oa South African Health Review - Language barriers in health : lessons from the experiences of trained interpreters working in public sector hospitals in the Western Cape

Volume 2016, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1025-1715



There has been a longstanding call to employ trained interpreters to address language barriers in health care in South Africa. The international literature shows that while trained interpreters can be effective, the existing sophisticated models of upper-income countries are expensive and contextually inappropriate for low-resource settings like South Africa. In community interpreter models, members of the community are given brief training in interpreting; these models have a number of potential advantages for our context, but have not been sufficiently reviewed in the literature.

In this chapter, we describe the findings of a pilot project in which community interpreters were introduced to hospitals in the Western Cape to address the language barrier experienced by isiXhosa-speaking healthcare users. Using participatory action research methods, we discuss emerging themes identified by the interpreters, from mentor sessions conducted with them over a three-year period. The emerging themes suggest that they experience their work as challenging on practical and emotional levels, and that there is uncertainty about where they belong and fit into the health system.
The experiences of the interpreters raise crucial questions about current language issues in our hospitals, while offering important insights into the potential to develop a multilingual health service for South Africa's culturally and linguistically diverse population. We make recommendations for the promotion of language access in health services, the professionalisation of health interpreters, and suggest areas for further research.

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