Healing words

Healing words

A group of interpreters helps South Asian minorities cope with medical emergencies

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Andleeb Zarqa helps ethnic minorities understand the doctors.
Andleeb Zarqa helps ethnic minorities understand the doctors.
Photo: May Tse/SCMP
Ms Kausar is a Pakistani immigrant who can manage daily conversations in Cantonese. But when the middle-aged woman was admitted to hospital with kidney cancer a year ago, she found it a challenge to understand the doctors because they were using too much medical jargon.

She didn't really understand how serious her illness was or the risks involved in radiology treatments. She couldn't even read the consent forms.

This is where the Translingual Services group can help out. The social enterprise's 80 translators speak 16 languages from Urdu to Vietnamese. They specialise in simplifying medical jargon and helping break down language barriers between local doctors and their ethnic minority patients.

The most-needed languages are Urdu and Hindi as many of the city's 36,000-strong South Asian community do not speak Chinese and many do not know English either, says chief interpreter Muhammad Toor. "Our role is to ensure the wellbeing of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong," he says.

All the centre's translators are university graduates - some are medical students - with a certificate in medical interpreting.

Toor, a Pakistani and a trained doctor, collaborates with Baptist University's Centre for Translation to train new recruits in medical terminology, hospital procedures, social welfare, law and ethics. The 132-hour course covers fields from oncology to physiotherapy to psychology. The centre also conducts regular seminars with the Hospital Authority and Equal Opportunities Commission.

Toor says it is important for translators to be proficient in at least two languages and also understand different cultures. For example, some medical terms might be sensitive in Muslim-majority Pakistani culture.

The number one rule is to respect patients' privacy, as translators get to know as much about their medical history as their doctors do. By following medical ethics, interpreters can gain their clients' trust, Toor says.

Andleeb Zarqa, an experienced Pakistani translator, certainly gained Ms Kausar's trust.

At first, Zarqa went with her every time the patient saw the doctor; now she accompanies her for the appointments she attends every two weeks.

"She couldn't understand what radiology or oncology was, and the doctors couldn't explain," Zarqa says. "But we could help."

Zarqa moved to Hong Kong 17 years ago and is fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Cantonese. She studied biology at university, and her scientific knowledge comes in handy when she needs to understand diagnoses and cases.

The centre's interpreters work in shifts and team members are on stand-by 24/7 in case of emergencies. If needed, they can also assist with interpretations over the phone.

Severely ill patients may even ask for an interpreter to be present during surgery.

Zarqa stood by the side of a woman who was giving birth by caesarean section. The operation lasted for an hour and a half, during which Zarqa held the nervous mother's hand.

She admits the sight of blood makes her nauseous, but she remained calm and collected.

"Some patients are particularly anxious and frightened," she says. "They want someone who speaks their language around for comfort and support."

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