health care interpreting, medical interpreting, standards of practice for interpreters

The Good Interpreter

1The other day at work, a nice lady on the elevator saw my interpreter badge and asked me, “What kind of interpreter are you?” I get this question a lot, and clearly she was asking what language I spoke, but I couldn’t resist and told her “A good one”. We both laughed, and I told her, “No really, I’m a Spanish interpreter.” She laughed again (did she think that was a joke, too?) and *ding* I left her laughing in the elevator and went to my office to do what I do.

“A good interpreter.” I’m a good interpreter. It got me thinking, how do we know what a good interpreter is? What does a good interpreter do? What does *gasp* a bad interpreter do? Who says?  

I have heard all about “bad” interpreters. “The interpreter refused to (insert appropriate behavior here: do the discharge teaching, sign as witness on the consent form, give the patient a ride, sit with the patient, translate the consent form, help move the patient).” The thing is, these are things that the good interpreters refuse to do, because doing any of those things would totally violate a professional interpreter’s role boundaries, and a trained interpreter knows this. Surprise: Interpreters have National Standards of Practice, and a Code of Ethics!

Oh, and I’ve heard all about “good” interpreters. “We just loved the interpreter we got today. She (insert inappropriate behavior here: Stayed with the patient in his room all day, gave the patient a ride to his appointment, took care of the discharge paperwork, helped the physical therapist get the patient into the wheelchair, explained the whole procedure really well while the doctor was busy seeing someone else).” Yes, I’ve heard all about the “good” interpreter.

So let’s begin by distinguishing, not a good interpreter from a bad interpreter, but instead, a trained interpreter from an untrained interpreter. And from there, we distinguish between trained interpreters with experience and inexperienced trained interpreters. Why experienced? Why isn’t training enough? Friends, I have personally witnessed trained interpreters doing exactly what they are trained to not do. Back in the day, I did exactly what I was trained not to do. I have sat with the patient and listened to her tell me about her medical history while she waits to be seen by the doctor (which I was told not to do, but I felt really bad if I didn’t do it). Being alone with a patient is a great way to be exposed to information at a time when…There’s nobody to interpret it to. After the patient told me her medical and social history in the waiting room, what happens when the doc comes in and asks about her medical  and social history and the patient tells me, “I already told you all this.”

In training, we watch a video where we see a trained interpreter and an untrained interpreter. Maybe you’ve seen this video yourself. The untrained interpreter makes all the classic mistakes: Speaking for the patient and the provider (that is, not interpreting), including her opinion, “interpreting” in reported speech when it’s not warranted, totally disregarding cultural differences that cause barriers to communication (“hot tea” for a Mexican patient may not be the same as “hot tea” for a US born-and-raised doc). The interpreter trainees still insist that it’s not the untrained and the trained interpreter, but the bad and the good interpreter. They are so shocked by this “bad” behavior!  On some level, it’s good that they’re shocked. But secretly, I know they’re thinking, “I have done this, and it’s so wrong! It’s so bad!” I know, because I was once the “bad” interpreter myself.

I still don’t know how I want to define a “good interpreter”. The “good” interpreter isn’t one that never makes a mistake, but one who is willing to learn and change, even when it’s uncomfortable. It takes self awareness to understand mistakes, and it takes courage to talk about them, to get better, to see that there’s a different way of doing things.

Over the weekend, I finished teaching a 40-hour training for healthcare interpreters. I told the students on our last day, “I love sharing my passion for interpreting, and I can’t do that without you showing up to this classroom, so thank you for giving me the gift of sharing that passion.” And I meant it. I think they understood, and they walked out of that classroom as trained interpreters. You might even say that they left as good interpreters.

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