Module 4 – General information about interpreting

Often, even native speaker would need an interpreter to understand medical terms. Many people do not have the courage to ask doctors/ physicians/ health care workers again (or a third or fourth time) if they did not understand something.

The situation is even more challenging if it comes to patients who speak another language.

Therefore, to facilitate the situation, the UNHCR provides a manual for interpreters, particularly for interpreters who translate in the asylum process or regarding medical issues during the asylum process like trauma or violence experiences.

Apart from a sufficient knowledge of language, interpreters should be able to translate social and cultural backgrounds of their home country and their new one.

The manual for interpreting of the UNHCR has a good example: “I talked with my children.” in some parts of Afghanistan can as well mean: “I talked to my wife.”  If something like this is not translated adequately, it can lead to severe misunderstandings or even effect the credibility of the asylum seeker. In addition, also regarding healthcare such a misunderstanding can lead to wrong treatment recommendations because the doctors/ physicians/ health care workers think that the child is sick instead of the wife. More of such examples are stated in the UNHCR manual (link below).

Besides these “misunderstandings” will there be mentally challenging situations for interpreters (they have to listen to stories about war and violence, sometimes even torture) so that they should be trained in psychological aspects too:

Following the ÖNORM D 1202 there are now some specific core competences listed:

  • Language and text competence
  • Culture competence
  • Translating competence
  • Psychosocial competence
  • Research competence

A detailed German version to the topics above is available on the website of UNHCR where one can order the printed script or follow a link to the digital version []


An English manual for “Interpreting in a Refugee Context is available on the UNHCR homepage []

When translating in asylum matters, it is possible to have translators with different kinds of education. First choice however for the Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum should be court interpreters who speak the demanded language. There are only 25 court interpreters for Arabic, and 1 for Dari and Pashdu available in Austria. If they are not available, the second choices are graduated interpreters with a master’s degree from university. A third choice are people without special education but who have the necessary language skills. The last two groups of possible interpreters need to do an additional education in legal matters of the asylum process if they have no specific prior knowledge in this area (as part of their studies or from prior courses). Sometimes, even family members need to work as translators if no professional person is available to do so.

!!! In any circumstance, children must never be used as interpreters.


In general, one should always be aware that situations where no professional interpreter is available are extremely prone to errors.

Following problems can occur when using untrained interpreters:

  • Lack of vocabulary range
  • Lack of professional distance for translating everything
  • Lack of ability to translate word by word
  • Traumatisation (secondary)
  • Essential parts might not be translated because of fear or because of shame (e.g. children do not want to be alone and do not tell that their mother needs a hospital)
  • Mistakes in translation cannot be detected

Therefore, a video-interpreter system could be a feasible solution for this problem. In Austria, a pilot project was very successful: in only 2 minutes, a professional interpreter can be contacted by video via a secure data line or by telephone. See also Module 3 chapter 4 and the homepage of video interpreter project [].

In Austria, universities in Graz (Karl-Franzens-Universität, ITAT…) Innsbruck (Leopold-Franzens-Universität, ZTW…) and Vienna (Universität Wien, ZTW…) offer study programs for interpreters.

Courses aiming at people who have already worked as translators and want to improve their skills are offered by the “Verband Österreichischer Volkhochschulen” under following link. The courses are financed by the UNHCR and the Federal Ministry of Interior: []

Also a self-study course which is designed for professionals as well as for beginners is offered by the UNHCR: []


Further useful information and links:

There is an ethical code for interpreters (NCIHC code) and a standard for practice, which you can find here. []

Basic language emergency kit []. This kit helps healthcare providers to communicate with refugees/migrants in emergency situations. List with most frequently asked questions in emergency situation. (Available in 17 languages: English, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian.)

Word Fan Glossary [] The word fan includes words relevant for health care. Available in 17 languages: English, Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian

WHO Guideline for primary care in low resource countries for a prevention and control of non-communicable diseases: []