Legal Terminology for Health Care Interpreters

gavel-1238036Unlike my journey to health care interpreting (some might call it “trial by fire”), my journey to legal interpreting has been…Slower. Like, a lot slower. And I’m still not there. Far from it. I entered the world of health care interpreting over a decade ago with a splash, thrown in to the deep end of the pool without expecting it. Like a belly flop, only less graceful and more painful. (And I say that with love.)

I’ve approached legal interpreting with a bit more trepidation. The teensy bit of my interpreting practice that’s taken place in the legal environment has always been in mental health, and in the holding room in my county Emergency Department. The holding room is where you see people who’ve been arrested and who also need medical attention. It’s like a jail in the hospital (in fact, I’m pretty sure it actually is a jail in the hospital). Folks in the holding room are not having the best day of their lives. For some people, it’s probably their rock bottom. As my dear brother would say, “It’s not nothin’ nice.”

There are four parts to the exam for state certification for court interpreters. A two-day initial training, a written exam, followed by another two-day training if you pass the written exam, and finally, the oral exam. It was at least five years ago that I took the initial training. I took the written exam and passed it. And then…Nothing. A few years passed. I took the initial training again, to prepare to take the written exam again. I passed it. Again. About three years ago, I took the second training to prepare for the oral exam. The training was intense. We learned techniques for sight translation, consecutive interpretation, and simultaneous interpretation. And then the interpreting drills. On the last day of training, after about an hour of simultaneous practice, I went to the bathroom and cried. After all that work, you’d think I’d be motivated to prepare for the oral exam and then ace it, right?

I scheduled my oral exam date, and in the time that passed, I practiced my interpreting drills exactly zero times between the time I went to training and the time I took the oral exam. And how do you think I did, after all that not-preparing? It’s kind of a trick question, since I passed the consecutive and sight translation portions (I was doing a lot of consecutive at the time and passed the sight portion because of my general nerdiness). I fully expected to fail the simultaneous part of the exam. I had a simultaneous skills problem, and a terminology problem. That is, as a working health care interpreter, my consecutive skills were sharp. My sight translation skills were pretty solid. I’m great at reading aloud at a slow, steady pace. I perform well under pressure. That helps. But the simultaneous interpreting? It was so bad that I remember starting to laugh about halfway through the exam.

When I got the letter saying I’d passed every part of the exam except for the simultaneous portion, I wasn’t surprised. I also wasn’t motivated to go back and re-take the exam. At that point in my professional life, I was such a good health care interpreter, that I was being rewarded with a new job that involved almost no interpreting (and has also taught me invaluable lessons that I will use for the rest of my life). It kept me busy, and that’s where my focus remained for the last couple of years, while I made excuses about why I couldn’t go back and re-take the simultaneous portion of the exam. This year, I got serious about re-taking the exam. Not only about re-taking the exam, but about a career change. Back to interpreting. But I think I’m ready to move on from health care. Plus, a legal interpreter with a strong health care background seems like a killer combination, from a skills and terminology standpoint.

Recently, I shadowed a colleague who’s a court interpreter at my county courthouse. Watching her work, I was at once thrilled and terrified. And so taken aback! Court is a different world. Defendants were stating their names, addresses, and how much they made right out in the open! Just like that! Everyone could hear! I mean, I guess they had to. The judge told them to. Health care culture is very hush-hush with personal information. In court, your personal information is probably going to be used against you at some point.

In health care, you’ve usually got a doctor listening quietly while the patient goes on and on with an answer that has nothing to do with the question that was asked (which is where intervention skills come in handy as an interpreter, so that the doc can intervene just like he’d be able to with an English-speaking patient). “Answer yes or no!” I heard one judge yell at a defendant while I was shadowing my colleague in court. Dang. I never heard a doctor talk to a patient like that. In health care, it’s more of a gentle, collaborative, egalitarian world. At court, not so much. Not that I’ve done any interpreting in court. These are simply the humble observations of a health care interpreter.

To me, it was shocking. But I liked it. I liked it enough to be pulled in and commit to preparing for the simultaneous oral exam.

Last week, I attended an all-day simultaneous interpreting workshop as part of my preparation for the exam, and I was reminded of my terminology problem. I am at least competent enough in simultaneous to have passed the national cert for health care interpreters (you can read about me getting the news that I passed that exam here). But that simultaneous exam is shorter than the legal one. And the health care terminology is very familiar to me. Legal terminology is a different world. It overwhelms me. And I like it.

Just last week, while I was looking for some study materials, I found my very first personal glossary, from when I started working as a health care interpreter. A beat-up Kelly-green Penway notebook with my hand-written notes on terms I didn’t know. And I was reminded of the terminology problem I used to have as a health care interpreter. I’ll share some of the words from that glossary: MRI, to rule out, bladder, eardrum, spinal tap, arteries, platelets, enlargement, IUD, UTI, D&C, SIDS, blood vessels, stem cells, stroke, bile duct, antibodies, shin, steering wheel, and narrowing. What strikes me about this selection of words is that some of them are really common, and others are not so much. I think it speaks to the breadth of knowledge an interpreter must have to function effectively. These are now words that are on the tip of my brain, easily accessible to me. And I remind myself: While I used to feel completely uncomfortable in the health care environment, I stuck with it, and since I was open to learning, I made it my own and succeeded. I just need to stick with legal, and pretty soon words like “misdemeanor”, “plea bargain”, and “opening statement” will roll effortlessly off my health care interpreter tongue.

On May 17th, at 10am, I’ll re-take the simultaneous portion of the exam. Will it be a belly flop, or a smooth, Olympian-like swan dive? I’m expecting it will be somewhere in between. A little heart fluttering as I step up to the edge of the diving board, and then I will leap, and the smooth waters of practice and focus will invite me in. Will it be good enough to pass? You and I will both have to wait and see.

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