Could professional medical interpreters learn from non-professionals?

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If you are a medical professional, chances are you have already worked with an interpreter. And chances are, at some point, you’ve called on a bilingual person to interpret. Due to the high demand for medical interpreting services, non-professionals are often used to fill gaps in service provision. In some countries, intercultural mediators are playing an increasingly important role. In this article, we will look at some of the reasons you should consider using professional interpreters and the role of intercultural mediators.

The benefits of using professional medical interpreters

When you work with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) patients, effective communication is vitally important. Misunderstandings can have seriously adverse impacts on your patient’s health outcomes. That’s where interpreters come in. Using an interpreter helps to ensure that your CALD patients understand important information about their healthcare. This results in better quality of care and reduced safety risks.

When time is of the essence or you’re performing a minor procedure, you may prefer to rely on a family member or bilingual colleague to interpret. In some situations, it may be simply impossible to get an interpreter on site or even via telephone or video link. However, there are many good reasons why you should use a professional interpreter to communicate with CALD patients.

Here are some of the benefits:

  • Professional training. Interpreting is about more than just being bilingual. Not only do interpreters need to be fluent in two languages; they also need to be able to recall information quickly and transfer it into the other language. Professionally trained and NAATI-certified interpreters receive training that helps them to interpret more accurately and professionally. They learn indispensable skills, such as note taking; they are taught memory recall strategies and learn how to cope with difficult situations, for example, fast talkers.
  • Better accuracy. Several studies have shown that professional interpreters make fewer mistakes than non-professional interpreters. An American study analysed segments of continuous speech and found that non-professional interpreters made errors at more than twice the rate of professional interpreters (54 per cent versus 25 per cent). Importantly, non-professional interpreters made more errors of clinical significance, such as giving the wrong information about taking medication (8 per cent for non-professional versus 3 per cent for professional interpreters).
  • Impartiality. In Australia, professional interpreters are bound by the Australia Institute of Interpreters and Translators’ (AUSIT) Code of Ethics. Impartiality is one of the important principles set out in the code. Interpreters commit to remaining unbiased in all interpreted encounters. With their understanding of both languages, interpreters have the power to withhold or distort information without the other person knowing. The is a violation of the fundamental right to truth. That’s why it is important to be able to trust that your interpreter will be impartial.

These are just some of the many reasons you should consider using the services of a professional medical interpreter. At 2M, we provide highly experienced, trained, professional NAATI-certified interpreters who have considerable experience in healthcare, and other sectors.

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However, there are also understandable reasons why clinicians may choose to use non-professionals – such as bilingual staff or family members – instead of professional interpreters. Time constraints, cost and the availability of interpreters are the major factors. And as Melinda Mann from Settlement Services International (SSI) discussed in a recent 2M Academy webinar on The Importance of Correct Communication for CALD Communities-how Interpreters and Translators can Support SSI, another important factor is that bilingual staff have thorough subject knowledge, in other words, they understand the lingo. This is true, however, as we have discussed, interpreting involves not only understanding what is said, but remembering and transferring it into another language.

The role of intercultural mediators

In some places where interpreters are not able to meet the demand for interpreting services, intercultural mediators fill the gap. In Spain’s Catalonia region, for example, rapidly growing immigrant communities have necessitated the use of a range of professionals – intercultural mediators, public health workers as well as on-site or telephone interpreters – to overcome communication difficulties in public services.

So, what does an intercultural mediator do? While an interpreter’s role is to remain impartial and facilitate communication, intercultural mediators are seen as active participants in the encounter. They actively try to bring the parties closer together, they share information and offer support or advice. In Catalonia, intercultural mediators are commonly used and recognised as professionals. However, they usually offer their services out of solidarity, either voluntarily or for a small fee.

Intercultural mediators are not only communication facilitators; they are also advocates, and they are receiving increasing recognition in Europe. The Belgian health department has even promoted the professionalisation of intercultural mediation and has published a Guide for Intercultural Mediation in Health Care. In the guide, they provide real-world examples of how intercultural mediation can help to reduce the negative consequences of linguistic and cultural barriers through cultural brokerage, which can be understood as managing cultural differences.

An example: a Moroccan father says that a jinn is the cause of his son’s epileptic seizures. The Dutch translation of jinn is geest (ghost). Unless the clinician is familiar with the Moroccan culture, this translation will not convey the full meaning of jinn. An intercultural mediator could add that ghosts are mentioned in the Quran and seen as a cause of epilepsy in Moroccan culture. It might also be important for the clinician to know that the patient may seek the help of a traditional healer, which could mean that they won’t follow the treatment that the clinician prescribes.

Another example involves taking blood samples. People of West African origin may be reluctant to have their blood taken, believing that it could make them sick or that they might die from a loss of blood. Knowing this, an intercultural could allay their fears by explaining that taking their blood is safe and nothing bad will happen to them.

Could interpreters learn from intercultural mediators?

Professional interpreters have been trained to refrain from intervening in these ways. Interpreters are often seen as mere ‘language conduits’. In other words, they are simply meant to be the messenger, interpreting what the parties say, and nothing else. But could professional interpreters learn something from non-professionally trained intercultural mediators? Perhaps there is a case for viewing interpreters as active participants who help to overcome not only linguistic, but also cultural barriers in order to achieve shared understanding.



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