A linguistic ethnographic study of interpreter-mediated interactions on sexual and reproductive health

Begin - Einde 
2019 - 2023 (lopend)
Vakgroep Vertalen, Tolken en Communicatie
Linguistic ethnography
Language policy
public service interpreting
sexual and reproductive health
Non-professional interpreting



Face-to-face interactions on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) in medical settings can be challenging in several ways. Literature shows that when such interactions are interpreter-mediated, the challenges comprise lexical gaps, taboos and confidentiality issues. However, this literature is generally based on self-reported interview data, either with medical practitioners (Mengesha et al., 2018) or with interpreters (Taibi & El-Madkouri Maataoui, 2016). In the case of interactional data in Interpreting Studies research, the interactions are part of a broader data set in which the focus is not in particular on SRH (e.g. Gavioli, 2015; Valero Garcés, 2005). To our knowledge, no extensive research has been done to investigate the nature of interpreter-mediated SRH-interactions in their own right. The aim of this PhD research is therefore to gain insight into the discursive and interactional nature of SRH-interactions that are mediated by either a professional or non-professional interpreter, taking into account the broader context in which these encounters take place. In order to do this, a linguistic-ethnographic approach (Copland & Creese, 2015) is adopted.

In the current phase, ethnographic fieldwork is conducted in an abortion clinic, where pre-abortion intake interviews (interpreter-mediated and non-mediated ones) are observed and audio-recorded. The recorded interactions will be analysed by means of Nvivo 12, adopting a discourse and conversation analytical approach. Except for a focus on these ‘frontstage’ medical interactions, we also look into the ‘backstage’ processes (Goffman, 1959/1990), focussing a.o. on informal talk between staff members, the daily activities of the clinic, and in-house policy documents and protocols. New research questions are emerging from the fieldwork, such as: what is the local institutional language policy (meso level)? How and with what reasons was it established? How does the local language policy manifest itself interactionally during the intake interview (micro level)? What is the link between the locally situated linguistic practices in the clinic and ideological, societal processes and (language) policy on a macro level?

In the second phase of the research project, the aim is to conduct interviews with the staff of the abortion clinic, in order to check the researcher’s understandings and to gather emic perspectives, as well as to reflect with the staff on best practices and unintended consequences of existing language policies. This is in keeping with an interactional-sociolinguistic stance that puts forward ‘joint problematisation’ and ‘practical relevance’ as crucial research aspirations (Roberts & Sarangi, 1999). In other words, this research project has the potential to contribute to an optimized mutual understanding between healthcare providers and migrant clients specifically in SRH related medical settings.


Copland, F., & Creese, A. (2015). Linguistic ethnography: Collecting, analysing and presenting data. SAGE.

Gavioli, L. (2015). On the distribution of responsibilities in treating critical issues in interpreter-mediated medical consultations: The case of “le spieghi(amo)”. Journal of Pragmatics, 76, 169–180. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.12.001

Goffman, E. (1990). The presentation of self in everyday life (Original work published in 1959). Doubleday.

Mengesha, Z. B., Perz, J., Dune, T., & Ussher, J. (2018). Talking about sexual and reproductive health through interpreters: The experiences of health care professionals consulting refugee and migrant women. Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare, 16, 199–205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.srhc.2018.03.007

Roberts, C., & Sarangi, S. (1999). Hybridity in gatekeeping discourse: Issues of practical relevance for the researcher. In S. Sarangi & C. Roberts (Eds.), Talk, Work and Institutional Order: Discourse in Medical, Mediation and Management Settings (1999th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 473–503). Mouton de Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110208375

Taibi, M., & El-Madkouri Maataoui, M. (2016). Interpreting Taboo: The Case of Arabic Interpreters in Spanish Public Services. In M. Taibi (Ed.), New insights into Arabic translation and interpreting. Multilingual Matters.

Valero Garcés, C. (2005). Doctor–patient consultations in dyadic and triadic exchanges. Interpreting, 7(2), 193–210. https://doi.org/10.1075/intp.7.2.04val