Interpreters play a critical role in allowing people from different linguistic backgrounds and experiences to communicate seamlessly with one another. Whether it’s helping a patient with limited English proficiency (LEP) communicate with their doctor or enabling people to call helplines based in different parts of the world, interpreting is no small feat. 

Still, there are a lot of misconceptions about how interpreting services work. From minor misunderstandings like mixing up interpreters and translators to more serious errors like allowing a child to interpret for their parent, misconceptions about interpreting can make it harder for you to get the best interpreting services possible.

In order to ensure that things go smoothly and efficiently, it’s important for buyers of interpreting services to understand the basics of how interpreting works. Here at Avantpage, we have decades of experience providing interpreting services — here are some of the most common misconceptions we hear from clients who are buying interpreting services.

1. Interpreters and translators are the same.

One of the most common misconceptions interpreters encounter is that interpreters and translators are interchangeable. There is, however, a major distinction between the two professions: Interpreters convert speech from one language to another in real time, while translators do so with text after it’s already been written down.

While some professionals perform both tasks, this isn’t always the case, so be sure you know which kind of services you need. Interpreters work to enable multilingual communication in meetings, doctor’s appointments, trials, phone calls, and other real-time conversations, while translators work with pre-written documents. For example, an election office would hire a translator to translate a voter’s ballot, while they would hire an interpreter to enable communication with LEP voters at the polls.

2. The interpreter’s job is only to interpret direct communication between the two main parties.

While the primary focus may be the person contracting their services and the individual with LEP, interpreters don’t only interpret conversation between these two parties. They must also interpret any audible conversation in the same room. Likewise, interpreters may have to have “side conversations” to provide critical cultural context. While extrapolating too much is largely discouraged, there are some instances where it is necessary.

3. Any bilingual person can work as an interpreter.

While interpreters certainly need to be proficient in both languages, bilingualism does not necessarily make somebody a good interpreter. Interpreting involves a combination of different cognitive and communicative skills that not every bilingual individual has — this is especially true when it comes to more specialized interpreting settings like legal or medical interpreting, where an interpreter’s knowledge of certain jargon needs to be extremely precise.

4. If an interpreter is unavailable, a child can interpret for a consenting parent or family member.

All too often, parents and other family members bring their bilingual children to meetings or appointments to have them interpret for them. Interpreting, however, requires a great deal of training and maturity that children simply don’t have — regardless of a child’s linguistic abilities, they simply aren’t suited to take on the responsibility of an interpreter.

5. The interpreter is part of the conversation.

Interpreters are not an active member of the conversation they’re interpreting, nor are they a representative of either party — instead, they should be a sort of “fly on the wall” figure. When speaking to an LEP individual with the aid of an interpreter, you should look at the LEP individual and interact with them, not with the interpreter.

6. Once you have your interpreting vendor services set up and your staff trained, your work is done.

Purchasing interpreting services from a language service provider involves a lot of set-up and training — different companies have different platforms and processes for requesting services, after all. Once you’ve established a relationship with a vendor and trained your staff, you’re good to go, but the training work doesn’t end there. As new staff come in and new technologies are developed, you’ll need to continue training people in your organization and setting up new tech.

At Avantpage, we pride ourselves in being helpful and supportive throughout this process. In addition to the initial set-up, we’ll help you with regular check-ins to make sure that your staff are up to date and that our processes are working for you.

7. All you need to know is the LEP individual’s language.

While this is certainly important to know, it’s not the only thing you need to keep in mind when requesting interpreting services. After all, many languages have dialectal variation. It’s not enough to request a “Chinese” interpreter — you need to know whether the other party speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, or some other dialect of Chinese.

 Your vendor should be able to guide you through this, but try to get a better understanding of the other party’s linguistic background. Knowing where someone grew up or was born can go a long way toward identifying the correct dialect of a given language.

8. Any professional interpreter will be suitable.

Not all interpreters can be a good fit for your needs — interpreters tend to have different specializations that you need to keep in mind when requesting interpreting services. Fields like law, government, or medicine feature lots of complicated language that may not be familiar to every interpreter, and as such, you need to make sure that your interpreter specializes in your field. Some interpreters take on more general assignments, while others will be better suited to interpreting in a specific setting, so consider the nature of your meeting before requesting service.

9. The interpreter’s gender shouldn’t be considered.

While an interpreter’s gender isn’t always important, some individuals—particularly those from certain religious or cultural backgrounds—do prefer to work with interpreters of the same gender. Additionally, in a medical setting or following traumatic events, some LEP individuals will feel more comfortable being interpreted by somebody of the same gender or sexual orientation. As such, if an individual requests an interpreter of a certain gender or an LGBTQ-friendly interpreter, that is their right.

10. Interpreters are not impacted by the interpretation.

Interpreters are trained professionals who aim to face all kinds of situations, but at the end of the day, they’re humans too. Interpreting is not only a very cognitively demanding job — after all, you’re constantly flipping between one language and another — but it’s an emotionally demanding one as well. It’s well-documented that interpreters who have to interpret traumatic or unfortunate stories, may experience “vicarious trauma,” which can be emotionally exhausting.


These are some of the most common misconceptions about interpreting that we encounter here at Avantpage. But they’re not the only ones — in order to ensure smooth and thorough language access, we recommend asking for clarification about anything you’re unsure of regarding interpreting services. If you have any questions about buying interpreting services or need to connect with an interpreter soon, contact us today at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.