Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field.

March 16, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year I interpreted for several medical and pharmaceutical conferences.  Some were presentations of scientific papers before an audience of  peers, others were geared to non-physicians who work in the pharmaceutical field.  All of them were interesting and they all paid well.  They also had something else in common:  There were absolutely no medical interpreters or former medical interpreters in any of the booths.  As I sat in the Spanish booth during a conference on the 98th floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago, I examined all the booths for the other languages and realized that there were excellent, very dedicated professional conference interpreters everywhere.  I knew the interpretation was going to be top-notch, but I couldn’t help but notice that there were no medical doctors, registered nurses, or medical interpreters anywhere.

My friends, conference interpreters are second to none as far as quality and professionalism; they prepare for every assignment and show up to work equipped with the experience, knowledge, and skill needed to take care of just about any possible situation that may arise during the assignment.  A conference where real conference interpreters are hired to work could not be in better hands.  However, even though the same can be said of any other subject matter, in the United States, and other countries, you can find former attorneys and court interpreters in many events that deal with legal and business issues.  Medical interpreting attracts hundreds of interpreters in the United States alone.  Every day these professionals work in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, and medical offices, so the logical question is: Why this does not happen in the medical conferences?

I do not have a general answer, but based on my observations and years in the profession I can bring up the following factors:

There are several very capable medical interpreters who regularly work as conference interpreters.  I know this because some of them are my friends and I have shared the booth with many.  The problem is that there are not enough of them.  Please understand that here I am referring to what is generally recognized as conference interpreting, and purposely excluding community interpreting even though some colleagues, in my opinion erroneously, on occasion refer to this boothless informal interpretation as conference.

Compared to legal interpreters, medical interpreters have a tougher time “breaking away” from medical interpreting because there is a widely shared concept that medical interpreters are not good or professional.  This is a belief that many agencies, and even other interpreters, share.

Now, we have to recognize that this characterization of the medical interpreter profession has some truth to it.  At least in the United States until fairly recently there was no regulation or minimal standards in medical interpreting.  Many bilinguals who failed the court interpreter certification went to the medical field because there were no rules and often no quality control.  Because the conditions were so poor in this unchartered territory, many language agencies filled the void by taking over most of the things needed to provide a medical interpreting service.  They were setting policy and criteria as far as who could work, how they could work, and more importantly, how much these interpreters would be paid.  For years I heard this all over the United States: “Medical interpreting? No way! It pays nothing.”  Unfortunately my friends and colleagues, that was (and regrettably still is) the case.

So there you have it.  Most interpreters who had invested time and money studying and getting themselves ready to practice their profession did not want to work for very little pay.  This scared many good people away from the field.

There is much to be done at this time. Too many doctors and hospital administrators to educate, too many bad agencies to expel from the field, and too many mediocre interpreters to push to the side so there is room for those, new and experienced professionals, willing to play ball under the new rules of certification, ethics and uniformity.

It is certain that the profession will continue to grow and will eventually catch up with older interpreting fields such as conference, diplomatic, court, and military interpreting.  As this happens, medical interpreting will attract more capable professionals, competition will be brutal like in all profitable professional environments, and interpreting fees will dramatically increase.  In the meantime during the process, and in my opinion, to enhance our professional versatility and skills, good medical interpreters who want to elevate their profession, better themselves, and receive a fair decent compensation for their service will have to look at expanding their practice.  To achieve this goal you basically have two options:  The less complicated possibility of doing medical-related work that up until now, with some exceptions, has been handled by court interpreters:  interpreting for independent medical examinations and evaluations specifically done for litigation purposes in the area of worker’s compensation and civil law.  Medical interpreters should be able to learn and provide these services by taking advantage of their medical knowledge.  The sad part is that this field, like most of the medical interpretation field, is controlled by agencies that pay very little. In fact, they are many times the same agencies that hire interpreters for medical work.

The second option, and my motivation for writing this piece, is conference interpreting.  Undoubtedly a more difficult goal.  Medical conferences require of knowledge in the medical, biological, and pharmacological sciences.  Good medical interpreters should already have it, especially if they have a medical or nursing background.  It also requires familiarity with the “medical culture.”  Medical interpreters come in contact with it on a daily basis.

Conference interpreter also requires that the professional providing these services be able to do it simultaneously. It demands agility of mind and speedy thinking while handling very complex concepts and precise terminology.  It requires of booth etiquette and assignment preparation, and it must be performed as a team.  Most if not all of these characteristics are not part of an everyday medical interpreter repertoire.  It sounds hard and complicated because it is very difficult and extremely sophisticated work.

However, my dear friends and colleagues, the rewards are enormous: you get to develop as an interpreter by acquiring the master key that opens the door to all interpreting work: simultaneous rendition. Working as the interpreter for a medical conference you will earn amounts never seen in the medical interpreting field, and you will learn about the science and policy that is applied to hospitals, medical practitioners, and insurance companies every day.  As conference interpreters you will experience the satisfaction of doing a job that is understood by all those who are listening as part of your sophisticated audience.  Now, you may say that conference interpreting will not give you the satisfaction of helping to save a life, of being a part of preventing a disease; that you decided to become a medical interpreter for this reason.  That is not true. As a medical conference interpreter you will be right in the middle of saving lives as the interpreter who reveals a medical breakthrough for the first time in your language pair; you will be the voice of physicians who will ask questions about a new drug or procedure; and of course, keep in mind that you will not stop medical interpreting. You will diversify your practice and widen your clientele.  I look forward to the time when I regularly get to share the booth of a medical conference with a professional and highly capable interpreter with a medical interpreting background.   I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions about this very important professional aspect of our profession.

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§ 19 Responses to Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field.

  • Terminology is a road block. When doctor’s speak to patients they usually try to speak in terms that their patient will understand (usually). But I would imagine that a conference of doctors speaking to doctors would have a much higher, technical level. And since its simultaneous there would be no time to check your dictionary.

  • ANHPEARSON says:

    It is an interesting subject regarding about medical and conference interpreters. Thanks for sharing!
    Anh P.

  • isahudgins says:

    I’ve been looking for some time now for a course in medical conference interpreting, not hospital interpreting. Courses for medical interpreters usually spend over half of the course time on administratve form-filling, patient-doctor ethical relations and the like. As a conference interpreter, where would you suggest I start? My preference is online but would be willing to travel during the Summer to attend a course. Good post, Tony!

  • Melinda G-H says:

    It´s a great suggestion, Tony, but I think it would be very hard for a certified medical interpreter who has never worked outside of the medical field and whose only credential is as a medical interpreter, to break into the conference interpreting world, at least in Spanish. At this time, competition in the conference interpreting world is very stiff. Often, interpreters who work as conference interpreters in Spanish have graduate degrees in T&I, credentials with the State Department, TAALS or AIIC, and/or many years of conference interpreting experience. Even a credential as competitive as the federal court interpreter certification, with a 5 % pass rate, is hardly enough to enter the conference interpreting world. (When I say conference interpreting world, I mean conferences where organizers are knowledgeable and selective about interpreter credentials, and pay interpreters accordingly)

    In contrast, medical certification exams have a pass rate of around 80%, and require only 40 hours of training. Medical certification is a great start for increased professionalism and standardized skill levels in medical interpreting, but it was not designed to gauge advanced skill in a simultaneous interpreting environment where breadth of knowledge and linguistic resourcefulness in high registers is paramount. I wish it had been. I also wish it was required to work in the medical arena nationwide. If the medical certification exam had been designed in such a way that the pass rate was closer to 5% than to 80%, and certification was mandatory, an immediate rise in training, skill and pay levels for medical interpreters would be certain. And we could then more accurately assess its value as a credential for conference interpreting. As it stands, I don’t think Spanish medical interpreters stand a chance, unless they have advanced training or other professional interpreting credentials.

    • I. Radillo says:

      Hi Melinda,
      I agree with you completely, and have been looking for statistics regarding the very high pass rates for both CMI and CHI… Could you direct me towards your source so that I may quote it when I teach a workshop?
      Thanks!

  • Johanna Parker says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that it would be fantastic to get properly trained medical interpreters into the medical conference interpreting conference world. There are already a handful of interpreters today with postgraduate conference interpreter training who choose to work in the medical field for several reasons. Many of the interpreters in this category that I know have found the biggest challenge to becoming specialized medical conference interpreters is finding experienced conference interpreters and reputable conference interpreting agencies willing to give them a chance.

    Hopefully as medical interpreting grows and reaches the level of other interpreting fields, the stigma that is cast on all medical interpreters, regardless of their credentials and skill level, will decrease and more opportunities will arise for them in the medical conference arena.

  • I had no idea things were this way among spoken language interpreters. As a spoken/signed language interpreter, I make the same hourly fee interpreting medical appointments as I do conferences, and I frequently switch between the two. The only difference is that doctor visits happen more often than conferences. I cannot speak for all ASL-English interpreters, but the ones I have worked with in California and Arizona earn the same pay and have the same certifications for both medical and conference interpreting. And, yes, we occasionally interpreted medical conferences.

  • […] Dear colleagues: Last year I interpreted for several medical and pharmaceutical conferences. Some were presentations of scientific papers before an audience of peers, others were geared to non-physicians who work in the pharmaceutical field. All…  […]

  • Yeonha Teresa Hwang says:

    Thank you for posting the info.
    I am a Korean Medical interpreter who is interested in Medical Conference interpreting.

    Would you kindly lead me to the agency for an opportunity?
    thanks.
    ts

  • By the way, I am curious as to how much of a pay difference you are talking about. I believe the hourly rate for conference interpreting for an ASL-English interpreter ranges between $35-55 an hour, sometimes paid as a flat rate for the conference. As far as I know, the rate is the same for medical, although some places pay two-hour minimums for doctor visits and others don’t. What I have learned from traveling to teach workshops is that there is more variation in pay and billing practices than I was aware of, but I am still surprised to hear you say that conference interpreters make more than medical interpreters.

    One main difference between ASL-English interpreters and spoken-spoken language interpreters in America is that interpreters for the Deaf are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says a “qualified” interpreter is an accommodation. Qualified does not necessarily mean certified, but often it does, so standards for medical interpreters for Deaf and hearing people may be higher than standards for hearing (i.e., non-deaf) people who speak different languages.

    I don’t mean to make this into a comparison between spoken-signed and spoken-spoken language interpreters, but this is very interesting to me!

  • Marcelo A Cedeno says:

    Great article and very good points. I am both a Court Certified Interpreter and a Medical Interpreter. My main issue (other than the differential in payment) is that I feel almost no respect by providers in the medical arena. In court, the interpreter is treated with respect by judges and staff and there is no mistreatment. I feel as the professional I am vs. a burden which is how I often feel in the medical field. One of the main reasons why I still work in Hospitals is because many Court Certified Interpreters would look down at medical interpretation and would not work in the field. I strongly believe that if more of us would get off our ‘High horse” We would raise the standards for interpreters in the medical field. I currently work 4 days in court and one day in a Hospital.

    • Christine Thomson Soltero says:

      Thank you for your interesting reply and your viewpoint. Very interesting! I am a WA State-certified medical interpreter and I work in Seattle, with a community-clinic based organization. I am paid mid- $20s an hour, and have total respect from all the providers for the services I render. I am very good at my job and have been told so many times. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my interpreting experiences, both in Houston and here in Seattle, I have always been given respect for my profession and my dedication and skill. I didn’t realize this appears not to be the case, generally. Sad. Our profession is extremely important and our skills and knowledge can mean the difference between life and death, literally! I love my work and the people I work for and with. Christine

  • Isa Hudgins says:

    Interesting reply, Marcelo, thank you for giving us your perspective. I am a sworn State Translator and Interpreter working in Mexico, and am seeking courses for medical (simultaneous) interpreters, not hospital interpreters.

  • […] Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field […]

  • AH says:

    Well said, Melinda! I wholeheartedly agree with you too.

  • […] and the other day I saw a surprising post on a blog I follow called The Professional Interpreter: Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field. The author, Tony Rosado, a Spanish-English interpreter, says that most medical interpreters do not […]

  • […] ou de conférences et propose ses opinions. Un article en particulier a attiré mon attention : Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field. Dans cet article, il explique que les interprètes médicaux perdent le marché des conférences […]

  • Humaira says:

    Let me know how I can apply as an interpreter

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