Telephone Interpreters: The Unsung Heroes of the Language Industry

Without a doubt, when we think of a high-profile case involving an interpreter, there are a number of likely scenarios that we picture. The court interpreter, whose services help put a nasty piece of work behind bars for a long time. The police interpreter, whose interview with a prolific offender makes it onto national TV. Or the Home Office interpreter, who is present at drug raids at dawn along with fully kitted-out members of the NCA.

However, what many people forget is that the vast majority of these high-profile cases that make it into the media actually start out with a call for assistance from a telephone interpreter.

Be it a call from the police officer, attending a business address to investigate reports of modern-day slavery, or a request from a doctor treating a victim of domestic assault, or even a social worker conducting a home visit and witnessing evidence of drug dealing. Nearly every case involving an interpreter that makes it to the front pages started with a simple phone call to a switchboard, connecting the professional to a telephone interpreter keen to assist.

Telephone interpreting is unfortunately sometimes seen as of lesser importance in comparison to face to face interpreting. This is not only unjust, but also unwarranted and completely untrue.

Telephone interpreters are the backbone of the language service industry.

They are there, on the ‘remote front line’, 24/7, assisting with an incredibly vast range of calls.

Yes, sometimes it can feel monotonous, dealing with the umpteenth call from the Child Tax Credit helpline. However, you never know what the next call will bring. That feeling when the 999 operator asks: ‘Is the patient breathing?’ and the answer is no, and you are tasked with interpreting life-saving procedures while the caller waits for the emergency services to arrive; the absolute chaos and devastation you hear when you are interpreting for a police officer who has to remove children from their parents’ home in the middle of the night due to domestic abuse; the booking in procedure at the police custody suite where the suspect threatens to do things that makes you so grateful that you’re not in the officers shoes – these are just a handful of endless range of real-life scenarios you can easily be involved in as a telephone interpreter.  

The question is – are you ready for this?

Regardless of whether the caller is a victim, a patient, a recipient of benefits, or an offender – they all deserve to be provided with the best possible service in terms of language support. You might think to yourself: ‘I don’t need a qualification; I’m not going to work in court or at a police station. I only work from home, over the phone.’. And that might be the case, as interpreters working in those  settings must hold a Level 6 qualification as a minimum. However, just because you aren’t working in these settings in person does not mean that you will not be dealing with these cases right at the very start of their ‘story’.

If you’ve not been trained, if you’ve not been tested, how do you know that the service you are providing meets the standards it should?

Telephone interpreters should not underestimate their own value and the importance of their position within language service provision. Equally, however, they should not diminish the importance of being suitably qualified to do this crucial job.

The Level 3 certificate in Community Interpreting is increasingly becoming seen as the benchmark for community and telephone interpreters across the country, and rightly so. However, even if your particular organisation hasn’t yet made this qualification mandatory, what’s stopping you from obtaining it for your own benefit and peace of mind? In order to do this incredibly challenging and equally rewarding role justice, it is imperative that we all do our part in ensuring that the standards are kept as high as possible.

After all, if that was your relative at the other end of the phone, you would want the same for them.

If you would like to find out more about how you can get a Level 3 qualification and become a professional interpreter, contact us on 0203 475 7771 or email us on