health care interpreting, medical interpreting, new interpreters, terminology

Medical Terminology for Interpreters: What I Know

medical terminology

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!


42 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. And sacs and sacks are likely not homonyms in the target language. Or sax. Are bags under the eyes “bags” everywhere?

  3. I would add asthma, inhaler, pump and prime (as in prime your inhaler before use)
    I love this list it’s perfect thank you I will be sharing on a few site if you don’t mind!!

    1. Yes, agreed! In February ’14 I did a follow-up post with names of medical equipment–check it out and feel free to add any more suggestions you might have. Thanks for reading and commenting Adrianna, and share away!

  4. Very informative–thanks so much for posting. Maybe you’ve mentioned this in your other posts, but if not, knowing some meds, like aspirin, painkillers, ibuprofen, steroids, antibiotics, Coumadin, etc., may be helpful, as well as some common diagnoses, like, the hyper/hypos (tension, thyroid, glycemia, etc.), the -itises (tendinitis, appendicitis, bronchitis, etc.)…

    1. Thanks for adding these to the list! I agree, the common meds are crucial. In fact, I’d go a step further to say that it’s helpful to know the brand names of these meds as well. And I love the hyper/hypo and -itis suggestion. This is where prefixes and suffixes come in very handy in decoding medical language!

  5. Thank you very much for this terminology. A great help for creating my own glossary

  6. hello and thank you so much for the time that you took to share your experience and knowledge about this fascinating new career for me I just finished the Bridging the Gap training and I was searching for a medical Terminology Class and found your information and I love it , did you also took medical terminology class?

    1. Hi Isabel, Thanks for reading and congrats on taking that first step of finishing BTG! I myself took a couple of terminology classes early on in my interpreting career–both were bilingual classes. I do teach a Medical Terminology for Interpreters workshop, but I don’t have any classes scheduled right now. There are many offerings online, and I know that locally we have a community college that offers a medical terminology course that anyone can sign up for. Good luck!

  7. Wow ! I am a fresh, brand new interpreter. This words will come handy ! I am preparing for my language test. I was told that I need to know general medical terminology. Now, thanks to you, I will rock it !

  8. On my first week as a medical interpreter, exciting and nerve wrecking, this is fantastic! thanks, keep ’em coming!!

  9. thank you for that list. as i just started as an interpreter . right now , i m working for an agency and doing mostly work with DCF,DSS and PPTs .i am interested in becoming an interpreter for a hospital, i have yet to go take bridging the gap , which i will as soon as i can. I also do interpretaion in 3 languages, unfortunately my native language is the one i use the least. i found your tips very interesting and will be using them. if you do have more, please post them , thank you. is there a web site where they have all the medical terminology ? including everything in the human body to every desease and medication. since i have to learn it in 3 languages i have work to do.
    thank you.

    1. Hi Pascal, When you take BTG, you’ll get an overview of terminology by body systems that will take you through parts of the system, their main functions, common illnesses and treatments, and this respective specialists. Also in BTG you get a glossary for each of your languages. That said, a glossary is no replacement for building your own glossaries for all of your languages. Something I’ve found useful is reading about medicine on websites from countries where Spanish is spoken, and compare that with the same info in English. Good luck!

  10. Thank you very much for your blood, sweat and tears. The medical terminology that you mentioned is invaluable, priceless and much needed for interpreters in the medical profession. Great job, keep up the good work 👍😀👏

  11. Great list!

    These are helpful for an interpreting beginner like me.
    Can you suggest any book(s) about English Medical and Health Terminology?

    Thank you and best wishes!

    1. I really like Introduction to Healthcare for Interpreters and Translators. It’s broken down by specialty and includes notes that are helpful. Here’s the ISBN: 9027212066

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