A serious shortage of qualified interpreters and translators has forced medical staff at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital to rely on cleaners, security guards and other unqualified personnel to act as interpreters, according to Dr Kim Wallmach of the Wits Language School.

A speech therapist at the hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “It is very difficult when we do not speak the same language. I sometimes use the clerk or the patient’s family members to assist with translation.

“When they are not available, I use the limited vocabulary that I may have in the patient’s language, as well as gestures and pictures.”

Wallmach said many people thought that being multilingual automatically meant one could be an interpreter. She said people actually needed to learn how to be interpreters. “Professional translation is different from translating for family.”

This was echoed by the speech therapist. “When the clerk or family members translate, the message often gets lost and the patient does not attain the proper understanding … Having trained interpreters at the hospital would definitely help.

“It would also help if learning another language, like Zulu, was part of the curriculum at universities …”

Wits recently introduced isiZulu for medical students and there are hopes that students in other professional degrees will also be taught the language.

Wallmach also encouraged Wits students to consider a career in interpreting and translating. “All languages here in South Africa are minority languages, which means there is need for more interpreters in banking, insurance, education, legal and media sectors. If you are an extrovert and like languages, interpreting is the job for you.”

 Honours student and English, French, Hebrew, and Dutch interpreter, Sarah Aich said interpreting was a great career to pursue since it had existed since ancient times and served as a bridge to connect people, cultures and nations.

“Interpreting enables you to understand the unfamiliar, to discover other horizons …  A country without enough interpreters is a country that will suffer misunderstandings and divisions, that will not be open to the wide world. It is a country that misses business opportunities.”


Published in Vuzuzela 16th Edition