Clinical social workers and case managers working with diverse populations can expect, at some point in their careers, a need to work with an interpreter when a common language between client and clinician is not shared. In our article series, we are tackling a number of social work issues.

In this article, we’re tackling how to handle using a friend or family member as an interpreter for you.

For those not accustomed to working with interpreters in the clinical setting, a number of important factors must be considered to work most effectively with interpreter and client alike.

If agency resources and interpreter availability allow for a trained interpreter, the use of well-trained interpreter is always preferable.

Social Worker Issues: Trained interpreters are not always available because:

  • Lack of agency funds to pay trained interpreters
  • Lack of availability of interpreters who speak the needed language
  • Interpreter schedules/availability

In these instances, social workers must improvise, to some extent, in order to communicate with clients who are speakers of another language.

Family Members or Friends as Interpreters:

It seems as if there is a never ending door of social work issues and in a situation in which a social worker cannot use a trained interpreter, the need to ask a family member or friend who speaks the needed languages may arise.

Making this request of a family member or friend is not out of the norm in such situations, but measures should be taken to ensure interpretation is conducted in the most effective and ethical manner possible.

Additionally, social workers should keep in mind a number of limiting factors that may come to bear on the interpreted session with the client.

The Age of the Family Member or Friend

Oftentimes, the only family member available who speaks the native language and English is the client’s child. Children in immigrant families often serve as interpreters, but it is important to remember the potential shifts in family dynamics and power arrangements that can occur as a result of the child playing this role. Additionally, children might not possess or understand advanced vocabulary, so interpretations might not be precise or accurate. Furthermore, children could be exposed to information about the client, their parent, that is private, difficult to hear, or inappropriate for the child’s age and maturity level. Due to these factors, when possible, an adult family member or friend is preferred to a child acting as interpreter.

Sensitive Information

No matter what the relation of the interpreter to the client, it is important to remember that the interpreter will likely become privy to personal information about the client that he/she did not know before, and that the client might not want to disclose to that individual.

Cultural Differences

Social workers should keep cultural differences in the interpretation context in mind, as they might positively or negatively affect the interaction. For example, in Chinese culture, it is customary to give “bad” medical news to a family member instead of the clients themselves so that the family can choose how best to break the news to the client.

Client Safety

Social workers must always consider the client’s safety and ability to disclose in front of the interpreter. This particularly salient in cases in which domestic violence might be present and the family member who is the perpetrator of the abuse is acting as interpreter.

We don’t normally talk much about social work issues. While using a family member or friend as an interpreter for a client cannot always be avoided, keeping these factors in mind in such situations will behoove social workers in ensuring that they protect client safety, minimize impact on family dynamics, and still have a productive and communicative session with non-English speaking clients.

Other Social Work Issues:


Social Work Issues: Working with Family or Friends as Interpreters
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Social Work Issues: Working with Family or Friends as Interpreters
In our article series, we are tackling a number of social work issues. A social work may need to work with an interpreter when a com mon language between client and clinician is not shared.
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MSW Careers
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