Being the bearer of bad news

9th May 2014

When people ask me the most standard question on this planet, ‘what do you do for a living?’ I always reply with the simplest answer ever: ‘I am a medical interpreter’. What I normally hear in response is ‘oh, how great. It must be a fun job’. Well, most of the time it is. But on certain occasions it is far from being so. When it comes to medical interpretation, everyday jobs include, what I call, the ‘coughs and colds’. But on certain days I go to work to tell someone that they have cancer. Now that is a part of NHS interpreters’ job that is not discussed very often.

Sometimes, by knowing what ward or clinic type I am being booked for gives me a clue. Sometimes I know that I will have to be the bearer of bad news and tell a patient that they have terminal cancer. Moreover, there are other diseases that sound like a life sentence and are accompanied with social stigma: HIV and tuberculosis, to name just a few. At Pearl Linguistics, we are professional interpreters that have to deal with situations like that on a daily basis.

Unquestionably, the interpreter’s job is to convey the very same message to the patient in a language that they understand. And NHS medical professionals break the bad news in different ways. Some will get straight to the point and say ‘We have detected cancerous cells’ as soon as the patient manages to take a seat. Others, on the other hand, will build up anxiety levels to a maximum level by discussing various factors, outcomes, investigations and the patient nearly faints from the excess of information before they manage to get to the point. As much as my job is to say exactly what has been said in the source language, I cannot help but switch into a more personal mode. Is it professional? Probably not. Is it the right thing to do? Correct me if I am wrong, but I would say yes.

It is also worth mentioning that obviously NHS interpreters are not allowed to discuss the cases they have assisted with anyone else. As employees of Pearl Linguistics we are obliged to protect personal information and not disclose any details of any bookings. This means that after being a part of a very personal news breaking process, which can also be highly emotional, an interpreter is left on their own.  As professionals, we of course should not take it personally. But as human beings, we cannot help but react to such situations with feelings like compassion, sadness, helplessness or anxiety and stress.

Fortunately, as NHS interpreters, our mission is to enable smooth communication despite the linguistic barriers that two individuals may face. And that is exactly what keeps me going in rather unpleasant situations. I know that if it was not for Pearl Linguistics professional services, both the patient and a healthcare professional would feel even more uncomfortable when passing on the bad news. Even though it is not the most enjoyable part of my job, it makes the process easier and, hopefully, less hurtful.

For more information on Pearl’s interpreting services, please contact us on 020 7253 7700 or email

Ewa Siemion, Polish Interpreter (full time)


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