Children's Voice July/August 2009

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Lost in Translation: What to Consider When Working with Limited English Proficient Clients

"Once during a translation session, the translator became so engrossed in the conversation that they stopped translating and started offering advice to the family! Most of our bilingual staff is now county-certified translators so we can reduce our reliance on outside translators not familiar with child welfare terms or appropriate protocols."

- Cecilia Saco, Supervising Children's Social Worker/Special Immigrant Status Unit, Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services

By Yali Lincroft and Stefanie Nieto Johnson

As communities across America become increasingly diverse, it is important for child welfare agencies to develop their capacity to communicate with limited English proficient clients. If social workers do not speak their client's language, they must use a third party to communicate with the client, assess the situation, and provide recommendations. Having all parties understand each other is imperative, as miscommunication and misunderstandings can have devastating results for children and families in the child welfare system. In the recent case State of Nebraska vs. Maria L., the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state acted improperly when it terminated a Guatemalan woman's rights to her two children after she was deported. The court pointed out that the authorities did not provide the mother with adequate legal representation while she was in Nebraska. Her first language is K'iche', a Mayan dialect, and her interpreters spoke Spanish.

Although it may seem easier to ask children, relatives, or friends of the family to interpret, this practice is not advisable. Relatives and friends have their own bias and opinions about the situation and make poor interpreters. This practice also raises serious confidentiality issues in child welfare cases, where individuals with ties to the case may consciously or unconsciously filter or censor what is being said. There have been alarming stories of minors asked to translate for a parent suspected of abuse and neglect and how this creates the risk of additional trauma to the child. "I was 6 when I was removed from mother's house for substantiated abuse," said a former foster youth from Afghanistan. "When I was removed, no one explained to my mother and grandmother what was going on-my sister and I were the translators. They were given documents in English they didn't understand."

It takes more than being bilingual to be a good interpreter. Thinking in two languages at the same time and presenting the information in a neutral, as well as culturally and linguistically appropriate, manner takes special skills, training, and experience. An ideal interpretation is one that faithfully and accurately conveys the meaning of the person speaking, reflecting his or her style without omissions, additions, or embellishments by the interpreter. Use of a qualified interpreter and translator is recommended since these professionals follow a specific code of conduct and are trained in the skills, ethics, and subject matter. Interpreters can be physically present, or, if appropriate, may appear via videoconference or telephone.

Additional Resources

  • The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice maintains a website that provides information, tools, and technical assistance regarding limited English proficiency and language services for federal agencies and recipients of federal funds at The website includes a national and regional list of interpretation and translation agencies, including those who specialize in legal and medical translation.
  • The Migration and Child Welfare National Network has developed a series of resources, A Social Worker's Tool Kit for Working with Immigrant Families, written by and for public child welfare staff with practical information when working with immigrant families. Visit
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the California Family to Family website have many resources available on working with immigrants in the child welfare system, available at and
  • The Language Portal: A Translation and Interpretation Digital Library, developed by the National Center on Immigration Integration Policy/Migration Policy Institute, is a searchable digital library of almost 600 resources relating to the use of language access services in social services and public safety agencies. They have a sample list of pay differential, standard charges for translation and interpretation services, as well as examples of agency initiatives to make services available to English-limited clients. A free DVD, "Childhood in Translation," containing three short modules that illustrate the importance for frontline service workers to provide effective communication with LEP clients, can also be ordered from the website. Visit
  • The Resources in Spanish section of the Child Welfare Information Gateway website includes a dictionary of Spanish and English terms for child welfare, as well as topically organized resources. Visit
  • Bridging Refugee Youth & Children's Services (BRYCS)-U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ( has many resources available on working with LEP clients, including an article, "Family and Community Centered Child Welfare Practice with Refugees and Immigrants." They are working on a toolkit and list of interpreters for working with the Mayan-speaking population, which will be available next year.
  • "Using Family Group Conferencing to Assist Immigrant Children and Families in the Child Welfare System" by Michelle Howard MS, LPC and Lara Bruce MSW (2008) is available on the American Humane Association website,

Ten Tips for Working with Interpreters & Translators for Child Welfare Agencies

Use Qualified Interpreters

Do not depend on children, relatives, or friends to interpret. Relatives and friends have their own opinions about the situation and cannot be neutral. Remember, not everyone who is bilingual is a good interpreter. One has to be able to think simultaneously in two languages, and interpret accurately while being mindful of linguistic and cultural differences. Also, although an interpreter may be certified in the language, he or she is not necessarily proficient in or familiar with child welfare processes and practice.

Don't mistake interpreting for translating.

Make sure that you understand the difference between interpreting and translating. Interpreting provides the facilitation of oral communication from one language to another. Translating, on the other hand, deals with written texts. Not all good interpreters are good translators and vice versa.

Meet briefly with the interpreter prior to meeting with others

It is important to have a brief meeting with the interpreter in order to introduce yourself, explain the purpose of the meeting, and give the interpreter key background information. This is also an opportunity to tell the interpreter for whom the interpretation is, in what language, what the mode of interpretation will be (simultaneous, with recording equipment, etc.), and where the person will sit. Let the interpreter know beforehand if the conversation is of a sensitive nature-for example, if there may be discussion about physical or sexual abuse-so that he or she is not blindsided or taken aback. If the interpreter is struggling with his or her own surprise and feelings, it can adversely affect the quality of the interpretation.

Avoid side conversations

Have only one person speak at a time and avoid side conversations. If you do not want something to be interpreted, do not say it. Expect that everything you say will be interpreted.

Be alert to cultural, religious, and class issues

Encourage the interpreter to alert you about potential cultural misunderstandings. If it seems to you that the other party simply cannot understand something after you have explained it several times, you may need help determining cultural differences from the interpreter. In this case the interpreter may play a role of a cultural broker and help explain the concept to you or the other party.

When hiring an interpreter, be sensitive to cultural, religious, and class differences as well as varieties and dialects of certain languages. It is important to keep in mind that although people may be from the same country, they may not be from the same social class. People may feel shame or embarrassment having to convey personal information to a person of a different status. Many families come from communities where everyone knows everyone else, and may not want to share information out of fear that it will not stay confidential. This reluctance to divulge information may have nothing to do with the social worker or the reasons for the meeting, but could be misinterpreted by child welfare workers as resistance or uncooperativeness.

Pause for interpretation

Do not forget to pause after every three or four sentencesto give the interpreter an opportunity to interpret what you have just said. Slowing down is for your own benefit: the more you speak without giving the interpreter a momentto interpret, the greater the chance that the interpreter will miss an important detail. It might be a good idea to arrange a signal for the interpreter to stop you if something is not clear or you need to pause for interpretation. Providing information across a language barrier takes time. However, by communicating clearly you will avoid dangerous misunderstandings.

Speak directly to the other party

When speaking via an interpreter, talk to the person directly, not to the interpreter. Not only is this respectful, but vocal intonation, facial expressions, and body language still convey a great deal of information regardless of language barriers.

Avoid acronyms, idioms, and jargon

Avoid acronyms, idioms, jargon, and cultural references that the family or the interpreter may not understand. Be aware that some concepts you express may have no linguistic equivalent in other languages, such as concurrent planning, family maintenance, or dependents of the court. Sometimes it might take a whole sentence to interpret one word, as the interpreter will have to use some kind of explanation to interpret a concept. If you must use professional jargon, explain it to the interpreter before the meeting and encourage the interpreter to ask questions when they are not sure of a term, phrase, or concept. Say the same thing in different words if your words are misunderstood, or rephrase your statement.

Speak clearly and at an even pace

It is important to speak clearly and distinctly so that the interpreter can understand you. The best place for the interpreter to sit is somewhere close to you and the other party or between the two of you. Speak in your normal voice-not louder or slower-and avoid complicated sentence structures and changing your thought in the middle of a sentence.

Consider whether to use a male or female interpreter for different situations

Consider the child welfare situation and the non-English speaker when deciding whether a male or female interpreter would be more appropriate. In some cultures and religions, female interpreters might not feel comfortable interpreting for a male, male participants may not want to share personal information with a female interpreter, or vice versa.

Interpretation Q&A

An interview with Cecile Motus, Assistant Director of the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Can you describe the Migration and Refugee Services division and your work with immigrant groups?

The Migration and Refugee Services division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has focused on providing foster care and family reunification services for unaccompanied refugee children for over 30 years. At our national office in Washington, DC, professional social workers are organized into family reunification and foster care teams that work closely with the more than 200 local agencies that make up the MRS national refugee resettlement and foster care network. To serve these families, our staff continually works with indigenous family and community structures. For example, we will engage with clan leaders and elders to work together to develop the best opportunities for a child's protection. We also partner with international organizations like the American Red Cross and International Social Services to assist with home studies in other countries and to locate paperwork like birth certificates.

Most new immigrants are familiar with and drawn to the Catholic Church in times of need, and our job is to support the pastoral care of migrants, refugees, and travelers who come to the church. Our parish often has volunteers who are willing to provide translation or social services to new immigrants as part of their Catholic faith. Also, many of our volunteers come from the same immigrant background and want an opportunity to give back to their community. Government agencies often have a hard time learning about "hidden" immigrant communities who may avoid interaction with them, due to previous negative experiences with the government from their home country. The Catholic Church can play an important liaison role for government agencies with immigrants.

What are some issues to consider in using volunteer interpreters, in particular with smaller indigenous populations?

While it is always best to use professional, court-certified interpreters, agencies may not always be able to find interpreters for certain smaller, indigenous populations, and have contacted us for assistance. Recently, we are finding many Guatemalans and Brazilian migratory workers coming into contact with service providers, many of whom are preliterate and depend more on verbal than written communication.

The reality is that there are often only a handful of professional interpreters for certain small indigenous groups, like certain Mayan or Asian languages, who have the experience and understand the terminology associated with court translation for these subgroups. For court interpreters, I often have to have the interpreters flown in from outside the region since it's highly unlikely to find someone locally either with the experience or who doesn't have a conflict of interest in these cases.

Gossip and news spreads quickly in a small, close-knit immigrant community, and can have real consequences for the entire family. It is therefore important for both the family and interpreters to understand the importance of professionalism and confidentiality issues regarding cases involving child welfare's involvement. Many interpreters tell me that they deliberately avoid interacting too much with their own immigrant groups for fear of the appearance of bias or confidentiality conflicts since it's easy for rumors to spread in a small immigrant community.

Can you share with me some anecdotes from your experience translating or interpreting for immigrant groups?

Once, we submitted a pastoral statement from the bishops to an embassy from a Communist country to translate into their language. The translator from the embassy took out all religious references in the statement and the final document made no sense. The lesson learned here is that it's always important to have your own internal translators review any of your documents before distribution. I also had an incident once with an expert witness on a court case involving a Cambodian immigrant where we had to change the interpreter because the interpreter knew too much about the political situation of the case and felt he would have a bias.

Terms To Know

Limited English Proficient (LEP) refers to individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.

Interpretation involves the immediate communication of meaning from one language (source language) into another (target language). An interpreter conveys meaning orally, while a translator conveys meaning from written text to written text. Many professionals are certified to provide either interpretation or translation.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and President Bill Clinton's Limited English Proficient Executive Order 13166 from 2000 mandates compliance for any agency receiving federal funds. For more information about the legal requirements to provide language access, go to portal/legal.cfm.

Yali Lincroft MBA is a consultant for the Family to Family Initiative/Annie E. Casey Foundation and a member of the Migration and Child Welfare National Network, a coalition to improve services for immigrant families in the child welfare system. Her last article for Children's Voice, "Helping Immigrant Families: Interviews with four California social workers," is available online at

Stefanie Nieto Johnson MSW is a consultant on Team Decision Making (TDM) for the Family to Family Initiative in California and faculty for the California Disproportionality Project. She is bilingual and has previous experience as a bilingual TDM and Family Conference facilitator for Santa Clara County Department of Family and Children's Services, part of the Social Services Agency, a CWLA member.

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