Working practices and ethical challenges of healthcare interpreters as institutional agents embedded in the patients’ community

Document Type


Publication Date

June 2013


In the field of community interpreting, where interpreters’ role boundaries and positions are so diffused, interpreters are constantly struggling to position themselves as multi-cultural agents within public institutions. This paper focuses on a NGO of healthcare interpreters in southern Spain, composed mainly of foreign residents, which has shaped the structures of this field for over 25 years working at two hospitals. Their contribution has overshadowed the work of other healthcare interpreters in the area and provided them with a large volume of social capital—public recognition and awards, and symbolic capital—autonomy to shape their practice. Interpreters deploy these forms of capital to negotiate their position as members of the healthcare team thus generating a high degree of trust among both healthcare staff and foreign patients.

This paper examines the narratives of this group of interpreters and their ability to constantly (re)position themselves between two distinctive ethical poles. These comprise the position of interpreters as institutional agents—realized through their fidelity to the healthcare institution and its members, and interpreters as patients’ spokespersons—realized through “patience, tolerance and compassion”. Framing this study within Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and drawing on a triangulation of focus group interviews, participant observation and recorded interaction, it seeks to elucidate the development of these interpreters’ working practices and the extent to which these can be applicable to the professional practice of healthcare interpreting.