Resisting the Urge to Help

When you think of an interpreter, most people think of someone that facilitates communication.  Although that is true, it is important to understand what interpreters should and should not do.

Imagine this scenario.  A highly educated doctor is asking a series of questions to his patient that speaks little to no English.  The doctor uses very advanced vocabulary.  The interpreter knows full well that the patient will not understand the medical terminology.  What should the interpreter do?  Should he interpret faithfully what the doctor said to the confusion of the patient? Or should he interpret it in a simplified way in order to help the patient understand?

If you chose the second option, that would be a big mistake.  But why, you might ask; isn’t the function of the interpreter to help people understand?  No, it isn’t.  What if the doctor was purposely using advanced vocabulary in order to access the educational level of his patient?  By simplifying the meaning, the interpreter could actually interfere with the doctor’s evaluation, causing him to make a misjudgment.

The interpreter must transmit faithfully what the speaker is saying, even if it means that the information won’t be clearly understood.  Think about it, in any normal conversation between two people that speak the same language, people often don’t understand the vocabulary of others.  If someone tells me something that I don’t understand, I will usually tell him to please repeat it in words I can understand.

If the patient doesn’t understand, he will most likely indicate same to the interpreter.  Trust me; the advanced speaker won’t be surprised by it.  This will be his opportunity to simplify and perhaps even draw a picture.  It may have been what the doctor wanted to do all along anyway.  In the end, despite some confusion, the interpreter will have facilitated clear communication.

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1 thought on “Resisting the Urge to Help”

  1. If you can get your hands on a recent article by Claudia Angelelli “Can you ask her about illnesses and all that” I think you’d appreciate it. I agree with you of course, but it is also a responsibility of the medical professional, and they are often surprisingly unused to and untrained in using an interpreter.

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