Introduction Heath care professionals (HCP) who use interpreters in reproductive health consultations with people of dissimilar cultural backgrounds often describe situations where interpreters and patients who speak the same language fail to convey intended meanings. Interpreters struggle to explain certain words, attempt to substitute taboo words or explain terms with paragraphs. This study aims to engage with refugees from Burma to critically examine the language and vocabulary of sexual health consults.
Methods Using qualitative techniques, we interviewed 27 HCP (doctors, nurses, interpreters, social workers) involved with refugees from Burma. The interview guide drew from a conceptual framework based on principles of “humanization” of reproductive health care interlinked with ideas of “sustainable development”. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Research team members reached consensus on coding, content and thematic analysis and key results.
Results Preliminary analysis yielded four themes including a) limited reproductive health vocabulary in some ethnic dialects from Burma b) use of euphemisms to increase cultural acceptance of reproductive health terms c) low levels of health literacy and frequent improvising with similes and metaphors for simplification d) deviation of interpreters from conduit roles to practitioner aids for smooth communication. For instance, the word for intercourse in Chin language is “hupa sual nak” with the literal meaning of “man and woman commit sin”. Discussion of sexual intercourse thus requires skillful interpretation.
Conclusion A close look at sexual constructs in an unfamiliar language highlights the imaginative resources used by interpreters to assist HCP in understanding patients’ inner world. A real challenge is for the HCP to recognise the meaning when the words used mean something similar to both patient and interpreter but the verbatim translation loses accuracy. Awareness of nuances of sexual health vocabulary will create smooth sexual health dialogue, and generate greater rapport with the patient.