The Crisis of Medical Translation in the Rainbow Nation

May 4


Charlene Lacandazo

Charlene Lacandazo

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The lack of use of medical translators in South Africa has far-reaching consequences, including poor patient care and an increase in the cost of psychiatric care.

South Africa is one of the most multilingual and culturally diverse countries on the face of the planet. When we hear the word South Africa, The Crisis of Medical Translation in the Rainbow Nation Articles we often imagine the famous leader of the country, Nelson Mandela. South Africa is commonly known as the ‘’Rainbow Nation’’, and it has no fewer than eleven official languages that include English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Swazi, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tsongo, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.Although the English language dominates South Africa as it is widely used in the media, politics and commerce and it can be quite well understood and widely spoken throughout the country. However, South Africans do not quite use the Queen’s English. They have their variety of pronunciations and they have great usage of Afrikaans verbs and other items of vocabulary. In addition, some radio stations and few channels in the television prefer to use their native languages.It is a fact that some of the offices of the government are in favor of using the English language for such services. The Department of Justice has accepted and highly appreciated the help of using interpreting and translation services. However, this is the opposite attitude from that of the Department of Health of the country, which has no provision of using interpreters and translators for any transactions, such as for medical transcription or medical documents. The nurses and the doctors stand as the interpreters and translators for such cases. Outsourcing for medical translation does not seem to be possible. In addition, the Department of Arts and Culture’s National Language Service has the responsibility for translating official documents in the country. However, the country’s language provider in the said government office has limited knowledge about the languages of South Africa. Is it a fact that the ‘’Rainbow Nation’’ is facing a crisis in translation services for businesses or even for government translation?Moreover, going back to the subject of medical issues, South Africa uses a lot of  private interpreters and translators within the hospitals. In some cases, particularly in psychiatric hospitals in South Africa, there was an allegation that interpreters and translators in this industry may not be effective and professional translators for translating some medical terms and thus, this may create confusion and vague information to the patients.From the studies and surveys that the American Psychiatric Association has conducted, it is clear that the nurses and doctors that stand as the interpreters and translators for such medical translation are ineffective. Hence, nurses and the doctors were not qualified enough to be the medium for such translation. Scholars and linguists therefore believe that there were medical terms that most of the medical practitioners in South Africa were not familiar with. It is indeed a fact that being a bilingual person and having knowledge of  a second language does not entirely mean that you can act as a qualified interpreter or translator. The lack of language services in South Africa may result in a more serious need of psychiatric care for the patient in the long run. Thus, avoiding to seek help from professional translators only mean that South Africa is not supporting the rights of every patient. In addition, the cost of psychiatric care escalates as a direct consequence of this false economy on translation and medical interpreting services.