Overcoming the Language Barrier


After my arrival here, I was supposed to interpret for the people of my community. I hadn’t thought that I would be an interpreter in the United States. Though I am multilingual, I did not think my English was good enough to interpret in the hospital. Despite my limited English, I was compelled to help my community interpret in sectors like hospitals, offices, schools, banks and police stations.

From my community, I was the only one who could speak in English and needed to interpret at the hospital, no matter how difficult it was. I used to think: this is America and every interpreter needs to be very good at written and spoken in English. I wasn’t a deserving candidate to interpret in a sector like the hospital, because, for proper and accurate interpretation at a hospital, an interpreter should have a good understanding of medical terminologies and should be well trained. Otherwise, a small mistake and misunderstanding of an interpreter leads the patient and the provider to danger even to the death of the patient.

Unlike interpreting at home, medical interpreting requires understanding of religious values and cultural beliefs of the patient. So to meet the requirements for interpreting at a hospital, I took a 16-hour orientation class and got certified. I wasn’t sure that I would get certified because of my limited English, and also, I was asked to write the meaning of some medical terms in the exam and I couldn’t answer any of them.

I learned how to interpret in a professional manner. Pre-session is the most important professional way of starting to interpret. It sets up the ground rules for effective communication and establishes a professional relationship between interpreter, provider and the patient. An interpreter should act as a bridge to communicate the information. In a hospital, an interpreter is solely responsible for the accurate interpretation of the patient’s problem and the provider’s suggestions and ideas. If the interpreter is not skilled enough to interpret, then the patients are not able to access the eligible service.

One time, the doctor asked a woman what the problem was. She had stomach pain and her stomach was hurting too much. Again the doctor asked her where it had hurt a lot. She replied kokho (in Nepali). I was lost after that. I didn’t know what we call that body part in English. That made me think a lot and better understand my responsibility.

Anyhow my job was to make the communication accurate. I apologized and I told to the doctor. I don’t know what we called that body part in English. Then the doctor came up with a picture book and I showed him the particular region where she was having pain.

I apologized because, according to the interpreter’s ethics code of conduct, an interpreter must be prepared to withdraw if the situation violates the code off ethics. And also an interpreter is allowed to apologize if the terms are confusing. If the informed consent and advanced directives of the provider are not interpreted accurately, then the patient will not get accurate idea of how to take the prescribed medicine, i.e time and manner. If interpretation goes the wrong way, then there comes increased frustrations for the provider and the patient. Moreover, the patient’s faith in hospital staff and programs decreases.

So for me, it was one of the hardest sectors where I needed to face the challenges with languages and overcome the barrier through my orientation class and day-to-day experience of getting used to medical terminologies.