Friend Wants Me to Interpret at Immigration Interview: What's Involved?

How a nonprofessional can prepare to translate to and from English at an immigration-related interview.

Question

A friend of mine whose English isn’t very good asked me to serve as an interpreter at her green card interview. I wouldn’t charge her money for it—this isn’t something I do professionally. But I don’t want to mess things up, either. What should I know about my job at this interview?

Answer

Kudos to you for your willingness to volunteer for this—you will be performing an important function for your friend. And while many people who aren’t professionals act as interpreters in USCIS interviews, you will definitely make everyone, yourself included, more comfortable by learning what to expect.

For more detailed information, see the USCIS Policy Memo on this topic.

Make sure you are eligible to serve as interpreter before USCIS

First, make sure you meet the basic standards. You must be age 18 or over and not be a witness in the case or the applicant’s attorney or legal representative. You must also be unbiased. In other words, if you were not just a friend, but an actual family member who stood to benefit from the person’s grant of immigration status, the USCIS officer might refuse to let you serve.

Of course, even a friend can be biased. So if, during the interview, the officer senses that you are perhaps trying to fix or improve the applicant’s answers, you could find yourself dismissed.

Be sure you are competent in both languages

USCIS standards require that you be fluent in both English and in the interviewee’s language, and able to interpret competently between the two. This doesn’t mean that you can generally understand what someone is saying in each language and give a summary of it—it means that you must be capable of interpreting literally, word for word, exactly what is said. For example, if your friend says, “I was born in Ghana,” you must NOT change it to, “She says her birthplace is Ghana.”

Obviously there is an art to interpreting. An exactly equivalent word or way of phrasing something may not always be available. But you cannot just summarize or give a broad sense of what the person said. And you certainly can’t add your own opinion or spin regarding what your friend is saying, or means to say.

You must speak smoothly, easily, and accurately, without difficulty or great effort, in both English and your friend’s language.

What’s more, you won’t be allowed to have any back and forth conversation with your friend. So if, for example, she says something you don’t understand, you can’t just turn to her and say things like, “What was that? Did you mean such and such? Are you sure about that date?”

Instead, you will need to turn to the officer and say something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that last sentence,” or “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the end of that,” and “May I ask her to repeat it or say it in a different way?”

Similarly, if your friend has trouble understanding you, she should not tell that to you directly, but direct a concern or question to the officer.

Of course, if you don’t understand or didn’t catch something the officer said, you may ask him or her to rephrase or repeat it, or for the officer to speak more slowly.

Understand the seriousness of the role you’re playing

We don’t wish to make you nervous, but there’s a lot at stake here. Your friend is applying for an immigration benefit, and there are very few “do overs” possible. If the USCIS officer gets the wrong idea about your friend’s testimony, or decides in the course of the interview that something is fishy and your friend is not credible (believable) it could permanently ruin her chances of obtaining the sought-after immigration benefit.

You will need to remain calm and not react to anything going on—you are just a facilitator.

Also realize that you may be hearing some deeply personal information that your friend has never revealed to you before—and you will be duty bound to not reveal it to others.

To emphasize your duty, the USCIS officer at the interview will ask you and your friend to sign a Form G-1256, Declaration for Interpreted USCIS Interview. You will need to actually translate the form to your friend before or at the interview. (But don’t sign it until you’re in the officer’s presence.)

Be ready to be active throughout the interview

For the sake of mutual understanding, and so that you don’t have to memorize too much before interpreting it, you will need to step in every few sentences—whether they are spoken by the USCIS officer or your friend--and interpret for the other person.

This will be difficult for the speakers, who are no doubt used to speaking in longer stretches. You may have to wave your hand or actually ask that the person stop in order to do your job. Practicing with your friend first might be a good idea.

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