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Is Medical Interpreting the Right Career for You?

Updated on March 16, 2013

About the Author

Medical interpreting is finally being recognized as a valued profession in the U.S. Anahi Pari-di-Monriva has been a medical and legal interpreter, translator, editor in Italian, Spanish and English for over 20 years. Most recently, she has taught a Medical Interpreter Certification course to help students with CNA and other certifications launch their own medical interpreting careers.

Bilingual signs are cropping up at national brands throughout the U.S.
Bilingual signs are cropping up at national brands throughout the U.S. | Source

Basic Qualifications Checklist

  • Minimum of high school diploma/GED
  • Native or near-native speaker of English
  • Native or near-native speaker of at least 1 other language
  • Excellent verbal communication skills
  • Honesty, high sense of ethics
  • Know how to maintain confidentiality

Are You Bilingual (or Multilingual)?

How do you know if medical interpreting is a good career move for you? First of all, you need to be honest with yourself about your language skills. Are you bilingual? To what degree? That is, to be an interpreter you must be perfectly bilingual; you must have native or native-like proficiency in all of your working languages. This means that you must be able to listen, speak, read and write in at least two languages (in the US, this means English and another language). Then, you need to assess whether you can listen, speak, read and write at the same level – of grammar, vocabulary, register – in each of your languages. It is not enough to speak and understand Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, (insert your language here) at home and with friends. Can you read signs? Could you read a medical document, with no need for explanation from a native speaker? Can you follow a lecture, movie or TV program in the language, again, with no need for explanation – even at the cultural level (idioms, slang, body language, etc.) – from a native speaker? Can you write a formal essay on, say, global warming, in both languages, without sounding stilted or child-like? If you cannot honestly answer “yes” to these questions right now, do not despair. Living, studying, working in the US gradually erodes productive capabilities in the other language(s), making English slowly and subtly our brain’s “main” language.

Assess Your Language Skills

In short, before you can begin training specifically to become a medical interpreter, you must develop the ability – if you do not already have it – to think and react communicatively in English and at least one other language. You need:

  1. to know and be able to use cultural nuances, regional variations, idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms in all your working languages;
  2. to speak with proper diction, intonation, and pronunciation in all your working languages;
  3. to listen to and understand different rates of speech, regional accents, dialectal differences in all your working languages;
  4. to read and understand different written texts, at both informal and formal levels of discourse.


Work Environments for Interpreters and Translators

Typically, interpreters work in health care settings, such as hospitals, medical centers, and other facilities, state and federal courts, and schools. ( ) Let’s take a look at a quick breakdown of some settings where medical interpreting takes place.

General Medical Interpreting

Medical interpreters typically work in hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics, hospices, doctor’s offices, and even patients’ homes. These environments require self-control on the part of the interpreter, especially in emergency situations. The ability to handle the sight of blood, potentially severe injuries, and knowledge of anatomy, procedures, and medical shorthand or abbreviations are key to effective interpreting. The conditions in these environments may be difficult because there are often multiple speakers. Yet another difficulty is that not everyone in these environments knows what the role of an interpreter is, or how to work with one; the interpreting profession is still not widely understood. A third difficulty is that of transference, that is, the patient begins to see the interpreter as a personal ally, advocate, confidant, or, in more extreme instances, as an almost-replacement of the medical professionals. However, the advantages of working in these settings are also great. It is rewarding to be a part of helping people take care of themselves. Also the environments tend to be less formal than, say, a courtroom, sessions are short, there is lots of interaction with speakers, and a variety of situations. Assignments are rarely dull!

Mental Health Interpreting

A little later in their career, some medical interpreters specialize; some choose to specialize in mental health terminology and settings, such as outpatient psychiatric units, psychiatric hospitals, private clinics, and residential psychiatric facilities. Sometimes, mental health interpreters are called to assignments at patients’ homes or emergency rooms. This type of interpreting is similar to the general medical interpreting (so knowledge of anatomy and general medical terms and procedures are still required) but in most cases the sessions are longer, as psychiatric evaluations are usually added to the general physical examinations. For this type of interpreting, a background knowledge – in all of your working languages - of mental disorders, their symptoms and treatment is essential. Another essential ingredient is the ability to interpret every utterance exactly – without adding or subtracting meaning – and no matter whether the utterance makes sense; as the interpreter, you may not add (through word choice or grammatical construction) any personal interpretation or make any interjections. This type of work may sometimes even be physically dangerous. But, again, the rewards are great, especially as people suffering from psychiatric ailments also have a greater impact on their families.

Community Interpreting

In the U.S., community interpreters help people who are not fluent speakers of English, also known as LEPs, or Limited English Proficient individuals, (by the way, English is the de facto language of the United States but not the official language; the United States of America has no official language) communicate with providers of legal, health, education, government and social services. Community interpreters mainly serve to ensure access to public services. For this reason, community interpreters usually work in institutional settings, such as social or health service agencies. However, the community interpreter’s role is more broad than that of a general medical or mental health interpreter; the community interpreter may also be called upon to act as a cultural broker, an advocate, for the Limited English Proficient speaker. As a community interpreter, therefore, you would have a broader spectrum of assignments, such as Unemployment Insurance (UI) meetings, disability interviews, psychological reviews, school meetings (especially for special needs students requiring IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans) and conferences, welfare agency applications, meetings or hearings, immigration interviews, religious services, adoption proceedings, first-time house buyer workshops, to name a few. While potentially stressful, community interpreting may be even more rewarding as you would play a more active, less-neutral role than most interpreters.


Telephone or Video Interpreting

A growing trend in hospitals and other settings is the use of telephone or video interpreters. This is a cheaper option than having a live interpreter but, especially for minority, exotic or less-diffuse languages (such as Gujarati, for example, or Khmer), sometimes it is the only option. The advantages for the interpreter are that you can work from home, without having to travel. Of course, you must make sure you have compatible technologies available at home (Skype, a landline phone, a good headset, a good computer system). The most difficult aspect of telephone interpreting is that it is harder to understand all the speakers, especially if some speakers are seated farther away from their location’s conference/speaker phone. Also, there are no visual cues, just aural ones, which can also lead to more instances of misunderstandings; misunderstandings and subsequent clarifications may lead to longer sessions.

Orient Yourself Professionally

To orient yourself professionally, first answer the following questions:

  1. After reading about the profession, does it still appeal to you? Why or why not?
  2. Which of the types of medical interpreting appeals to you most (general, mental health, community, telephone/video)? Why?

Next, looking at your local community. List hospitals, clinics, social service or cultural organizations that might use interpreting services. Call them up and make an appointment to interview the interpreting manager or coordinator. Ask if you could shadow an interpreter, to get a feel for what the work is really like. Perhaps, you could even volunteer as an interpreter, at first, in order to gain valuable practice.

After you do all (or most) of the above, come back here and tell us about your journey, in the Comments section below!


Submit a Comment

  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 3 years ago from Massachusetts

    Thank you so much for your professional validation as an interpreter! Keep advocating for our profession, Sarah!

  • profile image

    Sarah Siraj 4 years ago

    Great article! So true that we as interpreters need to advocate for our profession and I love how you outlined the different types and settings for interpreters

  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Princess, you are so right about the fact that just speaking another language doesn't actually mean a person is a good interpreter (or translator, or language expert)! In fact, the unfortunate fact about the language services industry, over the last 20 or so years, is that so many people decided "I speak [insert language here], I'll interpret" and softened the market. After all, if a client doesn't speak or understand a language, how can that client assess quality? What happens often is that the client is forced to re-do the translation (paying again, but also losing valuable time) and is usually so soured by the first bad experience that s/he disbelieves the quality and goes for lowest cost (and we all know that you get what you pay for!) in the future. This depresses prices for professionals but also makes it very hard for the profession to be taken seriously.

    Thanks again for acknowledging the importance of proficiency/ability assessment, training, and certification!

  • livelifeworryfree profile image

    Princess Clark 5 years ago from The DMV

    My first career and training was in HR. Interpretation was and still is highly valued. However just because someone can speak a language doesn't mean they are a great interpreter. I love how you asked them to assess their proficiency. That is very important especially when someones life could possibly be hanging in the balance. Thumbs up!

  • everymom profile image

    Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Thank you so much, kj!

  • kj force profile image

    kjforce 5 years ago from Florida

    everymom..What a fantastic job you did.. very informative and interesting..being retired from the Medical Profession I know first hand of the frustrations through the years when approached with this dilemma/ issue..and the every minute counts syndrome..this is definitely an asset to the Healthcare world..thank you for sharing and addressing this issue...Congrats on a well written hub...