4 Reasons Family Members Don't Want an Interpreter

You love interpreting, especially in the medical setting. You’re really good at it. You’ve been doing it for years and have had many wonderful experiences. So, when you show up to an assignment for Mr. So-and-So (not his real name) and his daughter says “We don’t need an interpreter” the wind gets blown out of your sails. You feel a bit disappointed, defensive, and dejected.

This is an awkward situation that you need to navigate carefully. Understanding the family member’s reasons for rejecting you can help you to get over the hurt and proceed professionally.

Here are 4 reasons why family members (sometimes) want to give the interpreter the boot. . . 

“I can’t afford another bill.”

Sometimes the family member is afraid of getting a bill from the interpreter. With the stress of whatever medical problem is going on, plus stress of the impending medical bills, plus all the other stresses not related to the immediate encounter, it’s no wonder the family member would be searching for ways to ease a perceived financial burden. Countering this can be as simple as letting the family know that they will not get a bill for the interpreter services. It is a service provided by the healthcare facility.* Watch the calm wash over the family’s face when you let them know this, and then feel the love.

“I can do a better job than you.”

Sometimes the family member is doubtful of the interpreter’s skill. Right or wrong, everybody makes a judgment on first impression. It’s part of our hardwiring as human beings. The family member might have taken one look at you and made a judgment. You don’t look like you know how to speak the language. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re not local enough. You don’t know enough. You’re not me. The most effective way to counter this is to humbly and respectfully show off your skills! Without getting into a battle, do your job according to the ethics, protocols, and techniques that you use for all encounters. You can rest assured that after a few exchanges it will be clear to everyone that you are in fact capable and more skilled than the non-trained bilingual family member. It’s not arrogance. You have had professional formation and practical experience. It’s inevitable. When this happens, just let your skills speak for themselves, and resist the urge to say, “I told you so” when you’ve proven your worth. Trust me. That comment won’t go over well and will sabotage the point you’ve made.

This next reason tends to be all too common. . .

“The last interpreter who came was horrendous.”

A bad experience with a so-called professional interpreter can cause people to avoid all interpreters like the plague. Unfortunately, the problem usually stems from an interpreter (strike that!) or rather an, individual who was hired by the facility and represented themselves as an interpreter, but who had little or no training to actually be an interpreter. Then, something went really wrong before, during, or after that encounter. The individual didn’t have the necessary language proficiency, didn’t respect patient’s modesty, breached confidentiality, made squeamish facial expressions, answered questions instead of interpreting them, summarized comments, or just plain didn’t interpret at all and instead said something like, “Did you understand what the doctor said?”  Argh! With an experience like any of those, you can’t hardly blame the family for not wanting you there. For all they know, you are just like that other so-called interpreter. It’s a huge risk for them to take. The best way to respond is to make full use of your pre-session – you know, that time at the beginning of the encounter when you explain your role and how the whole communication thing will work during the encounter. In addition to the usual comments, you might also reassure them of the training and experience you have, emphasize the steps that you’ll take to respect the patient’s modesty, and give the family your manager’s phone number so that they can report any problems with any interpreters – including you – at any time. You might also ask if your manager can call them to follow up on their concerns. Demonstrate with word and action what working with a real professional interpreter is like. That’ll do wonders for restoring their faith in interpreters. . . the real ones, that is.

“Because I don’t.”

There’s also the “just because” reason. Sometimes there is no rational reason for the rejection. It just is. It doesn’t matter that you’re the best interpreter that the world has ever seen. You. Are. Not. Wanted. There is no use in trying to win over an irrational standpoint with reasoning. Just accept it and move forward with the professionalism, skill, and tact that you always demonstrate. And keep perspective. The encounter will not last for eternity. The vast majority of people do appreciate and want your services.

Why else do family members reject interpreters? How have you handled the situation? 

*If for some reason this isn’t the case and the patient is going to be billed for the service, first off, be transparent about that. Second, find out how and why that’s happening. It would be very rare that such a financial setup would be in keeping with US federal law.

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Posted on March 20, 2015 and filed under Interpreter.