Youth Commentary

By Thuy Ngo, New America Media

A young Vietnamese American says that legislation that would prevent children from interpreting at the doctor’s office or hospital is a bad idea. When she translated for her mother as a child she often found the task challenging and frightening — but, she asks, what other option is there?


SAN JOSE, Calif. – Nov 18, 2005 – California lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would prevent children from providing language interpretation at hospitals, doctor’s offices and clinics. This made me think back to all the times I translated for my mother at the doctor’s office or hospital.

I disagree with this law because a lot of the time the only accessible interpreter is a patient’s child. The proposal says that hospitals may have to provide their own translators, but due to the estimated $15 million price tag, many health experts say the state may fall short in trying to provide translation service. Some have even warned that doctors may turn away immigrant patients if they are forced to provide translators.

In the case of my mother and her doctor’s appointments, if I had not been there my mom would not have had anyone to translate for her. Professional interpreters are expensive and a lot of times, my mother was expected to be able to provide her own translator when it came to understanding documents or speaking with someone about legal or medical business.

I come from a family of Vietnamese immigrants. I am the first generation from my mother’s side to be born here. Even when I was a small child, my mother assumed that I knew all the English there is to know. My mother figures that language is language; you just need to know basics. She was wrong.

From fourth grade on, I have been my mother’s translator. Whenever she had an appointment with a doctor, I came along to help her with translating. When it came to just naming body parts and symptoms, I was usually good at that, but there were a lot of terms that I did not understand in either Vietnamese or English.

I learned a lot of things during those visits. I learned as a fourth grader that women have eggs inside of them. I learned that many conditions have the same symptoms, so that regardless of the illness, a patient, like my mother, would often repeat words such as “hurt,” “nausea,” and “dizziness.”

That was when the doctor would have to explain his side of the conversation. He would tell me what the issue was in English, and I would try my best to regurgitate the explanation in Vietnamese.

There was often trouble when I had to translate the documents that my mom brought home from her doctor or lawyer. There were times when even a Viet-English Dictionary did not help me because the terms in the documents were too technical to be found in my dictionary. I felt bad about not being able to decipher the words, but I just went ahead and helplessly extrapolated what I could. I didn’t know what else to do.

I would feel bad because I knew my mother came to me only because she needed me and couldn’t afford a professional interpreter. We come from a low-income family and money is hard to come by. Therefore, it was made clear to me that going to an American school — even if it was an elementary school — qualified me for the job of being the go-between for my mom and the outside world.

This job wasn’t always easy — and maybe I wasn’t always qualified — but it was an important part of family life in my immigrant family. Banning this interaction between child and parent — especially when the family has no other choice — seems wrong to me. When I was interpreting for my family, I felt I was fulfilling my filial duty. I was contributing to the family.

I hope that the state could get to a point where every non-English speaking person can have access to a professional translator when they need one as they seek health care. If that happened, children like me wouldn’t have to learn a third language — medical talk — that they may or may not fully understand. But until California feels it can definitely give us the translators we need, sons and daughters should not be barred from helping their parents in times of need.


Thuy Ngo, 21, is on the staff of Silicon Valley De-bug (

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