On the Job: Relay Interpreting in a Medical Appointment

Relay interpretation is a type of consecutive interpretation used when multiple languages are at play at the same time, where the source language is  interpreted into different languages, and at least two interpreters are present. We see this most commonly used in conference interpreting where the source language is rendered into a common target language and then further rendered into specific language groups. This type of interpretation is similar to the game “telephone,” where one message is whispered down a line of people, and the last person in line announces to the group what the message was. If you’ve played this game before, you’d know how easily it is for the original message to become distorted at the end of the line.

With this in mind, we can see the challenges of relay interpretation. Because multiple players are involved, the risk of distorting the message is high, where omission from or addition to the original message can occur; thus, it is important that all interpreters involved are professionals and are  familiar with the code of ethics and the  necessary means they need to take to ensure accurate interpretation of the message.

At a recent  medical appointment, a Mandarin interpreter was requested. I learned early on that while the patient spoke Mandarin, he also spoke a Chinese dialect that I am unfamiliar with. This was not a problem because he understood Mandarin, but his son was present as well, and my work complicated when the two of them communicated in their dialect, leaving both the provider and myself out of the conversation.

During the appointment, the patient and his relative would have side conversations in their dialect. I had to inform the provider that the side conversations were in a different dialect that I didn’t understand, so she knew I wasn’t keeping information from her. After the side conversations ended, I tried to find out what they were talking about, and the son would kindly summarize it for me, allowing me to interpret the summary to the provider.

Much of the appointment went like this: the provider spoke, I interpreted the English into Mandarin Chinese, after hearing my interpretation, the patient and the son would converse in their dialect, and then the son would respond in English or in Chinese–if in Chinese, I would interpret it into English for the provider. What worried me was that while the side conversations lasted for at least 30 seconds at a time, the summaries were only a few words long, such as, “he said okay.”

In this case, relay interpretation took place, from English to Mandarin to the separate dialect back to Chinese then to English again. As I mentioned earlier, to ensure that messages get transmitted without distortion, we need to make sure that the interpreters are professionals; however, since the son was a family member, he felt that as long as he understood the message, it was okay. This is partly why family members are highly discouraged to act as interpreters. As well, when messages are summarized, the interpreter, not the speaker, decides what was most important and less important in the message. Because of this, important information can be lost during the transmission of information.

As an interpreter, I always want to make sure that messages are being understood, so I worried about what the patient was saying to his son and whether they full understood the provider’s instructions. However, it seems like the  in situations like this, it’s hard to repeatedly instruct the family members to interpret everything, or ask that the patient speak for himself rather than through the family member.

Fellow interpreters, what would you have done in this situation?

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