Language & Microaggression of Victims and Perpetrators: The Medical Interpreter's Experience


Connecting Cultures is grateful to Edurne Chopeitia for contributing this article!

Professionally and personally I wear many hats where communication is the key. Actually, from my corner of the world, as a mental health practitioner and interpreter/translator, identifying pitfalls in communication that could endanger understanding and affect desired outcomes for the parties involved is what I do for a living. As I added more dimensions to my worldview – seeing through the eyes of immigrants, mothers, healthcare interpreters, trainers, and medical translators, to name a few – I was able to enrich my fields of practice. Instead of drastic, enormous changes, I accepted that mindful step by mindful step would also get us there.

Being aware of microaggressions is one of those little big things we can do as professionals to ensure better understanding to those we serve - patients, providers, and colleagues. And I am referring mainly to the verbal and nonverbal behaviors in written, spoken, and signed language that we may carry out without the intention of offending the other person.

Microaggressions are currently conceptualized as common, almost “innocent” comments, behaviors, or any other type of communication that hides a negative message regarding gender, educational level, immigrant status, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, “lesser” occupations, and many other aspects of the human experience. Typically, the perpetrator does not realize the comment is offensive, and the victim experiences feelings of self-doubt. There may be some red flags that could warn us of the presence of a microaggression, but most of the time it may be easier to recognize it by the effect it causes. Trust is affected, perception of safety is altered, and the cumulative effect poses a serious and real risk.

In our field, where so many layers of cultural distortions, overt and covert biases, and system dynamics are at play, it is almost inevitable that we have been – or will become – witnesses, victims, or perpetrators of microaggressions. Although microaggressions surface in many different ways, language (verbal, written, signed) is the main vehicle by which they travel in the daily work setting. Furthermore, the inherent subtlety of microaggressions makes them especially difficult to deal with – one cannot deal with something that cannot be named. By giving these incidents a name, acknowledging their harmful effects, and admitting their occurrence, we are contributing to decreasing the use of judgmental language. Isn’t that a goal worth pursuing as professional healthcare interpreters and translators?

I can cite countless of examples, but there is one, in particular, I cannot forget. . .

It occurred several years ago while I was covering the interpreting needs of a hospital while also dispatching incoming requests for interpreters. This specific call started normally, a polite greeting, names were exchanged… and the provider on the other side said, “I would like to order an interpreter.” I was mildly irritated, and thought it was offensive, but I answered, “Sure, what language?” Afterwards, I felt the need to debrief, so I related the incident to supervisors and colleagues. And then the most damaging effect of microaggressions was shown to me – my feelings were dismissed, invalidated, and trivialized because “those comments are normal,” “there is nothing you can do,” “do not pay attention, keep working.” That incident was pivotal because despite the rationalizations, I knew those comments should not be accepted as normal.

There are several things we can do, and most importantly, in order to continue our work, we do need to pay attention.

My presentation at the upcoming TAPIT & TAMIT Joint Annual Conference is an invitation to start this dialogue – with ourselves and among colleagues – in order to validate and name our emotions, and mostly to learn from each other different intervention strategies to implement no matter on which side we may find ourselves the next time a microaggression happens

About the author: Edurne Chopeitia holds an MBA, is a Licensed Psychologist (in Uruguay), and held certifications in postnatal and childbirth education. Currently, she is finishing a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in the USA. She holds a Certificate of Translation (Adelphi University), completed Bridging the Gap, and a Training of Trainers for Healthcare Interpreters (Monterey Institute). Edurne works as a translator (ATA Certified), healthcare interpreter, and trainer, she is a member of the main professional organizations in the fields of mental health, translation, and interpreting and currently, she is a co-investigator on a phenomenological study on medical interpreting and vicarious trauma. Edurne can be contacted at