Refuge International Makes Interpretation and Translation A Priority for All

Language interpretation is a vital resource when serving in Guatemala, a country with 25 unique languages. Spanish may be the most common language in the big cities but there are 22 Mayan languages spread throughout rural communities. This diversity creates both a wealth of culture and a myriad of barriers in health equity.  Our medical mission teams not only include Spanish-English interpreters but also interpreters to handle Spanish to the local Mayan language.  Having a strong team of interpreters is a key factor when a patient consult is conducted across three languages. 

When you don’t speak the common language, accessing health care can be a daunting process. Language barriers create situations where access to care is limited, patient satisfaction is low, and treatment can be insufficient with poorer outcomes (Al Shamsi, Almutairi, Al Mashrafi, & Al Kalbani, 2020).

Refuge International works in communities that speak Q’eqchi’, Pocomchi’, K’iche’, and Kaqchikel among other languages. In the past, common practice was to use informal interpreters from the patient’s family or community in many mission settings. This ad hoc interpretation process can result in errors in care, not to mention inappropriate or even unsafe interpretation (Basu, Phillips Costa, & Jain, 2017).

Working to eliminate barriers for the indigenous populations is something that Refuge International takes seriously. Our goal is to reduce health disparities in the communities where we work and that includes language barriers.

One of the initiatives that was formalized when Refuge International established missions in Purulhá was to employ both Spanish interpreters for English-speaking medical team and to have interpreters ready to translate commonly spoken indigenous languages at our Purulhá and Sarstun sites where we have significant populations of speaker of indigenous languages. No longer an afterthought, our knowledgeable indigenous interpretation team is ready and available to translate for any patient to provide optimum, accessible care in their language.

Interpretation is only part of the job, though! When you can communicate verbally in your primary language, that is only part of the challenge, but what happens when a patient is unable to read the written prescription?

That’s where translation comes in.

For patients with literacy challenges, we offer a unique written prescription. Refuge International has developed a colored pictogram written prescription to explain when a patient is to take a medication, how many pills to take, and whether to take medication with or without food.

By providing both translation an interpretation services, Refuge International patients know that their dignity, their health, and their lives matter!


Al Shamsi, H., Almutairi, A. G., Al Mashrafi, S., & Al Kalbani, T. (2020, April 30). Implications of language barriers for Healthcare: A systematic review. Oman medical journal.

Basu, G., Phillips Costa, V., & Jain, P. (2017). Clinicians’ Obligations to Use Qualified Medical Interpreters When Caring for Patients with Limited English Proficiency. AMA Journal of Ethics19(3), 245–252.