of slang whenever possible. Remember to pause periodically. Speak one or two sentences, pause, let the interpreter talk, respond, then continue. Be sure to give the interpreter time to speak to the recipient. Also, if you do not understand what is being interpreted, ask for clarification as needed. All of this will help to effectively facilitate the interpretation process. In addition, keep in mind when communicating in this context that the interpreter cannot see you, so be sure to only use verbal communication and avoid all nonverbal cues, such as pointing or nodding one's head.


Telephone interpreting can be an effective means of supplementing in-person interpreting under the right circumstances and according to the guidelines mentioned here. So, when a caller is on the line, you can then successfully communicate in any language! We invite you to contact us with any questions or for any information on this or other language needs today. 

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