Language access


Bilingual, bicultural advocacy is the best way to accomplish accurate, timely communication with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When bilingual advocates are not available, professional, culturally competent interpreters are critical to ensuring equal access to safety.

It is never recommended to use friends, family members or other survivors as interpreters because of potential conflict of interest issues. Additionally, children should never be used as interpreters for their parents. This can re-traumatize children, expose them to traumatic information, and children may not interpret information correctly for many reasons.

Professional interpreters are not only bilingual, but also need to know the cultural meanings behind the words in two or more languages. Their skill set and training enables them to accurately and fluently move information between two languages. There are two modes of interpreting:

  1. Consecutive interpretation, where the interpreter takes turns with the other speakers. If long statements are made, the interpreter may take notes to ensure accuracy, or ask the individual to speak in shorter sentences or pause during long statements. The interpreter repeats the statement in the second language word for word. This is the format for interpreting by telephone, for medical consultations, and for some court proceedings.
  2. Simultaneous interpretation, where the speaker and the interpreter talk at the same time and the interpreter lags a few words or seconds behind the speaker. When the interpreter is working with just one person, simultaneous interpretation is usually done in a whisper. This is most often the format used in court proceedings.

Remember that the skills required for effective advocacy and effective interpretation are different. An advocate, even a bilingual advocate, cannot effectively fulfill both roles at the same time. See “Bilingual Advocates” for more information on the differences between the roles of bilingual advocates and interpreters.

Recruiting and utilizing volunteers for their language abilities is becoming more common at sexual and domestic violence programs around the country. Often volunteers are students at local colleges, community members, and former program participants who are trained and utilized “on call” as interpreters/translators to help provide bilingual services. It is important to properly assess the language skills of volunteers, provide adequate training, and ensure that they abide by standards of ethics and confidentiality.

Language banks have been developed by several organizations around the country. Volunteers and staff from throughout the community serve in a “bank” of volunteer interpreters who agree to be “on call” when language access services are needed.

The Asian Women’s Shelter provides access to 41 languages through their Multi-Lingual Access Model (MLAM). The MLAM recruits bilingual, bicultural women from the community to become paid language advocates. These language advocates serve as a communication bridge between program advocates and shelter residents, provide emotional support for residents, and accompany them to important meetings and court hearings.

The Ayuda Interpreter Bank is an innovative approach that is focused on developing as many qualified, professional legal interpreters as possible. The Bank provides professional training for interpreters and tests them to ensure competence in their language skills, understanding of the legal system, and adherence to ethical standards. The Bank currently serves 27 legal services providers with 100 legal interpreters that speak about 40 languages.

Generally, when you use OPI, you dial the language line’s toll-free number and provide your account information (see Resource Building for information about OPI service costs). You are immediately asked for which language you need interpretation, or the “targeted language.” If you do not know the name of the language and cannot identify it, the service can help you. Once the language has been identified, you are transferred to an interpreter. 

In situations where direct interpretation cannot be done, relay interpretation can be a valuable alternative. In “relay interpreting,” the interpreter listens to the source language and renders the message in a language that is common to other interpreters. These other interpreters, in turn, render the message to their target language groups. 

An example would be a Mixtec speaker renders a message, a Mixtec interpreter translates it into Spanish, and a Spanish interpreter renders the message in English to the target audience/group/individual.

Linking Strategies: An Over-the-Phone Language Bank for Referrals

In one community in Seattle, a helpline was established to assist domestic violence survivors with LEP to find community-based agencies that can provide language and service assistance. “Peace in the Home” responds directly to callers in 14 languages: Amharic, Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, Lao, Russian, Romanian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Tigrigna, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese. Additional languages are planned. For more information or to learn how to implement this type of service in your area, contact Peace in the Home .

Additional resources

To learn more about interpreters, see the following resources:

“It Shouldn’t Rest on Me:” Providing Meaningful Language Access and Avoiding the Use of Children as InterpretersProviding Meaningful Language Access and Avoiding the Use of Children as Interpreters, by Esperanza United, formerly Casa de Esperanza: National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities, 2019.

Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters Serving LEP Victims of Domestic Violence, by Uekert, B. K., Peters, T., Romberger, W., Abraham, M. & Keilitz, S. InServing Limited English Proficient (LEP) Battered Women: A National Survey of the Courts’ Capacity to Provide Protection Orders, 2006, page 178.

Resource Guide on Interpretation Services. This has sample interview questions for prospective interpreters, the interpreter code of ethics, and a sample interpreter confidentiality form.