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How to Work With Interpreters when Conducting Immigration Psychological Evaluations
Some of my clients speak very little or no English, which is why I often work with interpreters.
I speak Spanish fluently, which allows me to communicate with many of my clients in their preferred language. This has proven to be a useful skill because when it comes to talking with a therapist about emotional topics, I find that many of my clients prefer to speak in their native language. However, Spanish is just one of the estimated 6,500 languages in the world that I may need to cater to in my office when conducting immigration evaluations.
If you’re just starting out as an immigration evaluation therapist, anticipate that around some of your clients will not speak much English. In these situations, it’s essential to work with an interpreter to ensure that you understand everything your client is telling you.
Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years for working with interpreters:
1. Whenever possible, use a professional interpreter.
I’ve been fortunate to work in agencies that had professional interpreters on-site, who were available to us clinicians as needed. However, even if you run a small private practice, most large cities have interpretation services you can draw on.
Failing this, you can also use a professional nation-wide service that allows you to connect with a professional interpreter by phone and/or video.
2. Only use family members and friends as a last resort.
To use a family member or friend as an interpreter is far from an ideal scenario. Obviously, doing so opens up issues of confidentiality and privacy for the client. Depending on the nature of the relationship, having a friend or family member act as an interpreter may cause embarrassment or distress. In cases where there are relationships of dependency involved (e.g., parents interpreting for children), there is a risk of information being withheld or misconstrued.
So, while I do not recommend using friends, family members, or people in the same community as your client as interpreters, in rare cases, you may find you have limited options.
Years ago, I worked with a client who spoke Mam, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala and parts of Mexico. At the time, there was precisely one interpreter available in the United States who spoke Mam. And as luck would have it, he happened to know my client’s family, but I had no other choice if I was to communicate effectively with my client.
3. Brief and debrief the interpreter.
If you find yourself working with an interpreter who is inexperienced interpreting in a therapeutic context, be sure to take some time before the session to brief them on the basics. Emphasize the importance of maintaining confidentiality, and ask them to translate everything they hear, even if it seems unimportant. Conveying everything down to the seemingly meaningless ‘um’ and ‘ah’ can be important for you as an immigration evaluation therapist, as patterns in your client’s communication may reveal something of importance to your evaluation.
When the session has concluded, also be sure to debrief the interpreter. Ask them if there was anything unusual about the way the client spoke in their language. Was there anything different or unusual about the tone, speed, or words used? This is all critical information to include in the mental status exam portion of the evaluation.
4. Set up the room in a triangular fashion so that the client is seated across from you and the interpreter is to their side.
Ask your client to look at you directly so you can read their facial expressions and body language as you ask them questions. This may take a little practice for you both, as it will probably feel more natural for your client to speak to the interpreter. But wherever possible, always have eyes on the client, not the interpreter.
If you are conducting your sessions online via teletherapy, how you arrange the room will obviously be less of an issue. In this situation, have your interpreter dial into the conversation as a third participant, and organize the images of each participant on your screen so that you are focusing primarily on the client, rather than the interpreter or the picture of yourself.
5. Make the interpreter’s job easy.
There are several strategies you can use to facilitate a smooth, flowing conversation:
- Speak slowly.
- Ensure that you pause after each thought to allow the interpreter time to speak to the client.
- Only ask one question at a time.
- Without diluting your meaning, try to speak in short words and phrases as much as possible.
- Avoid idioms, metaphors, slang, and acronyms.
Also, be aware that many words and concepts we use daily in English have no linguistic or conceptual equivalent in other languages, and vice versa. Therefore, be mindful that it may take time for the interpreter to explain these terms to your client.
6. Allow for extra time.
As you can imagine, going back and forth through an interpreter takes more time than a typical session. Be sure to account for this in your scheduling and know that you may need additional sessions to gather all the necessary information. In this situation, try to use the same interpreter for each session. Doing so will increase your client’s comfort and save time on bringing your interpreter up to speed.
While working with interpreters may feel challenging when you first start offering immigration psychological evaluations, know that you will become used to it over time. As you develop a rapport with the interpreters you work with, you’ll soon be having smooth, seamless conversations, and it will feel like no more of a challenge than if you were working with an English-speaking client.
P.S. For more information on immigration evaluation training, be sure to sign up for my Quickstart Guide to Immigration Evaluations.
I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.
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