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Eugenia Dal Fovo

Interviewed by Catherine Richards

September 2016 | Profiles

Q: Who are you, what do you do and how long have you done it?

I am Eugenia Dal Fovo, conference and healthcare interpreter (language combination: IT, EN, DE). I have an MA degree in conference interpreting and a Ph.D. in Interpreting and Translation Studies. I live in Trieste (Italy) and have been working here as freelance interpreter for almost 9 years. In 2012 I started working as healthcare interpreter for a local association of cultural mediators (Associazione INTERETHNOS Onlus ( and two years ago I started teaching consecutive and dialogue interpreting as adjunct professor at the Universities of Trieste and Macerata (Italy), both at BA and MA level. When I am not working or lecturing I take care of my research: I am a published author within the field of Interpreting studies, specialising in TV interpreting and healthcare interpreting.

Q: As a medical interpreter, what exactly do you do?

The profession of “medical interpreter” in Italy is not recognised – let alone regulated – at national level. Norms and codes of conduct have been developed at regional level, mostly with the aim of addressing issues that are strictly relevant to the local environment. The job is rarely assigned to individuals with a degree in interpreting: medical interpreters are rather known as “cultural mediators”, a very broad label, usually indicating individuals with a migration history who have elected Italy as their country of residence. In the years I have been working as medical interpreter, I have found myself dealing with very diverse situations: the job is on call, and assignments may be urgent (e.g. a foreign patient at the E.R.) or planned in advance (e.g. a check-up ultrasound scheduled two months before the due date of a pregnancy); medical interpreters working for the Association are available to public healthcare institutions in the province of Trieste exclusively and assist any sort of foreign-speaking person (e.g. tourist, legal or illegal migrant, non-Italian-speaking citizens…).

Q: If you lecture and no-longer interpret, how did that come about?

I did not stop working as a freelance interpreter when I started lecturing, for two main reasons: one is (sadly) money-related, as my salary as University lecturer only covers a small percentage of my expenses; the second reason is based on my firm conviction that no one can teach a profession without working in the field – in other words, I feel it would be hypocritical of me to teach interpreting without being an interpreter in my everyday life.

Q: How did you become interested in medical interpreting?

It all started by chance: a good friend and former University colleague of mine was already working as medical interpreter for the Association I mentioned. One day her German-speaking colleague was not in Trieste and the hospital needed a German-speaking interpreter urgently. So my friend called me, I said yes, and that is how I started.

Q: What is your educational background?

I have a BA degree in Translation and Interpreting, an MA degree in Conference Interpreting and a Ph.D. in Interpreting and Translation Studies.

Q: What languages do you speak?

I am a native Italian speaker, my working languages are English and German.

Q: What qualifications are needed to become a medicalinterpreter?

In Italy? Absolutely none. My colleague and I are the only medical interpreters in the association with an MA degree in interpreting.

Q: What skills are needed to do medical interpreting (over and above language skills)

Let me start by stressing once again the fact that there is currently no official legislation regulating the profession in Italy, and it is therefore difficult to name a set of skills and competencies without being subjective, i.e. referring to one’s own personal experience. As far as I am concerned, possibly the most important pre-requisite for a medical interpreter (and for any interpreter, for that matter) is awareness of one’s responsibility of communication facilitator, namely being the link through which understanding between interlocutors is -ideally- reached. Such awareness should therefore guide medical interpreters’ every action and choice. Secondly, a good medical interpreter is aware of the identities, roles, goals and tasks associated with the institution s/he is working for, i.e. the healthcare institutions (e.g. hospital, clinic, retirement home, family-counselling unit, etc.). Let me give you an example of goal(s) by breaking down the communication process: doctors and patients in interaction share a primary goal, namely that of curing the patient; in order to do so, the doctor will pursue the sub-goal of obtaining enough relevant pieces of information to formulate a diagnosis and the relevant therapy, while the patient will pursue the sub-goal of providing said pieces of information – and, subsequently, understanding the doctor’s indications correctly – in order to be cured. So the translational choices made by the interpreter should, at this level, adhere to this subset of goals. When further circumscribing the field, one of the principles of healthcare ethics is that doctors may only put forward a suitable course of action to cure a patient; the latter, however, has always the right to choose whether to accept such course of action or not. Linguistically speaking, healthcare interpreters should always bear this in mind when choosing the wording of their translational turns.

Q: What language pairs are particularly useful in your region?

As you may imagine, usefulness of languages heavily depends on social, historic, geographical, political and ethnographical factors. The Friuli-Venezia Giulia region lies right on the border with Slovenia, and, more generally, the Balkans. Slavic languages, therefore, have always been a priority. To the North, the region borders with Austria, while its southern shore faces the Adriatic Sea, making the area a very popular destination for German-speaking tourists. Like in many other Italian cities, in Trieste too lives a large community of Chinese migrants. Furthermore, the current geo-political situation has determined a massive flow of migrants coming from Northern Africa and Nigeria, on one hand, and the Middle East, mainly Syria, on the other. Finally, the city of Trieste hosts the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA), which attracts dozens of international scholars (and their families) from all over the world, and whose internal working language is English.

Q: What are some of the challenges associated with medical interpreting?

Do not even get me started… 😉 I should say that challenges associated with this profession are very diverse in nature, ranging from purely technical and language-related difficulties, to ethical, emotional, and moral issues. Technical difficulties refer to logistics, for instance: healthcare institutions are scattered throughout Trieste, so one might find oneself assisting a patient in the main hospital and then having to rush to the opposite side of town to assist another at the family-counselling unit. Travelling expenses are not covered either by the Association or by the local healthcare agency, so most of us rely on public transport to move around, as it is the cheapest way of reaching one’s destination within the urban area – but also the slowest, more often than not, and this may result in delays in the service, especially in the case of urgent assignments. Language-related challenges have not much to do with medical terminology, but a lot to do with accents, dialects, and idioms (e.g. Nigerian patients speaking pidgin English, illiterate patients, …). Ethical, emotional and moral issues largely concern one’s self-imposed boundaries: when you find yourself assisting a Nigerian woman in need of a simple gynaecological visit, and while waiting for the doctor you find out that she is a single mother, her asylum application has been rejected, and, with nowhere to go, she’s planning to leave Trieste that very night with her baby daughter with nothing but her purse and pram, to board the first train to Naples, where, as some guy at the shelter told her, she can work as a prostitute with no need of documents, where do you draw the line?

Q: What are the hours?

According to the convention regulating the cooperation between the local healthcare service and the Association, interpreters are available Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Healthcare operators, however, may call the Association 24/7 and, in case of emergencies, remote interpreting is provided. Despite such official arrangements, it is not infrequent that interpreters work late at night or during the weekend, especially in the E.R. (e.g. when a patient is admitted at 7 p.m. and is only treated at 10 p.m., or has to wait for test results, etc.).

Q: What about the money?

Interpreters are paid by the hour and are paid very little. To give you an idea, let me tell you that, in order to reach the minimum wage of € 1,000 per month, each interpreter should work at least 50 hours every month, which is hardly the case, given the fact that there are at least two interpreters for every language combination, for a total of 62 individuals working in the city of Trieste exclusively – with a number of foreign citizens that amounts to the 9.34% of the total inhabitants (ca. 200,000).

Q: Where could interested people go for more information?

People interested in knowing more about healthcare interpreting in general may find a lot of information on the official websites of the AUSIT (National association for the translating and interpreting profession). In order to know more about the situation I have been depicting so far, anyone is very welcome to contact me personally via email (please, contact the EALTHY Association to receive my contact information).