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Sign language interpreting in hospitals – an interview with Sascha Thiemeyer

Picture the following scenario: you are lying in your hospital bed. The doctor is standing in front of you and explaining exactly how your impending operation is going to go. But there is one obstacle: you are deaf and you cannot understand what the doctor is saying.

It is in situations like these that Sascha Thiemeyer steps in. He is a qualified sign language interpreter and can help people understand each other in a whole range of different situations.

He tells us in the interview below about how he came to work as a sign language interpreter and what is particularly challenging about interpreting in hospitals. 

Sascha, you are a professional sign language interpreter. What inspired you to pursue that career?

I’ve always been fascinated with languages and my first degree was all about Slavic languages, particularly Russian. I find sign languages especially interesting for their modality – you are communicating manually, with your hands, face and upper body, in a 3D space – and I therefore completed a BA in sign language interpreting at the University of Teacher Education in Special Needs in Oerlikon, Zurich.

I am very grateful to be able work with the incredible Swiss German sign language (DSGS) and meet an enormous variety of people in a whole host of different situations. Helping hearing and deaf people understand and communicate with each other is always a beautiful and satisfying task, but also a demanding one.

When dolmX was founded in 2021, you were booked for its very first interpreting assignment. What was the experience like for you?

dolmX envisioned an offer of interpreting services from and into all three Swiss sign languages from the outset, which is very cool. I think the underlying idea is very good: it makes interpreting more cost-effective and attractive for hospitals by saving on travel time. Hopefully, this means that more patients in hospitals will be able to communicate via an interpreter.

dolmX has an expert command of the technical side of these interpreting assignments: I found the interpreting platform easy to use right from the start and it functioned perfectly. A doctor and a patient met up to discuss an upcoming operation. Of course, it was great that dolmX was able to arrange interpreting for that important discussion at such short notice – the hospital arranged the discussion the morning of the same day and ordered an interpreter for it. In my view, the patient and doctor understood each other correctly, and the interpreting assignment was a success.

However, it remains to be seen for which applications and which deaf patients this online form of interpreting is suitable and which medical discussions should continue to be interpreted by an interpreter on site.

Which aspect of interpreting in a hospital, whether on site or via video, is particularly important in your view?

In medical discussions, both the doctor and the patient must feel sure that their questions and answers are being interpreted correctly and are coming across properly to the other person. Mutual understanding can determine whether the right diagnosis is made, whether the patient can make an informed decision and how successful the treatment will be.

It is therefore particularly important as an interpreter to ask the doctor to rephrase or explain if there is anything I do not understand, to make sure that symptoms are interpreted correctly. As an interpreter, you should have no reservations about using items in your vicinity to illustrate what you are saying – images, prescriptions, body models or medical instruments – or asking the doctor to provide additional anatomical pictures or models.

Another challenge when interpreting in hospitals is the diversity in deaf patients. People of all ages, all levels of education and all languages backgrounds need a wide variety of medical treatments. For example, I might have to interpret for a four-year-old child, an adult with a doctorate or a young person with no education who has run away and has a foreign sign language as their native language.
Sign language interpreters must therefore recognise their own limits, communicate honestly and, if necessary, involve a deaf colleague to act as a ‘cultural mediator’. Every patient has the right to understand their own diagnosis and treatment accurately and to be understood by medical personnel.

In your view, how has video interpreting changed working with patients in hospitals?

In video interpreting, the interpreter gets only a small excerpt of the situation and can see only the deaf patient. Other hearing people, such as the doctor and the health specialist, remain out of the interpreter’s sight. Similarly, the interpreter is seen solely via a screen. This means that doctors and patients can feel that there are just the two of them in the room and they can communicate directly. This is potentially nicer, especially for the hearing person.

On the other hand, the interpreter’s restricted view means they have less information about the situation; for example, they cannot see any documents, models of the human body, X-rays and so on unless the latter are addressed directly and held up to the camera. This means that visual information and materials cannot be incorporated into the sign language interpreting.

To give you one example, there are many different ways in Swiss German sign language of signing the term ‘broken bone’. Which form should I choose as the interpreter when I can see only the patient’s uninjured body, cannot see any X-rays and have no previous knowledge of the situation? Choosing the wrong sign in a situation like this can be confusing or even incomprehensible.
Interpreters therefore need to manage these medical settings carefully, explain the situation to both parties and confidently ask for any necessary information while interpreting.

What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?

As an independent interpreter, I work on a contract basis, primarily with my regular deaf and hearing clients. I work wherever I am needed: parent-teacher conferences in schools, meetings, conferences, training sessions, psychotherapy, speeches, demonstrations, in hospitals or in court.
I mainly work on-site, which involves travelling to many different towns and cities in German-speaking Switzerland. I also do online assignments where required via Teams, Zoom or even via the dolmX platform.

What would you say to prospective sign language interpreters?

I would bid them an early welcome to the community of sign language interpreters. Get ready for a lifetime of learning, sharpening your language knowledge, interpreting techniques and self-care, and you can look forward to a never-ending series of new, challenging and fascinating assignments, encounters and experiences.