Should I Use My Bilingual Staff for My Safety Training? by Omar Lopez CHST OSHA 500

Published: April 26, 2021

The short answer is NO. Many reasons make this an easy question to answer. First, let’s make sure we understand the differences between a bilingual employee and a professional interpreter.  A bilingual employee is a person who works for you and has some degree of proficiency in two languages. A professional interpreter is someone who has been assessed for professional skills, demonstrates a high level of proficiency in at least two languages, and has the appropriate training and experience to interpret.

Very important to understand that one thing is a translator, and a totally different subject is an interpreter. You translate a text or a written document; An interpreter speaks the message in another language.

Professional interpreters can interpret with skill and accuracy while adhering to high ethics and confidentiality.

Using Employees as Interpreters Can Make Things Worse

It has been my experience as a safety consultant for over 20 years; I have found documents, PowerPoint Presentations, Safety Flyers, and communications that make no sense in Spanish or gives a totally different message.

Also, I have witnessed bilingual employees’ interpretations; The message of the interpretation is way off the real meaning. Most of the time the bilingual employee did not get the entire message from the speaker and just makeup things or add comments to supplement.

I am a native of a Spanish-speaking country who moved to the USA at the age of 20 years old. And I have been speaking English for another 20 years went to college in both countries.

Also, to understand that you must be a subject matter expert or have some knowledge to understand what you are talking about; There are so many technical terms in different fields that not even in your own language you could understand.

If you rarely need to hire a professional translator or interpreter, how do you evaluate the candidates?  The United States government developed a grading system a few years ago with five levels of competency. Only people who reach level five should be considered. The top three levels have these requirements:

Level 3:
  •  Able to translate texts on unfamiliar subjects
  •  Translating ability doesn’t depend on subject knowledge
  •  Mistranslations/interpretation errors are rare
Level 4:
  •  Able to translate fluently and accurately in all styles and forms
  •  Can translate and interpret with a precise and extensive  vocabulary
  •  Understands almost all socio-linguistic and cultural references
Level 5:
  •  Can translate extremely difficult and abstract texts (legal,  technical, etc.)
  •  Can translate or interpret the unusual like colloquial texts and  literary prose
  •  Able to translate/interpret a wide variety of vocabulary and  idioms, colloquialisms, slang, and cultural references
  •  Understands how native speakers use the language


In summary, translation and interpreter services are specialized career fields.

They may require a professional to invest upwards of ten years of study in the second language. The demands of the job require highly specialized and sophisticated language skills. An employee who is bilingual has only one qualification. Because of the professional demands and high stakes, bilingual staff members who wish to act as translators or interpreters should be professionally trained.