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Medical interpreter's presence can be a matter of life and death

Published on Thursday, 04 Aug 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

In multicultural Hong Kong, many minority groups speak only in their dialect. This presents a problem when going to the doctor, for instance, and has given rise to a demand for medical interpreters. Though the position has existed in the local health care system for many years, it has never been formally recognised.

To give the role some credence, the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) Centre for Translation collaborated with the HKSKH Lady MacLehose Centre in offering a certificate in medical interpreting.

"Medical interpreting has never been a formal job in Hong Kong despite its significance," says Associate Professor Esther Leung Sin-man, of the HKBU English language and literature department, who is responsible for the course. "Some ethnic minority patients simply ask their children or relatives to interpret for them but because the interpreter has no formal training, this can lead to disaster."

The certificate course involves 130 hours of training and a 20-hour practicum at various hospitals over six months. Students can choose to be interpreters in Urdu, Hindi, Nepali or Punjabi. Applicants must have tertiary education qualifications or the equivalent.

The course is the first step to establishing medical translation as a formal job in the local healthcare system, but it has a long way to go. Leung says course graduates are employed on a case-by-case basis and receive a mere HK$80 to HK$120 per hour.

Medical interpreters are present with the patient when they meet with a doctor. Most are employed at government hospitals and clinics. The role of the interpreter is to help the doctor understand the patients' medical history, and to do so, the translator must be familiar with medical jargon. "Some of the more complicated situations involve medical terms that exist in English or Chinese but not in other dialects," Leung says.

Since hospitals operate 24/7, interpreters must work in shifts and be on stand-by for overnight duty. In urgent cases, interpretation must be done over the phone.

According to Leung, Hong Kong is lagging far behind in the development of the profession.

"Medical interpreting is a recognised profession in many countries but not in Hong Kong despite its numerous immigrants. The need for interpreters is growing as the number of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong increases," she says. 

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