Interpreting in social work settings

When a person or family is involved with social services, they are usually already facing some significant issues. Communication barriers between them and their social workers, such as lack of linguistic fluency or a hearing impairment, can mean they do not get adequate support. People who need communication support often face discrimination, which can be an additional obstacle.

It is the responsibility of the social worker to ensure that their clients receive access to the services they are entitled to; this is where interpreters become a crucial part of the relationship.

In the past, it has been common for informal interpreters, ie friends and family, to step in to bridge the gap. This may seem like a good approach: clients may trust family or friends more than they do external support, and these informal interpreters can be easier to access at short notice. However, research into their use (Lucas, 2015; Dorner and colleagues, 2010) and Serious Case Reviews have highlighted the importance of using professionals. Informal interpreters have on occasion been found to intentionally and unintentionally obscure meaning, collude with clients and prevent opportunities for intervention and support.

At TLS we have interpreters who are skilled and experienced in working in social work settings. We will always work with you to provide the best individual for your service users and will try to accommodate requests at short notice wherever possible.

Here are some tips to help you make the best use of our professional interpreters, to ensure the best support for you and your service users.

  • Familiarise yourself with the logistics of booking and using interpreters before it becomes necessary, so that you can be responsive at short notice. Are you set up on and familiar with our bookings system? Do you know how to use telephone interpreting? Do you have access to a desktop computer for video interpreting?
  • Consider whether your service user needs an interpreter, even if they have not requested one. Research has found that some women in maternity settings have not requested language support for fear of feeding into negative stereotypes about minority ethnic groups (Crowther and Lau 2019).
  • Be prepared for your service user to have reservations about using a professional interpreter in place of family or friends, and be clear about why using professionals is usually best practice.
  • If possible, factor in time with the interpreter before the booking begins, to discuss the issues at play, any sensitivities and, if relevant, seating arrangements (the Chartered Institute of Linguists advises that the interpreter should be able to see both parties; a triangular arrangement is usually best).
  • Try to avoid using jargon and explain any terminology clearly; even if you think the interpreter will know what you are talking about, it is best for the service user to have this explained in your words.
  • Keep your sentences short and clear, and leave time for the interpreter to translate.
  • Reflect afterwards: could anything have gone better? Can you ask your service user for feedback?

If you want to learn more, Stirlingshire University have written a report available here:

Talk to us if you would like to know more about how we support social work settings, either by speaking to your account manager or calling 020 3373 4000.