Telephone interpretation to the rescue

Interpreters are assigned through a central office

An expectant mother arrives at hospital, anxious and about to give birth – but none of the staff speaks her language. To address such problems, the Swiss have initiated a round-the-clock telephone interpretation service.

This content was published on February 27, 2013 minutes

A pilot project, the National Telephone Interpreting Service has already garnered praise for its practical and helpful intervention in emergency situations – and not only in hospitals.

Speakers of languages from Arabic to Serbian to Italian are on call, ready to interpret into and from Switzerland’s three official languages – German, French and Italian – at a moment’s notice.

Immediate help

At the hospital, a midwife is trying to coach the labouring mother. “We already see the baby’s head. Now you have to push!“ she urges. But her words fall on deaf ears: the Arabic-speaking mother doesn’t understand her.

It is the middle of the night, and an urgent call is placed to Inaia Noureddine, a Swiss of Lebanese descent. For the past year, Noureddine has worked for the interpretation service as an Arabic-to-German and German-to-Arabic translator.

“In the Arab culture it’s not customary for the father to be present at the birth,” she explains, adding that for the young mother in the birthing room, it is very important emotionally to hear her own language, even if only on the telephone.

The expectant mothers are not the only ones relying on the interpreters – the midwives do, too. Thanks to the interpreters, the midwives are able to concentrate on their own work without in addition attempting to communicate what is happening through gestures and sign language.

“I understand quite well how the mother in the hospital must have felt not being able to understand anything going on around her. She was incredibly grateful for the little bit of security that I tried to give her. She was able to calm down. I stayed on the phone with her until the baby was born,” says Noureddine.

As fast as the interpreters are connected, they are just as abruptly disconnected.  Noureddine was off the phone as soon as she had finished talking the young mother through the birth, her services no longer needed. She never found out if the baby was born healthy, or if it was a boy or a girl.

It is not only at the beginning of life that the interpreters are called on for assistance –psychiatric clinics also make regular use of the service to communicate with distraught persons and hinder possible suicide attempts.

“We translate for emergency rooms, all kinds of hospitals, general practitioners, pharmacies, private clinics, prisons, communities, and fire and police departments,” says Sanja Lukić, head of the national telephone interpretation service.

Exotic languages at a premium

For the past two years, the Zurich organisation AOZ Medios, which is active in the migration field, has offered the services of qualified interpreters by telephone on behalf of the Federal Office of Public Health. The interpreters work in about fifty target languages, with interpreters available around the clock to translate the 12 most frequently used foreign languages in Switzerland.

“It sometimes takes a bit longer in the case of exotic languages,” says Lukić.

As might be expected, the interaction is often highly emotional, with interpreters thrust into a situation from one moment to the next. Yet they are also expected to distance themselves to a lesser or greater extent, depending on what is happening.

The approximately three hundred interpreters who are under contract are highly qualified, holding a Specialist Certificate for Intercultural Translation or an Interpreting Certificate. In addition, they receive special training for telephone interpretation and take a professional oath of confidentiality.

Among the satisfied clients are the Solothurn Hospitals.

“In emergency situations it’s fantastic,” says Gedrun Hochberger, director of nursing. “Some people have reservations about whether it’s possible to interpret by telephone. But after they’ve tried it, and see how professional the interpreters are, they’re enthusiastic,” she says. Interpretation costs are covered by the canton of Solothurn.

National Telephone Interpreting Service

Interpreters, who provide an oral translation between speakers of different languages, can be reached at 0842 442 442. The service provides interpretations into and from German, French and Italian only.

The staff will immediately contact interpreters around the clock for 12 languages: Albanian, Arabic, Italian, Kurdish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian-Croat-Bosnian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil, Tigrinya (Eritrea), and Turkish.

Users of the service pay CHF3 per minute, beginning as soon as the interpreter is on the phone. The minimum charge is CHF30 per consultation.

Potential users can do a “live test” of the service on the website

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Growing pains

The costs of developing the National Telephone Interpreting Service, which was launched two years ago, are being picked up by the health office during the three-year set-up phase, to the tune of about CHF1 million. Afterwards the project will be expected to pay for itself.

But the service, which currently translates between 70 and 100 calls per month, is far from being self-funded.

“The user data in the feasibility analysis at the time were based on unrealistic frequency-of-use projections of several thousand calls per month,” says Thomas Spang, head of the health office's Migration and Public Health programme.

“Numbers like this can only be reached if the insurance companies reimburse for the costs of the calls,” explains Spang. However, insurance companies have thus far refused to pay, arguing that telephone interpretation is not a medical service. Two attempts in parliament to force health insurers to cover such costs went nowhere.

Still, there is reason for optimism, according to Spang. The user numbers have clearly risen, and the service meets a need.

“Faulty treatment can be avoided, and under some circumstances, lives can be saved.”

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