medical interpreting, new interpreters, terminology

Mouth Up and Mouth Down: Interpreting in Physical Therapy

weights-2-1495625-1280x960Hey, guys!  I’ve been on a roll lately taking agency jobs (after many years of not working for an agency), and many of them have been for physical therapy appointments.  As a full-time interpreter, I worked a lot with physical therapists, both in the inpatient and outpatient settings, and I forgot how cool the therapists are, and how tough the interpreting can be!  I’ve put together a short list of tips that might help if you’re preparing to interpret in physical therapy.

Open bay transparency: The interpreting I’ve been doing lately takes place in a big open room, where the therapist seeing the patient is interacting with other therapists and other patients (as opposed to having a conversation exclusively with just the one patient I’m assigned to).  In one case, my patient was chatting with another patient next to her–in Spanish.  Being transparent can be tough, but it can be done, and there’s not just one way to do it!  I used reported speech so the therapist knew what the patients were talking about in Spanish, and then she jumped into the conversation.  Sometimes we can’t use first person consecutive interpreting for everything, and I think that’s okay.  The idea in this kind of setting, where people are doing a little socializing as well as working, is to make sure everyone’s included.

Be aware of pitfalls with body part terms: Body parts can be tricky.  On one occasion, the therapist asked the patient if she was having pain in her hip, or her back.  Well, in Spanish, the word for hip that I know can be understood as lower back.  Awareness of these tricky words can help you know when to clarify with the therapist or patient so you can accurately interpret.  I also know that some patients will use the Spanish word for hand to refer to their whole arm, and the word for foot to describe the whole leg.  If you’re not sure what they mean, ask.  When you ask for clarification, just make sure you’re being transparent so that everybody’s in the loop.

There are lots of commands involved:  In the initial visit, there will be a lot of questions, just like any medical visit.  But there are also a lot of commands, since the therapist will be asking the patient to do exercises.  So think ahead of time how you want to say in your patient’s language things like: Lie on your stomach, lie on your back, lie on your side facing the wall (or wherever), bend your knee, lift your hips, do two sets of 15 reps, lift up your arm and don’t let me push it down, and many more, but those are some pretty common ones.  I find interpreting these commands to be tricky sometimes, and it might take more than once for the patient to understand you.  Make sure you’re rendering an interpretation that’s faithful to the meaning and not too literal!  For example, in Spanish, we say literally, “Lie mouth up” and “Lie mouth down” for the English version of “Lie face down” and “Lie face up”.  Make sure (as always) to focus on the meaning and not get wrapped up in the individual words.

There’s some equipment involved:  Like straps, wraps, belts, crutches, wheelchairs, canes, adaptive equipment, bandages, bolsters, weights, exercise balls, splints, just to name a few.

Get cozy with pain descriptors: This goes for all settings, but especially, where people are in pain, and the therapist is going to ask them to describe it.  So get ready for those pain descriptors to come flying at you: Burning, pulling, pressure, stinging, throbbing, aching, soreness, crushing, numbness, and many more!  The more familiar you are with these, the smoother experience everyone will have.  And if the patient or therapist uses a word for pain that you’re not sure of?  You know the drill.  Clarify, clarify, clarify!

The patient isn’t the only one moving in physical therapy:  As the interpreter, be prepared to move around.  Sit or stand wherever is best for good, unobtrusive interpreting during the initial interview, and then be prepared to move around!  During therapy the patient might be lying down, sitting on the edge of a table, riding a stationary bike, walking back and forth, or lifting weights, all in the same visit, and you should feel free to move around and adjust your position so that you can hear everyone and everyone can hear you.  Just watch out that you’re not in the way of the patient’s movements–you don’t want to take a hand weight to the face!

The work that physical therapists do is vast–the equipment they use, the settings they work in–so this is just a start.  Feel free to share in the comments any tips you might have from your experience interpreting in physical therapy!


6 thoughts on “Mouth Up and Mouth Down: Interpreting in Physical Therapy”

  1. Hello! My name is Maria and I am a Translation and Interpretation student. I enjoy reading your blog, since I am interested at medical field. Regarding the first point of this post, I would like to know what is preferable when interpreting a conversation between two people (in this case, between a patient and a therapist): is it better to use direct speech, or on the contrary, to use indirect speech? Thank you very much! 🙂

  2. Hi Maria, I’m glad you enjoy the blog! Direct, first person speech is the standard for interpreting for two people having a conversation. You probably have learned in school how this supports clear communication. There are some exceptions, for example, when working with children, but direct first person speech should be the rule!

  3. Great article! I interpret for many PT appointments over the phone. Oh my, those are challenging, although I’ve been doing those for 3 years and counting. However, when you don’t see what’s happening in an appointment like that, it takes your interpretation skills to a whole new level. Like you said clarification is the key here. I really hope to be able to move on to face-to-face appointments someday, just to see how it feels. I’m sure there are plenty of challenges that go with that too. Bring them on!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Maryna! I wrote this post with on-site interpreting appointments in mind, so thank you for bringing up that PT appointments are also done over the phone. I don’t have this experience, but I imagine that not having the visual in such a physical setting presents extra challenges. Good luck with moving to face-to-face work! It sounds like you have a can-do attitude and as you know, that–more than anything else–will take you as far as you’re willing to go!

  4. Hello That Interpreter, I enjoyed reading your article. As a Japanese interpreter, I’ve worked a lot with physical therapists. I’d say it’s much more engaging onsite when it comes to PT. I seem to learn someting new about how to take care of our body at each PT session I interpret for. I agree that physical therapists are so cool. They’re hard working people, aren’t they? (Just like us interpreters:)

    1. Hi Tamayo! I also enjoy working with physical therapists. And if you work over time with the same patient and their therapist, it’s fun to see their working relationship grow. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Leave a Reply