What Community Interpreters Do – and Don’t

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A Letter to Healthcare Providers


Dear Doctor M. Inahoury and Nurse Oberwirct,

I’m writing today to clear up a misunderstanding that we seem to have. As much as I have enjoyed interpreting at your clinic, you seem to have a few unrealistic expectations about what I am able to do. I know that interpreting can seem like magic; one language goes in and another comes out. So I guess it’s not strange that you see me as a magician, who can do just about anything that needs being done.


The work of the community interpreter is actually quite specific though: to facilitate understanding between people who are speaking different languages. This work includes rendering a message spoken in one language into another language, capturing the same meaning, with all its subtleties and nuances that was expressed in the original message. It can include perceiving and pointing out barriers to understanding — including cultural barriers. It includes navigating a complex world of health and human services, maintaining warm but professional relationships with professionals and patients/clients.


There are also, however, a whole bunch of things that interpreters DON’T do.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that I am not trained to take a medical history for you. I am also not trained to obtain consent for medical procedures, so I’m afraid that you’ll have to come consent the patient yourself. I’m good at staying calm in difficult situations, but I don’t have any secret method of calming down agitated patients. Nor can I ascertain whether a patient is lying. Or whether he’s “crazy.” (Did you really just use that word?)

I certainly don’t want to take away any of your work, Doctor, so I will not be convincing patients to agree to any recommended course of action, including the DNR from yesterday. I can’t explain medical procedures or update families about a patient’s condition. If there’s bad news, I’ll interpret it, but I won’t be the source of the message.

Though I do appreciate your confidence in my skills, I don’t assist at Pap smears, change bedsore dressings, restrain combative patients, feed people, hold children while they are being vaccinated (psst – parents do that), or keep a patient’s eyes open while you put in an ointment. In fact, I’m not supposed to touch patients at all. So I really can’t transfer that patient from the bed to the wheelchair, transport the patient to diagnostic imaging, or bring the patient’s urine sample to the lab. Especially not bring the patient’s urine sample to the lab.

I don’t hold babies while mom has an exam, control unruly children or babysit the patient’s little brothers and sisters who have all come to the clinic because there’s nothing interesting going on at home today.

I absolutely cannot sit and play rummy with the psych patient. He’s in restraints anyway.

And no, I cannot give the patient a ride home.


What I can do is to make sure that you and your patient, his family and caregivers all understand each other as if you all spoke the same language. I can alert you if I think that the patient is showing signs of not understanding what you said. And I can raise a red flag if it seems that cultural differences are leading to misunderstanding. Yes, if it has to do with clear communication, I can help with that. In Spanish, I mean.

Please let your staff know that Portuguese and Spanish are actually different languages. Thank you.


Your Community Interpreter







Author’s note: all of the tasks mentioned in this article have been, at some time or other, requested of working interpreters by healthcare staff, according to a 2008 survey on the listserv of the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. As more people learn about what interpreters do, fewer people ask interpreters to do inappropriate things.  


Be the Bridge!
Learn more about getting trained as an interpreter at https://www.vcinm.org/.