Language Interpretation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

As the economy becomes more global and society becomes more ethnically diverse, differences in language become more pronounced. In some areas, where there is a heavy concentration of a particular ethnic group, it is not uncommon for call centers to effectively be bilingual. In some areas of the United States this is often manifested in a bilingual English/Spanish staff. In Canada, English and French is a typical language combination, but many others also exist.

In some cases this bilingual status comes about unintentionally, because many of those hired speak a second language. In other cases, building a bilingual staff is an intentional strategy. [See Michele Ringwood’s excellent article, “What does it mean to be a bilingual call center?“]

If a single-language call center has a client needing English and Spanish or English and French, there are many centers to which the second language can be outsourced. But what if a less common language is requested? What if the client will be receiving calls from peoples of many different tongues? This is when language interpretation services enter the picture.

First, some background: the terms “language interpretation” and “language translation” are often considered synonymous. But by definition, language interpretation applies to the spoken word, while language translation refers to the written word. When interpreting over the phone, interpreters generally don’t perform a literal word-for-word conversion, but seek to achieve meaning-for-meaning clarity. As a result, some English concepts requiring only one or two words may need several phrases to be accurately communicated in another language. The opposite is also true. As a result, non-English conversations often take longer.

Although the details are varied, language interpretation services for call centers follow the same general path. When the call center receives call in a language it doesn’t support, its agent calls a toll-free number provided by the language interpretation service. There may also be a PIN or language code to enter. The call is then routed to an available interpreter for the language requested.  In many cases, and for common languages, this agent may be working in the call center. In other instances, or for less common languages, the agent will be located elsewhere or available on demand, somewhat lengthening the call set-up time. Once the interpreter is on the line, the calling agent conferences the calling party into the conversation. With the three parties connected, the interpreter then facilitates communication between the agent and caller. The agent documents the appropriate information into a message, call, or order form.

The major language interpretation services can handle requests for more than 100 languages. This pales in comparison to the approximately 6,700 spoken languages in the world today. Fortunately, there’s little chance of receiving a call from someone who speaks one of these more obscure languages. Interestingly, the vast majority of interpretation requests are for a dozen or so common languages, including Spanish, French, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Albanian, Polish, Cantonese, and Haitian.

Although the following list is incomplete, these language interpretation companies have been used and recommended by readers of Connections Magazine: Bowne Global Solutions, Language Line Services, NetworkOmni, and Tele-Interpreters.

Bowne Global Solutions (part of Lionbridge Technologies Inc), specializes in telephonic interpretation services to call centers and other select industries. It specializes in rare languages and supports more than 200 languages. The most common languages requested (in order) are: Spanish, French, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Albanian, Polish, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, Italian, Urdu, Hmong, Hindi, Amharic, Somali, and Tigrinya.

In situations where the client might not know what language that they need, the staff is trained to help determine the language required, and then connect the client with the appropriate interpreter. Many of the interpreters are state and federally certified and are members of interpreter organizations.

Browne Global Solutions issues a toll-free number and PIN numbers to each client, allowing access to interpretation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To use the service, the client calls the toll-free number, enters the PIN number and a language code, and an interpreter is connected to the call. If needed, the call center agent may dial zero for an operator to assist in determining the language required. Pricing is based on the amount of actual connection time between the client and the interpreters.

Language Line Services,based in Monterey, Calif., began in 1982 as a volunteer organization. It was incorporated in 1984 and named Communications and Language Line. In 1989, the company was purchased by AT&T and renamed AT&T Language Line Services. It was acquired in 1999 by Providence Equity Partners, Inc. and is now known as Language Line Services.

Language Line Services provides over-the-phone interpretation for more than 140 languages using a staff of 2,000 tested and trained linguists. It offers three service options:

Subscribed Interpretation: For organizations with frequent interpretation needs.

Membership Interpretation: For organizations or individuals with intermittent, predictable interpretation needs.

Personal Interpretation: For individuals with occasional interpretation needs.

For more information contact Language Line Services at 800-752-0093 x441 or

Tele-Interpreters provides toll-free access to foreign-language telephone interpreters covering 150 languages.

Tele-Interpreters’ staff, regardless of their language, are all located in the U.S. They can be trained in specific industry terminology, are monitored daily for customer satisfaction, and required to continue professional education.

Tele-Interpreters has several pricing packages. Its month-to-month agreement is $1.89 per minute for any language, at any time; there are no minimum call durations or monthly usage requirements. There is a $99 one-time access code fee.

About 96 percent of its language interpretation requests are for 15 languages: Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, Cantonese, Armenian, Japanese, Farsi, Mandarin, Tagalog, Arabic, Cambodian, Punjabi, Taiwanese, and French.

Tele-Interpreters can be contacted at 800-811-7881 or

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.  Read more of his articles at

[From Connection MagazineApril 2003]

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