What do we do with interpreters?

use or not use

What do we do with interpreters?

Do we use them?
Do we call them?
Do we work with them?
Do we employ them?
Do we retain them?
Do we order them?
Do we communicate through them? 

Or perhaps it’s something different altogether, like enjoy the ease of communicating with individuals of a different language background than our own through the magical and somewhat mysterious language conversion abilities facilitated and produced by the interpreter. Too wordy?

This discussion has surfaced in different groups and gatherings of interpreters and has largely centered around the phrase “use an interpreter” and whether or not it is an appropriate expression.

Some individuals have expressed indifference over the matter, explaining that there are bigger challenges to contend with. Others have been quite clear that it’s demeaning to say the word “use” in reference to a professional. 

Some have even pointed out that you don’t “use” any other professionals (teachers, lawyers, etc.), much less those involved in the medical encounter. I’ve been listening carefully, and so far, I’d say that’s pretty accurate. 

Phrases you’ll probably never hear:


I’m going to use a CNA to help the patient get into the shower. 
Let’s use a physical therapist to work on improving your mobility.


Could you use the phlebotomist to draw blood on the patient in room 8?

You’ll most definitely hear phrases like this:


I prefer to use a surgical mask with ear loops.


It’s okay to use your left hand, just don’t overdo it.

Be sure to use the appropriate cleaning solution on the exam room floors.


Then again, you might here a phrase like this:


We could have used three more nurses at Labor & Delivery yesterday.


I wondered what the phrase of choice would be in publications addressing language services, so I did a thorough (if 5 minutes of scanning can be considered thorough) investigation, and made some interesting findings.

A quick scan of One Size Does Not Fit All: Meeting the Health Care Needs of Diverse Populations (2008) turned up several examples of the word “use” in reference to interpreters.

However, a quick scan of the more recent publication Advancing Effective Communication, Cultural Competence, and Patient- and Family-Centered Care (2010) turned up no examples of “using” an interpreter, except where citing other publications. The phrase “work with” in reference to the interpreter seemed to be the phrase of choice. I’d be willing to bet that was intentional.

A Google search turned up more hits for “How to work with an interpreter” (85,500,000 hits) than “How to use an interpreter” (36,900,000 hits).

The topic was even raised by a medical professional, not an interpreter, at the recent NCIHC AMM who made the point that we use objects, not people.

So, the phrase “use an interpreter” seems to be falling out of popular use while the phrase “work with” seems to be gaining steam.

As for me? I tend toward the “there are bigger battles to be won” side of the discussion, while appreciating that words have meaning and meanings send messages that can build up or chip away at a person, profession, or thing. In that regard, I’d rather do little things to build up than little things that chip away.

The topic did strike a bit of a nerve when I was interpreting at an assignment not too long ago, and the nurse on the in-patient unit said, “When I’m done speaking with the patient, will you have time to stay a little longer so the chaplain can use you, too?”

I kind of felt like a mop, so I said, “Sure, just pull me out of the broom closet when you’re ready.” Of course I didn’t actually say that. Frankly, the nurse’s diligence in making sure that the chaplain would have an interpreter during her pastoral visit with the patient made me want to nominate the nurse for employee of the month. The awkwardly phrased question was small beans compared to that win. 

Where do you fall in this discussion? Does it matter? Share your thoughts.