If it is clear an interpreter is required, then it is strongly recommended that a professional interpreter be used. Using a bilingual person who is untrained in interpreting may risk compromising accuracy, neutrality and confidentiality.

Although relatives, friends and neighbours can be capable interpreters they may take on an advocacy role rather than the neutrality of a professional interpreter. Keep in mind that the client may not be happy to disclose all information with a person they know present.

Clients often bring children to interpret - this creates a risk for incorrect information and inappropriate use of a minor.

Appropriate interpreting?

Hear from the former State Services Commissioner, Mr Iain Rennie


"Hi I'm Iain Rennie the State Services Commissioner. State servants in New Zealand administer rules that can affect everyone in New Zealand. We supply services that can support the lives of everyone in New Zealand. But to do that we have got to be accessible, understood, trusted. It helps if people can understand us. There is a way to do that - Language Line gives us the means of talking to anyone in New Zealand in a way that they can understand and in a way they can trust."

Using a professional interpreter is particularly important when communicating with people with little or no English language in the following situations:

  • The agency requires compliance.
  • Sensitive issues.
  • Explaining clients’ rights and obligations.
  • In times of stress.
  • The information to be discussed is complex and detailed.

Hear what can happen when children are used as interpreters


"One dark early morning, my mother woke me up in Vietnam and told us we were going to Hong Kong. She put me on a boat and told me not to cry. We ended up sailing for seven days and then got lost. We ended up getting picked up by the Malaysian Navy and from then on we became refugees. The boat was no longer than 14 metres, and fitted more than five families on it. Roughly around 30 people. Those of us who were lucky enough we were able to sit in the hull of the boat protected from the wind and weather. But there were some families who were stuck on the deck. We were lost adrift at sea and afraid of pirates and being caught by the Vietnamese Navy. And we were just lucky enough to be able to be saved by the Malaysian Navy.

My family communicated with various government officials either by telephone or over the desk. Often we had to accompany them either myself or my older sisters.  And that wasn't very easy for us at the time, because my parents found it very frustrating to understand the system, because they were not used to it. And secondly, English was a big problem for them, they didn't really learn that much English at the English classes. We had to interpret for them in front of government officials.

As a little girl working as an interpreter and it was just one of the scariest experiences ever.  I always felt I was going to get into trouble if I interpreted something wrong. I also felt like there were times when I didn't understand what the government official asked of me to interpret. I understand understand some of the things they were saying to me. The other way around it was also very hard to interpret into Cantonese, like I didn't know the words in Cantonese. I was very young at the time I didn't understand the right words even if I understood them in English I didn't have the right words to say back in Chinese.

My advise to government officials who are considering using children as interpreters for their clients is to avoid it at all costs. Firstly, for the child it causes an unnecessary stress and a burden to themselves. It places them into a situation where they are having to interpret concepts and circumstances that are not necessarily something that they understand or are far to adult for their knowledge and their experience. And also it disrupts the balance in the family between the child and their parent and causes stress unnecessary stress in the family. For the officials themselves, they are not assured of any quality, and they are not really sure that the child is interpreting the issue correctly.

The lasting effect that interpreting for my parents has had for me, has been a fear to pick up the phone just to call anybody let alone government officiails. I used to write lists of people that I needed to call and find a moment when I felt relaxed, confident and self assured before I actually picked up the phone to make those calls. And it meant that that I sometimes put things that needed to be done urgently at risk."

Language Line interpreters

Language Line uses professional qualified interpreters, who are committed to a code of ethics and hold police clearances in their country of residence.

It is important to provide a Language Line interpreter when:

  • A non-English speaker indicates that an interpreter is needed.
  • The person does not appear to understand what you have said.
  • The person cannot communicate fluently with you in English.
  • In some cultures, it may be polite to say “yes” even if the question is not understood.

Legal basis for interpreting

In New Zealand, every individual has the legal right to an interpreter when dealing with the law, with health service providers or during elections, in keeping with Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(external link).

Download Let's keep talking [PDF, 1.4 MB].

You need to have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer. You can download this program free from the www.adobe.com(external link)

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