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Minimising misunderstanding: The value of interpreter and translator assisted workplace investigations

Australian workplaces, like our communities, are becoming more culturally diverse. About 350 languages are spoken in Australia, with almost a quarter of all residents speaking a language other than English at home1.

Therefore, there is a high likelihood investigators will face language barriers in the conduct of their work. This will impact how they gather evidence and conduct interviews.

This article examines how investigators can mitigate misunderstandings and misinterpretations with the support of specialist translating and interpreting services. Drawing on this specialist language support not only assures the investigator and employer that all steps are being taken to ensure an impartial and procedurally fair investigation, but importantly, it also demonstrates to the person being interviewed that their testimony matters.

Will language be a barrier?

Investigators need to be continually live to the possibility that language could be an issue that needs to be sensitively managed during an investigation. This awareness also extends to investigators considering their own cultural assumptions or biases, which could influence how they view, speak to, interact with, and assess the responses of interviewees.

In some instances, investigators may anticipate or receive pre-warning that support from a language expert will be required. This support could be in the form of translating written material such as notification letters to complainants and witnesses or requiring an interpreter to attend an interview.

It is important to note the difference between the two professions. According to national translating and interpreting service ABC Multilingua:

An interpreter is a master of a spoken word – whether face-to-face, over the phone or an Audio Visual Link – whilst the translator deals with the written content. Interpreters and translators are specially trained in the accurate and impartial transfer of information from one language and culture to another.

Approaching interpreter and translator assisted investigations

Q Workplace Solutions has worked with ABC Multilingua on a number of investigations.

From the outset it is important to note that translating information from one language to another is mentally taxing and, when done in a hurry, can result in errors.

That’s why it’s important to set aside sufficient time for interviews. Using an interpreter can take two to three times longer than a regular interview. However, not investing in this expertise could result in investigators undertaking multiple interviews over a longer period of time and still not succeeding in overcoming communication barriers.

ABC Multilingua has provided the following practical tips for investigators working with translators and interpreters.

At the commencement of the investigation:

  • arrange for any necessary documents to be translated

Before the interview:

  • provide the interpreter with as much information as possible, including advising of potential problems such as the sensitivity of information and the potential for heightened emotions during an interview

During the interview:

  • introduce yourself and the interviewee to the interpreter, and explain your role and the interpreter’s role to the interviewee
  • face and speak directly to the interviewee, not the interpreter
    remember the interpreter is an objective third party to the communication. Do not ask their opinion or try to include them in your discussions
  • pause after expressing a thought or statement to allow for interpretation
  • speak clearly, avoiding jargon, slang and acronyms
  • check in with the interviewee every so often to ensure they understand the questions being asked and their purpose.

Remember, it is the investigator’s role to manage and conduct the interview. The repercussions of failing to manage interpreter-assisted interviews appropriately can be profound…ranging from waste of resources and time, missed opportunities for resolution, and incorrect acceptance or rejection of claims, to legal repercussions.
To mitigate these consequences, it is imperative for investigators to meticulously plan and execute interpreter-assisted interviews, recognising the critical role effective communication plays in the accuracy and fairness of the investigative process.
ABC Multilingua

1 ABS. 2022. Cultural Diversity in Australia.

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