Call Center

Language Interpretation

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

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.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

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.

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.

Read more in Peter’s Sticky Series books: Sticky Leadership and Management, Sticky Sales and Marketing, and Sticky Customer Service featuring his compelling story-driven insights and tips.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry. Read his latest book, Healthcare Call Center Essentials.

By Peter Lyle DeHaan

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, publishes books about business, customer service, the call center industry, and business and writing.