7 things I learned working with interpreters in the counselling room

When I started working at the Refugee Council, I could not envisage how interpreters would work in the counselling room. Third person in the room? How would that work? Could a therapeutic relationship be established?

My previous experience of working with interpreters in international development was sometimes a challenge. The Interpreters sometimes interpreted what they thought the community should hear or missed interpreting back to English. I was therefore bemused to see how this would work in Therapy. I thought of the challenges I experienced in overseas and I was sceptical. More questions sprang to my mind. Would it affect the counselling relationship? Would the interpreter break confidentiality? Would the client be reluctant to talk in-depth about their experiences or feelings?

Fifteen years as a counsellor and I was faced with a new experience. I was acutely aware that suddenly someone was going to observe me in the counselling room. That felt scary.

I was given the ‘Working with Interpreters’ book by Jude Boyles which helped put me at ease.  The main lessons I learnt from that book was that being an experienced counsellor is essential. You have to be extra vigilant to what is going on with the counselling relationship. You also need to be considerate to language, culture, gender and the multiple dialogues. You can find out more about this book by reading the following link.

So, what did I learn working with interpreters in the counselling room?


1. You need to choose your interpreter carefully.

You need to have an interpreter who values the skills of a counsellor and also understands the importance of empathy, trust and respect. Interpreters need to interpret word by word and not ask their own questions. At the refugee council we felt it was important that interpreter was not from the same country as the client. If the client is not comfortable with the interpreter then parallel processes can occur. We had men translate for men and women interpreters for our female clients. My relationship with interpreter is just as important as the client as the trust between the triad is essential.

2. Interpreters need briefing before the work commences.

Interpreting in the counselling room is very different from interpreting with a conversation. Ensuring the interpreters are properly briefed and understand their role is essential. Often when they interpret a project worker conversation, they allow the individual to talk. In a counselling session this cannot happen. You need to work on the client speaking in small sections to ensure you do not miss what the client is telling you. They need to be able to hold silence.

3. Debriefing with the interpreters is essential.

Often the interpreters are having to interpret topics that are similar to what they have experienced. This can be difficult for them. They need to space to express their feelings or any thoughts that have occurred for them. This helps build the relationship between you, as well as allow the interpreter is ok.  I found that it is a balance giving them debrief for what they were hearing and not becoming their own therapist.

4. Keep focused on the client.

At the beginning the client will focus on the interpreter but as trust builds they start talking to you. The interpreter becomes a voice in the background to both you and the client. Maintaining eye contact at all times helps increase the trust and deepen the therapeutic relationship.

5. You have more thinking time.

As the words you have said are being interpreted, this allows you more time. You become more aware of the dynamics in the room and it gives you time to think and process what has been said or to observe counter-transference in more depth and details.

6. Interpreters became a useful aide.

They were useful to help me understand the culture or even explain misunderstandings in the room. During our chats outside of the session, the interpreters help me understand Arabic culture and dynamics which was all useful to my work in the counselling room.

7. Counselling with an interpreter can work.

I quickly adjusted to having an interpreter in the room. If your interpreter is properly trained, and you are lucky enough to use the same one every time, a therapeutic relationship can be established. Additionally, as an added bonus you can make a new friend.

So yes, a third person in the room does work. It is a great experience and one that I value. Working with the interpreters have provided essential therapeutic support for the refugees.

To read more about my counselling work with the Syrian refugees, click here.

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