Healthcare In-Person Interpreting

Could Faulty Interpretation be Hazardous to Your Health?

April 5, 2012
Medical interpreting session

Healthcare interpreting session

Nadesha Mijoba runs her own consulting firm promoting organizational change through cultural and linguistic competence.  She’s also a trained interpreter and a trainer of medical interpreters with over 20 years of experience.

One day Nadesha felt so ill that she had to be rushed to a hospital emergency room. As she lay in bed, she heard the English-speaking medical staff unable to communicate with the Spanish-speaking patient next to her. Their solution was to “Just call so-and-so upstairs. She knows Spanish.”

When the well-meaning worker arrived and began interpreting, Nadesha realized the woman was providing about 75 percent of what was being said and of that about 70 percent of the interpretation was correct.  Imagine that. You’re in the emergency room needing expert medical attention but you only receive 75% of what the medical staff is telling you and with lots of errors. It’s terrible for the patient and for the hospital.

It’s frustrating when people think that just because someone can speak a little of a foreign language they can automatically serve as an interpreter. Nadesha says even someone who has the appropriate vocabulary in English may not be language proficiency in the target language for interpretation purposes.

Why is that? You must know more than just the words.  As Nadesha says, “you are simply a walking dictionary.”  You must also know how the words are used in context.

Trained interpreters like Nadesha find professional ways to inform the speaker when they think the speaker might need to rephrase something.  For example, a doctor may tell a mother from another culture or country to give her child a teaspoon of a medication. But the patient might not know that a teaspoon is a specific amount of medicine. The patient may use a teaspoon available at home which may be bigger than the average teaspoon, thus potentially overdosing the child.  Should we be taking these risks?

Yes, interpreters work with language. But they also must know culture.  Think about a doctor who tells a poor patient to take his medication with meals three times a day. What if that patient is Muslim and it’s the season of Ramadan so this devout Muslim isn’t eating until sunset each day.  Or what if the patient normally eats two meals a day or one?

There’s so much more to interpreting than what appears on the surface.  And in the medical field, interpretation can mean the difference between life and death.

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