Telephone interpreter working remotely at desk.

What Are Phone Interpreter Services and Why You Might Need Them

Female telephone interpreter sitting at a desk. She's looking down and taking notes while interpreting over the phone.

Phone interpreter services are a way for non-English-speaking individuals to communicate with English-speaking third parties (the gas company, healthcare system, etc.) using an interpreter accessed over the phone. 

The non-English speaker and the individual with whom they want to communicate can either be in the same location or not. The phone interpreter, however, is always remote, and can be located in the same city, across the U.S., or even a different country. 

The third party will call an interpretation company that offers telephone interpreting services and ask for an interpreter in the language their customer speaks. When connected, the interpreter will facilitate the conversation between the non-English speaker and the 3rd-party representative.

Now that you know what phone interpreter services are, let’s look at a few reasons why you would need to use them.

When language services are required by law

While phone interpreters themselves aren’t required by law, in several sectors, interpreting services are.  

Organizations that accept federal funding — like hospitals, insurance companies that service Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, court systems, and educational institutions, for example — cannot discriminate against individuals based on national origin. National origin covers where an individual is born, where they are from, their culture, their ancestry, and/or their language or linguistic characteristics. 

Federally funded entities usually serve a large portion of limited English proficient (LEP) individuals, making phone interpreters appealing. Telephone interpreters can be a cost-effective and efficient option versus on-site interpreters in certain cases. 

And don’t forget state laws!

States also have laws that govern equal access to services by those who don’t speak English. In some cases, like in California, language access laws are even more comprehensive than federal requirements.

Related: 8 Reasons You Need Language Services for Your Business

When you have a lot of volume … no, a little volume

Telephone interpreting services benefit businesses that service a large number of limited English speakers, but they can also benefit businesses that see only a few requests as well.

That’s because, unlike on-site interpreting, phone interpreting services are billed by the minute, so you only pay for the actual interpreting minutes you use. On-site contract interpreters usually have a higher price tag because, in addition to their hourly rate, they charge minimums. (The standard is 2 hours.) 

So if your organization only needs an interpreter every so often, telephone interpreting can be friendlier to your bottom line. 

To augment your on-site or employee interpreters 

Call centers, for example, hire bilingual agents to answer customer questions. It’s not practical or profitable for them to hire agents that speak every language their customers speak, so they usually only hire bilingual individuals to fill positions in their top language(s), most commonly Spanish. 

But what happens when they get a surge of calls from Spanish-speaking customers? Or calls start coming in from people who speak Russian, Hmong, or Burmese?

OPI interpreters give businesses the option to scale to meet demand in languages they offer in house, as well as open the door for businesses to assist customers who speak almost any language. Many remote interpretation companies offer phone interpreters in 200+ languages, 24/7/365.

To ease frustration and confusion

If you’ve ever communicated with someone who doesn’t speak your language (nor you theirs), you know how fast an awkward moment can turn catastrophic — especially in an emergency.

Not only are phone interpreter services quick to access, they also can help you and your staff avoid the frustration and confusion that arises when a language barrier is present. There’s a time and place for your staff member to practice their intermediate German skills, and it’s not on the job (trust us on this one). 

Phone interpreting services aren’t best for everything

We hope you have a better idea of what OPI services are and how you can use them in your own business or organization. While broad adoption of on-demand telephone interpreting makes services for non-English speakers, it’s not the best fit for every situation. Think certain healthcare environments, for individuals who are hard of hearing or speaking, or when there are multiple people present, to name a few.

That’s why we recommend assessing each type of interpreting service against your needs and, if necessary, adopting a multi-modality approach (i.e., a mix of telephone, on-site, and/or even video remote interpreting services).

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