Liar, Liar. What’s an interpreter to do?

Every once in a while, I find myself interpreting for someone I’m quite sure is packing a pretty good lie. There are the common lies among undocumented workers: the purchased ID, fake names, and Social Security number. When the patient is asked his name, he pauses to remember what it is. When asked for the Social Security number, the person replies, “yeah, I have one of those but I need to find it.” Some case managers find it really disturbing, but that doesn’t really bother me. I’m used to it.


Not too long ago, a patient appeared to be about 70 years, and request was made for his birth date. He stated 1968 which tickled me. I smiled at him and said, “Wow, you are younger than me. I’m 47 years old.” Almost every time a patient is asked if he drinks any alcohol, the answer is negative. No, not even beer? “No, I don’t drink any kind of liquor, I go to church.” The same applies for tobacco; most deny smoking. In almost 10 years of medical interpreting, only two people admitted to drinking and a few to smoking.

Here is the bottom line when it comes to lying. My job description is not private detective or police officer; it is interpreter. It isn’t my place to judge whether or not someone is a chronic fibber. My function is to repeat the message. The interpreter is not the deceiver, only the messenger. When it comes to this issue, sure lying goes against my grain. I know often they are hurting themselves. Just like any compassionate person, I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.

There was one case where the person purchased a deadbeat dad ID. He was flagged by another state. As a result, his wages and workers’ compensation check were garnished for child support payments. In the end, a rather sizable portion of the lump sum he would received for his injury was also taken for child support. If he would have just been honest from the beginning and revealed his real identity, it would not have cost him so much.

Doctors need to know how to treat someone who smokes or drinks, as those activities can adversely affect recovery. When the patient experiences setbacks, he can blame no one but himself for not being forthright.

Interpreters face these internal ethical battles. The keys are to recall our code of ethics and why they exist, and that we must always stay professional.

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