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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

The surprising truth about interpreter qualifications

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

A skilled interpreter is worth their weight in gold, but do you know how to spot one? Do you know which minimum qualifications to request? English Unlocked provides training on this matter, and in this handy blog post we have extracted some of the information which is covered by our course How to work effectively with interpreters. If you work for a public service or a charity here in the UK, and if some of your service users are from overseas, this blog post is essential reading.

Interpreting is not a protected profession in the UK.

There are some exemplars of good practice. For example the Metropolitan Police only employ interpreters with a level 6 Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI) who are on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. But in most sectors, interpreters with lower qualifications are accepted. Even more worrying, ‘interpreters’ are sometimes employed who have not completed any interpreting qualification at all. Some agencies refer to them as ‘linguists’ to cloak the fact that they have no public service qualifications.

Tip one. Turn down the services of linguists and seek out qualified interpreters, ideally those who have level 6 vocational public service qualifications. Read on to find out more.

The right qualifications

A fully qualified public service interpreter has a level 6 qualification. With a level 6 (and 400 hours of interpreting experience) they can become a registered interpreter on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. You can search for one in your area here. This graphic shows the main qualification levels available-

The level 1 is merely a taster for people who are considering entering the profession. Not until level 3 is there any practice of interpreting skills. At level 3 trainees also begin to learn the subject specialist vocabulary and procedures of certain sectors, for example healthcare, Social Services, Education, Welfare Benefits, Housing, and Immigration. Law and policing are not covered at level 3.

At level 6 interpreters specialise. Qualifications include DPSI law, DPSI health, DPI Police Interpreting.

Which qualification will you accept?

Imagine you work for the NHS. If you make do with an interpreter who has only achieved a level 1 qualification, they have not covered any of the specialist vocabulary or procedures for your sector (or indeed any sector.) Their language levels have not been assessed and in their course there was no practice of interpreting or note taking. Do you expect that their fluency extends to include terms such as pulmonary embolism, caesarean section, or respite care? In English and the target language? In a lay person this is unlikely.

If they have completed a Level 3 Certificate in Community Interpreting, they do have some knowledge of the jargon used by medical practitioners. Even better would be an interpreter who has a level 6 DPSI in Health. This is why NHS England recommends the use of interpreters with DPSI health. However, they do not insist on this, so level 3 interpreters and even linguists without the right sort of qualifications do end up interpreting for the NHS.

Tip two. Rather than assuming that the agency you use will send you a qualified interpreter, stipulate which qualification you require when you make the booking.

The right language

It has been known for unscrupulous interpreters to qualify in their best language and then accept assignments in languages which they speak less well. We give tips on how to avoid this in the training.

Tip three. Don’t assume that just because an interpreter can chat in a certain language, they are able to interpret in it. Expecting them to switch to another dialect or language during an interpreting assignment is inappropriate. Our training course gives more information on how to manage this eventuality.

Look out for tell-tale behaviours

Qualifications are a great starting point but we train people to also look out for certain tell-tale behaviours. As in most sectors, the quality of training courses and tutors can vary from one provider to the next. For example, does your interpreter cosy up with the service user before the appointment, getting to know each other and even swapping numbers? This can compromise their impartiality and it can be a sign that they are not familiar with the interpreters’ ethical code. Not all courses cover it. Conversely it’s a good sign if your interpreter asks to wait in a separate room from the service user.

Tip four: Make a separate waiting area available to your interpreter. Not doing so is a common mistake. Click here to watch our free training video: Spot the mistakes.

The confidence to complain.

One of our objectives in creating this new course was that organisations would become better able to complain. Course attendees learn exactly which behaviours and working styles are inappropriate in an interpreter, and this gives them the confidence to complain if they come across them. In this way we hope to raise standards within the industry. There are a lot of highly skilled interpreters out there and we would like to enable you to recognise them, contact them, and make use of their services.

Tip five: Complaints which are submitted to the NRPSI are fully investigated. However, you can only complain to them if your interpreter is a NRPSI Registrant. If this is not the case, submit your complaint to the interpreting agency.

Other things you might not know.

Our two hour course covers many other things you need to know in order to work effectively with interpreters. Aside from ways to recognise competence in an interpreter, here are some of the things we cover-

  • How often to pause

  • Where to seat everyone

  • When to brief and debrief

  • How to get the best out of telephone interpretation

  • Things you cannot expect your interpreter to do.

Book your place on a course

Click here to buy your ticket for our next multi-agency webinar. If you would like to ask about exclusive training for your team, get in touch.


If any of the information included here came as a surprise, chances are your colleagues are unaware of it too. Why not share this blog post with them?

(*Thanks to Mike Orlov from NRPSI for fact checking this article.)

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