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Medical Interpretation Is Not Just Talking – by Keith Carlson

As a nurse with some Spanish-English bilingual capabilities, I’ve learned firsthand that medical interpretation is critical for patients who speak languages other than English. I’ve also learned that grabbing your nearest bilingual person can lead to unclear messages. Clarity is critical in medical interpretation, especially in crucial perhaps even life-threatening circumstances.

Semi-fluent medical or even bilingual professionals are limited for a couple of reasons. One, is that they are probably already busy with their demanding jobs. Meaning, they want to get back to work. So, they are incentivized to give you just the gist. Moreover, they are deciding what the doctor should and should not know. During examinations I have often heard doctors instruct the patient, “Tell me what you feel even if you don’t think it is important.” Seemingly insignificant clues can lead to important conclusions. Secondly, it is a question of training. It takes practice to act as a conduit for speech. People in general are unaware of the demands. It’s like listening to a radio host. If you’ve never been on the radio you just say, “They’re just talking. I can do that.” And if it’s a family that is interpreting for a sick loved one. Well, you get the picture. “Mom, you have cancer. You have 2 months to live.” I know, I know, in spite of all the money spent on health care we skimp. We all want a deal.

Americans are pragmatist so we like a good-enough solutions sometimes. Just call an interpreter and spend the money! Don’t let a hundred bucks keep your business from being as professional as it can be. The civilized thing to do for yourself and the patient is to call a professional, folks. Avoid saying, “Medical interpretation? They’re just talking. I can do that.” A good resource is certified and trained medical interpreter.

Non-English speaking patients rely on medical interpreters. They are a life line in an often scary and uncertain situation. Imagine being in hills of China or the plains of Mongolia and you get a splinter and an infection in your foot. Nothing is familiar except the pain. An interpreter can be reassuring because you understand them and they you. Medical interpreters listen carefully, interpret and translate the patient’s needs, desires, fears and questions, and also clearly communicate the information needing to be relayed to the patient by the medical staff.

This two-way medical linguistic dance can truly only be performed well by a certified medical interpreter. The medical interpreter has experience with dialects and specific terminology, colloquialisms, slang and other vocabulary that an untrained semi-fluent staff member (like myself) might easily miss—or at least misinterpret.

Medical interpreters are gateways for information. Nuanced meaning results in the best possible care for limited or non-English speakers. The goal of health care is to generate well-being in and outside of the hospital or clinic. Healing begins when someone hears, understands, and relaxes to the words, “Tell me where you hurt.”