Terminology for Medical Interpreters

In my last post, I posed the question: What’s more important, interpreting skills or terminology?  I’m afraid  I left the impression that terminology isn’t important for interpreters.  But, wait!  Terminology is my happy place.  Words are my pals.  You’re reading the writing of one who used to skip class in highschool and escape to the library to read dictionaries and thesauri (sorry, Mom and Dad).

I used to teach a terminology course for Spanish medical interpreters.  They were dying for terminology.  But they wanted someone to spoon-feed it to them.  And in my inexperience, I spoon-fed it to them.  But you know what?  When you spoon-feed something as fact to intelligent, thinking adults, they will (rightly!) challenge you and reject whatever it is that’s on your spoon.  So I changed my approach from spoon-feeding to discovery.  As a class, we learned about exhausting all of our resources – lexicons, academic journals, bilingual providers, fellow interpreters, dictionaries – before we accepted a term as a good equivalent.

And still, I can’t remember many times we could come to a consensus as a group about a good standard equivalent for a term.  For those times, I’d use something like Google Fight to break a tie.  No, Google Fight is not technically a reliable linguistic resource, but you get to see stick people beat each other up, and it distracts everyone long enough for me to hit the coffee pot.

I guess that everything I learned about terminology, I learned by teaching terminology.  Like how I can have a conversation about terminology that works for me.  And I also learned about the conversations I’m done having.  Like the difference between cateterismo and cateterización.  I’m done having that conversation.  I’m done discussing where the accent falls on endoscopia.  If anyone has anything to add to this discussion, let me know in the comments.  (If every medical interpreter read this at once, they’d break the internet looking up “endoscopia accent”.)

I’m done discrediting an entire dictionary that’s really excellent, just because they used the word apendectomia instead of apendicectomía.  If you have one dictionary defining all of your equivalents for you, that’s a problem.

There are some conversations about equivalents that make me say, OK, you’re right.  I’m using radiografía instead of rayos-x for x-rays when we’re talking about “getting some x-rays”, since you so gently explained to me that rayos-x describes the actual rays, while radiografía describes the procedure.  That makes sense to me.  If you ask me how to say referral in Spanish, I’m going to tell you that the word is remisión.  Oh!  And you’re going to (maybe) argue that the word is referencia.  But I’m going to gently explain to you that actually, I think you give a referencia about something or someone, but you remetir somebody to something or someone, and since remetir is the verb, then remisión is the noun and so that’s what I’m using the equivalent to the noun referral.  Even if you don’t agree, hey, I can tell you how I got there and maybe we can just agree to disagree.

On the other hand, if the patient comes back with referencia when I say remisión, guess what?  I’m going to use referencia, since that’s what my listener has now established as the standard equivalent.  I know this is a point of contention for medical interpreters, so let it rip.  When I’m interpreting, I want to use standard equivalents, so I ask myself, Whose standard equivalents?  I think the interpreter, not the speaker, has to be the flexible one.

What I’m especially interested in is the terminology you know that doesn’t come from lexicons and terminology courses.  Wanna know the terminology That Interpreter knows from her experience living abroad and working in an all-Mexican kitchen?  Come on, of course you do.

Living abroad, I learned about almost-swear words.  Like, I learned that mieeeercoles (Wednesday) was an almost-swear for mieeeerda (shit).  See what happened there?  But patients will say mieeeercoles, and if you’ve already thought about it before, you can interpret a good equivalent for this.  Believe that I have interpreted mieeeeroles as Sugar Honey Iced Tea.  As an interpreter I am nothing, if not entertaining.

I am very comfortable interpreting all manner of Mexican slang.  When I worked in the kitchen, I got an earful from my Mexican co-workers, and I was never afraid to ask them what the heck they were talking about (a very important characteristic for an interpreter, by the way), which is how I learned the many creative uses of the word madre as a swear.  This knowledge of equivalents has come in handy when interpreting for drunk and/or brain injured people.  And I can assure you, these equivalents did not come from a dictionary.

Dont’ get me wrong, I carry a dictionary with me when I interpret.  I want to get the equivalents right when I don’t know them and they’re available to me in the dictionary.  (Though I think there’s a rumor going around that’s it’s not OK to carry a dictionary).

So you see, I totally heart terminology; my problem is the idea that we can read a book or attend one training and walk out with all the terminology we need.  We’re not going to do an internet search for “Terminology for Medical Interpreters” and find a magical site that will hand us everything we need to know.  Some interpreters might think my attitude toward word equivalents is flippant.  Maybe because I interpret referral as referencia when the speaker establishes that as her standard equivalent, I’m contributing to the breakdown of the Spanish language.  In the context of medical interpreting, I think it’s more like contributing to equal access to health care for people who don’t speak English.

4 thoughts on “Terminology for Medical Interpreters

  1. Beth says:

    I agree with you completely. If the patient uses “referencia”, then “referencia” it is. If the interpreter can’t be flexible and adjust to the speaker’s terminology, than they are hindering communication rather than facilitating it. Our job is to help LEP patients and the medical staff communicate, not to get in the way by insisting on a certain term. We all know interpreters who do that, unfortunately.

    • thatinterpreter says:

      Hi Ana, I hope you found what you were looking for! “Terminology for Medical Interpreters” is by far the number one search term that leads people to the blog. Since terminology is such a broad subject, I always wonder what terminology specifically they’re hoping to find, and how they hope to find it presented. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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