Educational Interpreting 101: It’s a Lot Harder than It Looks

Here is the story of one county’s efforts to professionalize the field of educational interpreting.

Katharine’s Full-Circle Moment

Two days before International Translation Day 2018, I stood in front of 300 expectant faces, poised to deliver a keynote address to hardworking educational translators and interpreters. We were gathered at the second annual Interpreters and Translators Conference hosted by the Orange County Department of Education in Southern California. I remember being flooded with a range of emotions.

Here is where my own interpreting career began, fumbling my way through early education assessments, special education and parent-teacher meetings, as well as physical, occupational, and speech therapy sessions as an untrained interpreter. In those days, I had been repeatedly tapped for the task simply because I was bilingual. Twenty years later, a full and rich career helping to build up health care and community interpreting lay behind me.

Now, here I was, standing at the podium, beyond gratified to be part of this seminal moment, to see educational interpreters and translators finally begin to get the recognition, training, and professional resources they deserve. “I want them to have what I didn’t,” I thought.

Before starting my speech, I looked at the woman seated in the front row, Natalia Abarca, co-author of this article. She is the single-handed force of nature whose vision and driving insistence made this day possible.

If you’re at all active in our profession, it’s been hard to miss the increasing presence of educational interpreters and translators at conferences and trainings, just like the one described above. As someone who has seen first-hand how much can be accomplished toward professionalizing our field (in my case, health care) in a relatively short time span, I’m feeling increasingly optimistic that educational interpreting is on its way up.

In the first part of this article, I describe the reality on the ground for interpreters (with some reference to translators) who work in education settings. In the second part, Natalia shares the efforts of the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) in Southern California to improve language access for its non-English speaking families and the lessons learned that are relevant for all of us. It’s our hope that the following will serve as a wakeup call to our profession regarding the urgent need to support this emerging specialization.

What is Educational Interpreting?

For years, interpreters and translators working in kindergarten–12 schools have been largely invisible to our field. Despite the fact that Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires language access for federally-funded school settings, just as it does for health care and legal settings, professionalization has, for the most part, lagged behind.1 (Please note that this article refers to spoken-language interpreting in educational settings. Sign language interpreting is significantly more developed than spoken-language in education.)

In general, educational interpreting falls under community interpreting. The International Standards Organization (ISO) defines community interpreting as “bidirectional interpreting that takes place in communicative settings . . . among speakers of different languages for the purpose of accessing community services.”2 No formal definition yet exists for educational interpreting, but a suggested definition is: Educational interpreting is a specialization of community interpreting that facilities access to educational services in schools and other educational settings.

While educational interpreting is part of community interpreting, in many ways it can be better compared to the advanced specialization of mental health interpreting. Why advanced? Because mental health settings:

  1. Are highly complex with tightly-scripted interactions between providers and patients.
  2. Frequently involve sessions with multiple family members and providers present, thus requiring advanced modal skills.
  3. Require the adaptation of standard medical interpreting protocols such as positioning, the professional introduction, and turn-taking.
  4. Often require the interpreter to interpret for a family member and not the primary patient.

Interpreting in educational setting involves all these aspects, including several more:

  1. Interpreting for complex administrative meetings3 that require advanced simultaneous skills and team interpreting.
  2. Performing speed or simultaneous sight translation of complex legal or technical documents that are read aloud during public meetings.
  3. Interpreting for special education services, which rival workers compensation in terms of the diversity of medical, developmental, psychological, legal, and educational topics that are covered and the variety of encounters required (from testing and assessment to Individualized Education Plan (IEP)4 meetings, in-class services, and appointments for physical, occupational, and speech therapy).
  4. Providing written translation services in addition to interpreting.

In many ways educational interpreting can be considered a hybrid specialization, one that requires a fully developed interpreter skill set to do well, including:

  • Dialogue and long consecutive with note-taking.
  • Conference and legal-style simultaneous, including team-interpreting with portable equipment.
  • Chuchotage (whispered)5 simultaneous in dialogic settings for side conversations and during large-group meetings.
  • Sight translation, including speed sight translation during administrative meetings.
  • Advanced knowledge of interpreting strategies to ensure accuracy and transparency.
  • Working knowledge and application of community, legal, and conference interpreting ethics.
  • Knowledge of appropriate protocols for diverse encounters.

In an ideal world, entry-level interpreters should already have this skill set, but they typically don’t. Health care interpreting, for its part, has found a workaround to the lack of available training by forging a pathway to professionalization that prioritizes the use of dialogic consecutive interpreting. This field also provides strategies for undertrained interpreters to maintain accuracy and transparency while largely avoiding complex sight translation and simultaneous interpreting.

Medical settings do, in reality, include many interactions where a more developed skill set is needed. For example, whispered simultaneous is routinely needed to capture side conversations, and many medical centers are starting to provide simultaneous interpreting for medical presentations to patients and for support groups. Nonetheless, the overwhelming dialogic nature of the patient/provider interaction has made it possible for health care interpreting to professionalize without formally requiring interpreters to have fully mastered that skill set.

This pathway, however, doesn’t provide a viable model for interpreting in educational settings. For example, interpreting for IEP meetings is one of the most commonly needed encounters, yet the skills demanded by these meetings far exceed “entry-level” dialogic consecutive interpreting and sight translation. The sheer breadth of topics and settings covered in educational interpreting can be daunting. Even “simple” IEPs, disciplinary hearings, developmental assessments, or board of education meetings require advanced interpreting (and translation) skills.

In reality, educational interpreters routinely face demands on their skill sets every bit as complicated and nuanced as mental health, workers compensation, court, and conference interpreters, while typically operating without the necessary infrastructure. Many school districts across the nation have had interpreting and translation (T&I) departments for years, but they have been operating in a vacuum. Their T&I staff likely have not taken valid proficiency tests, been given any substantive training, been sent to conferences, or encouraged to join professional associations.

In the broader profession, there are no professional associations dedicated to the needs of educational interpreters and translators. Educational interpreters must borrow the ethics and training resources developed for health care and legal settings. More often than not, their service coordinators also work in isolation, unaware of the resources already available, and end up recreating the wheel over and over. This is not to diminish the very real and credible work being done by interpreting and translation departments in individual school districts across the country. Those efforts are just now starting to reach the level of visibility and maturity to help evolve the field as a whole.

One example of this can be found in the Orange County Department of Education in Southern California. Here, my co-author Natalia Abarca takes over the narrative and tells in her own words about the work being done.

Top 20 Languages Spoken in Orange County Schools (Courtesy of the California Department of Education’s Educational Demographics Office,

Top 20 Languages Spoken in Orange County Schools (Courtesy of the California Department of Education’s Educational Demographics Office,

Natalia’s Story: Orange County Department of Education—The Difference One County Can Make

I remember sitting behind my desk considering my new life and career in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” where dreams come true and only the sky is the limit. Many thoughts crossed my mind: Did I make the right decision? Will I be able to adapt to a new culture and a new language? How will I navigate this new work environment? Will I regain my career?

It was hard to fight a feeling of despair as a newcomer from Ecuador. Day after day in my new job as the project liaison of Language Services for the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE), I was exposed to a Spanish that sounded unfamiliar to me, spoken by families from Mexico and Central America. I learned new words, new jokes, and new sentence structures. Even though I was a native Spanish speaker, I felt like a foreigner who needed an interpreter to help me understand the unfamiliar slang and this new way of speaking. I had my own unique accent and few could place my country of origin. These early experiences with different dialects and languages made me ever more passionate about providing accurate language access to almost 500,000 students who attend Orange County’s multicultural schools.

The absence of professional support and lack of training opportunities described above were among the challenges I faced when I was tapped for OCDE’s newly-created position of project liaison for Language Services for the Instructional Services Division in 2014. My first task was to start building an infrastructure for our program.

A Little History

Currently, I lead the county-wide OCDE Multilingual Consortium, a professional network that provides multicultural and professional support to community liaisons, parent advocates, family support specialists, and multilingual staff. Orange County students speak 66 languages, with Spanish—not English—spoken by the largest number. The Consortium provides a much-needed forum where members feel valued and respected for their background and their heritage. We not only strive to provide families in Orange County with equitable access to high-quality interpreting and translation services, we also work to build collective capacity to help newcomer parents and families navigate the U.S. educational system. This is a daunting task for our network’s community liaisons and bilingual staff members. In my role, I tap into the Consortium’s assets and take a strengths-based approach to build the group’s leadership capacity, helping each member maximize their natural talents and potential.

As my colleagues and I started the Consortium, we immediately identified one initial challenge: our members reported feeling isolated and disconnected from one another. Our first step was to develop a coordinated survey to identify what was currently happening with language access in schools throughout Orange County. We reached out to more than 200 educators in 21 districts representing almost 400,000 students.

The data we received was powerful. Perhaps most eye-opening was the immense demand for translation and interpreting services. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:

  • 77% of school districts in Orange County, California, have monthly requests for interpreting and translation.
  • 82% of these requests are for IEP meetings, which are part of the special education process.
  • 76% of these requests were related to meetings of the English Learners Advisory Committee (ELAC), District English Learners Advisory Committee (DELAC), and the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
  • 66% of requests involved communicating with student family members.

Casting light on an evolving field, the following statistics relate to translation and interpreting services and resources already in place at Orange County school districts:

  • 28% of school districts have a formalized translation and interpreting team with a coordinator to support language access.
  • 65% of schools have provided training for bilingual staff to understand the roles and responsibilities of interpreters and translators.
  • 95% of school district leaders support providing training to multilingual staff.
  • 80% of personnel are eager to have more professional development opportunities to improve their interpreting and translation skills.
  • 72% of respondents want more information about professional interpreting and translation ethics.
  • 70% of respondents want to learn about laws and regulations relevant to language access.
  • 60% want to learn about building cultural awareness in school settings.
  • 85% of bilingual staff would like to become certified interpreters and translators.
Natalia Abarca speaks to attendees at the Orange County Department of Education’s Interpreters and Translators Conference.

Natalia Abarca speaks to attendees at the Orange County Department of Education’s Interpreters and Translators Conference.

From Data to Action

Based on the survey results, OCDE took several steps to promote language access, specifically by supporting the translators and interpreters who provide the critical language bridge. These measures included:

1. Creating an Annual Interpreters and Translators Conference: We identified the need for a formal event where our multilingual professionals could receive training and discuss new information, tools, and policies. In 2017, we launched the first annual Interpreters and Translators Conference: Connecting Cultures through Effective Interpretation and Translation. The response was swift and almost overwhelming: 40 school districts and 230 participants attended. Our second annual conference in 2018 sold out, with 270 people representing nine California county offices of education, 19 Orange County school districts, and 24 school districts from other counties.

2. Establishing the Interpreter of the Year Award. This recognition program was implemented with the support of several school districts. Because there are no codes of ethics specifically for educational interpreters, we relied on material from the National Council for Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) to develop a rubric for conferring the award. To date, four outstanding language advocates have received this honor.

3. Providing Training for Trainers: I became a licensed trainer for Community Interpreter® International, a 40-hour certificate program that provides professional skills for school-based interpreters, including dual-role bilingual staff. OCDE can now provide our own ongoing trainings to district-level employees working to facilitate communication between families and the educational system.

4. Defining Ethical Practice: OCDE, in partnership with 14 school districts, developed the Guidelines for School Interpreters based on NCIHC’s National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care.6

5. Standardizing Educational Terminology: We’re also working on standardizing common educational terminology and translating frequently used documents in multiple languages, such as the Parental Notice of Procedural Safeguards, which has been translated into five languages.

What’s Next?

OCDE’s vision is for Orange County students to lead the nation in college and career readiness and success. Being bilingual or multilingual is an asset in the 21st century, so the department is working toward equal opportunity and significant access for every student by supporting the many state and federal initiatives in place to achieve these results. Simply put, OCDE cannot achieve its vision without integrating professional, high-quality interpreting and translation services. This means that our work is more important than ever.

As I map out the many logistical tasks that go into planning our third annual Interpreters and Translators Conference in September, I’m amazed at how much has been accomplished in just a few short years. We started with a simple survey and now we have a plan in place and have put several key pieces into action. As part of this journey, I’ve attended numerous conferences and met key leaders and experts in this profession. They’ve shared their knowledge and I’ve shared mine. It’s my hope that the work I’m doing will be met, in equal parts, by a proactive response from the profession to expand its support and resources for interpreters and translators working in educational settings.

Stepping Up to the Plate for Educational Interpreters—Final Thoughts from Katharine and Natalia

As Natalia and I wrap up this article, I’ve returned from a two-day training for another large city school district in California. The sole focus of that training was simultaneous interpreting skills. That experience only served to validate my sense of urgency regarding the need to support our colleagues working in educational settings. As school districts across the nation struggle to fulfill language access requirements and the needs of their diverse multilingual families, our profession needs to step up, make space, and provide concrete resources for this new cohort of colleagues. It’s our sincere hope that educational interpreters and translators will soon receive the same recognition and support as those working in legal and medical settings.

  1. Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 (U.S. Department of Justice),
  2. ISO 13611:2014, Interpreting—Guidelines for Community Interpreting (International Standards Organization),
  3. Includes monthly Board of Education, Parent Teacher Association, School Site Council, English Learner Advisory Committee, and other committee and public administrative meetings and hearings.
  4. Individualized Education Plan or Program—the legally-binding service contract entered into between school districts and parents to provide services for students with some kind of qualifying disability.
  5. Chuchotage is a form of interpreting where the linguist stands or sits alongside a small target audience and whispers a simultaneous interpretation of what’s being said. The term chuchotage is French for “whispering.”
  6. National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care (National Council for Interpreting in Health Care),

Natalia Abarca facilitates, leads, and manages the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) Multilingual Consortium, a professional network established to support high-quality translation and interpreting services for Orange County Schools (California) and their surroundings. She is a licensed trainer for The Community Interpreter® training program. She facilitates the development and implementation of networks and leadership development and helps build capacity among multicultural staff. She is the main contact for the annual OCDE Interpreters and Translators Conference in Education. She has a BA in biology and a master’s in coastal management from the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral. Contact:

Katharine Allen is a health care and community interpreter with over three decades of experience interpreting, training, and designing curricula. She is co-president of InterpretAmerica and a regular contributor to its blog ( She is the lead developer and licensed trainer for The Indigenous Interpreter 60-hour training course. She has helped train interpreters for medical missions in Mexico. She teaches for the Glendon College Masters in Conference Interpreting Program and the Professional Interpreter Online Program. She is co-author of The Community Interpreter International: An International Textbook and The Medical Interpreter: A Foundation Textbook for Medical Interpreting. She has an MA in translation and interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Contact:

2 Responses to "Educational Interpreting 101: It’s a Lot Harder than It Looks"

  1. Tram Bui says:

    Very informative and eye opening article on the complexities of interpreting in the educational setting. Thank you Ms. Natalia Abarca.

  2. Elizabeth Watkins says:

    Is there a way to exchange information with the authors of this article? I provide training for interpreters working in special education in the state of Minnesota. We have also developed a code of ethics for educational interpreters of spoken languages. I would very much like to see their Guidelines for School Interpreters.

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