Lost in translation: an interpretative phenomenological analysis of mental health professionals' experiences of empathy in clinical work with an interpreter

Matthew A Pugh, Arlene Vetere
Psychology and Psychotherapy 2009, 82 (Pt 3): 305-21

OBJECTIVES: Although empathy is considered by many to be fundamental to psychotherapeutic practice, little is known about how working with an interpreter may affect empathy in clinical work. Accordingly, the present study aims to provide an exploration of mental health professionals' experiences of empathy in clinical work with an interpreter.

DESIGN: A qualitative methodology was utilized in order to provide a rich understanding of participants' shared experiences of empathy in work with an interpreter. Data were gathered using a semi-structured interviewing approach. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was chosen as the method of analysis as this would provide a highly descriptive and in-depth account of participants' experiences.

METHOD: Interviews were conducted with 10 mental health professionals regularly working with linguistic interpreters. Interviews were transcribed and analysed using IPA.

RESULTS: The analysis yielded four major themes which described the effects of translation upon empathic dialogues with service-users; changes in the quality of empathic communication with service-users; the effects of cultural similarities and dissimilarities upon empathy within client-interpreter and client-professional dyads; and opportunities for the interpreter to enrich participants' understanding of service-users' perspectives.

CONCLUSIONS: The difficulties participants encountered in work with an interpreter highlight a need for training in cross-language empathy for interpreters and mental health professionals, and encourage the use of transcultural models of psychotherapy in work with non-English speaking service-users. Some of the difficulties associated with adopting traditional humanistic models of empathy, which tend to centralize the therapist within empathic processes, when working with interpreters are also discussed.

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