The Dual-Role Interpreter

by Cynthia E. Roat, MPH

Imagine a hospital where 25% of the patient population needs an interpreter. And imagine that of those patients, 95% speak Spanish. Now imagine that in that same hospital, about half of all the Medical Assistants (MAs), Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), Pharmacy Techs, Radiology Techs and front desk staff speak fluent English and Spanish. And now imagine that you are the person tasked with providing interpreters for all those patients.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I think we’re both thinking what a lot of administrators in the Southwest have thought; why not have the bilingual staff interpret? Then we won’t have to wait for the arrival of outside interpreters. These folks already know the institution, they know the doctors and nurses (or social workers or teachers), they know how things work. And of course, we’ll save money because we won’t have to pay for so many pricey agency interpreters!

As administrators experimented with this model in healthcare, social services and education, these interpreters even got a special name: dual-role interpreters. This differentiates them from “dedicated interpreters” who do nothing but interpret at the institution, and “bilingual providers,” professionals who provide their particular services in a language other than English. With time, the model has evolved from a very informal ad-hoc system (“Call Betty down in Finance – I heard she speaks Spanish.”) to a more structured arrangement.

A lot of bilingual staff enjoy this double role. They say it makes their jobs more interesting, it allows them to serve patients/clients/students/families with whom they already feel an affinity, they develop a new set of skills, and they know they are doing important work by creating a bridge of understanding between the folks for whom they interpret.

Over time, though, we’ve learned that there are a couple of tricks to successfully implementing a dual-role interpreter model in an institution. First off, nobody should be forced to do this work. If you’re a bilingual MA and you don’t want to interpret, you should not be forced to do so.

Secondly, anyone who provides interpreting services has to have their language skills screened, has to be trained as an interpreter, and preferably should be certified. How else will service providers and clients/patients have confidence in the interpreter’s ability? This obviously applies to dedicated interpreters, but it should apply to dual-role interpreters as well.

Thirdly, dual-role interpreters’ principle work load must reflect the fact they spend some of their time away from that primary role when they interpret. To expect them to produce as much as others in their role who do not interpret is just not fair. Administrators need to have a clear policy about how these interpreters will be requested and dispatched, and about who will cover for them when they are off interpreting, so that those who depend on them in their primary role will not be sold short.

And finally, dual role interpreters should receive compensation that reflects the additional, valuable skills they bring to benefit their employer. Usually this is in the form of a small per-hour wage increase, or it can be in form of a periodic bonus as well, based on how much interpreting they actually provided.

In many parts of the country where there are hundreds of different languages spoken and fewer bilingual staff, only dedicated interpreters are used to provide language services. But in the Southwest, with such a large Spanish-speaking population creating a large bilingual workforce, it makes sense for some organizations to take advantage of this bilingual bounty to provide interpreting services. These employers will always be looking for job candidates who can prove their language and interpreting skills. So, come add a new expertise to your skill set, add “Certified Interpreter” to your resume, and perhaps you will find yourself among the ranks of those magnificent multi-taskers, the Dual-Role Interpreters.

Be the Bridge!
Learn more about getting trained as an interpreter at
https://www.vcinm.org/.

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