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Why You Shouldn’t Use Bilingual Staff Over Professional Interpreters

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As we move toward a global society, we are exposed to more cultures and languages than ever before. No matter your industry, you and your employees likely encounter an increasing number of people who speak languages other than your own. Many essential resources come from other parts of the world, and the business-to-business contact necessary to obtain them often requires negotiations in multiple languages.

To address this common hurdle and access the global market, many companies believe the ideal solution is to hire bilingual employees who can help with translation and cross-cultural relations. [1] This idea makes perfect sense in theory. In practice, however, it may be losing your company a great deal of money. Hiring a bilingual employee with the intent to request they assist you with translation not only puts an unfair strain on that employee but may negatively impact your organization. [2]

Bilingual Employees vs. OPI

A bilingual person speaks two languages fluently. They can participate in most everyday situations in both languages without experiencing a language or communication barrier. This person may have been raised speaking two languages, or they may have become fluent later in life. Many bilingual people have felt compelled to interpret or translate for friends and family members occasionally or even frequently.

An over the phone interpreter (OPI) is also bilingual. However, in addition to speaking two languages well, they’ve been trained to provide interpreting services in a specific industry. Many interpreters have jobs in the retail, hospitality, financial, legal, and medical sectors. Their job is to convert information from one language into another—and back—for two people who don’t speak the same language fluently. [3]

Translation vs. Interpretation

There is also a significant difference between translation and interpretation. Translation occurs when an individual reads or hears a word, phrase, or sentence in one language and finds the corresponding word, phrase, or sentence in another language. Translation is a fairly straightforward, analytical process that involves knowledge of many words and phrases in both languages.

Interpretation is much different. This process involves consuming information and accurately relaying it in another language, including the nuance, tone, and implications that each thought carries. Consider the idioms, slang, and other complexities we often encounter in the English language—direct translation can easily lose the original meaning in favor of a too-literal, confusing mess. [4]

For example, consider the Japanese word for “help” (tasukeru), which is used only in emergency situations. A literal translation of “our company will help your business” will sound much more dire than the typical business situation calls for. However, if you have an interpreter who knows your intent and can use the correct term to accurately phrase your request, the conversation will proceed more smoothly.

Risks of Relying on Bilingual Employees for Interpreting

While it’s easy and appropriate to ask a bilingual staff member for a small translation or interpretation in a basic scenario, refrain from asking them to do much more. Dedicated interpreters can help you avoid the many risks of requiring your bilingual employees to perform regular interpreting services.

Relying on bilingual employees is not always the best solution. [5] Even with bilingual employees on staff, OPI services should also be part of a Language Access Plan. Support all languages and provide full comprehensive assistance when a bilingual employee is not available.

Bilingual vs OPI

  • Most bilinguals are paid a differential. The differential is paid per hour when in reality the bilingual skill may only be required occasionally and ends up costing more than using OPI.
  • If the demand for bilingual needs creates an uneven balance for the worker/position, it could be problematic for the bilingual employee, the client, and ultimately the company, affecting morale and customer service.
  • Just because someone is bilingual does not qualify them to interpret. OPI delivers cultural knowledge, active listening, organization, and specialized services.
  • Liability – no insurance is going to protect employees or a company from miscommunication.
  • Availability- relying on employees can be limited to employee breaks, on another call, vacation coverage
  • Dialect – utilizing OPI allows for best communication understanding. Even in the commonly requested Spanish, an employee that speaks with a Mexican dialect might not communicate well with someone who is Puerto Rican.
  • Limited languages- Depending on the diversity of the client base, a company could not possibly house enough bilingual employees in enough languages.
  • Loss of business or non compliance- Often upper management is not aware of the amount of calls where a caller is told “we only provide English.” Unless you are tracking these types of responses, management may not be aware of loss or business or non compliance in being unable to assist a non English speaker.
  • Some companies will pull bilingual employees from their totally unrelated position in an effort to interpret leaving that position lacking.
  • Interpreting ethics include confidentiality where as a random person interpreting is not obligated to keep information confidential. OPI interpreters are credentialed, insured, and hold certificates of Standards of Practice.

Overuse of Staff

Though they speak two languages, unless they are a trained interpreter hired for that purpose, a bilingual employee’s job is not to translate for you. Asking them to interpret uses valuable time they should be spending on tasks related to their duties and can make them feel like a “token” among your staff. Sometimes, bilingual staff members feel as though they’re working overtime to translate for their employers without being properly compensated. [6]

Privacy Issues

Medical Interpreters and HIPAAPhoto from Getty Images


In many industries, especially healthcare and law, there are privacy concerns when you use a bilingual staff member instead of a dedicated interpreter. HIPAA has clear guidelines regarding an interpreter’s role in maintaining a patient’s privacy. Using a bilingual staff member who has not been trained as an interpreter or updated regarding HIPAA policies creates a serious breach of policy. Privacy is extremely important in many industries, and a failure to follow privacy laws can result in mistakes, lawsuits, and more. Bilingual employees do not meet the standard unless they’ve been properly trained.

Issues Due to Lack of Interpreter Training

Interpreters must complete extensive schooling and continuing education to remain qualified to provide interpreting services. This training readies them to interpret, often within a specific industry. Thus, interpreters are frequently updated regarding industry-specific terms, roles, and details that aren’t common knowledge.

For example, most everyday people are not well-versed in legal jargon—including bilingual individuals. Asking a bilingual staff member to translate complex legalese can be confusing for everyone involved. By contrast, interpreters have been trained in their field, know the proper definitions necessary to navigate the conversation, and can explain them in both languages.

Missing Cultural Context

Not all bilingual staff members have developed the necessary cultural context for both languages. Though many bilingual individuals regularly experienced the countries and cultures that originated their language, some learned a second language in a classroom and can miss important context and meanings. Other bilingual individuals may have grown up speaking their primary language and lack the corresponding cultural context necessary to effectively interpret English.

As mentioned, cultural context means a great deal when it comes to interpreting. A word or phrase may have a certain connotation in one language that it doesn’t in the other. [7] Unless you utilize a professional interpreter, you risk losing meaning in translation.

Limited Access to Interpretation Services

When you use a bilingual staff member for your interpreting services, you are effectively limiting your access to interpreting when you need it most. Though they may be in your office on a daily basis, they have other duties that should be the primary focus of their time at work. They also have the right to go home at the end of the day, take breaks, lunches, sick leave, and vacation time, meaning that you are without translation or interpreting services.

When you use a trained, over-the-phone or telecommunication interpreter, you have 24/7 access to their services. No matter the time of day or night and regardless of the circumstances, you can access the interpreting you need to keep your business running. Better yet, constant access can actually save you money, as you only use interpreting services when you need them, thus eliminating the need to pay a bilingual employee for extra duties.

Reduced Business Security

If you are not using a trained interpreter, you are vulnerable to misunderstandings and inaccurate information. [8] As a result, you may lose clients, frighten patients, and even face lawsuits. Especially in the medical and legal fields, you face significant consequences if you fail to provide a trained interpreter to communicate with clients and patients about your services.

A professional interpreter provides the necessary safety and security required by your business, practice, or firm and its client base. Don’t trust just anyone to convey vital information. Be sure all information is accurate and complete by securing interpreter services.

Explore the Benefits of Telelanguage

Benefits of Using a Telelanguage InterpreterPhoto from Getty Images

In our global society, language and its interpretation are a constant focus, and you want your business to be on the right side of that discussion. We provide a vast network of over the phone interpreter services right at your fingertips. Whether using an interpreter for a one-time meeting or you’re in need of continuous interpretation, we’ll provide professional telephonic and video services.

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