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Medical Settings: Clarifying the Interpreter Role

Jun 25, 2021 | Interpreter Education

by: Lisa Hendrickson, CI - NIR Interpreter Coordinator

Interpreter Role

Within the medical setting, clarification of the role of the interpreter is sometimes a forgotten, but vital task needed for medical personnel, as well as a reminder for the interpreters themselves. Often, the role of the interpreter is obscure to medical personnel; some may see the interpreter as an aide or friend to the Deaf patient. While our role as interpreter may, at times, go beyond the actual exchange of information, medical personnel do need to be informed about what is NOT included in the interpreter’s role. Socializing with the Deaf patient beyond what is necessary to determine language needs and “linguistic style” can be detrimental to the situation.  Moxham, in her 2017 book, “Deaf Patients, Hearing Medical Personnel: Interpreting and Other Considerations”, mentions that “…some interpreters’ experience has shown that too much conversation sets up inappropriate assumptions of intimacy for both the patient and medical personnel.”

Interpreter ≠ Aide

Additionally, medical personnel (as well as interpreters themselves) need to be reminded of the dangers involved when the interpreter is viewed as an aide. The interpreter, generally not being a member of the medical care team, is often not privy to, or has not been informed of some specifics in the history or current care of the patient. Providing water or food could be disastrous if the patient is on a restriction not to eat or drink (“NPO” or “Nothing by mouth”) due to a swallowing or choking precaution. The patient could also be scheduled for a procedure later in the day that requires an empty stomach; a well-meaning interpreter could delay a vital surgery due to erroneously stepping into the role of an aide. Yet another risk involved, should the interpreter step into the role of an aide, is contamination; the patient could have a staph (or other highly contagious) infection that could cause the interpreter undue harm. Medical personnel are prepared and trained for these types of contagions, not interpreters. Moxham also emphasizes that interpreters should not “fetch things” due to possible dislodgement or disturbance of tubes, wires, and other equipment, help or remain in the room while the patient is changing clothing or is disrobed, or discuss patient’s information with any other parties.

RID Viewpoint

In their Standard Practice Papers, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) clarifies the role of the interpreter in health care settings as thus: “Their role on the health care team is to facilitate linguistic and cultural communication”. RID also adds “…understanding and navigating the medical environment, matching patient/provider goals, being a languaculture broker, and thinking outside the box to ensure comprehensive patient understanding…” to the list of roles of an interpreter working in medical settings.




Moxham, T. (2017). Deaf patients, hearing medical personnel: Interpreting and other considerations (2nd ed.). Hillsboro, OR: Butte Publications. Kindle Version. Standard Practice Papers. (2007).

Retrieved June 7, 2021, from https://rid.org/about-rid/about-interpreting/setting-standards/standard-practice-papers/


Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Medical Interpreting Roundtable. (2015).

Retrieved June 14, 2021, from https://rid.org/medical-interpreting-roundtable/

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