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Working with Interpreters

A group of men in military uniforms seated around a table, talking, interpreter in background
A military linguist attached to the 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (left) provides interpreter assistance during a key leader engagement at the Joint Readiness Training Center Jan. 22, part of the 2nd SFAB’s rotation. Staff Sgt. Nawid Abraham (standing), a military linguist with Fort Polk’s 52nd Translator/Interpreter Company, 3rd Battalion, 353rd Infantry Regiment, serves as an observer/controller/trainer to provide guidance during the exercise. (Chuck Cannon/DVIDS)


The government and the military place a high value foreign language skills, and are constantly seeking out fluent speakers or training new speakers. However, it’s not always possible to staff a mission with people who are fluent in other languages. That’s where interpreters come in. Here, we’ll discuss the different types of interpretation and interpreters used in the military, and where interpreters are used in other federal agencies as well.

First, what is the difference between translation and interpretation? Some may use the terms interchangeably, but they are considered to be two different tasks. According to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), “Interpretation involves the immediate communication of meaning from one language to another. Although there are correspondences between interpreting and translating, an interpreter conveys meaning orally, while a translator conveys meaning from written text to written text.  As a result, interpretation requires skills different from those needed for translation.”

The ILR also describes what is needed in order to be a successful interpreter: “Command of two languages is prerequisite to any interpreting task. The interpreter must be able to (1) comprehend two languages as spoken and written (if the language has a script), (2) speak both of these languages, and (3) choose an expression in the target language that fully conveys and best matches the meaning of the source language.”

Interpretation involves more than simply being fluent in multiple languages. Any situation involving an interpreter will likely require knowledge of the jargon of that field: legal interpreters will need to be familiar with legal jargon, military interpreters with military jargon, etc.

A woman in military uniform interprets into a small microphone.
Magda Melikishvili, an interpreter with the Georgian Armed Forces, translates a brief from Georgian to English for U.S. Army Soldiers at Norio Training Area, Georgia, Nov. 14, 2018. Melikishvili has worked as an interpreter for six months, facilitating communication between Georgian and U.S. service members, helping to improve interoperability with our allies and partners to increase lethality and maintain the advantage against future threats. (Sgt. Kris Bonet/DVIDS)


Our VCAT courses all contain the option to learn about working with interpreters. In those courses, you will learn about the different types of interpretation and interpreters used.

The military utilizes three different styles:

  1. Simultaneous interpretation: communication is interpreted as it is spoken.
  2. Consecutive interpretation: the speaker will pause at regular intervals to allow for interpretation.
  3. Escort interpretation: a form of consecutive interpretation that is two-way in nature, in which a conversation between two or more individuals is interpreted.

The U.S. and host nation militaries also use three different types of interpreters:

  1. Local interpreters: the most common type of interpreter, who will have extensive knowledge of local customs, dialects, and people, but often lack formal training and may have varying English skills and limited knowledge of military jargon.
  2. Contractors: highly educated and trained but who are not members of the military.
  3. Military specialists: servicemembers who are available 24 hours a day and that have been specifically trained in military interpretation and translation; however, there are very few of them and are less likely to be used than contractors or local interpreters.

As stated, local interpreters are the most common kind used, but working with locals comes with its own challenges. They may be unfamiliar with specific vocabulary used in the military; their age, gender, social status, and religion may influence certain interactions within the community; and their levels of professionalism may vary. However, the most important factor leading to successful interpretation in any situation is the rapport you have with your interpreter. This means taking the time to learn more about each other: ask questions about their hobbies, their families, their favorite sports and foods. If they are a local, it’s especially important to show that you are interested in their culture and society, and in their well-being as a person, in order to develop trust. It’s crucial to make sure your interpreter feels like they are an integral, respected part of the team.

A female interpreter is speaking to another woman on her right, with a man in uniform on her left.
U.S. Army Major James Wilson, primary care physician, Joint task Force Bravo Medical Element tends to a patient with assistance from Nuria Henriquez, assistant to the Medical Element commander and medical interpreter (left), during a Medical Readiness Training Exercise in Ocotepeque, Honduras, March 5, 2019. (Maria Pinel/DVIDS)


The relationship with your interpreter is key, but when participating in an interpreted discussion, it’s also important to remember that you are not conversing with your interpreter, but rather with your counterpart. Look at the person you are speaking to, refer to them by name and your interpreter as “the interpreter,” and address them directly rather than saying to the interpreter, “Tell them….”

The military is not the only government organization that utilizes interpreters. They are common across all agencies, such as the Department of State and the Department of Justice.

The Limited English Proficiency (LEP) website created by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division focuses on ensuring that federal courts across the country provide translation and interpretation services to anyone limited in their ability to speak, read, or write in English. Its mission is to promote “a positive and cooperative understanding of the importance of language access to federally conducted and federally assisted programs,” and their website is a great place to find information and tools “regarding limited English proficiency and language services for federal agencies, recipients of federal funds, users of federal programs and federally assisted programs, and other stakeholders.”

The Department of State’s Office of Language Services has an Interpreting Division, which “maintains an active roster of contract interpreters who work on an occasional, as-needed basis for assignments at various levels of interpreting expertise.” They mention the different kinds of interpreters they use such as conference, seminar, and liaison interpreters.

Members of the National Language Service Corps (NLSC), our partners at DLNSEO, also provide interpretation services on a short-term, as-needed basis to federal agencies with which they have established a formal partnership. Visit their website for more information on how NLSC members have been utilized.

Three military members, with an interpreter, sit across from three other people seated at a table.
U.S. military members share personal stories and experiences with the interpretation help of a member of an Estonian Defense Forces soldier during an Estonian National Defense class at Haabersti Russian Gymnasium in Õismäe, Estonia, Feb. 22, 2019. (Sgt. Averi Coppa/DVIDS)


Are you interested in learning more about working with interpreters? Take one of our VCAT courses, which go into more detail about how to interact with interpreters and during an interpreted scenario. VCATs are hosted on JKO and available for all CAC-holders. Don't have a CAC? If you know someone with one, they can sponsor you so you can obtain a JKO account.


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