Final Blog: The Art of Medical Interpretation Summary

I am finally almost at the very end of my paper. All I have left are a couple of fact checks and the conclusion. I didn’t expect it to be so lengthy, but I suppose that the sources I used started to catch up with me. It is always a gratifying feeling to see one’s work come together, especially when it started in bits in pieces and is now a flowing narrative.

After an introduction to my topic, a description of my action plan, and some information about the clinic, its patients, and its interpreters, I focused on the main points of my research.

My analysis section included the following topics: 1) The challenges that ESRH patients face, 2) How interpreters work to mitigate those difficulties, 3) The challenges interpreters face, 4) The qualities that good interpreters possess, 5) An analysis of techniques used by interpreters, and 6) Memorable experiences and reflections on the profession. Rather than try to explain all of these sections, I will summarize one of my most important sections, supported by quotes from my interviews with interpreters.

What makes a good interpreter?

Professionalism. ESRH strives to maintain its standards as a reputable, well-run facility. The same feeling of professionalism and confidentiality is important to the interpreters at ESRH. Erika sums it up perfectly: “You want the patient to feel totally secure…that you will keep their information confidential. This is a small community, and some of our interpreters live in the same apartment building as our patients…they don’t necessarily feel like they want to be telling their private business to their next door neighbor here at the doctor’s office.”

Good communication. As expected, communication is key. As interpreter Maria notes, “you have to really learn to listen to the patient, and to understand what it is that the doctor wants to know, and you have to communicate so the doctor knows what it is that the patient needs.” It is important to get the message across correctly—interpreter Fabiola emphasizes, “you need to be as accurate as possible.” But sometimes, this can be harder said than done. There were many situations in which interpreting cannot simply be a word for word exchange. Outreach worker Roberto spoke with me about the importance of interpreting within the context of which something is being said. “You have to know when to interpret word for word and when not to…being able to distinguish this is important.”

Empathy. At some point, almost all of the interpreters touched on the idea of empathy and compassion. Interpreter Maria noted that good interpreters have an acute sensitivity to the pains and sicknesses of other people, and they must have a good heart. Similar sentiments were expressed from interpreter Fabiola: “In my personal opinion, empathy is the best element to use. Put yourself in the patient’s situation. What would I do if I was this patient and I had the challenge of not speaking the language? People open up when they sense that there is a caring.”

Cultural Sensitivity. Many of the interpreters I spoke with encouraged anyone interested in Spanish medical interpreting to learn about the variety of cultures found in central and South America. As an interpreter and an outreach worker, Roberto says it is important to be “culturally sensitive to wherever they are from…people from the North of Mexico may be different from those from Southern Mexico. People from Guatemala have their own colloquial words. You have to be able to recognize this.”

Patience. Maria emphasized that for this work, someone has to have a lot of patience. When patients become difficult, outreach worker Roberto says “you have to be firm but at the same time helpful and respectful.” One example of this was a woman who continued to call the clinic and try to secure an appointment for her children to be seen by an ADHD specialist different from the one she had already seen. The interpreters mentioned to me that she had been a difficult patient in the past and was probably trying to become eligible to receive disability money from the state, even if there wasn’t anything wrong with her children. This case required several phone calls and messages between many different medical personnel to sort out, but I was impressed with the patience demonstrated by the interpreters while dealing rationally with the case.

The Human Factor. It is important for interpreters to have professionalism, but connecting with a patient sometimes demands more from an interpreter. As outreach worker Roberto states, “it is important to be a professional but at the same time be a human…you don’t want to be a robot, you want to be a person talking to another person. If you act like a robot, I feel like [the message] might go right through one ear and out the other.” Fabiola says “you have to be humanistic and believe the world is more than just one group of people…you have to believe that we all belong to Earth…you need to like people, you need to love people.”

It has been a very stimulating process doing this type of research. My favorite part was being able to really get involved in what I was doing, and not just observe by the sidelines. This isn’t possible with all types of research, but because of the exploratory nature of this project, I was really able to dive in. I leave this project with the knowledge that interpreters are incredibly important, and without them, miscommunication can cause serious damage. Hopefully the skills and knowledge I have gained from this experience will be something I can remember in the long run, if I ever again encounter patients who don’t speak the language.


  1. ghmendenhall says:

    Very interesting topic that I’m glad I got to read more about! A lot of illuminating conclusions as well, I especially appreciated the ‘human factor.’

  2. This is really cool, and I liked that you talk about how difficult translation can be. Sometimes people think that translation is really easy and just requires a word-for-word exchange, but you talk about exactly what needed to be added in order to make medical translation useful.

  3. LHennemuth says:

    You did a great job incorporating both your experience and others’ observations into your analysis. It seems that the factors described above primarily relate to what makes a good interpreter with respect to the patient. Did you also reflect on this question with regard to the medical professional for whom you were interpreting? By and large, these factors might also apply to that relationship, but I would imagine that there might be some differences, as well.