Trained and qualified interpreters should be provided to every victim who does not speak English well. There are some key considerations when identifying and selecting an interpreter. Interpreters should be neutral. Task force members should never use an interpreter who is another victim, a family member, or someone who has a relationship with the victim. Interpreters should have a complete grasp of the two languages they are translating as well as training in the skill of interpreting. The interpreter must not have ties to the trafficker, either in the United States or in the home country; to the victim; or to anyone else involved in the case. A victim may prefer an interpreter of the same or different gender (or from the same or a different cultural or religious community). Victims may not trust interpreters to maintain confidentiality and may prefer an interpreter who works over the telephone and is not able to see the victim or who may be from a distant location.

Smart Tips
The use of nongovernmental organization (NGO) interpreters for investigative interviews risks the following potentially negative consequences:

  • The investigation information can later be considered “tainted.”
  • NGOs and service providers can be accused of providing “misinterpretation.”
  • Confusion can be created if an advocate is also an interpreter for law enforcement, creating trust issues.
  • NGOs can potentially be subpoenaed because of their role in interpretation. 

Task force members should meet with the interpreter before an interview is conducted. Questions that get to the heart of exploitation are often very difficult, invasive, and probing. An interpreter should be prepared for the potential need to ask difficult questions. Expectations of confidentiality must be reviewed before the interview starts. Confidentiality must be explained at the beginning of the interview, right after introducing the interpreter to the victim.

The interpreter can be a valuable cultural resource to the interviewer. The interviewer should take the time to ask the interpreter to explain any particularly relevant cultural dynamics that may impact communication with the victim. The following important ground rules must be established between the interpreter and the interviewer:

  • The interpreter translates exactly what the interviewer states and what the victim states. No summaries or euphemisms are used. The interpreter does not elaborate beyond what either the interviewer or the victim states.

    The Asian Women’s Shelter program in San Francisco developed an innovative program, the Multilingual Access Model, to recruit and train bilingual and bicultural volunteers from almost 30 different Asian as well as other communities. These trained interpreter advocates complete a 74-hour training course to be certified as a California Domestic Violence Counselor who is trained in human trafficking language advocacy. The interpreter advocates provide culturally appropriate advocacy and peer support to women in their own languages and also offer support to victim service providers. The huge success of the program has led to its replication in several other agencies in the Greater Bay Area as well as nationwide.

  • The interpreter is not to translate side conversations or chatter. The interpreter is solely a conduit for communicating between the interviewer and the victim. If the victim asks the interpreter a question, the interpreter must translate that question to the interviewer and let the interviewer respond, interpreting that response.
  • If there is a need to clarify the victim’s response, the interpreter will stop the conversation, explain to the interviewer what is unclear, and have the interviewer ask clarifying questions that the interpreter then translates.
  • Time for a break must be scheduled if the interview is expected to last more than an hour. Interpreting is an intense and tiring activity, and accuracy will degrade over time. Interpreters need breaks, and victims are likely to appreciate them as well.

For additional information on working with interpreters to interview victims, see Chapter 5.3, Working with Interpreters.