7 Feb


The good mother asks not, “Do you want?” but gives./La buena madre no dice quieres.*



The purpose of the medical interpreter is to facilitate understanding in communication between people who speak different languages.

Cynthia Roat writes “In this role (cultural broker), the interpreter provides a necessary cultural framework for understanding the message being interpreted. The interpreter takes this role when cultural differences are leading to a misunderstanding on the part of either provider or patient.”* What happens when an LEP’s (Limited English Person) cultural norms jangle my own?


I pride myself to approach interpreting assignments with aplomb and assurance. In the medical setting responsibilities shift from conduit, clarifier, cultural broker to advocate and back.  “Sure, I am happy to interpret for Mrs. Belaunde for the lactation specialist class.” Once I intervened for a forty-year old fellow who approached a circumcision. Why, let’s talk about my year and a half experience at the local hospital for pregnant Latina women. I served as the only male interpreter on staff but a deftly positioned curtain, calm voice and demeanor converted this male into a bridge for communication.


A pediatrician’s office called for a mom and her six-month old boy’s well child visit. After 45 minutes in a crowded exam room little Ramón became fussy and hungry. Mom grabbed a blanket, nonchalantly placed her little one on her breast and began to feed him. And continued to chatter. Culture shock set in for me in an instant. Instinctively I queried “Ma’am, would you like me to step outside?” She blithely responded no and the conversation continued.


It felt strange to be part of what I perceived such an intimate moment. I continued the conversation as if nothing happened. Then mom wondered how long she ought to breast feed or if she would harm her kid if she breast fed too long? Madame Nurse suddenly appeared to administer Ramón’s vaccines. I interpreted the question, the nurse consulted with the pediatrician and provided an answer right quick.


I “debriefed” with my sister interpreters and supervisor who allayed any concerns. Thank heavens for colleagues who assured that the strategy to offer to leave the room proved the proper response. With a smile my boss replied “John, She’s Latina. Her concern is her child and his care.”

In that brief moment this guy became aware of a practice (breast feeding) that clashed with his cultural norms. Luckily no barrier, that is, my own discomfort, surfaced to impede communication. Honestly, though, my first thought was “But, there’s a guy in the room.”  My sister and brother interpreters, please respond about experiences that rattled your sensibilities.

*Carbonell Bassett, Delfín. A Dictionary of Proverbs, Sayings, Maxims and Adages English and Spanish. Hauppage: Barron’s Educational Series, 1996.

*Roat, Cynthia E. Bridging the Gap over the Phone: A Basic Training for Telephone Interpreters serving Medical Settings. Cross Cultural Health Care Program Seattle: Cross Cultural Health Care Program, 1999.

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