In the Shoes of an Interpreter: providing comfort, confidence and assurance to those with language barriers

By Phoebe Lee, a professional Interpreter for Korean – English.  She has been an Access Alliance Interpreter for over 20 years.

How would you feel if you had a language barrier and you had to communicate with English-speaking service providers regarding your personal health issues? You feel frustrated, anxious, and useless! You even think that you do not belong in the community. You hope that someone will help you with your communication problems.

When I first came to Canada I did not know any English. I was afraid to talk to English-speaking people. Now, decades later, I work with people who have language barriers and their English-speaking service providers. I am a Korean interpreter. I go to different places every day, I meet new people every day, and I encounter different situations every day. Every assignment is unique, challenging, and precious.

When I interpret good news such as, ”You are cancer free!” then I feel so happy to be an interpreter but when I interpret bad news such as, ” There is no cure!” then I wish I was not there to interpret. No matter what messages I interpret it has to be faithful and impartial. I cannot show my emotions. But they are there, inside!

Interpreting one language to another language is a difficult task. It is not just literal interpreting word to word. It is delivering ideas, beliefs, and cultural nuances from a non-English speaking person to English speaking service providers and vice versa. Several years ago, a fatally ill teenage girl was in the critical care unit at a hospital. The doctors and her parents had a meeting almost every day for an update on the girl’s condition. The family had immigrated to Canada decades ago but they had limited English. I interpreted for the family.

One afternoon, I was present in the conference room with the chief doctor and fellow doctors to have a meeting with the girl’s parents. In the room, the girl’s parents, relatives, friends – about twenty people – were waiting for the doctors. The chief doctor talked about the purpose of the meeting and explained that the girl was dying. She did not have much time and removing the breathing tube from her would be the best for her so she would not to suffer anymore. I interpreted in Korean. One of the family’s relatives asked the doctors in Korean, “How much time she has left?” The chief doctor said, “Three hours!” The parents, relatives, and friends looked at me and the chief doctor. No one made any sound or movement. The stillness and silence in the room made me nervous. I paused for a moment. I slowly and carefully said in Korean, ”Three hours” Then, the people in the room burst out crying.
I believe that some of the Korean people in the room were able to understand English when the doctor said “Three hours”. But without realizing it, they wanted to confirm the words, “three hours” in their native Korean language. These few seconds of silence were the longest and hardest of my life as were those two short words.

Through peoples’ native languages, interpreters provide comfort, confidence, and assurance to those who have language barriers. Furthermore, they provide them with a sense of belonging to the community, making that vital connection.

After years of working as an interpreter, I’ve learned an important lesson; that everyone should be treated equally and respectfully. No matter where you come from, what language you speak, what circumstances you have, we still share our basic humanity. We are all seeking respect and love.

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One thought on “In the Shoes of an Interpreter: providing comfort, confidence and assurance to those with language barriers”

  1. Trained, professional Interpreters play critical roles bridging the language gap between the healthcare system and people who don’t speak English or French. They bring their heads and their hearts to this work – their heads to ensure excellent, professional services and their hearts to ensure they are compassionate and supportive in their role. Phoebe is an amazing interpreter!

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