David Lauman

In your shoes: How to get the most out of your interpreter

In In your shoes on July 31, 2012 at 7:55 AM

By David L. Lauman, MA Translation and Interpretation

20/20 Translations 

When communicating through an interpreter, knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do. Below are 7 common mistakes that users of interpreter services make, and strategies for making communication with Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals much easier, faster and affordable.   

COMMON MISTAKE 1: Talking to the interpreter about the LEP, instead of through the interpreter to the LEP.

Explanation:  It is very helpful to keep in mind that you are the one actually talking to the LEP.   This will make it easier for the interpreter (your conduit) to clearly convey your message.

Otherwise, interlingual communication can become complicated when one or both parties address the interpreter instead of addressing each other using direct speech, as in the following example:

English speaker: Can you ask him if he understands?

Interpreter (in LEP’s language): Can you ask him if he understands?

LEP (in his native language): Who is ‘he’?

Interpreter: Who is ‘he’?

Instead, address the LEP using direct speech, as if you were conversing with another English speaker:

English speaker: Do you understand?

Interpreter (in LEP’s language): Do you understand?

LEP (in his native language): Yes.

Interpreter: Yes.

Obviously, the second exchange is much clearer and is half as long as the first. Let’s assume that a lengthy conversation with an LEP individual contains 100 such exchanges that are each similar in length to the example above (yes, this does occur).  If each exchange were 5 seconds shorter, the conversation would end 8 minutes and 20 seconds earlier, saving 9 billed minutes and $27.00 (assuming a rate of $3.00 per minute).  If you need to communicate frequently with the LEP, you will save considerable money and time in the long run!

COMMON MISTAKE 2: Looking at the interpreter and only making eye contact with him, instead of facing the LEP individual.


Making eye contact might be daunting at times even when attempting to communicate in one’s native tongue.   However, when two people do not share a common language nor culture, maintaining eye contact might seem all the more challenging.  Furthermore, some might say that in a situation in which there is only one person in the room that speaks your language, it is most natural to face that individual.

Better strategy:

Eye contact is an essential part of establishing rapport, an important part of making effective communication happen.   So when you need to communicate with an LEP person through an interpreter, you and the LEP individual will all benefit by maintaining eye contact with each other, not the interpreter.

COMMON MISTAKE 3: Asking compound questions


Have you ever been confused by someone’s lengthy question?  In court, I have seen judges instruct attorneys to break up compound questions into several small ones when cross-examining a witness.

Better strategy:

Keep your questions short and simple.

COMMON MISTAKE 4: Using long speech segments, particularly at a high rate of speed

Explanation: In order to effectively transmit what a speaker has said into another language, the interpreter must recall the entirety of what was said, how it was said, and grasp all of the linguistic nuances.  Speakers who remember to pause frequently and who speak at a reasonable pace are enormously helpful to the interpreter working in the consecutive mode.  Otherwise, even the very best consecutive interpreters can unwittingly omit information.

Better strategy: Keep your speech segments as short as reasonably possible, for example, a couple of sentences at a time.  Try to maintain a normal rate of speech (about 125 words a minute), so that the interpreter can keep up.   By the same token, avoid breaking up sentences into parts or speaking so slowly that the interpreter does not even have the opportunity to grasp the entire idea.

If the interpreter is simultaneously interpreting what you are saying, there is obviously no need to pause, but it helps to speak at a reasonable pace.

COMMON MISTAKE 5: Speaking too quickly when reading a document out loud.

Explanation: It is a natural tendency to speed up one’s rate of speech when reading something out loud.  However, a higher rate of speech makes it more difficult for an interpreter to accurately render what you say into a foreign language, especially if the interpreter is working in the simultaneous mode.   This is often a dilemma for simultaneous interpreters, as people often read documents out loud at speeds that can far exceed 200 words per minute.

Better strategy:  “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve got to make the moments last”*

COMMON MISTAKE 6: Saying something and then asking the interpreter not to convey it, or saying something and then telling the interpreter “but this is just for you to know” (or a similar variation).

Explanation: It is not uncommon for the LEP to understand some English even though it might be difficult for them to express themselves in this language.   All interpreter codes of ethics require that the interpreter render everything said during a session, and if the interpreter knowingly withholds a statement or question it will [most likely] be apparent to the LEP person.  The same goes for anything said by the LEP individual; you certainly deserve to understand everything that he says.  It is an uncomfortable, when, say, the interpreter and LEP individual talk [and even laugh] in the foreign language in your presence without you being able to understand what is being said.

Better strategy:

To ensure an environment of transparency and trust, avoid saying anything that you would not want anyone to hear, much less interpreted into another language.  If you immediately realize that something you have just said doesn’t sound quite right, simply clarify it before it is the interpreter’s turn to render the communication into the foreign language.

COMMON MISTAKE 7: Raising your voice when speaking to the LEP person.

Explanation: At a recent hospital interpreting assignment, two medical professionals did a great job of maintaining eye contact with the patient and using direct speech but both of them spoke very loudly.  Unless the LEP has hearing loss, a loud voice does not necessarily enhance clarity, and it may very well cause alienation.

Better strategy:

Use a normal tone of voice.


Communicating with the LEP does not have to be a daunting task at all.  Understanding the above scenarios and applying the alternative strategies suggested will make the task of communicating with people who do not speak your language much easier than you might have imagined!


“How To Communicate Effectively Through Interpreters: A Guide for Leaders” Center for Army Lessons Learned. Published in News from the Front, Nov-Dec 03.  Website accessed on July 29, 2012: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army/using_interpreters.htm

“Working with Spoken and Sign Language Interpreters” Aging and Disability Services Administration (ADSA).  Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Website accessed on July 29, 2012:


*Simon and Garfunkel.  “Feeling Groovy (59th St., Bridge song)”.  Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Fine. 1966 

© David L Lauman, 2013.  All rights reserved

Don’t let the language barrier get in the way of effective spoken communication with Spanish speakers here in the USA or on the opposite side of the globe.  You are invited to visit 20/20 Translations and contact David Lauman at david(at)2020translations.com for further inquiries.

  1. Good work! Should be required reading for anyone who uses an interpreter. –Luisa

  2. Congrats David! Great interpretips!! Keep ’em coming!!

    Un abrazo y saludos a Fabiola.

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