5 tips for interviewing with an interpreter

Helen Brookes shares 5 tips for interviewing non-English speaking service users via an interpreter

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Interviewing minority ethnic parents about attending the NSPCC's Baby Steps antenatal programme has been one of the most interesting experiences I've had in my job as an evaluation officer. 

It gave the NSPCC a valuable insight into how their experience differed to that of other parents and, most importantly, it has enabled us to tailor the programme for their needs.

In cases where parents didn’t speak English, the interviews were conducted via interpreters.

While this worked well in general, it was not without its challenges and I have learned lots along the way.

I wanted to share 5 tips for evaluators or researchers planning interviews with non-English speakers. 

Tip 1: Check what the service users' requirements are

There can be wide variations in regional dialects within the same language, so it’s important to find out exactly what version is spoken by the service user.

If you’re producing written materials, such as information sheets, bear in mind that not all languages have a written form (e.g. Pakistani Punjabi).

Also, some service users may have a preference in terms of the gender of an interpreter, especially if the interview is focused around sensitive issues such as childbirth or relationships. 

Tip 2: Find an interpreter with the right skills

It’s a priority, of course, to ensure that interpreters have relevant language skills -  but they also need to have experience of interpreting on the same subject matter, or in a comparable field (in this case, social care).

One way of assuring quality is to find an interpreter through a professional association such as the Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI) or the National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI).

I found, however, that there wasn’t always a registered interpreter who spoke the right language, with relevant experience, available in the area of the UK where the interview was taking place.

I looked into bringing in interpreters from other areas of the country but this was prohibitively expensive.

In the end, I spoke with local interpreters over the phone in advance to try and gauge how well equipped they were and then chose the person that I thought would do the best job. 

Tip 3: Brief the interpreter about the interview topic in advance

Once you’ve chosen an interpreter, it’s helpful to share the interview schedule with them in advance, so they’re familiar with the material you will be covering.

This is also an opportunity to check that they feel comfortable posing any difficult questions - asking parents about their attitudes towards female genital mutilation, for example.

It is also important to clarify the level of detail that you will be trying to elicit from service users. In my experience, some interpreters felt uncomfortable about the level of probing required for a research interview.

Tip 4: Check if your interpreter knows your service users socially

I found that in communities where there were few people who spoke the language in question, it wasn’t uncommon for interpreters to know the service users socially.

Although unavoidable, this had an impact on the dynamics of the interview and made people feel inhibited when talking about certain topics.

It is worth checking whether this is the case in advance. For particularly sensitive interviews, it may be more appropriate to bring in an interpreter from another area of the country, even if this has budget implications.

Tip 5: Pros and cons of using the same interpreter to deliver and evaluate 

Using the same interpreter to deliver and evaluate the service can be advantageous in that they have a pre-existing relationship with the family and are familiar with any dialect or communication preferences.

A drawback can be that service users don’t feel they can freely express their opinion of the course, in particular their experience of the interpreting!

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