language access, leadership for interpreters

Delivering Bad News for Interpreters

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Last year, I was doing some research to prepare for a workshop that I named, “How Much Do You Want To Know: Delivering Bad News for Interpreters”. If you’re a medical interpreter, and/or if you’ve ever received really bad news in the hospital, you know what’s coming after the doctor says, “How much do you want to know?” Well, maybe you don’t know what’s coming exactly, but you do know one thing: It’s not going to be good news. I wanted to develop a workshop that would prepare interpreters to interpret bad news. So, what’s the big deal with bad news?

Interpreters get nervous when we feel like we might be walking in to a bad news situation. Why? Well, as an interpreter, I’ll tell you that there are a couple of things going on. The first is the terminology piece. Bad news can involve some pretty rare and complex illnesses and procedures. As an interpreter, we have skills to resolve terminology issues, but during the times I’ve interpreted bad news, it feels very awkward to engage those skills. The perfectionist that exists in every interpreter (in some more than others) becomes really loud and active. So that’s one thing.

The second thing going on is the people part. How will people react when they receive bad news? How will their loved ones react? Will the doctor deliver the news in a sensitive way? While I was researching, I found this fantastic article on the American Translators Association website that explains to interpreters what they might expect from the doctor and the patient and family in a bad news situation. There are specific phrases that the doctor might say. These phrases are helpful for interpreters, so that we can have an idea ahead of time how we might best interpret them.

“I wish the news were different.”

“I’m sorry I have to tell you this.”

“I’ll help you tell your family.”

“How much do you want to know?”

There are so many, and I catch my breath when I read some of them, when I suddenly remember what it feels like to interpret things like, “I’ll help you tell your family.” Or, “You have weeks to months.” Experienced interpreters will tell you about the beginning of their work, when it seemed like every single interpretation was all about delivering crappy news, or interpreting for a family who was suffering in some way. And so it goes, for interpreters. Bad news has to be delivered. For Deaf and LEP patients, someone has to interpret it. When my staff debrief with me after tough interpretations, I tell them, “I’ll bet that family was so comforted to have such a compassionate interpreter there with them.” Or, “That must have been tough for that patient to hear that.  I’m so glad you were there to interpret for them.”

This week, I lost half of my staff to hospital-wide layoffs. My staff. Who taught me how to have a staff. Who taught me how to be a leader. Who were my buoy when I sustained my own personal loss last year. And I thought, Who will deliver this bad news? Who will tell the interpreters?

My boss did it. She told the interpreters. I can only imagine how she told them: “I’m sorry I have to tell you this.” She told half of our staff, “I wish the news were different.” How?  I don’t know. I always debrief with my boss after we have a tough day, but we didn’t that day. I wanted to tell her, “I’ll bet our staff was so comforted to have that news delivered in such a compassionate way.”

That day, an interpreter on my staff was anguished about the layoffs, “I don’t get it. I’ve told parents that their kid has cancer. I’ve seen people die. So why is this so difficult?  Why do I feel so sad?” I could only say, “Because this is sad. And now we feel sad.”

Interpreting bad news is tough. But what about when interpreters are receiving the bad news?  I’ve told the interpreters that it’s okay. That patients will still be taken care of, even without all of us all there. That the interpreters will be okay, even without all of us all there. That we will take turns believing it will be okay, even when it seems like it won’t be okay.

Had I not experienced it myself, I would not have believed the heartbreak that comes with layoffs. Can I lead this team through the loss, and still make sure that people who need interpreters are getting them? Can we overcome this grief? This heartbreak?  To my staff, all of you: Let’s take turns believing, and make it so.


4 thoughts on “Delivering Bad News for Interpreters”

  1. Very touching…and thought provoking. It’s a difficult time for all…those who are being laid off and even the “survivors” of the bad news.

    1. The short answer is no. The layoffs were throughout the hospital, due to budget cuts, due to decisions made at the leadership level. Having said that, VRI provided a solution when we no longer had the budget to provide interpreters onsite for all requests. I think it’s tempting to be angry with VRI, or we may hear things like, “we’re being replaced with VRI”, when the truth is, the interpreters working VRI are in fact our colleagues, and don’t make decisions that lead to layoffs.

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