How the Movie, Desert Flower, Depicts the Need for Qualified, Professional and Culturally-Appropriate Interpreters

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Published on: May 16, 2010

Recently, while on holiday in Spain, I was able to catch one of the most amazing, riveting and emotionally-stirring films that I have seen in quite some time, entitled Desert Flower (Flor del Desierto). It is the story of one Waris Dirie, a courageous Somali woman who, as a young girl, flees an arranged tribal marriage in her homeland and, against all odds, goes on to become an international supermodel-turned-women’s-advocate and United Nations spokesperson against the barbaric practice known in modern-day terms as FGM, or Female Genital Mutilation.  This atrocity, FGM, has been practiced for more than 3,000 years and, unbelievably, this ritual is still deemed as culturally appropriate in many 21st-century African and Asian nations.  Current statistics indicate that 6,000 girls are mutilated every day.  In those societies where it is practiced, a woman without it is seen as impure and unfit for marriage, and is condemned to living the life of an outcast with all the social status of a village prostitute.  Needless to say, the savagery known as FGM scars and maims its victims in unmentionable and unmeasurable ways, both physically and psychologically, and can result in death.



Desert Flower Trailer (English)

The movie drifts back and forth from her youth with her nomadic family in Somalia to present-day London where she spends her adolescent years and reaches adulthood.  At one point in the movie, she suddenly finds herself doubled over in severe abdominal pain and her friend rushes her to the local hospital for immediate medical attention.  In order to diagnose the source of her problem, she must first submit to a routine gynecological exam.  Simple enough, right?  Well, not really.  Hesitantly, she consents to what should be a simple exam for most women, however it is soon very evident to the attending physician that this is going to be more complicated than usual as he discovers that Ms. Dirie was a victim of FGM as a child.

The kind male doctor, realizing the dilemma, tries to explain to her in English that she was stitched too tightly, but that he can remedy part of the problem through surgical procedure so that it will no longer hurt.  However, he quickly concludes that Ms. Dirie does not speak English well enough to comprehend what he is trying to explain to her, so he calls for Fatima, the female nurse that speaks Somali, to come and interpret for him.  As luck would have it, she is not available that day, but they do manage to scrounge around and find a Somali male hospital employee of unspecified position and request that he interpret between the doctor and Ms. Dirie since he “speaks the language”.  The result is disastrous.  Not one single word of what the kind doctor is trying to convey to Ms. Dirie is faithfully interpreted.  On the contrary.  It is turned into a session of relentless chiding and humiliation as the kind doctor’s words pass through the biased filter of the unqualified, unprofessional and culturally inappropriate ad-hoc interpreter that has been called in to save the day.  The ad-hoc interpreter, instead of interpreting, tells Ms. Dirie that she should be ashamed of herself for submitting to the examination by the doctor, and that should she elect to have the operation she would betray her family, her tribe and her culture.  Upset, dazed and confused, Ms. Dirie leaves the hospital.  Later, astonishingly, she does return for the surgery.

The scene illustrates at least four things very clearly:

1.  The inherent pitfalls of using unqualified interpreters, especially in a medical setting where very sensitive, personal and private information is exchanged.  Ms. Dirie’s life could have been placed at risk due to the ad-hoc interpreting provided by the hospital, thus potentially exposing the hospital to the risk of lawsuit.

2.  How merely being “bilingual” is equated with the ability to professionally interpret.  There is a vast difference between a bilingual person and a trained interpreter.  Good interpreters are trained, not born, and bilingualism is only the beginning of interpretation.

3.  The need for awareness regarding cultural- and gender-appropriate interpreters.  In some cultures, it is inappropriate to have a male attend to a female in a medical setting.

4.  The need for more awareness on the part of medical practitioners when dealing with LEP (limited English proficient) patients.  The physician in the movie should have at least recognized her discomfort with the information being conveyed and that her emotional state did not match at all what he was supposedly saying to her.

Unfortunately, the use of ad-hoc interpreters remains far too commonplace and one can only cringe at how many times a day situations such as this must occur.  If you find yourself in need of an interpreter, please do both yourself and your client/patient a favor and hire a qualified interpreter for the job.  It is the least that you can do, and it will save you both a lot of heartache.

As for Ms. Dirie, a very sincere and heartfelt thank you for being such a brave advocate for women’s rights.  We women of the world are lucky to have you fighting for us.

Finally, should you wish to view the movie online, it is available in its entirety in English at  You have to be a little patient at the beginning and close the ads that pop up on the screen, but just click on “Continue to video” and you will eventually get to it.  I guarantee that it is a film that you will not soon forget.


Desert Flower, Spanish title Flor del Desierto. Adapted and directed by Sherry Horman. Germany, Austria and United Kingdom: Desert Flower Filmproductions, 2009.

Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller.  Desert Flower:  The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad.  New York:  William Morrow, 1998.

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