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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

Building Relationships with Families through Interpreters: What we Can Learn from Marie Kondo

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Lately I’ve been watching "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo." I find this show quite enjoyable and it isn’t because everything ends up nice and tidy. I love watching it because it provides an excellent example of how to communicate via an interpreter! Even more, it’s a wonderful example of how to build a relationship with someone even if communicating through an interpreter.

Have you ever really paid much attention to the interpreter on the show? Most people would say “no” and this is how it’s supposed to be! Marie smiles and giggles with the individuals she’s helping and clearly forms a bond with them by the end of the show. One almost doesn’t even notice there isn’t a common language.

When one uses a trained interpreter and has also been trained on how to work with the interpreter, the communication goes smoothly. And more importantly, it allows for a relationship to build between the two people communicating and keeps the interpreter out of it!

In fact, Marie's interpreter has said "During the production, I try to not talk too much to the families because I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted it to be very much about the connection between the family and Marie. That was really important to me. As an interpreter, you’re doing a great job if people forget that you’re there."

Let’s look at some of the things Marie Kondo and her interpreter do that facilitates relationship building:

  • Marie Kondo speaks directly to the individuals she’s helping. For example she says in Japanese “What do you do for a living?” She does NOT look at the interpreter and say “ask him what he does for a living.”

  • Marie Kondo looks directly at the individuals she’s working with while she’s talking to them (and not at the interpreter).

  • When the interpreter repeats back what Marie Kondo says in English, she uses first person. For example, she says “I’m getting a vision” instead of saying “Marie said she’s getting a vision.”

  • The interpreter positions herself behind Marie Kondo and almost seems like a parrot on her shoulder, repeating her message in English. She is inconspicuous.

So how does all of this translate (no pun intended!) to schools? School districts are required to communicate with parents in a language they understand and this necessitates using interpreters and translators. Let us clarify this terminology before we move on because so often it is used incorrectly. Interpretation is oral and translation is written. For example, if you have an Arabic speaking parent who is coming to a parent teacher conference, you need an Arabic interpreter (not a translator!).

If we think about family engagement, it is all about relationship building. It is not about parent nights or other events – it’s the process of building two-way relationships with families throughout the school year. Therefore, if we think about the lessons learned from Marie Kondo, we know that having trained interpreters – and training staff who use the interpreters – is crucial to engaging families.

All too often, I’ve observed parents forming relationships with whoever is interpreting and if the interpreter isn’t clear on their role, sometimes their relationship morphs into something else. This is particularly problematic because good family engagement requires relationships between parents and teachers, counselors, administrators, and so on – not just a relationship with the one or two bilingual staff at the school. (Note: sometimes bilingual parent liaisons are also tasked with interpretation and translation duties, which is fine as long as they are clear on which “hat” they are wearing for each situation.)

Ultimately, the issue is that too many schools do not used trained interpreters, despite that fact that it is federal law. They grab whoever is bilingual and walking by and this is simply inappropriate. The 2015 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education / Department of Justice states:

  • Schools must provide translation or interpretation from appropriate and competent individuals and may not rely on or ask students, siblings, friends, or untrained school staff to translate or interpret for parents.

  • It is not sufficient for the staff merely to be bilingual. For example, a staff member who is bilingual may be able to communicate directly with limited English proficient parents in a different language, but may not be competent to interpret in and out of that language, or to translate documents.

There are many other aspects of interpretation and translation to get into, but I find this to be the most important one because it is so crucial to family engagement! In conclusion, you must think through the interpretation piece carefully - otherwise you are likely sabotaging your family engagement efforts.


  • This is an excellent, short video anyone can watch to learn about how to work with an interpreter

  • Cross Cultural Communications: this national organization provides training for interpreters, including interpreters who work in school settings

  • SeSo Inc: this organization focuses on training interpreters in schools

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