Angry Doctor

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Interpreter of Maladies

“I work in a doctor’s office.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“I am not a doctor. I work with one. As an interpreter.”

“Tell us more about your job, Mr. Kapasi,” Mrs. Das said.

“What would you like to know, madame?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged, munching on some puffed rice and licking the mustard oil from the corners of her mouth. “Tell us a typical situation.” She settled back in her seat, her head tilted in a patch of sun, and closed her eyes. “I want to picture what happens.”

“Very well. The other day a man came in with a pain in his throat.”

“Did he smoke cigarettes?”

“No. It was very curious. He complained that he felt as if there were long pieces of straw stuck in his throat. When I told the doctor he was able to prescribe the proper medication.”

“That’s so neat.”

“Yes,” Mr. Kapasi agreed after some hesitation.

“So these patients are totally dependent on you,” Mrs. Das said. She spoke slowly, as if she was thinking aloud. “In a way, more dependent on you than the doctor.”

“How do you mean? How could it be?”

“Well, for example, you could tell the doctor that the pain felt like a burning, not straw. The patient would never know what you had told the doctor, and the doctor wouldn’t know that you had told the wrong thing. It’s a big responsibility.”

“Yes, a big responsibility you have there, Mr. Kapasi,” Mr. Das agreed.

Mr. Kapasi had never thought of his job in such complimentary terms. To him it was a thankless occupation. He found nothing noble in interpreting other people’s maladies, assiduously translating the symptoms of so many swollen bones, countless cramps of bellies and bowels, spots on people’s palms that changed color, shape, or size.

- from Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri


  • Just for discussion, has there ever been a medical lawsuit whereby the problem was that the interpreter did not accurately translate the patient's complaints or concerns to the doctor?

    Or where the doctor's instructions or advice was not accurately translated to the patient's language?

    Who is liable? The doctor or the interpreter? In Singapore sometimes we get the cleaner to translate! She herself may have a poor vocabulary, not to mention how to translate medical diagnoses!

    What is MPS's position on this I wonder.

    By Blogger Dr Oz bloke, At July 05, 2006 1:20 pm  

  • it's the dr's responsibility to find an appropriate interpreter, isn't it?
    ask a nurse lah.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At July 05, 2006 5:21 pm  

  • I do not recall off-hand any court case involving medical interpretation, but the issue is an important one which I think we should look into in view of our large migrant worker population.

    I'll post a series of articles over the course of the week we can all look at.

    By Blogger angry doc, At July 05, 2006 5:26 pm  

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