Medical Interpreting Cultural Conflicts and How to Overcome Them

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Medical Interpreting Cultural Conflicts and How to Overcome Them


los-angeles-medical-interpreterThe job of any interpreter is challenging and complex, but this is especially true for health care interpreters, as they must not only be linguistically qualified, but also sensitive to cultural differences. In the typical medical setting, a medical interpreter acts as a neutral liaison between a patient and medical professionals who speak a different language from the patient. The interpreter’s code of ethics ensures that an interpreter’s opinions do not influence the patient’s decisions in any way while maintaining a comfortable, accurate stream of communication between the patient and medical staff.

Aside from interpreting the exchange of words and ideas between the two parties, medical interpreters must have a working knowledge of any applicable medical terminology and, perhaps most importantly, be knowledgeable of the patient’s cultural beliefs. There are times when the medical staff needs to be made aware of a patient’s cultural beliefs if a treatment option conflicts with them.

For example, many Muslim woman traditionally wear a hijab, a scarf that covers the hair and neck, or a burka which covers the face.  In their culture, women do not take off their head coverings in the presence of men who are not related to them. If for an Arabic medical interpretation appointment a woman wearing a hijab visits a medical facility and is required to take off her hijab to receive treatment, it would be the interpreter’s job to explain to the medical staff that there must not be any men in the room for her to be comfortable receiving treatment. Adequate knowledge of Muslim culture is required to educate the medical staff about this and is just as much a part of the interpreter’s job as interpreting the conversation.

It is also important for interpreters to remain neutral in any decisions that a patient needs to make, even if the patient asks for the interpreter’s input. Medical interpreters are a bridge between the patient and medical staff so that both sides fully understand the situation. Patients have to believe the medical staff hears and understands their needs and the medical staff has to have enough knowledge about the patients to provide them with optimal care benefiting them physically and emotionally; it is the medical professional’s responsibility to care for the patient as a whole. By not bringing any personal opinions into the situation, the interpreter is creating a healthy, empowering environment for a patient who might otherwise feel powerless.

In Los Angeles, medical interpreting jobs are often for Spanish interpreters, but certainly not always, as Executive Linguist Agency can provide medical interpreters for hundreds of languages. Contact us for more info.

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