When Interpreting Services Fall Short (Part 1)


In the past year I’ve become aware of a few situations where previous encounters with interpreters have not gone well. Each situation has shed a different light on the challenges of working with interpreters in remote modalities.

This is the first in a two-part series that highlights two different scenarios and some specific takeaways.

Scenario 1

Parents brought their child to see a specialist by referral of the pediatrician. The child had been suffering from a hard-to-diagnose condition. It was to the point that the child had missed so much school that social worker was being assigned to the family.

After quite a lengthy medical interview, the father of the child related a story of a traumatic incident that the child had witnessed months earlier. It all clicked. This was the missing piece of the puzzle that the specialist needed in order make a pretty definitive diagnosis. Happy ending? Not quite. What the father said next made me swallow hard.

He said that they never told the pediatrician about this in previous appointments because they always have an interpreter on the phone, and the interpreters don’t understand them (and vice versa). So, they just never brought it up with the pediatrician.

While maintaining my composure, internally all I could think was, “Oh my gosh. This poor kid and family going through all of this because they couldn’t speak fully and freely…. which is exactly what interpreters are supposed to make possible.” I also wondered what else the family had not told the physician because of the barrier.

Had the pediatrician known this, she could have recommended an appropriate and effective treatment months earlier. That would have saved the child and family a lot of suffering, not to mention resources invested by healthcare, education, and social services.

I say this not to pick on interpreters. Quite the contrary. I know first-hand how challenging it is to interpret. I know that we cannot read minds or control how people behave. (Would that we could!) In all of these situations, I imagine the interpreter had the desire and intent to provide an excellent service. The interpreter might have even thought that they did just that. As far as the interpreter was able to ascertain, maybe everything appeared to go smoothly.

Still, it is important that we take an honest look at what feedback we are collecting, formally or informally. This can, and should, help us to come up ways to fix problems, fill gaps, and minimize or eliminate problems. Whether it is through better training on modalities, higher skills expectations for interpreters, improved protocols for medical team members, the approach, I expect, will need to be multifaceted and collaborative. It must involve trainers, interpreters, administrators, language service providers, healthcare providers, and patients and their families.

This can be, of course, quite complex, but here are two things that interpreters can do regardless of training, policies, or room dynamics:

1) As interpreters, we need to want to have people tell us when what we are doing isn’t working.

Keep in mind, that a remote interpreter has a diminished ability to assess how the communication is going. A video interpreter will have some advantage over a telephonic interpreter, but it is still limited as compared to an interpreter who is onsite. With this diminished read on the situation, we should approach the situation with an attitude that desires feedback from the people onsite.

It’s kind of like when you have toilet paper stuck to your heel. I’d much rather someone point that out to me so that I can do something about it, than keep moving forward in blissful ignorance. If at the conclusion of the encounter, I, the interpreter, am thinking everything went well but the other parties are thinking that was a disaster, that’s a problem.

As interpreters, we should approach the situation with an attitude that wants immediate feedback if and when the communication is not going well.

While having this open mind-set from the beginning is a great start, it cannot end there. We must involve the other parties as well. Which leads to the next point…

2) As interpreters, we need to encourage others to let us know if and when we are not meeting their communication needs.

The pre-session is a decent time to do this. On that note, if at all possible, don’t skip the pre-session. I know in emergency situations it might be inadvisable and inappropriate to ask everyone to wait until you’ve introduced yourself and explained your role before starting with the interpretation. With that exception in mind, be assertive (pleasant, but assertive), and take a moment before the communication begins to make sure that

1) everyone knows who you are and what your role is (aka the usual stuff),

2) you assess what type of communication equipment and room set-up they are dealing with, and

3) inform (aka invite, ask, encourage, plead, beg… I think I’ve made my point.) the parties that they should alert you immediately if at any point they have trouble hearing our understanding you. And reassure them that you will do the same.

No one wants to have a bad experience with an interpreter.

No interpreter wants to be the cause of a bad experience.

There is a lot at stake and a lot of moving parts to consider. Let’s be open to them all and work together to provide the best possible experience to all who rely on interpreters for their communication needs. Start with small things that you can do immediately, and the work collaboratively on fixing and improving the bigger things.

© Connecting Cultures 2018