As we as an industry set about professionalizing, this topic often comes up. As I mature in my perspective, I have come to realize that bilingual people can indeed interpret and that these ad hoc or natural interpreters serve a deeply important function in our communities. That being said, you can also use a fork to eat yogurt but it’s not really the best match for the job. Some of it may just fall through the cracks.
There are many different shades of being “bilingual.” In English, my mother tongue, there are many areas in which I am not fully proficient. Contrary to popular belief, if we were to put many bilinguals to test, we would see a very large range of outcomes. For this reason you’ll rarely catch even me self-identifying as bilingual. The word is too slippery on its own and I’m in the business of words.
In healthcare interpreting, such bilinguals range from very loving, well-intentioned adult family members, to disgruntled teenagers who can’t stand having to help their parents with language limitations, among other profiles. Here we get into many potential conflict of interest. What psychological damage is done to the youth who has to interpret a cancer diagnosis? How good can the diagnosis be if the patient’s sister only relays the symptoms she deems important?
Working in New York City these conflicts come up over and over again. Quite honestly there are days when I just want to relinquish the battle cry and say, “Fine. Go ahead. You don’t want me here, the doc doesn’t care, I can’t tell what the patient wants, etc.” In these moments I sometimes think, “Are we just making this all up to justify our jobs?”
But such days of doubt are few and fleeting. They are overwhelmed by the realization that a professional, experienced interpreter comes with many advantages: expertise in medical terminology; interpreting skills such as memory, note-taking, control of flow; knowledge of both biomedical and patient cultures; a sense of professional judgement; and adherence to a code of ethics. I place particular value on this latter element regarding ethics. When I am asked some version of the question, “why not grab a bilingual person?”, my short punchy response is that, when necessary, the professional interpreter is willing and duty-bound to say, “I don’t know.”