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Page URL: https://practice.orangatamariki.govt.nz/our-work/assessment-and-planning/assessments/intake-and-early-assessment/interpreters-when-english-is-not-the-first-or-preferred-language/
Printed: 26/04/2024
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Last updated: 18/07/2023

Interpreters when English is not the first or preferred language

We support the use of interpreter and translation services when English is not the first or preferred language of te tamaiti or rangatahi or their whānau or family. If anyone is Deaf, a sign language interpreter may be required.

Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.


An interpreter is someone who translates what someone is saying into another language.

Translation is the process of changing something that is written or spoken into another language – however, in this guidance, it only refers to the translation of written content.

Advocacy involves listening, empowering tamariki or rangatahi and their whānau or family by helping to represent their views, supporting them, and protecting their rights so that they can influence decisions that affect them.

Whakamana te tamaiti or rangatahi through advocacy

Advocacy for parents and whānau or family

Tamariki and rangatahi and their whānau or family may also require interpretation and support if they have:

  • a hearing or visual impairment
  • a disability that impairs speech
  • learning difficulties
  • a specific language or communication disorder
  • severe emotional and behavioural difficulties
  • a primary form of communication that is not speech.

When working with tamariki and rangatahi and their whānau or family with these communication challenges, we consult with our regional disability advisor and the Needs Assessment and Coordination Service (NASC) to find the appropriate help.

Assessment of needs relating to any disability

Discrimination and oppression is part of the history of many whānau or families who come in contact with Oranga Tamariki and it is important they have a voice and understand the information they are being given and asked to make decisions about.

Ngākau whakairo – rights, values and professional obligations

We are required to ensure that tamariki and rangatahi are encouraged and supported, wherever practical, to participate in any proceeding, process or decision affecting them.

Interpreters – section 9 of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989

Method of providing information and explanation – regulation 68 of the Oranga Tamariki (National Care Standards and Related Matters) Regulations 2018

Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child | United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner

Practice standard: See and engage tamariki

Practice standard: See and engage whānau, wider family, caregivers and when appropriate victims of offending by tamariki

Youth justice offenders and victims and their whānau or family are also entitled to an interpreter if English is not their first or preferred language.

Tamariki and rangatahi are encouraged and assisted, wherever practicable, to participate in and express their views about any proceeding, process or decision affecting them, and their views should be taken into account. We have a duty under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 to ensure that interpretation services are provided in certain circumstances, and the National Care Standards require us to provide information and explanation to tamariki and rangatahi.

Interpreters – section 9 of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989

Explaining rights and entitlements to tamariki and rangatahi

Practice standards

Whai mātauranga – the pursuit of knowledge and understanding

Effective communication is central to relational, inclusive and restorative practice. As Aotearoa New Zealand becomes increasingly culturally diverse, interpreting and translation services help us communicate, build understanding and secure people full access to their rights.

It is the social worker's responsibility to establish the safety of tamariki and rangatahi and ensure that they and their whānau or family receive the services they are entitled to. It is the interpreter's responsibility to interpret the questions and answers, and not form a view.

Use trained interpreters and translators

We use trained interpreters because they have the skills, knowledge, ethical framework and experience to interpret highly sensitive matters, including specialist social work language. They understand they must interpret what is being said accurately without bringing in any view or bias of their own.

Take the time to:

  • consult with the right people about appropriate interpreters – kairaranga ā-whānau and refugee and migrant services are valuable resources to consult with (there is a list of interpreter providers below)
  • work with the interpreter to prepare for the session, outlining the concerns we will be talking about with the whānau or family and any specialist terminology that might be used.

Use translation services to ensure documentation, such as an assessment or court report, is in the right language and, if necessary, use an interpreter to explain what is contained in the documents.

If te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family request interpretation or translation support, we should provide it but we should also be proactive in encouraging whānau or families to consider this when we work with them.

Interpreter providers

Oranga Tamariki does not have any nationally contracted interpreting services. The following agencies provide interpreting services:

Interpreting New Zealand

A2Z Translate    

Te Reo Māori translators and interpreters | Te Taura Whiri  

Book an interpreter | iSign Deaf Aotearoa

Centre for Pacific Languages

Pacific International Translations – PACTRANZ

Interpreting and translation service | Te Whatu Ora Counties Manukau


If a decision is made to allocate an Oranga Tamariki social worker who speaks the language of te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family, the use of an interpreter should still be offered and the whānau or family can decide if they want or need someone to assist. It is important we:

  • explain to the whānau or family how the interpreter will maintain confidentiality and interpret without including their own views or biases
  • check with the whānau or family about the use of the particular interpreter – if they are not comfortable, we find another interpreter.

The following people should not provide interpretation services for our mahi:

  • tamariki and rangatahi – relational practice means respecting that it is not appropriate to ask a tamaiti or rangatahi to interpret for their whānau or family or parents because it risks crossing parent–child dynamics, involves te tamaiti or rangatahi in adult conversations, and potentially puts them at risk, depending on the information being interpreted
  • whānau or family members or friends of te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family – if they want to have someone from the whānau or family there as a support person, this should be as well as, and not instead of, an interpreter (international serious case reviews have highlighted the importance of professional interpreters and have criticised the use of family interpreters, particularly in cases where they have prevented opportunities for intervention and support by restricting information, whether intentionally or unintentionally).

The use of other kaimahi should be discussed with the individual kaimahi and we should not assume they will want this role. However, in some communities, especially Pacific, this is a service kaimahi can provide to their community and some have discrete roles in this area in their community.

It is also important to discuss who the interpreter will be with the whānau or family to ensure they are comfortable with the use of kaimahi.

Do not use Google translate or other internet options. These are not always accurate.

Using an interpreter – things to be aware of

The history of the particular refugee population is important when selecting an appropriate interpreter – for example, who were the population persecuted by and why are the now refugees seeking a new home? Seek advice from local refugee and migrant services as well as the interpreter services. Considerations include the following:

  • Issues of collusion and accuracy have been identified when untrained interpreters have been used in public services, resulting in errors and compromised information sharing.
  • Concerns can come from different world views and should be explored carefully.
  • People may be more proficient in speaking than writing and may prefer to speak in certain languages in particular circumstances – for example, some languages have both formal and informal use, depending on the people involved and the circumstances.
  • Language proficiency may vary within a household – for example, migrant children often have a greater ability to speak English than their parents.
  • Not all cultures have a written language – for example, Rohingya have an oral language.
  • There are variations in sign language for the Deaf across countries and languages. We should discuss this with the provider when we are arranging an interpreter.
  • Be aware of the additional needs of Takatāpui and rainbow youth and any whānau or family dynamics that may be involved. Consult with the right advisors and support kaimahi.

Whai oranga – the pursuit of wellbeing

Interpreters support kaimahi to stay focused on te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau and family. This means we can check a whānau or family's understanding of what we are working on with them.  

It can be exhausting translating and keeping a focus on oranga – be mindful of how long conversations go for and offer opportunities to take breaks.

For a whānau or family, having an interpreter can make them feel safer and supported.

For te tamaiti or rangatahi to achieve their aspirations for oranga, the whānau or family need to understand the concerns held for their tamaiti or rangatahi. If the whānau or family is whānau Māori, Pacific or from another ethnicity, they may not feel comfortable or confident to speak or fully understand English.

Ensuring that services are provided in a suitable format that facilitates communication recognises that people's language, history, culture, traditions and religion are important.

Interpreting is different from cultural consultation. We use cultural advisors when we need to understand the different cultural norms, expectations and practices of an ethnic or different group of people from another country or society. Interpreting is the ability to understand one language and translate it into another.

Whai pūkenga – the pursuit of practice skills

Just as Oranga Tamariki social workers are qualified and registered professionals, so are the interpreters we use. Using an interpreter helps minimise the risk of bias and inaccurate interpretation.

Considerations when using an interpreter

We try to understand the experiences and history of the whānau or family we are working with.

Using a language other than English to communicate in Aotearoa New Zealand does not mean they are refugees or migrants. They may be New Zealand born but belong to a community, whānau or family who use a language other than English to communicate. For example, they may use te reo Māori or sign language, which are official languages of Aotearoa New Zealand. Whānau or family may also use the language of the country or ethnic group they are from as a first language and feel uncomfortable when expected to communicate in English.

Practical considerations – prepare the interpreter

  • Preparation of the interpreter is important. Before the meeting, we should:
    • explain the context of the meeting
    • reinforce the need for confidentiality
    • ensure the interpreter understands the purpose, words used and any legal requirements or boundaries
    • take time to ensure the interpreter understands what we need from them.
  • Brief the interpreter on any particular circumstances or needs of te tamaiti or rangatahi and whānau or family members.
  • If the interpreter is being used in a family group conference or court appearance, give the whānau or family time to meet with the interpreter so they have confidence in what is happening.
  • The social worker, family group conference coordinator and interpreter need to know the whānau or family's background. For example, for some refugees and migrants, the experiences of a family from a rural setting may be very different from those who have had access to higher levels of education or who have lived in densely populated urban areas.
  • Interpreting can be offered face-to-face or through telecommunication, using a three-way phone call with the interpreter and te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family, or a video link. We prefer talking face to face but this may not be possible in emergency and urgent situations.
  • Meetings or interviews using interpreters usually take longer so we need to plan for this.

Other considerations

As Aotearoa New Zealand becomes more culturally diverse, we need to understand that not all societies support women to be as independent. Equal rights for women places expectations on society that women have a voice and rights to participation. Different ethnic and cultural groups have a diverse range of expectations of women and these views need to be respected. This does not mean condoning abuse and violence but asks that we seek to understand and allow for these differences in our work with tamariki, rangatahi, whānau and family.

  • Be very aware of cultural gender preferences. Strong patriarchal groups may be reluctant to have a female interpreter but may also not want a male who is not related speaking to female family members.
  • There are groups where the man will always speak rather than the woman. A woman's silence does not mean she is not speaking because she is fearful. It is a cultural norm for men to speak for the family in some ethnic groups. If we want to speak to a woman in this situation, we might need to seek cultural advice on how this can be done.
  • Some families may not want an interpreter from the same ethnic group when the community is small. Seek advice and explore other language options – for example, Dari (also known as Farsi or Persian) is a language of Afghanistan. The Afghanistan community is small in Aotearoa New Zealand, but Persian is also a language of Iran, offering an alternative interpreting option outside the community.
  • Social structures can also be important, and a family may not feel comfortable having an interpreter from a lower social level.
  • Clothing may also indicate someone is from a different social group to the family.
  • If we are using an iSign interpreter for a Deaf person, we should be aware that not all countries have sign language and, if they do, this may not be same as New Zealand sign language.

Refugees' experiences

Refugee tamariki, rangatahi, whānau and families are often used to talking with interpreters because of their immigration experiences, where interpreters are a normal part of interviews.

Working with whānau or family and an interpreter

  • Keep it simple.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Don't use jargon.
  • Paraphrase and ask what the whānau or family understand has been said or is happening. Check out what they think has been said using a different approach.
  • Use pictures, as appropriate.
  • Think about how we can repeat information in different ways.
  • Take time – using an interpreter takes longer and can be tiring. Check when breaks need to happen or come back tomorrow.
  • Be flexible around timing.

Whai ākona – the pursuit of best practice


  • explore our thinking when working with tamariki, rangatahi and whānau or family where English is not their first or preferred language
  • reflect on anything we might do differently in the future – what went well and what didn't go well?
  • take time to think about the impact of using an interpreter on te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family and what we as kaimahi felt and thought about what was happening
  • ask ourselves if there were challenges in this particular case that were new or different for us – this might be the language challenges but could also be because of cultural issues, for example
  • use supervision and cultural advisors to explore and reflect on our practice.