Interpreter Boundaries

Almost without exception we have become interpreters because we want to help. We want to help people who are not fluent English speakers to get the services they need. We want to even the playing field by bringing our linguistic and cultural knowledge to the table. All good stuff. But how do we do this and be a professional interpreter? It’s not as easy as it seems.

When I first started out interpreting I was the only interpreter in a fairly large medical system. I ended up being interpreter, social worker, pretty much jack of all trades for anyone who spoke my second language and beyond. I didn’t know then that there were social workers and other people that could meet the needs of the patients. In fact, it was their job to meet these needs. I didn’t realize that I could ask these people to do their jobs and I could simply interpret the conversation. One night the phone rang at 2:30 am and someone I had been interpreting for asked me to come to the hospital to interpret for her friend. I knew right then that I had made a mistake. Our hospital was set up for phone interpreting. I did not need to meet this need. I stayed home and vowed to make some changes.

Ask any teacher and he or she will tell you that it is always easier to set those boundaries at the outset and loosen them, if needed, as you go along. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me. But I can still remember how I felt in the middle of the night receiving that call and I knew I didn’t want that to happen again.

I started looking for ways to take myself out of the middle whenever I was asked to help beyond my role. I brought the situation to a social worker or someone in the business office or someone in the medical records office. And I interpreted. And I did not give out my personal phone number. I also found other resources to interpret in situations where I was already invested. I breathed a sigh of relief over and over again as I could walk away helping through interpreting but my further involvement was over.

I feel this approach also empowers the English Language Learner by teaching them that they can get their needs met outside of depending on the bilingual interpreter. It oftentimes requires figuring how language access is going to happen outside of the interpreter who was present at the appointment. It may require pushing back on the provider to do their job in providing ways for the ELL to communicate with them when needed, as needed. It may require you as the interpreter to advocate for the patient by asking how will the patient communicate with them outside of a face-to-face appointment. And if they try to suggest that you be that point of communication, decline. Tell them as a professional interpreter you need to abide by certain ethics and communicating with a patient outside of the interpreted assignment puts you at odds with those ethics.

I realize that some of us interpret for small communities. I realize that culturally it can be hard to tell someone they can’t have your phone number. It is a challenge. But we have to find ways to remain professional, remain neutral. There are very few situations in which a professional interpreter should communicate with a patient he/she interprets for outside of the interpreted session. If you need to, you can tell the patient that you can lose your job by sharing personal contact information.

I had an experience a few months ago that brought home to me the value of neutrality. When I worked at the hospital I often got to know the patients and their families. I also didn’t do a whole lot of interpreting for them in my role as supervisor of the services so being familiar with them rarely posed a problem. This time I was the agency interpreter coming it to interpret for a brain death situation. I realized how much better I was at doing my job not having an emotional connection to the people I was interpreting for. I could help them by getting them the information they needed to make the decisions they needed to make. I felt that same relief walking away. I had come to do what my role asked me to do and now I could walk away knowing that I had done my best within that role.

Interpreting is not easy. Think about how you can maintain your boundaries within your interpreter role. Ask for help if you need it. We can all learn from each other.

PS Someone wanted my phone number just yesterday. What did I do? I was not alone with the client so I interpreted what he said. The provider reminded him that he had her card, that she spoke some Spanish, that he could call her, and then she would get someone who was fluent in Spanish to call back. It also helps to not spend time alone with the client/patient. And don’t forget your pre-session!

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