As interpreters, we run in a small circle of limited-English speakers. It’s possible that you would work with the same client over and over again; it’s also possible that you’ll work with a client once and never see him again. Regardless, it’s important to keep a professional relationship, not only through keeping up your skill set, arriving to appointments on time, and interpreting as faithfully as you can, but also through treating your clients as equals and not taking advantage of their vulnerability as limited-English speakers.
One question that interpreters run into revolves around whether it is okay to become friends with a client. Different interpreters have different opinions about this, but most would agree that it’s better to keep business separate from friendship. This is really hard though, especially when clients are always excited to find people who speak their language and want to know more about the person who’s helping them get the services they need.
From my point of view, the main risk of breaking the professional relationship is that the client may have different expectations of the interpreter during appointments. Also, once you become friends, the client may want to show his appreciation in different ways besides just saying “thank you,” such as with gifts. Accepting gifts, is a tricky one.
What can we do to make sure we maintain professionalism with our patients?
1. Keep Your distance. One way to avoid developing a close relationship with your client is through keeping your distance with the client. I know an interpreter who never allows herself to be alone with a client. After she introduces herself as the interpreter and explains how the process will work, she always finds an excuse to sit on the other side of the waiting room (“I need to prepare for a test” or “I need to work on some personal things while we wait”), and in medical interpreting cases, she stands outside the doctor’s office until the doctor walks in, simply to avoid conversation with the client. Without conversation outside of appointments, the interpreter and client won’t ever have a chance to build a personal relationship. And by explaining why she needs to be alone from the client, the client won’t feel like he is being ignored.
2. Clarify Your Role. It’s not always easy to create distance between you and your client. Some clients may feel offended if you’re not willing to socialize with them. If removing yourself from the client’s presence is not possible for you, it’s important to clarify your role as an interpreter early on when you introduce yourself and make reminders during your conversations as well. Make it clear to them that you are there to interpret everything that is said, and nothing that is not said, so if the client discloses information that he wishes to convey to the provider (doctor or lawyer, or whomever), you should remind him to bring it up at the appointment: “make sure to bring this up when you see the doctor (or lawyer), so I can interpret for you.” Personal dialogue between an interpreter and client can lead to expectations that the interpreter will convey everything that’s been said outside of an appointment. By clarifying and reminding the client of your role, you’ll help him remember that you are there to help him communicate, not there to communicate for him.“
3. Use a Higher Power. Clients are often very grateful to have someone who speaks their language to help them get the services they need. Sometimes, they’ll thank you repeatedly, other times, they might want to give you a gift or offer you services, such as a ride, to show their appreciation. Outright refusal of a gift you find inappropriate may hurt a client’s feelings, so it’s important to explain your position in such situations and let the client know that you appreciate the thought, but your agency or company does now allow you to accept gifts from clients. You can use this as an excuse for other uncomfortable situations that come up as well. Explaining your position while using a “higher authority” will make your refusal less personal.
Where should we draw the line?
It’s always difficult to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to building a friendship with a client, but the important thing to keep in mind is that all your actions have implications. In deciding whether to further a relationship or accept a gift from a client, interpreters should make sure that we are not in any way exploiting the patient. By doing so, an interpreter is doing her job to protect herself and also a client, and that’s a part of an interpreter’s professionalism as well.
For a summary of the code of ethics for a medical interpreter, click here.