A good Court Interpreter may need to know Medical Interpreting.

January 10, 2012 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I was in a situation that had never occurred in my more than twenty years of court interpreting.  I was hired to interpret for the defendant in a federal criminal trial that was supposed to take place somewhere in middle-America.  I arrived for my assignment, met with the parties and the defendant, and began to work.  On the very first day, before the jury was selected, the Judge was informing the defendant that the Government had discovered that he had additional prior convictions. He was now facing the possibility of life in prison.  As the Judge was talking to the defendant, this individual, who had a history of health problems, collapsed and had a seizure.  The U.S. Marshalls immediately called 9-11 and the facility’s staff nurse.

As the defendant was on the courtroom floor, gasping for air and contorting his body, everybody in the courtroom realized that he did not speak a word of English!  Nobody in the entire courthouse spoke Spanish but me.  The same facts became apparent when the paramedics arrived and began to ask questions to determine the defendant’s medical condition.  The Marshalls and paramedics asked questions through me, and when the time came to take the defendant to the emergency room, the Judge asked me if I would go with them.  The hospital had a telephonic remote interpreting system, but no interpreter physically at the E.R.

Because of some medical interpreting I did over a decade ago, I was able to remember what to do, and assisted the medical personnel until the defendant was stabilized. Throughout this time I realized how important it is for us as court interpreters to know the basics of medical interpreting for these situations when we are the only “lifeline” for the patient, and made me think of our medical interpreter colleagues and the vital role they play in other people’s lives.  I think it would be beneficial to all of us to hear some similar stories that you may had experienced.

§ 8 Responses to A good Court Interpreter may need to know Medical Interpreting.

  • Sasha Carrillo says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. We as medical interpreters are often requested to interpret for the police-most often while in the emergency department of a hospital. I think it’s safe to say that most medical interpreters turn down requests to interpret for police, because the policy of their hospital or agency prohibits it. On the same note, I know for a fact that metropolitan safety net hospitals rely on their in-house staff interpreter to also interpret for the police in the emergency room. It would be interesting to collect data to determine whether or not this is a common practice. I think that you bring up a good point when you say that it’s good to have a base of knowledge in medical interpreting as a court interpreter, however I also think that it is important to aknowledge that the code of ethics and standards of practice for healthcare interpreters are very different from the ethics & codes of conduct for court interpreters; Namely, interpreters in the medical field can sometimes act as a cultural broker or in some cases act as an advocate on the patient’s behalf. (There’s a lot of debate around these two topics!) Of course, emergency situations are always the biggest priority, and one must do his/her very best to be accurate and inform all parties of limitations and/or qualifications. Good for you in being flexible an helpful in an emergency situation!

  • Sasha Carrillo says:

    Edit: I meant to specify: “a safety net hospital in Chicago”

  • Janeth Murillo says:

    I would like to thank both of you for sharing this with us. I would agree that having basic knowledge of med terms is important; in fact, I consider it necessary as we never know when we may need it. I wish taking physilogy and medical terminology classes would be a requirement to maintain our certification regardless of what type of certification we may have. The other day I was interpreting in court and medical terms were used; having taken medical classes has been instrumental in my success as a court interpreter.

  • Abel G Flores says:

    Having made the transition from medical interpreter to judicial, I can say I have been on both sides of the proverbial fence. Med interpreters have the best interest of the patient in mind and adhere to confidentiality in a way that might exclude giving information or eliciting such to hand over to authorities. It is probably easier for a judicial interpreter to cross over being that as such we serve in the best interest of the court, although it does behoove us to be prepared with vocabulary sufficient enough to be effective in such situations. Thanks for highlighting tha need to bridge the gap between medical/judicial interpreting.

    • Not having had the benefit of formal training as a Medical Interpreter, but having been a Federally Certified Court Interpreter for 20 years, maybe I’m missing something here. As far as I know, the function of an interpreter is not to “give or elicit information”. Our function boils down, in the simplest of terms, to making sure that 2 people understand each other. Let’s say that I was working in an ER and a gunshot victim was being treated, and I was interpreting for him, and the doctor asked the victim what happened, and he said that his wife shot him during an argument. But then when the Police came to interview him, and I was asked to interpret the same question, and now he answered that his gun went off accidentally while cleaning it, it is NOT my function to tell the officer that he gave the doctor a different story!

      If that victim, doctor and officer all spoke the same language, the victim would have given the same conflicting story WITHOUT MY INTERVENTION! The police officer is supposed to interview the doctor and ask if the victim gave any information. I am an Interpreter, not a bilingual doctor nor a bilingual police officer, so I dont have to do the job of either of them!

      And is there really any difference in the “code of ethics” and the “standards of practice” between medical and judicial interperters? I mean, if a doctor asks the patient a question, and the patient answers but then says “but don’t tell him that, thell him this…” what does a Medical Interpreter do? And I ask because in my judicial field, I interpret EVERYTHING that the people say to each other, so that they can understand each other AS IF THEY SPOKE THE SAME LANGUAGE! I am not an editing tool for either party to use as they please or to their advantage. So what am I missing here?

      • Sasha Federiuk Carrillo says:

        You’re not missing anything. You’re right on track – Regardless of whether one is a legal or medical/healthcare interpreter, impartiality as well as accuracy are among our most basic functions. I am also not fully understanding Abel’s comment that, “Med interpreters have the best interest of the patient in mind and adhere to confidentiality in a way that might exclude giving information or eliciting such to hand over to authorities.” My natural response to this is, “What interpreter DOES give or elicit information to hand over to authorities?” Probably an interpreter with no training or knowledge of his/her role. Furthermore, although medical interpreters do work in a collaborative-as opposed to adversarial-environment, our role isn’t to have the best interest of the patient in mind. Our role is to facilitate in communication between two (or more) people who don’t speak the same language, and to support the patient-provider relationship by staying within our role.

      • Janeth Murillo says:

        Right on, Mr. Sotomayor! “AS IF THEY SPOKE THE SAME LANGUAGE!”–exactly!

        It is my understanding that as interpreters what we do is to lend a voice so that others can communicate. Although we are not suppose to interfere, I think there are situations in which common sense dictates we should say something because if we don’t justice will not be served; the parties appreciate it.

        For example, an immigration judge is reading the respondent his rights and as soon as the interpreter hears the respondent speaking it becomes clear to the interpreter that Spanish is not the respondent’s primary language; the interpreter informs the judge who then discovers that the respondent speaks a very uncommon dialect!

        Thank you very much, Tony; I love reading your blogs!

  • Hello there! This article could not be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I most certainly will send this information to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read. I appreciate you for sharing!

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