Juvenile interpreters in health care: An ethical dilemma

Ludwien Meeuwesen, Hans Harmsen

Interdisciplinary Social Science Department, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, Erasmus University, Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


Juvenile interpreters in health care: An ethical dilemma

Although the use of children or teenagers as interpreters is controversial, and broadly regarded as non-ethical, it is daily practice that adult immigrant patients are frequently accompanied by one of their children (Green et al., 2004). From a sociolinguistic point of view it is interesting to investigate how juvenile interpreters present themselves in the medical interview, and which role they prefer. How do they wrestle with the role switch of parents and children? Now, the parents are dependent on their children instead of the other way round. Are the juvenile interpreters mainly facilitating, or do they also succeed in some kind of mediation?

The aim of our study was to gain more insight into the ways children present themselves in the medical interaction. Which role does a juvenile interpreter prefer? Does this role meet with the expectations of the patient and the physician? Are they linguistically prepared to perform the interpreting work adequately?

From a theoretical point of view, the role of interpreter is regarded in an interactional way: it is the result of a three party interaction in a medical institutional context. This medical context prescribes specific competencies necessary for good interpreting, e.g. knowledge of the medical discourse frame, and the ability to anticipate the various phases of the medical interview (Bolden, 2000).

Transcripts and videos of medical interviews in Dutch general practices, of Turkish immigrant adult patients, accompanied by a child as interpreter, were analysed qualitatively, focusing on the different roles interpreters may play. Based on discourse analytic concepts, the roles and identities of the interpreters in the several medical phases (medical history, physical examination, conclusion) were analysed at micro level.

Results show that children/ teenagers mainly stick to the role of ‘facilitator’, and not so much to that of mediator. Although there is as much miscommunication and/or confusion compared with adult informal interpreters, the interaction seems more transparent for the physician. Physicians do recognize the miscommunication better and are able to restore. From this point of view, juvenile interpreters do a better job than adult informal interpreters.

The results will be discussed in terms of the needs for good communication in a bilingual medical context, with an emphasis on the specific interests of the three parties involved.


Bolden, G.B. (2000). Towards understanding practices of medical interpreting: Interpreters’ involvement in history taking. Discourse Studies, 2(4), 387-419.

Green, J. et al., (2004). Translators and mediators: Bilingual young people’s accounts of their interpreting work in health care. Social Science and Medicine, 60, 2097-2110.

Session: Paper session
Language/medical 2
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 12