Medical Interpreters and Bias


What are your biases? Do you know yourself well enough to name three of them? Do you know what bias means? Does bias even matter in regard to the work we interpreters do?

I’ll address the last question by taking a look at physicians. Physicians have biases, and they need to be aware of them so that their biases do not cloud or skew the medical evaluation or treatment plan.

Medical interpreters also need to know their biases because of the impact they could have, if manifested, on the patient<>provider experience or on the communication itself. In the former, an interpreter's shocked expression, hesitation, shaky tone of voice, etc. can be dead giveaways or subtle clues as to the interpreter's opinion and can cause discomfort, tension or in some way alter the progression of the medical encounter. In the latter, the interpreter, if not careful or self-aware, can throw off the communication either by a specific word choice, a seemingly innocuous nuance or a deviation in the tone of voice. 

It is only natural to have biases. Having them is not the problem. The problem is when you act on them or allow them to influence your professional performance. Refusing to acknowledge them or ignoring their presence is a surefire way to have them sneak up on you. The key is to know yourself well enough so that you can keep your biases from getting the better of you while you are interpreting.

Knowing yourself is a never-ending, ongoing process. Your biases are formed and reformed throughout your life based on your unique life experiences. Every once in a while, take some time to check your biases. Take advantage of media sources (news, entertainment, etc.) as a way to vicariously expose yourself to different situations, and ask yourself if you notice any biases surfacing in your reactions or thoughts on the topic presented.

You might even take a more formal assessment at periodic intervals. You can do a web search on the topic to find different resources like this one:

The point in these activities is not to become mindless, emotionless, robotic creatures. It’s about knowing your biases – right, wrong, or indifferent – so you can corral them when interpreting. It’s about making the extra effort to ensure that the people present in the communication are the ones driving the communication. The interpreter is the facilitator of their communication, not of his or her own.

Posted on January 21, 2016 and filed under Interpreter.