Interpreting: out-of-hours = out-of-scope?


Interpreting: out-of-hours = out-of-scope?

Maybe you’ve moved to the UK, you speak perfectly acceptable second language English; or maybe you’re second generation of the family that moved to the UK, you were born here and speak perfect English.

Imagine the following scene.

An older family member of yours, also resident in the UK, can not speak English. S/he falls ill early one weekend, is shipped into the Accident and Emergency department of the nearest hospital and is retained for crucial observation or possibly emergency treatment.

A considerable amount of information in the process of the weekend needs to be provided to – and by – the medical personnel involved at all levels. It is often not known that interpreting is needed until the last minute, which puts the UK National Health Service (NHS) interpreting system under strain, even more so if an only recently popular language such as Latvian or Yoruba.

Yet this is not an unusual scenario at all, particularly in inner city hospitals.

NHS best practice on the matter, an item of public information, can be accessed at

Although not prohibited, the advice given is understandably to avoid interpreting through family members. This could very readily cause all or some of the following:

  • lack of clarity of delivery through emotional stress
  • deliberately abridged messages
  • compromised ability to use the correct terms
  • inability to take decisions in the sick person’s best interests.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that only guidelines, not mandatory regulations, are provided for language services.

This means differing versions of the guidelines exist across the regions of the country. Which means differing types of interpreting can be expected. For instance, the above link to best practice targets Birmingham and environs. In the Manchester region, In Scotland, NHS personnel are guided on whether and how to use face-to-face or telephone interpreting on the basis of

All of the above cover the ground fairly well most of the time, yet struggle if the language service is needed out of hours or at weekends and even more so if telephone interpreting is unsuitable in a given medical situation.

As often as not, then, depending on numerous variables and regional differences, the interpreting simply doesn’t happen.

So, at that point, there is no fall-back and simply the treatment or operation can’t go ahead, which in worst case scenarios may have fatal consequences. Should this be allowed to continue under the official current NHS interpreting policy?

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