Interpreter Training, terminology


I teach a basic training for medical interpreters. Basic. Every single time I teach the class, the number one piece of feedback, by leaps and bounds, is that it would be nice to spend more time learning terminology in Spanish. Every. Single. Time.

And please don’t misunderstand the “basic” in “basic training” to mean “easy”. I push my students to the edge, and then bring them back (and you should know that my fancy teaching strategy for bringing them back is serving coffee and snacks). I spend as little time as I can teaching the what so I can leave as much time as possible teaching the how

I totally understand why students want more focus on terminology. I get it. For one thing, the interpreting practice that we do in class is really awkward when you don’t have a good terminology base. You have to stop, look up a word in your glossary, then remember what you were saying, then usually take some time for a laughing breakdown with your classmates. Yeah. Not knowing terminology is disruptive.

Interpreting practice in real life is really awkward when you don’t have a good terminology base. But first, you have to learn the skills to deal with scenarios in which you don’t have a good terminology base. Because in a real life interpreted scenario, you can’t stop and look in your glossary and then have a laughing breakdown while you try to remember what you were saying. And no matter how much experience you have, there will always, always, always be encounters that throw you a curve ball, that blindside you, and you have to rely on your technical skills to clarify, ask questions, so that you can render an accurate interpretation and still look like you know what you’re doing. You can’t memorize a bunch of terminology, have no interpreting skills, and then expect to rock out in an interpreted scenario.

On the first day of class, I already know that on the last day of class, the evaluations are going to say things like, “I wish we’d spent more time on terminology” and so I address it right up front.  This is not a terminology course.  We’re going to learn basic interpreting skills. I still get the I-wish-we’d-spent-more-time-on-terminology evaluations, and that’s okay. Maybe there’s something about terminology that I just can’t teach them: That the terminology that they’re so desperate to learn, the terminology they don’t know isn’t what will blindside them. It’s the situations they’ll find themselves in that will catch them completely off guard. And even if they know the terminology, they’ll forget it because they’re blindsided by what’s happening.

And that’s when they have to rely on their interpreting skills. That’s when they’re (hopefully) going to remember the lesson when I talked about breathing in and out. Breathing. In and out.

Even now, I get blindsided. And after ten years as an interpreter, I know A LOT of terminology.  Interpreting for adult children taking care of their parents, I can barely get past my own feelings to listen to what’s being said, and then interpret it all. “What will happen to my dad when he leaves the hospital?” Blindsided: I don’t want to listen to and interpret that; I want to give a big hug to the person who said that. Interpreting for the girl my age who came in for a headache, but when asked if she’s feeling like hurting herself or others, breaks down in tears. In between sobs, she goes on about her husband, “Our relationship was always so great, and now he just seems so distant, and I can’t understand why.” Ack! Blindsided! I don’t want to interpret that because ouch ouch ouch.  Interpreting for a patient who yelled at his doctor, “Get me an interpreter who knows what she’s doing!!!” Whoah. Blindsided. But you know what? My belief that everyone has a right to be heard is such that, if a patient wants to say his interpreter sucks, even if that interpreter is me, I am going to interpret that. But, damn. Blindsided.

And that’s just the stuff that patients say! We interpret for providers, too!

Interpreting for a doctor who’s explaining a procedure to his patient that, given his condition, is probably not going to survive it. The patient and his family nod their understanding, and they shake hands with the doc. Some hugs go around. Tears. “Godspeed”, the doc tells his patient. Holy Hell! I’m supposed to maintain my composure and come up with an on-the-spot Spanish equivalent of “Godspeed”?! Interpreting for a pediatric oncology team that’s explaining a baby’s terrible diagnosis and prognosis to his parents, and Mom says, “I just want him to be well” and the attending doc replies by telling his team, “Make it so.”  Seriously?!?! Just give me a second to choke back that knot in my throat while I recall the use of the subjunctive in Spanish and figure out a good equivalent for “Make it so”.

Hearing what my students want to know, but knowing what they really need to know on a basic level, and knowing that there’s no way to convince them that I’m right, that I know best.  Huh. I wonder if my parents felt this way with me? Well, after much stubborn pulling on the push door, I figured it out on my own, and I have to trust that my students will also figure it out on their own. Knowing that it’s okay to feel like you’re stumbling through it.  It’s okay if you get blindsided. But we still have standards to uphold. And we have skills to get through it. I wonder if others who train interpreters face the same challenges. Can we teach skills that they’ll take out into the field? Can we help them deliver a quality interpretation when we’re not there to hold their hands and give them feedback? Can interpreters take the skills and values that their trainers have taught them in the classroom and then manifest them in their work?  Can we all work toward equality? Social justice? Can everyone, even people who don’t speak English, have equal access to health care?

To trainers and interpreters, I say: Make it so.

5 thoughts on “Blindsided”

  1. Dear ThatInterpreter 🙂 ,

    This is Elizabeth Byers whom you taught in BTG. I enjoyed looking through your blog. I read it last weekend after we finished the class. You are a feisty writer, and I mean that in a good way. More people should be apasionados about their work like you are. I got an email/phone call today from your friend V.A. who heads up the interpreter volunteers at SCC. I was so impressed that you contacted her for me. I was like, “wow, que buena onda.” I am going tomorrow to shadow and hopefully starting soon. Thanks

    1. Elizabeth, I’m so happy you’re going to volunteer! And thank you so much for your sweet note. That kind of feedback is really helpful and encouraging! It’s great to know you liked the class. You guys were great and did a lot of hard work. I’m glad you enjoy my feisty writing, jeje 🙂 Keep in touch and let me know how it goes!

      1. Dear Teacher Liz:

        Last week I was hired as an Eskenazi per diem interpreter. Hopefully the amount of hours will be a good fit as I now have a 14month old foster son to take care of. My time at Shepherd helped me get ready and now I will continue learning at Eskenazi. I’m excited. Thanks for the great preparation to not omit, not add, not change ANYTHING!! Sincerely, Elizabeth Byers (I took the class in Jan 2013)

        Sent from my iPod

      2. Hi Elizabeth! Congrats on your new family member and your new gig at Eskanazi! I’m sure the experience will be challenging and satisfying for you. I know it was for me. Thanks for taking the time to comment and let me know what you’re up to 🙂

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