Can you imagine being in a therapy session where whatever you are saying is just incomprehensible buzz to your client? What a difficult situation to encounter after all your hard training! Now imagine a client struggling with an emotional crisis, and think of the extra effort required to explain the situation in an unfamiliar language. What a serious situation to be in!

If you think this post does not apply to you, I have a few questions before you leave this webpage:

  • Have you ever avoided a counseling situation because the client did not speak English?
  • If needed, do you know how to choose an interpreter and the basics of working with him or her?
  • Are you aware of the legal aspects of using an interpreter in a therapy session?

With the rapidly growing population of Latino and Asian immigrants in this country, this soon may be a challenge difficult to avoid in your career.

A few years ago, I was not fluent in English; thus, in my roles as both a client and a family counselor, I often relied on interpreters. I have gained some experience based on trial and error. Through research, I have learned of some pitfalls as well as useful resources that I will happily share with you here.

I believe that as counselors, we need to know the basics, but not many diversity classes include this important topic. So here we go!

When to Use an Interpreter

“Interpreter” is the correct term for spoken interactions whereas “translator” refers to the written form. The use of an interpreter’s service is recommended when one of the parties involved in the counseling session has limited proficiency with the language of the other.

Notice I did not say, “when the client has limited English proficiency,” as the literature suggests. We live in a multicultural country where monolingual English speakers may soon be a minority.

After all, it is in the best interests of the therapist and the client to be understood, and the interpreter serves both parties equally. Having this perspective may also help us to be more compassionate during bilingual sessions (DeAngelis, 2010; Hamerdinger & Karlin, 2003).

Choosing the Right Interpretation Services

A traditional way of providing interpretation services has been to ask family members of the client to interpret, which could be children, partners, friends, or bilingual staff members. Even though this seems like a practical solution that can even save money for the institution or the client, there are also some downsides to consider.

If you ask a child to interpret, it maybe difficult for him or her to comprehend what has been said or to not listen to private information that belongs only to the parents.

Older children may often deliberately misinterpret; I often hear interpretations from my Hispanic teen clients, such as “F means fantástico,” when explaining their grades to their parents. It is especially difficult if the interpreter is an abusive partner.

Bilingual staff members may be helpful and want to do their best, but you must remember that clients can be easily hurt by insensitive facial expressions that an untrained interpreter may exhibit.

The good news is that more universities are offering specific training for counseling interpretation (for more info, click here).

Practical Considerations when Working with an Interpreter:

  • Have a meeting with the interpreter prior to the counseling session to ask for certification, previous experiences, and suggestions.
  • Discuss some terminology with the interpreter and explain some expected clients’ emotional reactions.
  • Plan for extra time. Diagnosis and testing may take longer in these cases.
  • Ensure that the interpreter has a confidentiality agreement and ask the interpreter to explain his or her confidentiality agreement to the client. Be aware that the interpreter may be requested to appear in court if you do this. In that case the first question should address his or her credentials.
  • Ask the interpreter to sit on your side of the room so that you are able to better see and speak to your client directly.
  • Speak in short sentences but keep a steady pace. Speaking too slow may hinder the process, while speaking too fast may negatively affect the interpreter’s accuracy. Feel free to ask for repetition or clarification of words or sentences. This may help the client, too.
  • Be prepared to discuss with your client the impact of a third person in the room.
  • If possible, keep the same interpreter during the course of treatment.
  • Meet with the interpreter after the session for discussion of idiomatic expressions or any other cultural information you may need.

A Third Person in the Room

Experienced therapists admit that while neutrality as a counselor is the ultimate goal, it can be very difficult to achieve in reality.

Therefore, expect some biases during interpretation and be compassionate and alert to non-verbal communications. Transference and counter transference will also apply for the interpreter. Thus, the client may have some expectations about alliances that can be addressed as they arise.

It is your responsibility to hold the space and structure of the meeting since the interpreter is not a co-therapist and should not be held accountable for that. Keep in mind that an untrained interpreter may end up hindering the process rather than helping.

Caring for the Interpreter

It is your responsibility to lead the discussion due to the fact that, again, the interpreter is not a co-therapist and should not be held accountable for any part of the process.

Ultimately, you are responsible for the session’s safety and success.

You may protest: “Do I need to take care of him or her also?” Mhmm… I almost heard myself as a child when my mom held me responsible for my siblings. The answer: YES! And presumably, you took care of yourself before showing up for the session.

It is good practice to ask the interpreter whether he or she is working on personal issues that arise during sessions. It may also be helpful to pause the session from time to time for the interpreter to take a deep breath. Allowing private time for debrief at the end is additionally beneficial.

Of course, the interpreter should not share any personal opinion that may lead to unprofessional gossip. Then again, listening to his or her professional opinion about cultural issues in language is appropriate.

Develop Cultural Competency for Your Client

The use of an interpreter does not substitute for the need for you to be culturally appropriate.

Previous research suggests that better results can be obtained when we understand how a happy and whole person may appear in that person’s culture.

Ignoring this may result in setting biased therapeutic goals.

Group Therapy & Psycho-Educational Groups

An interpreter can be used in a group therapy if the group is small enough. From my experience, most groups end up adopting the interpreter as part of the group dynamic.

I have tried different methods, such as sitting the interpreter next to me, next to the particular client who needs it, behind me, behind the group, etc. I am playful with it and allow for feedback from all. I have often taken moments to be with the client and the interpreter separately in order to save time for the group. However, there is not much literature available about this topic.

Something I still wonder about is the question of who pays for the services of the interpreter in private practice, but I would rather leave this question open for your comments.

Lastly, I will say:

With enthusiasm, patience, and a sense of humor, high quality bilingual sessions can be done.

Therefore, after obtaining the appropriate interpretation service, you do not have to let language be a limitation when you are the best option the client has at the moment.

Questions or comments? Comment on this post or write to me at [email protected]. Don’t forget to share this on Facebook or Twitter!

 Helpful Links


DeAngelis, T. (2010). Found in Translation. Monitor on Psychology, 41(2), 52. Retrieved from

Hamerdinger, S., & Karlin, B. (2003). Therapy Using Interpreters: Questions on the Use of Interpreters in Therapeutic Setting for Monolingual Therapists. Retrieved from

Santiago-Rivera, A. L., Arredondo, P., & Gallardo-Cooper, M. (2002) Counseling Latinos and la familia: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.