certification for healthcare interpreters

That Certified Interpreter


In July, I drove from Indianapolis to Ann Arbor to take the oral exam for national certification for health care interpreters. It’s the last step (the first is a written exam) in the certification process. So, aren’t you dying to know the rest of the story? Did I pass, or what?

Health care interpreters have been waiting for national certification, available only within the last couple of years.  Interpreting is a job that people think anyone can do. How hard can interpreting be?  It’s just talking.

Here’s the thing: No job is just anything.  “I’m just the interpreter.”  Nobody is just anything.

Every job requires some level of training and expertise, and interpreting is no exception.  National certification brings some validation to what we do.  I’ve shown up to interpret for pelvic exams (I’m going to insert the speculum now and take a look at your cervix), to deliver bad news (I wish the news were different, but the biopsy shows you have cancer), to interpret all manner of complaints (my itching “down there”, those bumps “down there”, the smell “down there”, and anything else “down there” you can think of), only to be told, “Oh, the patient’s daughter spoke pretty good English, so we just used her as the translator.”  I don’t know who’s more horrified: Me, or the child interpreter.

To be sure, many of those child interpreters grow up with a passion for interpreting because they saw what it was like for their parents who couldn’t speak English.  When I train interpreters, it seems like half the class grew up interpreting for their parents.  For these interpreters, the journey to certification has been even longer than mine.  A lifetime, really.  And all interpreters, no matter how we came to it, share the same stories, and the same struggles.  I think it must be like this for all of us who work in health care: Interpreters, physicians, nurses, social workers.

After ten years of interpreting, I know what the I can’t do this anymore struggle feels like.  The things is, I can’t do this anymore is up against This is the only thing I want to do.  Which one comes out on top?  Interpreting for a couple who is deciding how to let their baby die, at home or in the hospital: I can’t do this anymore.  Interpreting for a patient who’s finished her cancer treatment and heading back to her country to live out the rest of her days with her family grabs ahold of her doctor’s hands on her last clinic visit and thanks him, with tears in her eyes: This is the only thing I want to do.  Interpreting for a psychiatric evaluation for a patient telling the horrors she experienced while crossing the border into the US: I can’t do this anymore.  Interpreting for a mother who is sobbing, begging the doctor to do something to save her son: I cannot do this for even one more day.  Interpreting for a child who’s finished his chemo treatment in clinic, and goes to ring the special bell that you get to ring only when you finish your treatment *ding*: I live for this, and I dare you to tell me I can’t do it anymore. 

When I’m out working on the floor, I hear that bell ring and I get a knot in my throat every time, *ding*, and if one day I thought I couldn’t do this anymore, I remembered that this is the only thing I want to do.  The only thing I know how to do.

Aside from the emotional aspect of it, there’s a lot of knowledge and terminology we have to know to get the job done.  The nurse needs to explain to the patient what diabetes is and how it’s treated?  The doctor needs consent for a cardiac catheterization?  The genetic counselor needs to get a family history and explain probabilities (this is a killer!) of certain outcomes for the pregnancy?  A nurse practitioner needs to explain how allergic reactions work?  The audiologist has to talk to parents about how we hear?  Or the ophthalmologist needs to explain how we see?  The nurse needs to teach a mom how to insert a G-tube or hook her baby up to a heart monitor? What about when the anesthesiologist needs to go over the process of putting someone to sleep, and all the risks associated with it?  How about if the surgeon needs to explain how they’ll be removing the gall bladder, maybe through tiny incisions, and maybe through a big incision.  What about the specialist visits, like gastroenterology and rheumatology?  And don’t even get me started with dermatology.

I can do all these things, interpret in so many different scenarios.  Even though, a thousand times, I thought, I can’t do this anymore.  Who am I to interpret in all of these scenarios?  Who am I to assume the voice of all these providers, all of these patients, all of these family members, all of this love, all of this anguish, all of this joy, all of this pain?  Am I doing it right?  Am I good enough?

I started interpreting in 2002.  I took the pilot exam for certification in 2009, the written exam in 2011 and finally the oral exam in 2012.  Between then and now there was a steep learning curve,  a lot of heartache, heartbreak, triumph, a lot of I can’t do this anymore.  When I opened the email (much less dramatic than a letter, but I’ll live) with the news that I’d passed my oral exam, earning national certification as a health care interpreter, *ding*, I felt the knot in my throat and it was like a warm blanket that wrapped me up in a whole lotta This is the only thing I know how to do.

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