Medical Terminology for Interpreters: What I Know

I’ll bet you thought I forgot that I’d written a couple months back that I was working on a post about medical terminology.  I didn’t forget.  I just forgot where I’d put my notes, but I found them.  I’ve written about terminology before, and about how you can memorize lists and lists of terminology, but it’s not going to save you when you’re hit with words you didn’t even know that you didn’t know how to say.  But here I am to offer up a teeny piece of what I know from being an interpreter: What I might call my “must-know” words.  Understand that words are just words, and you still have to learn them in context, ideally through interpreting practice.  I did a lot of interpreting practice when preparing for my state court exam.  My preparation for my national health care exam was a decade of interpreting in hospitals, and everyone (patients, providers, and me) would have had a much easier go of it in the beginning if someone had revealed these tips to me.  So here they are, to get you started, or to start an argument if you’re a working interpreter who’d like to disagree with me (it’s allowed):

Symptoms: Commit your interpreted version of this English question to memory: “Have you had any nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation?”  Then make a symbol for it that will be effective in note-taking (nvdc is mine) so that when the provider follows that with a bunch of other symptoms, you’ll remember where to start.

Learn how doctors and patients describe pain: Sharp, stabbing, dull, burning, throbbing.  You’d do well to repeat these over and over again in your patients’ language, and when they come flying at you in a medical interview you’ll be glad you did.  Decide how you want to interpret the pain scale and memorize it.  Be comfortable with intervening.  Most patients will act like you didn’t even say anything about a 1 to 10 scale and just tell you, “It’s a really, really bad pain.”  It’s not your bad interpretation of the pain scale.  I think this is one place where culturally, the pain scale might not make sense.  I could be wrong.

Bowel movement, urination, vomiting: Know and be comfortable with saying all of these bodily functions in all different registers.  From bowel movement to poop, and urination to peeing, and vomiting to barfing, it’s all going to come up (see what I did there?).  Avoid offending your patients and know, if applicable, what words are used for people, and what words are used for animals.

Another one to memorize and write on your sweet little interpreter heart: “In the last two weeks, have you been exposed to anyone who has measles, mumps, chicken pox, or rash with a fever”.  Sometimes they’ll throw in another infectious disease like TB (learn what this means), and sometimes they’ll just say, “In the last two weeks, have you been exposed to anyone with an infectious disease?”  Also: “Have you had a tetanus shot in the last five years?”

Systems and organs: Lots of times you’ll just hear, “Do you have any problems with your heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, bowels, or bladder?”  Don’t forget to learn the glands, too.  Ever heard of the endocrine and exocrine gland systems?  Get on it.  And ducts.  You’ll want to know how to say ducts.

Stuff in our bodies: Bile, blood (and the stuff that’s in blood-I’ll leave that for your homework assignment), eggs (the kind that the ovaries release), cysts, tissue, cartilage, muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons.

Stuff they do to us to figure out what’s wrong: X-rays, MRI, CT scan (same thing as CAT scan), EKG, pelvic exam (not the same as a Pap smear, by the way), ultrasound, blood work, urinalysis, endoscopy, colonoscopy,  the very vague “scope”, and the even vague-er “labs”.  Remember, if it’s vague in the source language, make it vague in the target language, and if you can’t, ask your speaker for clarification.

Stuff they might talk about in test results: Platelets, hemoglobin, iron, enzymes.

Stuff that happens to our bodies: Sprains, tears, detachments, attachments, breaks, cuts, scars, scabs, and the vague “injury”.

Stuff that’s wrong with us that needs to be fixed: High blood pressure, urinary tract infections (also UTI, bladder infection, and learn what your patients call it, too), ulcers, strokes, ingrown toenails, gall stones, indigestion, upper respiratory infection, diabetes (know the words for the equipment patients use to test their blood sugar, like meter, strips, etc.), depression, STDs, allergic reactions, and gastroenteritis.  This list looks weird, I know, but I swear these were, by leaps and bounds, the most common diagnoses during my experience as an Emergency Department interpreter.

Bonus words: Inpatient, outpatient, follow-up, referral, and gown.  Yes, gown, as in hospital gown.  Do you know how to say it in your patients’ language?  A surprising (to me) number of people who claim bilingualism don’t know how to say it in Spanish.  Be a rock star and learn how to say gown in another language.  And if you’re a second-language speaker of your patients’ language (like me) don’t just look it up in the dictionary and be done with it.  Context matters.  For heavens sake, don’t go telling your patient to undress and put on this ball gown.

In the end, this is just a start, but like I mentioned, I would have been clamoring to have this list at the beginning of my interpreting practice.  And at the same time, I’m so grateful to have had the experiences that taught me what I didn’t know.  There is something to be said for trial by fire, and there’s something to be said to have kind people guide you along your learning curve.  For me, those people were providers.  They have the same values that interpreters do, you know?  They want to serve people.  They want to find out what’s wrong and make it better.

What would you add to the must-know list?  Let us all know in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Medical Terminology for Interpreters: What I Know

  1. Thanks so much; I needed this! I’m just starting in the field, having taken Bridging the Gap recently. ‘No job yet, but continuing to improve. Thanks again.

  2. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Jan 31-Feb 6) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  3. Pingback: Everything Is Not an “Aparato”: More Terminology for Interpreters | That Interpreter

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