Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Success of translation service for ethnic minorities speaks for itself

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:14am

Hong Kong's only social enterprise that provides interpreters for ethnic minorities in hospitals is a success story many in the hard-nosed business sector would like to emulate.

It was financially sound within its first year - it was launched in 2010 - and now makes a net annual profit of more than HK$500,000.

Hong Kong TransLingual Services was founded by a group of social workers who realised that ethnic minorities were facing formidable language barriers when they sought medical help.

"The ethnic minorities, such as Pakistanis, need to communicate clearly with doctors to let them know what's wrong. And they need to understand doctors' instructions, like how often do they need to take any pills prescribed," said operations manager Ryan Choi Wai-hei.

Choi added that the government's Enhancing Self-Reliance Through District Partnership Programme backed the idea with a HK$700,000 grant in 2010.

Choi said HK$400,000 was spent on purchasing computers and other office equipment, while the remaining HK$300,000 was put aside to pay office staff for two years.

The enterprise now has 90 interpreters who speak 20 languages, including Urdu, Punjabi and Sri Lanka's Sinhala.

They can attend clients' meetings with doctors or talk to the doctors about clients' needs over the telephone. Written translations can also be provided.

The enterprise, which is based in Kwai Chung, is also now providing sign-language interpretation for deaf patients.

The interpreters are paid by the job rather than on a full-time basis - one of the factors that makes the business model sustainable. And their salaries are provided by the Hospital Authority itself rather than the social enterprise.

The authority launched a public tender for a company that could provide interpretation services for its ethnic minorities patients, and TransLingual Services won.

The interpreters charge an hourly rate of HK$300 to HK$800, depending on the urgency and nature of the services, with TransLingual Services taking 40 per cent of the pay.

"One important reason why this has worked for us is that we found an untapped market," Choi said. "For some social enterprises in the restaurant and retail business it can be hard to be sustainable because of high rents. And if you are a small enterprise and unable to make bulk purchases, you're not getting a discount from the supplier," he added.

With a healthy bank balance, Choi said he planned to widen the services in the future.

"Apart from re-investing our profit into our businesses, by providing, for example, further training for interpreters, we also want to widen our services - helping ethnic minorities apply for public housing or social security allowances," he said.

As well as helping the patients, TransLingual Services is also opening up work opportunities for the translators, all of whom initially receive 40 hours of training. They must then pass assessments, judging the accuracy of their translation.