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.

When the speaker has a heavy accent.

October 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that the title to this article immediately brought some memories to each one of you. A speaker’s heavy accent is one of the most common, yet toughest, problems that a professional interpreter has to overcome in order to provide a high quality service.

A few years ago I was hired to interpret for a medical conference where the main speaker was a very well-known scientist whose research had put him on the run for a Nobel Prize.  The topic was complex and the event was very important. Several hundred physicians, chemists, nurses, and other health professionals had paid a hefty ticket to attend this presentation.  Going by the book, the moment I took the assignment I began my research and studied for the assignment. I worked alone and I worked with the colleague who was going to be my partner in the booth for this job. I should mention that my partner was also a very good and experienced conference interpreter.

The date of the conference finally arrived and I traveled to the city where it was going to take place.  The presentation was going to be on a Monday starting early in the morning, and there was a scheduled reception for all attendees on Sunday evening. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes you get invited to these events, so my colleague and I went to the reception. It is hard to pass on champagne and good caviar!

The following morning I got to the booth with plenty of time to check the equipment and put out any fires if any. My colleague arrived at the same time I did. Everything seemed to be alright. This was before the I-pad/ laptop days and the booths were upstairs in a mezzanine above the conference floor. We had to carry all of our materials upstairs.

The program started and the president of the professional association hosting the workshop came on stage to welcome everybody and introduce the main speaker: Dr. John Doe (real name withheld for obvious reasons) I started the interpretation session that morning, so by the time Dr. Doe was due to appear on stage it was time to switch in the booth. My colleague took over, and as he was adjusting his headphones we saw an oriental man walk on the stage. This was Dr. Doe! “…But…it can be…” I said. He has an American western name.  Well, that was he.  As some of you may know, in the United States anybody can change his name to any name he chooses, and as long as you don’t defraud your creditors, from that point on you are that person. We had studied the speaker’s research work, academic history, every single piece of paper that had his name on it. There was nothing about his place of birth anywhere. There was no way we could have known that he was not a native speaker; and frankly, we never even thought of that possibility.

Dr. Doe took the microphone and started to speak.  You couldn’t understand a thing of what he was saying!!! Absolutely nothing!!! His accent was that thick.  My colleague turned towards me and gestured that he didn’t understand any of Dr. Doe’s speech. I didn’t either.

To this day I don’t know why, but at that point I looked into the conference room as if looking for I don’t know what, and I saw this blonde woman sitting to the side in the very back of the auditorium.  I immediately remembered that I had seen her the night before at the reception next to the oriental man now known to me as Dr. Doe.  I figured that she had to be his wife, girlfriend, assistant, agent, or something similar.  In other words, I thought that she must understand his English.  I signaled to my colleague, who was struggling with the rendition, that I would be right back and I left the booth.

When I approached the blonde lady and I explained our predicament she laughed really hard. I learned that she was Dr. Doe’s wife, she was American by birth, spoke English clearly, and she was able to understand her husband’s English.  I asked for her help.

I went back to the booth accompanied by Mrs. John Doe.  We put a third chair in the booth so she could have a seat. Because of the size of the both we had to leave the door open. We gave her a set of headphones and asked her to repeat everything her husband said. In fact we asked her to interpret from her husband’s English into regular English.  We did relay interpreting from her English into Spanish.  We also used her rendition for the other booths (Portuguese and French as I recall) Very soon the only people who couldn’t understand Dr. Doe were the English speakers as they didn’t have the benefit of a booth. It was funny to see those English speakers looking around and realizing that everybody else was getting the presentation but them.   After much suffering, at the end of the day the Spanish booth was the “hero” that saved the day.  Of course, it was due to my experience and ability to think quickly and to solve a problem. Had I not attended the reception the day before, or had I not remembered the blonde lady by Dr. Doe’s side, we would have had a very difficult experience instead of an anecdote that has been repeated hundreds of times. I would love to hear some of your stories telling us how you were able to overcome an obstacle during a rendition.

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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