Interpreting for success? Medical tourism and the making of Russian-speakers in India

Author: Sebastian Muth (Lancaster University)
Neelakshi Suryanarayan (University of Delhi)
Speaker: Sebastian Muth, Neelakshi Suryanarayan
Topic: Ethnography of communication
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


In line with an increasing commercialization of healthcare and the now global circulation of patients across borders, India is currently aspiring to become a destination for medical tourists from emerging economies and developing countries. Within this context, the Indian medical industry created an increasing demand for Russian-speaking healthcare interpreters and brokers to attract and linguistically accommodate patients from countries of the former Soviet Union.

Aligning with increasing patient mobility, the ability to offer interpreting services in Russian becomes a key condition of economic success in a highly competitive market. For hospitals and medical brokers alike, proficiency in Russian allows maintaining networks of patients and healthcare professionals in post-Soviet countries while for interpreters this open up the perspective of becoming entrepreneurs in the medical tourism industry themselves.
Drawing from long-term ethnographic research of the working lives of healthcare brokers, self-employed and contracted interpreters at three private hospitals in the Greater Delhi area, we provide evidence of the ways, language work is discursively constructed as an activity that promises future employability and -success.

We argue that this promise of prestige is contrasted by strenuous work conditions and insecurity within volatile healthcare markets, thus putting any long-term convertibility of Russian skills into question (Duchêne 2016). This volatility ties in with the social and cultural backgrounds of medical interpreters and their trajectories as Russian speakers, highlighting language teaching and learning as a site that both reflects and reproduces social inequalities in the country (Sridhar and Mishra 2017).


Duchêne, A. (2016). Investissement langagier et économie politique. Language et Societé, 157(3), 73–96.

Sridhar, M. and Mishra, S. (2017) Language Policy and Education in India: Documents, contexts and debates New York: Routledge.