Translating for Mum and Dad

Relying on family members to watch over us in everyday situations is something that many of us take for granted. Whether it be emotional support, advice, or even just getting a lift somewhere, the role that our family members play in our day to day life often fades into the background. But, what if a member of your family is your lifeline to the outside world? As reported by Dr Humera Iqbal in a recent BBC article, every day, thousands of children across the UK are required to interpret (spoken version of translation) for their parents in various situations. This can be a result of:

  • Social isolation of the parents from the community without opportunities to learn English
  • Anxiety of parents about how to integrate into a new community
  • Lack of knowledge as to how to assess language classes
  • Active resistance from parents to learn a new language or integrate in the belief it contravenes their religion or beliefs.

While the role of an interpreter is often commended as bridging the gap between nationalities, it’s easy to forget the role it has in mending family bonds by preventing children from being placed in vulnerable positions as interpreters. It is common for families to not have any contact outside of their family unit when moving to a new country, and it places the burden of interpreting onto the shoulders of the younger generation, who are often far more successful in quickly picking up a new language than their older family members. This places children in a position of having to deal with situations and conversations that are beyond their years and understanding. This is especially the case regarding health and social care needs where the child may need to interpret sensitive or mature conversations that the parent may want to keep confidential.

The role children play as interpreters can vary dramatically, from simple tasks such as grocery shopping, to far heavier tasks such as medical appointments or legal cases. Children are forced into a very adult world where they can be faced with aggression and racism from the adults that their parents encounter. However, while this can (and does) go smoothly in most situations, it places a huge burden of responsibility on the child – especially in medical scenarios.

Mental Health strain on Children
Placing a child who has only recently learned a new language into a medical situation places an unnecessarily large burden on their shoulders. One can only imagine the questions running through their heads: what if I interpret incorrectly and something happens? Will my parents be okay? It’s hard enough to have an ill parent, but when the added responsibility of becoming their voice in an otherwise alien world is added, it becomes far too much to bear. It is unfair that children should be placed in such emotionally volatile situations and can impact them in many ways:

  • Interpreting for parents can leave the child feeling quite stressed, even frustrated and embarrassed following conversations they are privy to
    the dynamics of parenting could be reversed where the child assumes a position of power over the parent
  • an element of resentment and frustration is not uncommon in these relationships where the parent relies on the child for communication support.
  • In the same light, the child may feel resentment for not being able to pursue their own interests or have their needs met such as attending school, because they are relied upon for
    communication support by their parent or parents.

Leave it to the Professionals

Whilst the use of children to interpret for family members may not be prevented, there are a number of ways in which it can be limited through alternative means.

  • General awareness of staff and clinicians on the impact of using children as interpreter and how to avoid using them
  • Use of professional interpreters that are usually approved through your organisation
  • Professional interpreters can be accessed quickly through telephone and video conferencing facilities, if required
  • Ensure that the need for an interpreter is logged on the record of the service user or patient to ensure they always have a professional interpreter available for ongoing bookings.
  • When requesting an interpreter, consider the gender preference of the interpreter as well as any potential variances in dialects spoken by the parent. This can be important in
    ensuring the parent feels comfortable in talking openly in front of the professional interpreter.
  • Use of audio and visual aids can help with communication. Google translate is also a good way of basic communication

If you would like to know more about how we support local government, NHS and third sector organisations with professional interpreting services and translation, please contact us on 0121 554 1981 or email


This article was based on a story published by the BBC,
Word360 – Working with Children- Interpreting Best Practice.

Written by Portia Chauhan | Word360

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