“When Your Daughter Is Your Ears and Mouth” - Medical Communication via Family Interpreters

“Once I went to the gynecologist with my mom and I had to translate everything for her and I have to say- you really don’t want to know all that about your mom! I was really embarrassed!”. This is a quote from an interview I had with a young Turkish woman, who had been interpreting for her mother since her early teenage years – a situation very common to most Turkish migrants in the Netherlands. During the interviews, I heard many stories, sad and funny, but mostly describing the difficulties the young people had with interpreting for their family members. For instance, the difficult technical jargon the doctors were using, the embarrassing situations they had to overcome, and the heavy emotional moments. How about being the first person to hear that your mother has a tumor and being the one who has to translate this bad news to her? One of my interviewees was recalling: “I was only fourteen years old and the doctor told me my mom has a tumor. I started to shake all over my body, it was very emotional”.

After conducting these interviews for my Master thesis, my interest for the subject of informal interpreting was born. A few years later, I decided to dedicate my entire PhD project to informal interpreting in medical settings. In contrast to professional interpreters, informal interpreters are untrained people who don’t get paid for their interpreting work. They are often family members of the patients who accompany them to the doctor to overcome the language barrier. Although the family members are called upon to facilitate the communication process, they often contribute to miscommunication because of their low interpreting skills. Previous research has shown that family interpreters often leave out relevant information and make serious translation mistakes, which might endanger the clinical diagnosis and outcomes.

Nonetheless, patients usually prefer family interpreters over professional interpreters because they trust them more. Moreover, family interpreters often perform extra roles which might facilitate the clinical outcomes; for instance, by providing extra information about the health of the patient to the doctor. The situation is thus not clear-cut: family interpreting has shown to have positive and negative aspects and more research is needed to better understand these types of interactions.

Besides, family interpreters are widely used in Dutch medical settings, especially in primary care/general practice. More than half of first generation Turkish migrants take a family interpreter to the general practice and the percentages are even higher among women (up to 80%). Therefore, the aim of my research is to study interactions between Turkish migrant patients, family interpreters and general practitioners to be able to suggest evidence-based solutions to improve this type of medical interactions.

I am using different methods to explore the problem both from within the subjects (via in depth interviews and survey), and by using observational techniques to study the actual process of communication. With my research I hope to contribute to the optimization of interpreter mediated interactions, which urgently need improvement. In this way this research will help to enhance health care delivery to migrant patients with a low language proficiency.

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