Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

7 Tips for Working With an Interpreter


Pause often, ask one question at a time, and avoid idioms when speaking through an interpreter.

My mom spoke very little English when she and my dad moved from Germany. When he was at work, she was afraid to answer the phone. She took my brother to the pediatrician and went to well-woman visits for herself, but was never offered an interpreter.


Today, interpreter services are much more commonly used in healthcare settings; yet, many health professionals do not receive adequate training on how to talk through an interpreter.


Here are some tips for effectively working with an interpreter:


1.) Use a trained, certified interpreter whenever possible.

Family, friends, and children may offer to interpret, but a certified interpreter, when available, should always be used.


2.) Place the interpreter (whether it be via telephone, tablet, or a live person) next to you so that when you talk, you are looking at the patient, and the patient is encouraged to look in your direction.


3.) Talk to the patient directly, just as you would for an interaction in your language.  Ask, “How are you today?” not “How is she today?”


4.) Speak at a slow pace, pause often, and ask only one question at a time.


5.) Avoid idioms that may not be easily interpreted into another language.


6.) If it seems like the response you are getting through the interpreter isn’t answering the question you are asking, try rephrasing the question.

If it still doesn’t seem congruent with what you are asking, you can ask the interpreter if in his/her judgement there is an issue with cultural understanding or dialect.


7.) Be patient.


Using an interpreter takes time, but that doesn’t mean that the patient you are seeing deserves a less thorough evaluation or less counseling on a topic than any other patient.