Telephonic interpreting is used in a wide variety of situations, from business deals to routine doctor’s visits, but one of its most valuable functions is providing cross-language communications during an emergency.
Emergency responders — police, firefighters and paramedics, as well as 911 dispatchers — are the first line of defense in crisis situations. This means they need to gather information about the emergency as efficiently as possible.
But what happens if the person reporting a crime, fire or injury speaks a different language? In these cases, telephonic interpreting services can quite literally be a life-saver.
What Seems to Be the Trouble?
Whether a 911 operator gets a call from a French-speaker or a police officer responds to a burglary in Chinatown, victims don’t always speak the same language as emergency personnel. For this reason, it’s important for emergency service providers to have fast access to interpreting services, and placing a phone call is much quicker than waiting for an in-person interpreter to arrive on the scene.
In some cases, there may be someone nearby who speaks both languages. While it might be tempting to press them into service as an impromptu interpreter, it’s unlikely that that person will have the training to provide accurate responses during a crisis, especially if it’s a medical emergency.
Experienced telephonic interpreters are distanced from the immediate effects of the emergency, and this fact, combined with linguistic training, allows them to focus on what’s important: delivering information.
Telephonic Interpreting Basics
If you’ve never worked with a telephonic interpreter before and find yourself in a situation when an over-the-phone interpreter is required, here’s how you should expect the call to take place:
At the most basic level, it will be similar to a conference call: you’ll be able to hear the victim and interpreter speaking in an unfamiliar language, just as the victim will hear you and the interpreter in your own tongue. If you are responding at the scene (as compared to responding via phone), you may have to pass the phone handset back and forth between you and the victim.
Give instructions or ask questions as you normally would, speaking directly to the victim as if he or she speaks the same language as you. It might not seem like much, but this saves time, and in emergencies, every second counts. The telephonic interpreter will relay your directions to the victim, and once he or she responds, the interpreter will provide you with that information.
It should be noted that in emergency-response calls, the telephonic interpreter may focus on the most important information first: what happened, where it took place and who’s involved. Many telephonic interpreters are trained to provide this information as quickly as possible, in order to save time during the critical first minutes.
After the Initial Call for Help
Once you’ve determined the nature of the emergency and provided initial instructions, you might ask the victim (and the phone interpreter) to stay on the line to gather additional details — or, if you have what you need, you may simply end the call. In either case, the interpreter will continue to provide assistance until you hang up.
With luck, most interactions you have with telephonic interpreting will involve mundane topics such as getting directions or conversing with international colleagues. But when an emergency situation develops, telephonic interpreting services provide an effective path around language barriers.