Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

A Vietnamese Head Start Interpreter: A Case Study

Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

A Vietnamese Head Start Interpreter: A Case Study

Article excerpt

This is a case study of a Vietnamese interpreter working for a Head Start center in a midwestern city in the United States. The data are from a larger ethnomethodological study involving nine Southeast Asian families, 10 Southeast Asian children, and three Euro-American Head Start staff. The interpreter was expected to play multiple roles as a Head Start interpreter/health service worker, but these roles were neither explicitly designated nor described by the participants. This article describes the different role expectations of the various participants and the conflict that occurred because of these differences. Interpretation of the data includes description of the following cultural constructs: interpreter roles, independence/interdependence, power/distance, and cultural perspectives about time. Implications drawn from this case study are discussed.


Most research on cross-linguistic interpretation is written from the employer's perspective and focuses on issues related to the accuracy of the interpretation, interpreter training programs, and costs/benefits of interpreter services. Few researchers have looked at the impact of the perspectives of the interactants on the interpretation process. An interpreter can fill a variety of roles that range on a continuum of involvement from a conduit who provides a simple translation of the message to a fully embedded member of the community who is interpreting and advocating for community members. (See the article "Considerations When Working with Interpreters" in this issue). What happens if an employer assumes that the interpreter's role is to be a conduit but the interpreter views that role as an embedded member of the community? In ad dition to this role confusion, the clients for whom interpreting services are provided may expect the interpreter to play yet a third role.

It is not unusual for interpreters at institutions to have a job that entails more than one role. Institutions often do not have budgetary lines for interpreting services or full-time positions for interpreters. Many interpreters are employed as janitors, teachers, teacher aides, nurses, or nurse aides and are asked to interpret as needed. How do these multiple roles affect the interpreters' perspectives of their jobs, the interpretation process, and their role as interpreters? The probable result is conflict regarding the interpreter's role among employers, clients, and interpreters. At the same time, interpreters may experience personal conflict because of these multiple roles.

In the following case study, a young Vietnamese woman had two jobs--as a health service worker (HSW) for Head Start and an interpreter for Head Start teachers and Vietnamese children and their families. The administrator and teachers believed the interpreter's roles were as follows:

1. to communicate Head Start information to the Vietnamese families,

2. to interpret teacher instructions and administer tests for the Vietnamese children, and

3. to interpret for the Vietnamese families for Head Start and other community agencies.

For the HSW position, the administrator and other health service workers believed the woman's roles were as follows:

1. to convey Head Start rules and regulations to the parents and

2. to report child abuse/neglect to police or Social Rehabilitation Services (SRS).

Head Start had one assumption of the roles for the two jobs, and the interpreter had another. Even within the interpreter position, there were different role expectations. At times, the interpreter was expected to be a neutral conduit; at other times, a cultural manager; and for other situations, an embedded interpreter. Although these expectations were not explicitly communicated, when situations arose, the Head Start staff members and Southeast Asian families assumed that the interpreter would adjust to meet their communication needs during an interaction. …

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