Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Night as Medical Interpreter - Conclusion

Continued from October 17. Please read this series in the correct order, starting at October 11.

My reflections on the experience.

1. I did it. Not much of it, but enough to let me feel how it feels. Actually my wife, who has no training as an interpreter, also did some of it at Cullera.

2. We’ve seen two kinds of medical interpreting in this mini-series. There’s a regulated, neutral, keep-your-distance, cut-and-dried kind in which the interpreter is assigned by an organisation, interprets for a limited time and then disengages and moves on to another assignment. That’s the kind reflected in the Australian paper. Then there’s a kind where the interpreter accompanies the patient for as long as necessary, adds information when it can be useful and does more than just translate. In G.’s case, I wasn’t only his language interpreter, I was his mediator with the bureaucracy and ‘interpreter’ (in another sense) to the doctors.

3. Interpreting for patients who are mentally ill is different from doing so for those who are physically impaired. The mental patient’s discourse may be part of the disease. It may be incoherent; or it may, as in G.’s case, mask the problem. The interpreter becomes a collaborator and an explainer.

4. The interpreter is at an advantage if he or she knows the patient’s medical history and current state of health. Interpreters are always at an advantage if they have background knowledge, whatever the mode of interpretation. This is something that laymen don’t understand; they think language proficiency is everything. But as one of my mentors, a seasoned conference interpreter, used to say, “Half the battle is knowing what they’re talking abut.” Court and legal interpreters ought to be provided with a copy of the case summary (called the factum in Canadian law) but they rarely are. Medical interpreters should likewise be briefed with a case summary. In G.’s case, I enjoyed an immense advantage by knowing what was wrong with him and I couldn’t have been so useful otherwise.

5. Lionel Dersot, in his comment on the previous post, rightly says that there’s information which the interpreter mustn't withhold. However, when supplying information, interpreters must make it clear what it is that they know personally and what's only hearsay. G.’s heavy drinking was something I’d witnessed myself; but when I told the doctors about the tests he’d undergone in England and the possible cause of his affliction, I was careful to say that I’d only heard about it from his wife.

6. You can't be squeamish. In my case it went no further than watching the security guards tie G. down to the bed. ("Sometimes we have to do it to old people," one of them said to me.) But there are also accident sites, battlefields, deathbeds, even operating theatres.

7. The doctrine of Protection of Personal Data is sometimes enforced ad absurdum. When I phoned the hospital at Alzira, all I wanted to know was whether G. was still there and whether he was improving.

6. Although Professional Expert Medical Interpreting will spread, aided by video-conferencing, there will always be places and circumstances where medical interpreting has to be done by Native and even Natural Interpreters.


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  2. I can relate to this very much. Being a medical interpreter is never easy and will never be.
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  3. Good info, many thank you to the author. It is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the particular usefulness and importance is overpowering. Thanks again and good luck!

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