[Reflections on Practice]

Choosing the Right Interpreter: Reflections on My Experience

By Melody Schwantes


Music therapists are now frequently working outside of their own cultures with individuals who may speak a different language from them. While music can be one vehicle of connecting and communicating with clients, oftentimes an interpreter is still necessary. This article presents an overview of my personal experience working with interpreters in various settings. Benefits and challenges of working with an interpreter are discussed as well as recommendations for working with interpreters. It is hoped that this article will create a dialogue among the Voices community about working with interpreters in the music therapy setting.

Keywords: music therapy, interpreter, relationships

Choosing the Right Interpreter: Reflections on My Experience

Oftenwhen I have presented at conferences about my work with Mexican farmworkers living in the United States, I am asked the question: did you use an interpreter during sessions? While the answer is technically, yes, it is not as simple as that. Because this issue has come up so frequently and given that music therapists are working with various populations around the globe through study abroad programs (“Healing Through Music,” n.d.; “Music Therapy in Thailand”, n.d.), refugee and disaster relief (Gao et al., 2013; Jones, Baker, & Day, Orth, 2005), and at home with immigrant populations (Ahonen & Desideri, 2014; Kennedy, 2008; Schwantes, 2009), I thought it might be helpful to reflect on and suggest ways for using an interpreter during music therapy. These thoughts and ideas are from my own experience and center around spoken, rather than signed, language. My hope is that these reflections can assist other music therapists in selecting and working with the best interpreters for their clients. I would also like to read about the experiences of others in the Voices community and to learn from their suggestions. For me, the right interpreter is as important as the right music for my clients.

To begin, it might be helpful to differentiate between an interpreter and a translator. Initially, I mistakenly used these two terms interchangeably. However, they are quite a different. A translator’s job is to translate written material from one language to another. An interpreter’s job is to interpret the spoken or signed word into another language or vice versa. Liaison interpreting may be the most common type of interpreting in the therapeutic environment. This is when an interpreter serves as a bridge between the therapist and the client. The interpreter interprets what both the therapist and client say to one another. In many ways, it is a parallel relationship to the role that music plays in the music therapy session—it is a critical part of making connections and building relationships with the clients. This may help to illustrate the point that choosing the best interpreter whenever possible is as critical as choosing the best music for the client.

I will describe my experiences with interpreters in three discreet ways, interpreter as co-therapist, interpreter in a supportive role, and strict interpreter. In my clinical work, I have worked with ten different interpreters in the US and in the Czech Republic and have also conducted sessions in Spanish independently without them. I will attempt to discuss the pros and cons for each of these ways as well as provide examples and suggestions for those who wish to work with an interpreter. In addition, whenever language is referred to in the article, it means spoken or written, rather than alluding to musical language.

Interpreter as co-therapist. My experience co-treating with an interpreter took place at a state-run psychiatric hospital in the Czech Republic. At the time I started working with these groups, I had a very limited understanding of Czech, however, I could communicate to some extent with the clients on a very surface level. I also knew a variety of traditional Czech folk music. I co-treated with two different clinical psychologists, one for a group of women who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and another with a co-ed group of individuals with mood disorders. Both therapists I co-treated with were trained psychologists who spoke Czech as their primary language and English as a second language.

Once a week for seven months I worked with the group of women who diagnosed with schizophrenia. For this group, I determined the session plan each week and emailed the psychologist a few days in advance. The psychologist with this group was actually a trained pianist and had a great understanding of music. Upon arriving at the facility, she and I would review the plan and discuss if any changes were needed based on the group’s current status. Typically there were around 8-10 women in the group. All of the music was preferred music, sung in Czech. Most of the music was traditional Czech music, however, sometimes the women requested older pop songs (such as the Beatles and the Eagles), which were translated to Czech. Typically sessions started with an opening check-in, group improvisation, active music making with song discussion, and a closing. Sometimes the women requested more expressive arts experiences with drawing and painting to music. During the check-in and active music making, the psychologist did not usually need to interpret much of what was happening, only the occasional phrase here or there. However, during song discussions, she did. When we began, I was very concerned that this would slow down discussions and the pacing of the sessions. The interpreting could have really interrupted the natural flow of the conversation among the clients and stalled momentum on discussions. However, what we realized was that the lag time actually provided more space between clients so that more had time to think about their contributions and had time to add to the discussion. In this way, the interpreting helped to serve a role of building relationships between the group and myself and among group members. It slowed down the session pacing so that more people could participate.

The psychologist and I co-treated as equals. We had a strong rapport that was built over meeting together for informal meals and concerts prior to working together. We also communicated frequently via email and prior to and after each session. This working relationship was a critical piece in terms of making the sessions run smoothly and of benefiting the women in the group.

The other sessions that I co-treated with another psychologist were for men and women with mood disorders. This group was quite different than the group of women with schizophrenia. First, I only worked with this group for a little over three months and the members were not always consistent. The psychologist running the group was intrigued with the sessions that the women with schizophrenia were experiencing and also wanted music therapy sessions for her clients. This psychologist was not a trained musician. She enjoyed music, but did not personally understand music’s effects to the same degree as the first psychologist. The other aspect of this group was its size. Typically there were 15-20 people in the group and it was challenging to run a true therapeutic session with a group this size. Most of the experiences focused on stress management, relaxation, and coping skills addressed through music. Due to the group size and the style of the sessions, the psychologist was not as quick to interpret what the clients said. She would often respond and I would sometimes be out of the loop. Additionally, the sessions were more surface level work and so the interpreting served more as a carrier of information than of building relationships between the clients and myself. It was a much more functional role. I did try to develop rapport with this psychologist, but it was not as possible as with the first psychologist.

While only based on my own personal, anecdotal evidence, having an interpreter as co-therapist does have some great benefits for the clients. There is the potential for the clients to engage more with the music therapy sessions and have more time to process the experiences. If the relationship is strong between the music therapist and the co-therapist/interpreter, the clients benefit from the co-treatment. It is essential though that the roles be determined and that lines of communication are open, strong, and frequent. Otherwise, the music therapist only serves as an auxiliary role to the therapy that the psychologist is already implementing.

Interpreter in a supportive role. For my PhD research, I worked with Mexican farmworkers who often reported high levels of anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Since my Spanish was quite strong (high school Spanish, four semesters in college, a month of additional emersion training in Honduras, plus frequent use), I felt moderately comfortable running sessions in Spanish. However, since I was a lone female working with groups of men in their homes, I felt that it was important to have a research assistant/interpreter with me. Over the course of two years, I hired eight interpreters, six of whom I would work with again. One I worked with for only one week, as his Spanish was worse than mine (I should have checked prior to hiring him). The other was actually a friend from Mexico who was much too formal in his role with the farmworkers. It felt like he was creating some type of hierarchy over the participants and this was really challenging to talk about with him. It made for very awkward sessions. The other six were all college graduates who had majored in Spanish and had lived in more than one Spanish-speaking country over the course of their lives or while in school. Three were male, and three were female. In addition, two of the six were also excellent guitar players, an added bonus. In all cases, the interpreters were trained in regard to research ethics, confidentiality, and procedures for working with this population. None of them at any time served in a therapeutic capacity, but rather in a supportive role.

Sessions were held once a week at each camp (a total of 10 camps over two years) for an average of eight weeks. All songs were client-requested songs, typically regionally based Mexican music. Sessions included an opening, instrument learning (guitar, accordion, or keyboard), improvisation, and song discussion.

The research assistants/interpreters were very helpful in assisting with data collection, rapport building, and creating a positive atmosphere with the farmworkers during sessions. They probably interpreted about 25% of the verbal exchanges between the farmworkers and myself.. It was helpful to have them in the sessions just in case I needed help with idioms or other issues. Their most important role though was to assist with rapport building and creating a positive atmosphere. They were each genuinely interested in the farmworkers and their experiences. They all had visited Mexico (one had even grown up there) and took a genuine interest in the personal challenges of people from Mexico and the political issues that are often a part of the discussions around migrant workers. They earnestly wanted to help them in any way they could and also enjoyed their time getting to know them. In many ways it was a mutually beneficial relationship. The interpreters may not have been able to fully understand the farmworker perspective from a cultural standpoint; however, they showed such care and respect for them that these traits seemed more important in many ways. Relationships are a critical piece of working with this population in particular, especially relationships that take into consideration Mexican cultural traditions. These include: “(a) dignidad and respeto-dignity and respect are highly valued, (b) personalismo-the importance of personal relationships, (c) machismo-the man’s responsibility to care for his family, (d) familismo-the value of the whole family” (Schwantes, 2011, p. 18). While I ultimately planned and led sessions, the interpreters added to what was going on during the sessions without overstepping their boundaries. We spent many hours together driving from home to home that enhanced our relationships and assisted us in working together so well.

While this example may not be relevant to everyone, it is useful to describe in terms of choosing the right person for interpreting. While I had originally thought that my friend from Mexico would have been the best fit, it turned out that he was not. There may have been cultural issues that I could not understand or it may have simply been a personal issue. It may also have been that I understood the other interpreters’ life experiences, as they were similar to my own. Perhaps I was not as open as I could have been. However, based on what the farmworkers shared with us and independently with my colleagues, they let us know that the relationships were really important. They valued our work with them. I have to think that this was in part due to the fact that the interpreters were genuinely interested in their well-being.

Strict interpreter. I have only used a strict interpreter for a short series of bereavement sessions with Mexican farmworkers who had lost two of their colleagues in a terrible van accident (Schwantes et al., 2011). Due to upcoming migration back to Mexico for the Christmas season, we could only schedule four sessions to discuss this traumatic experience and to process their grief. Thus, it felt essential to me that we have an interpreter there at all times to assist me with handling any language issues. I did not want to make any mistakes or assumptions. The farmworkers took part in four sessions centered around songwriting about their traumatic experience and the lives of their friends.

The interpreter that I used for this experience was someone I had worked with previously (one of the guitar-playing interpreters mentioned above) and I knew that he would be able to handle any strong emotions or descriptions that the men discussed. He also understood the value of music therapy and what it meant for the farmworkers. Since I had worked with him quite extensively, we did not need to take time to build rapport or discuss ways of working. He understood his role in the sessions and played a supportive role during the quick, but intense music therapy process. He was from the United States, but as a child had spent many years growing up in Mexico. His Spanish was perfect. However, more important was his ability to form bonds with the farmworkers without excluding me. He served as an essential bridge between the clients and me in the same way that music did. To that extent, it could be argued that having those two roads between the clients and the music therapist was essential to creating a supportive atmosphere, especially when working in grief and trauma.

No interpreter. While not the most ideal situation, I have worked with the farmworkers without an interpreter. Sessions ran fairly well, but I know that I did not understand and could not communicate as fully with the farmworkers when discussing lyrics and in songwriting. I am sure that I missed some important elements. In this way, it would be similar to showing up to a music therapy session with laryngitis. While it is possible to still create some music, not being able to sing or hum during sessions could be a great barrier to really creating music and connecting with a client. Typically these sessions occurred when an interpreter/research assistant was absent.


To conclude, I will provide some overall guidelines to consider when choosing an interpreter. Regardless of the cultural background of the interpreter, these suggestions and ideas can help in forming a valuable relationship that will enhance your work with your clients.

  1. Whenever possible, get to know your interpreter: while this is not always possible, particularly in any crisis situations, knowing your interpreter can assist in providing the best possible music therapy services for the clients. Find out about their lives, their families, and develop a strong working relationship with them. Spending time developing this relationship is equal to practicing the music needed for a music therapy session.
  2. Make sure your interpreter understands confidentiality: Sometimes in small, close-knit communities, it could be easy for interpreters to talk about what happens in the session at home. Make sure the interpreter understands that confidentiality is extremely important to the working relationship with the client. This may require cultural negotiations (especially if the community really cares about the clients). However, it is an aspect of working within the therapeutic environment that should be discussed.
  3. Encourage your interpreter to musically participate when appropriate: If your interpreter is able, ask him or her to musically join in by singing, playing an instrument, or providing another supportive musical role. While it would be inappropriate for the interpreter to use the session for their own benefit, having him/her participate musically is one way of further engaging in the group.
  4. Assess your interpreter’s skills, or get recommendations: If you are unsure of the language abilities of your interpreter, ask someone who can help. All professional interpreters will have qualifications and will have to have passed certain interpreting tests. However, if it is a more informal interpreting arrangement, make sure the interpreter is accurately interpreting what is being said.
  5. Set professional boundaries when needed: this may be necessary when the interpreter is not interpreting everything spoken by the client or the music therapist. Zharinova-Sanderson (2004) discussed this issue in her work with a refugee in Berlin. Make sure it is clear who is facilitating the therapeutic environment. The interpreter may have knowledge and understanding about the situation, but it is important that the music therapist remains in that loop of communication and understanding.

Working outside of one’s own culture is incredibly rewarding and at the same time very challenging. Working bilingually would be ideal; however, it is not always possible. Therefore choosing and working with the best interpreter is an essential part of the music therapy process. It may not be possible to do long-term, deep music psychotherapy with an interpreter, however, there is still the possibility of improving overall wellness for our clients through music therapy. If you have other suggestions, ideas, or experiences to share, it would be great to have a dialogue about this process. I look forward to hearing from you!


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Schwantes, M. (2011). Music therapy’s effects on Mexican migrant farmworkers’ levels of depression, anxiety and social isolation: A mixed methods randomized controlled trial utilizing participatory action research. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.

Zharinova-Sanderson, O. (2004). Promoting integration and socio-cultural change: Community music therapy with traumatized refugees in Berlin. In M. Pavlicevic & G. Andsell (Eds.), Community music therapy (pp. 358-387). London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.