Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 235–244 | Cite as

A bridge between cultures: interpreters’ perspectives of consultations with migrant oncology patients

  • Phyllis N. ButowEmail author
  • Elizabeth Lobb
  • Michael Jefford
  • David Goldstein
  • Maurice Eisenbruch
  • Afaf Girgis
  • Madeleine King
  • Ming Sze
  • Lynley Aldridge
  • Penelope Schofield
Original Article



Migration is increasing worldwide. In previous research into people with cancer from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, interpreter accuracy, professionalism and continuity have emerged as key concerns for patients. Little is known about interpreters’ perceptions of their role and the challenges they face. This study aimed to obtain their perspective.


Thirty interpreters (Greek n = 7, Chinese n = 11, and Arabic n = 12) participated in four focus groups which were audio-taped, transcribed and analysed for themes using N-Vivo software.


Skills as an interpreter were broadly perceived as conveying information accurately, being confidential and impartial. Three broad dilemmas faced by interpreters emerged: accuracy versus understanding; translating only versus cultural advocacy and sensitivity; and professionalism versus providing support. Some saw themselves as merely an accurate conduit of information, while others saw their role in broader terms, encompassing patient advocacy, cultural brokerage and provision of emotional support. Perceived challenges in their role included lack of continuity, managing their own emotions especially after bad news consultations, and managing diverse patient and family expectations. Training and support needs included medical terminology, communication and counselling skills and debriefing. Interpreters suggested that oncologists check on interpreter/patient’s language or dialect compatibility; use lay language and short sentences; and speak in the first person.


Resolving potential conflicts between information provision and advocacy is an important area of cross-cultural communication research. Further training and support is required to enhance interpreters’ competence in managing delicate situations from a professional, cultural and psychological perspective; and to assist doctors to collaborate with interpreters to ensure culturally competent communication. Ultimately, this will improve interpreters’ well-being and patient care.


Medical interpretation Oncology Professional roles Challenges 


Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflict of interest to report.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phyllis N. Butow
    • 1
    Email author
  • Elizabeth Lobb
    • 1
  • Michael Jefford
    • 2
  • David Goldstein
    • 3
  • Maurice Eisenbruch
    • 4
  • Afaf Girgis
    • 5
  • Madeleine King
    • 1
  • Ming Sze
    • 1
  • Lynley Aldridge
    • 1
  • Penelope Schofield
    • 6
    • 7
  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Dept of Medical OncologyPeter MacCallum Cancer CentreMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Dept of Medical OncologyPrince of Wales HospitalSydneyAustralia
  4. 4.School of Psychology and PsychiatryMonash UniversityVictoriaAustralia
  5. 5.Cancer Council NSWUniversity of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute, Centre for Health Research and Psycho-oncologyNewcastleAustralia
  6. 6.Department of Nursing and Supportive Care ResearchPeter MacCallum Cancer CentreMelbourneAustralia
  7. 7.Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health SciencesUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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