BICOM Partners

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6. The science and the art of lay interpreting: Using forum theatre to give voice to child interpreters

Like it or not, children are often used as interpreters in clinical consultations. This has often been seen not merely as substandard practice, but as having serious ethical problems. Yet the few empirical studies that have been done on child interpreters reveal a different story: children are often very good at interpreting for their family members; they gain fulfillment and satisfaction from it; and it introduces them to role models that may inspire a future career as doctors or nurses. But the role of child interpreter is nevertheless an ambiguous and challenging one, with complex power relationships and (often) high intellectual and social demands on the child.

As part of the BICOM partnership we recruited six child interpreters who were now aged 16-17 but who had been interpreting since age 7. The children were all participants on a pre-medicine summer school for pupils from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. They worked with two specialists in forum theatre to develop scenarios based on their past experiences. They enacted these as unfinished theatre dramas at an international workshop attended by participants from different EU countries, and drew members of the audience into the different stories. The background to Forum Theatre is described elsewhere

The young people presented a powerful and evocative picture of the experience of the child interpreter. The expressed multiple and conflicting emotions through their enacted scenarios, confirming that the role of interpreter in medical consultations has both positive and negative effects on the child. Themes raised included pressure of time, lack of sympathy or understanding from clinicians about the demands of their role, confusion with specialist medical terminology, lack of health literacy in the relative for whom they were interpreting, and the difficult responsibility of breaking news that was likely to engender anger or sadness in their relative. Audience participation promoted engagement with the children’s experience, and demonstrated that there are no easy answers to this complex issue.

Forum theatre is an effective way of exploring complex social situations, and especially for giving voice to individuals who lack power in such situations.

Trish Greenhalgh