Working with interpretors

Many unaccompanied children speak and understand some English or some of the language of their host country. However, if the child hasn’t yet mastered the language of the receiving country, having a proper conversation with them is often rather difficult. Important information might get lost because of this. The use of a professional interpreter is therefore necessary in certain situations.

As a guardian, you are the person who has to decide on whether to use an interpreter, preferably together with the child involved. Children sometimes reject the use of an interpreter because they might mistrust their compatriots or feel their own language level is sufficient. You can explain to them that it’s important that the conversation runs smoothly, and preferably without misunderstandings, and that interpreters have to guarantee confidentiality according to the law. Children often approve after all when this is mentioned.

  • Information

    It might be necessary to inform the interpreter beforehand about the content and goal of the conversation. But there may not be time for this, and you also might not want there to be any kind of alliance formed between you and the interpreter. It’s therefore wise to inform the interpreter in the presence of the child, and to ask them to translate this for the child as well. The aim of this information is not to tell the interpreter how the child is doing, or to make any judgements of them in any way. So keep it neutral!

    It’s important to use competent and impartial interpreters. Keep in mind that it’s not a good idea to use someone who has a conflict of interests with the child. For example, never let a foster carer interpret if the conversation is about a conflict between them and the child.

    Keep the following in mind during the conversation with an interpreter:

    • Interpreters are not able to translate everything you and the child say word for word. Some words don’t even exist in other languages.
    • Interpreters only translate, and words are only one part of communication. Therefore, keep an eye out for non-verbal communication, and try to find out if there are other things that are of importance. Mention these non-verbal aspects when you use an interpreter by telephone: explain who is present in the room and mention things that happen in the room to the interpreter.
    • Sentences should not be too long, in order to enable the interpreter to remember everything that is said.
    • Talk to the child, not the interpreter, and formulate clear and direct questions. So not: Could you ask the child if he has contacted his parents?, but: Have you had contact with your parents? Avoid difficult sentences and explain difficult terminology to the interpreter as well.
    • If the interpreter shows too much initiative, you should mention this to them.
    • If there are several participants in the conversation, make it clear each time who you are talking to. The way to speak to women or men differs in many languages, and an interpreter working by phone can’t see which person you are talking to.
  • Training and tools

    Information and examples of using interpreters

    The CONNECT-project (2014) has developed the tool ‘Standards to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children are able to fully participate’ to assist all actors in legal and judicial proceedings. This includes standards for actors working with unaccompanied children. Standard three addresses the use of interpreters and also includes some examples of noteworthy practices. The tool is available here.

    Information on interpreter-mediated interviews with children

    The UNHCR report ‘The Heart of the Matter: Assessing Credibility when Children Apply for Asylum in the European Union’ aims to help assess the credibility of children’s claims in a fair, objective and consistent manner. Chapter 5 provides information on what is expected of the interpreter and the particular challenge of interpreting for children. Page 129 also addresses the role of the guardian in this regard. The report is available here.

    Conversing via an interpreter – a brief guide

    The Swedish National Board of Health has published short booklets about conversing via an interpreter. The booklet is available in English and several other languages (click on the desired language version and choose ’ladda ner’ to download a PDF of the booklet).

    Guiding principles on working with interpreters

    The Scottish Guardianship Service developed a Practice Manual in 2013 which includes helpful guiding principles on working with interpreters in Appendix 5 (pages 95-99).

    Information on using interpreters

    The Croatian government has adopted a new protocol for the treatment of unaccompanied children. The protocol defines in detail the participant obligations, workflow and deadlines for action. Information (in Croatian) regarding the Protocol can be found here.

    Cooperation with interpreters in mental healthcare

    The PALOMA handbook is an extensive information pack (in Finnish) about refugees’ resources and risk factors relevant to mental health. The book has a section on page 129 about working with interpreters.

  • Good practices

    Croatia: obligatory use of interpreters

    According to the above-mentioned Protocol on the Treatment of Unaccompanied Children, the police in Croatia are obliged to provide a interpreter during identification, the initial needs assessment by a social worker, and the international protection procedure. For all other procedures, an interpreter is provided by the social welfare centre.

    The Netherlands: contract with interpreter and translation provider

    Nidos, the national guardianship institution for unaccompanied children in the Netherlands, has a contract with an interpreter and translation provider for providing interpreting services. Every guardian can request an interpreter if needed. The provider offers both ad hoc interpreting services by phone and interpreting services booked in advance (by phone or on location).