Now residing in the beautiful Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, dedicated primarily to OPI (Over the Phone Interpreting), and Face to Face Interpreting as requested.

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Interpreter Training –The legit vs. the scams.

Spanish David


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My note to trainers and conference organizers. No matter how exciting, fun and enjoyable your class or conference may be, if the final goal isn’t to help me increase or at a minimum maintain my professional fees, you have wasted my time and my money. This is not a ‘volunteer’ profession.

In all my years of interpreting I have been asked only a handful of times for my opinion, and in those cases, I had to abstain as the standards of practice state “The interpreter limits his or her professional activity to interpreting within an encounter.” See ‘National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Healthcare’ published by the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare (NCIHC), September 2005. So, in a nutshell, I hear the message in one language, and I convey it in the other without adding or omitting anything. By the way, it is much harder than it sounds. Just ask any interpreter.

If I am restricted to interpreting within the encounter, how much medical knowledge do I need? I have heard some colleagues state that they are as knowledgeable as the doctors for whom they interpret. I always wonder why, then, do they not get their medical degree and practice medicine. It would certainly pay better. In defense of these colleagues, I must admit that I have interpreted for some doctors who I thought their elevator didn’t quite make it to the top if you know what I mean.

If I had to pick one area of knowledge that a medical interpreter needs to excel, it would be in medical terminology as well as general vocabulary, of course. If the doctor says, you have a cracked skull; I better know how to say ‘skull’ in the target language. A simplistic example, but you get the idea. I don’t need to know that the skull is the “skeleton of the head of a vertebrate forming a bony or cartilaginous case that encloses and protects the brain and chief sense organs and supports the jaws.” –Mariam-Webster. It doesn’t hurt for me to have this additional information tucked inside my little brain, but it certainly isn’t necessary to do my job as a medical interpreter either.

Now some will say that an in-depth medical knowledge is what sets the amateur interpreter apart from the crème de la crème. Really? Says who, someone that offers medical courses to interpreters? These snake-oil vendors of interpreting classes are a dime a dozen. I think it is a waste of time and money –in most cases.

As a medical interpreter our expertise is centered on communication, not our knowledge of medicine. By the way, when I use the term ‘medicine,’ I am doing so as a generalized term to encompass all aspects. I just thought I should make that clear. I would also like to make something else clear, and that is that as an interpreter we do need to understand the message. If we don’t understand the message, we can’t interpret. We listen, we understand, and then we interpret. Yes, it happens rather instantaneously, but the understanding is part of the process. Please don’t read into this that I am against learning. Quite the opposite. I am all for learning but I try not to fool myself that every class offered will make me a better interpreter.

This understanding part is where we do need some knowledge –a basic knowledge—to do our jobs effectively. Using the simple example from above, ‘skull,’ we need to know, for instance, that its location is at the top of the body that forms the head. Now, how embarrassing would it be to think when the doctor says “you have a cracked skull” the interpreter thinks it means a cracked ass. Side note, most asses do have a crack. If you don’t believe me, stick your hand back there and check. I am picturing someone going OMG! My ass is cracked.

Okay, back to the point. As a professional interpreter, you only have so much in resources available, i.e., your time and your hard-earned money. If you are curious, have the time and the money, then, by all means, gain more medical knowledge. It certainly can’t hurt. I have taken medical courses just because I wanted to learn. Was this necessary to interpret? Not at all. Out of all the information gained, it was the terminology that benefited me as an interpreter.

As a medical interpreter, the best thing we can do is continuously improve our skills –our interpreting skills, which is where we need to stay focused. Building and maintaining term glossaries, perfecting note-taking skills and learning how to decipher the message conveyed from all the miscellaneous chatter will better serve us. I would go so far as to say accent reduction and public speaking skills should be included in the list. Additionally, we need to learn and understand cultural differences. Sadly, there are actually fewer of these types of classes –skill building–than the fluffy ones.

There are other essential skills that interpreters should also receive training, but rarely do you encounter such training offered. I am talking about such things as interpreting for a doctor that insists on using their first-semester Spanish skills, or one that is rude to the interpreter. What about LEP’s that are impossible to understand? What happens when you are cut off in the middle of your interpretation? How do you recover from a screwup? Except for the prima-donnas, most of us at some point butcher an interpretation, so how do we recover and not look like the town idiot?

We, as interpreters, also need to learn how to take care of ourselves. As a medical interpreter, we deal with sick people and sometimes, sadly, people who are dying, which can, and often does, take a mental toll on the interpreter. It is an excellent practice to participate in courses that also focus on the interpreter’s mental health.

In closing my advice, for what it’s worth, is to concentrate on classes and conferences that focus on skill building. The fluffy stuff, although beautiful, doesn’t make an iota of difference to the medical provider or the patient. The patient and provider care that you heard the message, you understood it, and you correctly conveyed the meaning from one language to the other without adding or omitting anything.

How to choose which class to take or conference to attend? I recommend asking yourself the following:
>How will attending this class or conference benefit me as an interpreter?
>Will I receive training on a specific interpreter skill or skills?
>If through an agency, does the agency pay professional interpreter fees?
>If through an organization such as IMIA, CCHI, NCIHC, and so on, does
the organization support and advocate for professional interpreter fees, or do they only offer the fluff?
>Is the same course offered for less, or even free? (There are many ‘free’ webinars)
>Have any of my colleagues attended this course or conference? What did they think?

_____David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Healthcare Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified healthcare interpreter dedicated exclusively to OPI (over the phone interpreting) whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.

David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.

A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.

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