Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication

by Claudia V. Angelelli

Review by Miriam Hebé López-Argüello

Interested in exploring the role of the interpreter in a medical setting, researcher Claudia Angelelli conducted an ethnographic research study in a bilingual Northern California hospital between 1999-2001, shadowing and working with a team of medical interpreters. Her research was recently published in her new book Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication, Cambridge University Press.

Bringing together theories of sociology, social psychology, and linguistic anthropology, the author joins other researchers in challenging the established notion that the interpreter should be invisible, and in asserting that such invisibility, as portrayed in the literature at large and prescribed by professional associations, is a myth. (The citations provided in the referenced fields are particularly extensive, and a great help for researchers).

The concept of visibility that Ms. Angelelli proposes as an alternative to the current model considers interpreters as “ … powerful parties who are capable of altering the outcome of the interaction, for example, by channeling opportunities or facilitating access to information. They are visible co-participants who possess agency.”

To arrive at her conclusions, Ms. Angelelli analyzed typical scenarios of cross-cultural communication mediated by an interpreter. Although the cases she cites offer a good starting point to describe the visible role of the interpreter, she does not address any truly complex scenarios where such visibility might be questionable on ethical grounds (i.e., dilemmas posed by taboos, cultural idiosyncrasies, or other peculiarities within a context exacerbated by extreme pressure). As a medical interpreter myself, I am interested in the question of where one draws this linea question to which Ms. Angelelli offers no insights.

Medical Interpreting and Cross-cultural Communication makes a valuable contribution to the task of defining the appropriate role for a medical interpreter, a task that behooves all professional interpreters, professional associations, medical institutions, and the government to undertake. In Ms. Angelelli’s own words: “Addressing the visibility of the interpreter is an ideological imperative for the field. Breaking through the ideology of invisibility becomes a political imperative for all.”

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