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

March 16, 2014 § 21 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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