Role-blurring and ethical grey zones associated with lay interpreters: Three case studies


  • Charles Brua The Pennsylvania State University.



non-professional interpreters, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, limited linguistic accommodation, constraints on healthcare access


This article examines a context in which immigrants from the former Soviet Union must navigate the English-speaking medical system in a semi-rural area of the USA. In this setting, institutional interpretation resources are not consistently available, and various informal arrangements emerge. One type consists of naive interpreters such as family members of low bilingual capability and/or medical knowledge. Another arrangement involves relatively skilled bilinguals who have command of medical terminology but who are not professionally trained as interpreters. Three case studies of this latter category of ‘lay interpreters’ are presented. Among the roles reported by the lay interpreters are information source and advocate. The three interpreters are making a contribution in the absence of institutionally provided professional resources, and their help can be viewed as better than the use of naive interpreters such as patients’ children. However, the lay interpreters also occasionally seemed to stray into ethically grey areas. For instance, one interpreter said he discarded a client’s outdated medicine against her wishes, and another expressed envy of ungrateful clients who had better healthcare access than she did. While professionally trained interpreters are not immune from ethical challenges, such training would better safeguard both patient and interpreter.

Author Biography

Charles Brua, The Pennsylvania State University.

Charles Brua is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University. This research was supported in part by funding from the College of the Liberal Arts and the Center for Language Acquisition, both at Penn State.



How to Cite

Brua, C. (2008). Role-blurring and ethical grey zones associated with lay interpreters: Three case studies. Communication and Medicine, 5(1), 73–80.



Research Notes