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The Role of Classroom Interpreters, and How to Select the Right One

Because we live in an increasingly globalized world, where differences of race, culture, and language are not only expected, but frequently embraced, it is critical that limited English proficiency (LEP) students and/or LEP parents are valued as important stakeholders in the educational system. This is important in order for the LEP students to enjoy a high quality of education, and for the LEP parents to accurately understand their children's mental, social and intellectual development.

One key aspect of this inclusive approach is the provision of a well-qualified interpreter for the students and/or parents. Such a choice should not be taken lightly; the interpreter plays an essential role in the transmission of thoughts, feelings, and concepts between two different language speakers, who come from two different cultures. What qualities and attributes should a well-qualified interpreter display? What would an interpreter's duties consist of in the educational system? Here is a list of some factors that will determine if a candidate for the role of interpreter is a good fit.

Comprehension

This is the first, and most obvious factor. A well-qualified interpreter must be thoroughly familiar with not only the day-to-day phrases and terminology of both English and the target language; he also must be comfortable with specialized terminology that will be used throughout a particular interpreting session. For instance, a Spanish/English interpreter during a mathematics session must be well-versed in both languages' mathematical terms, and then be able to clearly convey the concepts.

Furthermore, it is important that an interpreter has a firm grasp on how concepts are expressed in both languages. Good interpretation, according to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Educational Interpreters of Spoken Languages, is about "re-expressing, in another language, the contents of what is said... in a culturally appropriate way." Therefore, literal translations are usually not desirable. A well-qualified interpreter will be able to express the essence of what is said, without unnecessarily summarizing or paraphrasing, but in a natural way. This applies with special force to "sight translating" written documents, many of which are very important to the successful education, and even the lives, of LEP students.

Confidentiality

Interpreters must be trained on the need to maintain confidentiality. Information related to the education of LEP students is confidential in nature. Such information can sometimes be sensitive as well. Therefore, interpreters must keep any notes, transcripts, or other records related to interpreting sessions in a secure location, as they are able to do so. They should refrain from talking about either the participants or the contents of interpreting sessions to those not entitled to such information, even friends and family members.

While there are some exceptions to the rule of confidentiality, (for example in cases involving child abuse, and so forth), by and large confidentiality is one of the most important aspects of ethical interpreting.

Impartiality

Working as an interpreter in the educational system demands impartiality. Perhaps the interpreter may have some prior knowledge of one or both of the participants in the interpreting session. Or maybe the interpreter has certain biases of his own. Whatever the case, the interpreter must make a conscious effort to leave any biases or preconceived notions out of his work.

This would apply to the contents of the interpreted message, as well as the completeness of interpretation. As an example, an ethical interpreter would not summarize one party's words, or deliberately alter the intended meaning in any way. He would provide a clear and accurate interpretation, despite any personal feelings he might have about the contents of the message. 

Moreover, the interpreter would provide a complete service to both sides. In sessions with multiple participants, if any audible side conversations occurred between the participants on one side, the interpreter would also translate those side conversations for the benefit of the other party. In such a way, he would provide impartial service to both.

Professionalism

A professional interpreter will not only be punctual and reliable, but will be well-acquainted with the proper protocols in varied situations. The interpreter will avoid injecting his own personality or thinking into the discussion. Rather, he will make it clear from the beginning that he is simply the medium for an exchange of information. If for any reason he needs to temporarily step out of character, he will say something like, "The interpreter requests permission to step out of the interpreting role in order to clarify an aspect of Hmong culture."

An interpreter who maintains a high level of professionalism, and is respectful of all parties involved in the interpreting session, will help to create an atmosphere conducive to a calm exchange of ideas.

Typical Duties of an Interpreter

An interpreter may have many duties over the course of his employment with the school system. For instance, a San Joaquin County Office of Education job description for a sign language interpreter/tutor mentioned the following duties:

  • Interprets for the student in a variety of educational settings, such as general education, special education, as well as community-based and vocational instruction
  • Interprets for parent-teacher conferences
  • Participates in educational team meetings
  • Provides staff orientation on interpreting, as well as ongoing training and education for others through workshops, classes, etc.
  • Works with teachers to facilitate social development of the target student(s)

And there are many more.

The act of selecting an interpreter is a weighty decision, that can impact both LEP students and their parents. Interpreters have heavy responsibilities, and a demanding workload; yet, as challenging as their work can be, it can also prove to be satisfying for them on a personal level, as well as beneficial to the students, parents, and teachers that they are assisting.

If you would like assistance in finding the right interpreter for an open position in your educational system, then Language Network may be the perfect match for you. Our interpreters are highly vetted and well-qualified, and have been trained to meet the highest standards of interpretation and ethics. If you would like more information, reach out to us today at Language Network.

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