Some medical interpreters need to feel and act like professionals.

November 5, 2012 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For some time I have wanted to write about the medical interpreter profession, it seems like for the last several months I have run across more medical interpreter colleagues, I have talked to more of my friends who work as medical interpreters, and I have read more about medical certifications than any other emergent area of the interpreter profession.  I congratulate all those who have fought so hard for recognition, professional development, and certification. You are on your way to a great future.

However, and despite of the immense respect I have for medical interpretation, not everything I see looks so bright in the future of medical interpreters.  Just as I have come across all the good things above, I have also seen how many medical interpreters do not feel or act like professional interpreters yet. Even some who have passed one of the certification examinations continue to act, and react, in a way that will not help the advancement of medical interpretation.  As you know from my blog and workshops, I am a big proponent of diversity in the work that we do as professionals. I am always talking about the benefits of having a wide portfolio of clients that include agencies, conferences, attorneys, courthouses, hospitals, etcetera.  For years I have said that the best way to earn a very good living as an interpreter is to always have a job option, and the only way to always have a job option is to be good at what we do and to study and prepare ourselves in as many fields as we feel comfortable with and capable of performing.  It seems to me that every time I bring up this issue, a medical interpreter stands up and argues that “other” interpreters should stay in their field and leave medical interpretation alone, that “other” interpreters do not know what is needed to work as a medical interpreter, and that just as medical interpreters should not try to do court interpretation, court interpreters and conference interpreters should leave medical interpretation alone.   Obviously this is a very unfortunate mind set because it shows the lack of confidence these interpreters have.  A true interpreter who knows and feels that he or she is a professional would never react this way.  When I talk of a diverse client base I am referring to a capable professional interpreter providing different services.  To even think that this business-based point of view constitutes an invitation to pseudo-interpreters to go into any field only shows a big silent problem in the profession: Many medical interpreters think of a non-professional interpreter as their first reaction. They do not feel and act as professionals yet. A real court interpreter who works as a medical interpreter or as a conference interpreter meets all necessary requirements before going to work: certifications, subject matter expertise, etc.  The same applies to conference interpreters.  In fact, and as an interesting matter, in all the years I have been interpreting conferences, many of them medical, I have never worked with a medical interpreter. I have worked with court interpreters many times, and many of them do a great job as they are professionals.  Court interpreters simultaneously interpret very complex medical procedures and terminology when they interpret expert testimony during trials; conference interpreters simultaneously interpret very complex medical peer-presentations and pharmaceutical studies.  My suggestion to my medical interpreter colleagues who still agonize over this medical interpretation is “my turf” issue, is to stop thinking of pseudo-interpreters who show up to work for a few dollars that the agencies pay them, and to see themselves as professionals, to feel like professionals, to act like professionals, and part of this behavior is to collaborate with other interpreters whose fields are professionally more advanced so that sometime in the future, these newly certified medical interpreters start working as simultaneous interpreters who do medical expert testimony in a court of law, and a medicine Nobel Prize research presentation during a medical conference.  I would like to read your comments on this issue.

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§ 14 Responses to Some medical interpreters need to feel and act like professionals.

  • Jeff says:

    I understand the concept of specializing in one area to avoid being “Jack of all trades, master of none.” That being said I agree with you. We want to raise the bar. The problem in the industry, especially in workers comp is the bilingual person doing the professionals job for a few bucks. I have no problem with a qualified professional doing the job.

    • Veronica says:

      Jack of all trades? hardly. Judicial Certified Federal Interpreters undergo a rigorous training and screening process. Of every 100 applicants that take the federal test, only 3-5 will pass it. And no Court would employe/hire no interpreter without verifiable certification.

      • Claudia says:

        I am afraid I will have to respectfully disagree with you on this one.
        I am and have been for the past 22 years a Romanian/Moldovan Interpreter. As you probably know, Romanian is a small community and the needs for Romanian interpreters are scares and far in between. Ever since I started interpreting I kept searching for any organizations that would offer me the opportunity to develop my interpreter skills and obtain a certification. I tried ATA, NAJIT, Berlitz, Bowne Global Solutions, Lionbridge, CyraCom, Interprenet, just to mention a few. I worked all fields, courts, conference, business, medical etc., and all types: consecutive, simultaneous, on-site, over the phone, with Skype and video-teleconferences, in the USA and international; and let me tell you: there is not one single organization in the USA that would offer me the chance to sustain a test and obtain an accredited certification :/

  • L. Carney says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, I have been working as a legal interpreter and more recently as a conference and I find that above all one has to do his/her own deep research as each project is always different and very, very specific/technical, no matter which field. L. C UK

  • Tony, as long as the professional undergoes the necessary training, there is no issue. Agreed. And, yes, some who work as medical interpreters need to learn that the profession has “matured” a lot and seek support in professional organizations.

    Thank you for bringing awareness to the fore.

  • Anne Louise says:

    Well, I’m going to be one of those rude medical interpreters who stands up and says that serious medical interpretation is not something for a jack of all trades. I have no doubt that the professional conference interpreters you’ve worked with do deep research and prepare thoroughly for a very good job of conference interpreting.

    The thing is, when one is interpreting for specialists in diverse fields, with patients from various countries with their regional accents and figures of speech, you have no advance warning as to what subjects are going to come up or how detailed the dialogue will be. I’ve gone in a single day from interpreting for a mom taking her newborn home, to a neurologist explaining the difference between Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia to a patient, to a prisoner in for a checkup after a liver transplant, to a group of doctors trying to convey to a woman and her family that she had only a few more weeks to live and further treatment was not likely to help, to a well-baby checkup.

    There is no time for a medical interpreter to stop and do any deep research while interpreting correctly in this demanding range of medical topics, back to back, all day, every day. The research and the training have to be done in depth years before walking into the examining room. It cannot be compared to conference interpreting.

    As I see it, the phrase, “a court interpreter who acts as a medical interpreter” illustrates the problem. I would have no problem with a certified court interpreter who doesn’t “act as” but actually IS also a certified medical interpreter; in fact, I know one of them. But I also know that the people who have spent the time and effort to acquire the knowledge and skills to do both are few and far between.

    Have you thought that you may be underestimating what is involved in becoming a true professional medical interpreter? That the professional medical interpreters who tell you not to mix the two know what they are talking about? To me, it’s the difference between being an expert and just knowing enough to be dangerous but considering oneself an expert. As a medical interpreter, I know I could “act as” a court interpreter for someone on a drunk driving charge or a traffic ticket. But for anything more than that, I only know enough to be dangerous. It applies in both directions..

    • Very well put, Anne Louise.

    • Claudia says:

      so what do you do with those of us who got certified as medical interpreters but the language we interpret is not very popular and we get 2-5 interpretations/month in the medical field?

      • Claudia, Languages of Lesser Diffusion (or Rare Languages) are on the radar. Both CCHI and the National Board have been discussing and finding ways to address the lack of certification for those languages int he US. If I am not mistaken the idea is to recognize certifications from abroad, validate medical interpreter training in those languages, recognize related training in those languages and/.or proficiency tests in the languages together with English language training for medical interpreting.

        There is a huge population of minority language speakers and we have been looking for ways and analyzing possibilities. I strong recommend you contact Natalya Mitareva at CCHI and Izabel Arocha at the International Medical Interpreters Association.

        I have had the pleasure of sitting on the board of both organizations and I am very familiar with how seriously they look into that issue.

        By the way,I was agreeing with Anne Louise that training is an important requirement. If you read my comment of November/2012 you will see what I meant.

  • In Russia, we don’t have such thing as a medical/healthcare interpreter as in US with all necessary training and certification, and medical interpreting is usually done by general interpreters. Though there are some highly specialized interpreters/translators (me included), dealing only with medical/pharmaceutical interpreting/translation. Some of them are even current/former medical doctors with a deep insight in medical field. And from my experience, such professionals are overbooked months ahead, and literally each agency/conference organizer/direct client try to reach them and to secure for the project they have in a pipeline. Why are this professionals so different? Deep knowledge of the subject – yes, understanding how the medicine and healthcare system works – yes, but also they possess this ‘sixth feeling’ of medical ethics, which is absolutely inevitable when you communicate with patient/physician. Also because of wast background they spent less time for preparation to every single assignment, and could stand such a rotation of topics/interpreting conditions described by Anne Louise in her post. I agree with the author, that a professional (!) and highly experienced (!) court/conference interpreter can get into the medical interpreting and learn all the terminology to provide a good job, but my question: Is it worth it?

  • I. Radillo says:

    So many interesting topics brought up in this blog!
    I am certified as both a courtroom interpreter (FCCI) and as a healthcare interpreter (CHI-TM), and agree with many things posted above in terms of turf vs non-turf situations. In my case my medical expertise was acquired over the course of 20 years of working simultaneously as an Occupational Therapist in almost all possible settings, familiarizing myself with different professionals, their areas and their roles, in addition to equipment, procedures, etc. I might add that during those years no particular certification existed for medical interpreters, so that is part of the problem. As a matter of fact, there is STILL no one single certification: many hospitals or agencies provide “competency” or “qualified”-type designations to their applicants, and the attempt to obtain a single nationwide certification failed, recently leading to 2 separate ones offered by the CCHI and the NBCMI. Regardless, just as in judicial interpreting, a certification does not a professional make, and not being certified does not rule out being professional. But I think it IS very important that the field be “professionalized” and these are baby steps.
    My belief is that part of the problem is that court interpreters, because they DO have a certification available, sometimes perceive themselves as more professional (see my comment below) and therefore they do not consider “other” interpreters qualified to interpret in court*. And yet, because they are court interpreters, many of them feel they are qualified to work in any setting*. But medical interpreters know that their area is very different and at times requires other personal skills (might a judicial interpreter be ready to interpret a hospice/end-of-life situation if they’ve only had experience in the courts?) So yes, there are certainly perceptions* that exist on both sides of the matter…
    One important thing to consider is that the standards and ethics are different for the healthcare interpreter due to the nature of the job> the objective is the patient’s health, a positive outcome, the antagonistic aspect of the courts does not exist. Interpreters trained in or familiar only with the judicial standards and code of ethics will be much more restrained in their interactions, and as medical interpreters we have the duty to sometimes act beyond the simple conduit role.
    There is SO much information available on the websites of both of the agencies listed above! I hope this discussion will encourage both groups of interpreters to learn more about each other’s fields. And definitely, one would hope that only professional interpreters who take the time to learn, study, acquire knowledge of anatomy, physiology, the healthcare system, etc would cross over into the medical field, regardless of what their normal area of work is. And vice-versa.
    I feel that no matter what we do or say, we are human and therefore our ego does play a part in our interactions and opinions, right?

    I’ll continue reading these posts with great interest, thanks!

    • Veronica says:

      Although, you hold a FCCI, you heavily lean toward the health care interpreter side of you. Judicial interpreters deal with issues that affect peoples lives too. Whether they are set free, or incarcerated some of them for many years. And who says that being in jail is “living”?
      Being certified does not make a professional, but it helps.

  • I. Radillo, I had the pleasure of sitting on the Board of Directors of the original Coalition that later became the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, and I am currently a Director (former Vice Chair) of the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters.

    Lawyers have to pass the Bar on each state they want to practice in and no one says the system is a failure. Students have the choice of taking the SAT or the ACT in their pursuit of higher education – also not viewed as a failure. Now, medical interpreters also have a choice. I think this is great for the market! I know professionals who have earned both certifications, and LSP who requires either certification (though staff is required to have both).

    The best part: the Joint Commission recognizes both; the National Council works with both; most hospitals accept both… Baby steps, yes. All in the right direction!

    Great comments on this post, Tony!

  • Claudia says:

    Giovanna, I obtained a CCHI Certification about 3 years ago. I have another year to go until I will have to be re-certified. It would be so nice if there would be a site for continuing education. It would be a great opportunity especially for interpreters that speak a language that is not widely spoken.
    Just a thought 🙂

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