KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Why didn’t the interpreter answer my questions when they were interpreting?

Answered on July 3rd, 2022
Last updated on May 31st, 2023

While in any other setting I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you may have, if I am interpreting for a patient, my focus is on interpretation.

Part of the medical interpreting codes of ethics is accuracy, which includes completeness. This means any utterance that occurs in the presence of the patient must be interpreted. This ensures transparency and fosters trust between the interpreter and the patient, which is absolutely essential for them to feel comfortable to talk about topics that are often personal and sometimes uncomfortable.

We are also supposed to interpret exactly what you say, as you say it.  If you ask us, “How are you doing today?” we’re going to assume this question is directed at the patient and interpret it, as is.

What it can feel like when you shut the door on the interpreter and leave them alone in the room with a patient. *Cue Sarah McLaughlan’s “Angel” playing in the background*

In cases where one can logically deduce that the question is being directly asked to the interpreter such as, “Why can’t you stay alone in the room with the patient?” the interpreter may first interpret this to the patient, and potentially even deliver a short response in the patient’s language before responding.  This is a preemptive approach on the part of some interpreters, because providers will often walk out of the room after receiving a response.  Unfortunately many interpreters are accustomed to being cut off before rendering their interpretation, in which time the provider may have already left the interpreter alone in the room with the patient, their undelivered interpretation hanging in the midst.

Medical interpreters are also ethically required to remain impartial, so the interpreter may not be able to answer your question if it requires their opinion.  If the patient sees the interpreter speaking to the provider, even at a distance, they may envision the interpreter as being in cahoots with the provider, and potentially creating an adversarial relationship.  This can also apply to remote interpretation if the provider mentions to the patient that they spoke with the interpreter before the patient got on the line, or if the provider asks the interpreter to stay on the line after the patient disconnects.

“I totally feel like Maria was faking it, don’t you?” – What some patients think we’re saying when they see us talking after they leave.

Additionally, as part of our ethical principle of maintaining boundaries, we shouldn’t be engaging in responsibilities outside of the role of the interpreter.  If the question being asked is linguistic in nature, or if it is about the logistics of interpreting, this would technically be within our scope of practice in most cases.  However, the interpreter must also center the health and well-being of the patient as well in their ethical decision-making process, and they may not want to detract from the time the patient has with the provider.

If after the patient is seen the provider has a question, if the interpreter’s schedule allows it, they may be able to answer the question so long as it does not interfere with any ethical principles as mentioned above.  Be aware that if the interpreter is interpreting via phone or video, keeping them on the line will likely incur an additional charge, though in some cases the interpreter will not paid for that time, as many contract interpreters are only paid for the minutes they are actively interpreting.

As an in-person interpreter, my schedule is sometimes very tight. Even though I would love to answer any relevant and ethically-permissible questions you may have, I am usually pressed for time to make it to my next assignment. Being an independent contractor, my schedule isn’t always ideal, and sometimes I have one assignment in another county immediately afterwards.  Rest assured I greatly appreciate your interest in our profession, and because of that I’ve done my best to answer every question as thoroughly as possible here on this website.

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Question Answered By...

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

Kelly is a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. She work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical and mental health interpreter. Her passions include affirming interpretation for sexual and gender diverse populations, supporting interpreter mental health, and interpreting developmental-behavioral pediatrics.

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KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

I am a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. I work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical interpreter. Click here to read more about me.

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