Poor interpretation can be deadly, and that is why just bilingual staff cannot replace a professional interpreter, especially in life and death situations. Professional translators and interpreters are allies for professionals of other specialties and in many cases cannot be replaced by translation tools with artificial intelligence or bilingual staff without proper training in cultural mediation. Unfortunate cases such as that of Willie Ramírez, a Hispanic U.S. young man that ended up being the victim of a poor interpretation, underline the need to guarantee everybody’s right to understand and be understood efficiently.
On many occasions, the role of professional translators and interpreters is underestimated and there is a misconception that any person with advanced command of two languages or completely bilingual, without training in translation, can effectively perform such a specialized labor. There are even those who go further and believe that a translation engine with artificial intelligence, such as Google’s Translator or DeepL, is sufficient to guarantee effective communication. And within the context of misconceptions and conceptual errors, poor interpretation can cost lives.
But what is the right thing to do? Resort to translation applications? Hire a professional translator or use a bilingual person? Let us see one of many controversial examples.
According to a report published by BBC news, , the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency (USCIS), in one of its International Refugee Assistance Project manuals, advised its officials to “use one of the many online translation services provided by Google, Yahoo, Bing and others” to translate foreign language content and check the social network profiles of refugee applicants in that country or migrants; without noticing the mishaps that an inaccurate or incorrect translation could trigger, above all, against those who require special protection.
And while on the one hand there are those who believe that artificial intelligence replaces the professional translator and interpreter, we also find those who have resorted to bilingual people without translation training, involved in situations with extreme consequences, as happened to the young man of Hispanic descent Willie Ramirez.
On the night of January 22, 1980, Willie went with a friend to a restaurant to eat a hamburger, and while there he suffered a severe headache and ended up unconscious, for which he was transferred to a hospital in South Florida.
His family members, who were not fluent in English, associated the problem to what they believed was food poisoning related to the food he ate. They thought the hamburger he ate would have caused an adverse reaction and told the bilingual hospital staff that Willie was “intoxicado“; thus, this staff, with supposed mastery of the Spanish language, translated the term into English as intoxicated, clearly a false friend, that is to say, a word that seems to have the same meaning.
The word “intoxicado” in Spanish refers to the ingestion of a poison or something that is toxic to us, according to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE). On the other hand, the word intoxicated in English, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary of the English language, refers to the person affected by alcohol or drugs, at a level where physical and mental control are greatly diminished.
The confusion of the two voices – with different meanings – by the bilingual staff led the treating physician to provide Willie with drug overdose treatment that was not consistent with his bleeding brain condition. This caused irreversible damage and left him a lifelong quadriplegic. For this reason, the hospital -subject to a civil action by the victim’s family- was forced to pay $71 million in compensation for the damages caused.
From this case, the rule was reinforced that any health care institution receiving funds from the U.S. federal government must ensure the availability of translators and interpreters for non-English speaking patients (in accordance with Title VI, Section 1557 of the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act).
So what does the experience tell you? Translators and interpreters are allies to many professions through the translation of many technical works, scientific research, and literary masterpieces, not to mention their work at large conferences, summits, and other events, and are of paramount importance when it comes to saving lives or ensuring due process.
Without denying the usefulness and progress of automatic translation engines in different situations, and how timely the help of a bilingual person can be in a place where we do not know the language, it is necessary to be clear in which contexts the services of a professional translator or interpreter is required. Notorious cases such as Willie Ramirez’s underscore the need to ensure the right of all to understand and be understood efficiently, and translators and interpreters will be there, willing to bridge those communication gaps.
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