by Ellen C. Kaufman, M.S., CSC
I once read that knowing two languages doesn’t make you an interpreter just as having two hands doesn’t make you a concert pianist. I like this saying because it helps people unfamiliar with what interpreting actually entails understand that there may just be more to it than knowing two languages. Professional interpreters bring a “large bag” of knowledge and skills to each assignment. We are linguistic and cultural mediators and also have the communication skills to educate people about what we do in a way that each person, professional and patient/family member alike will understand. This awareness of the processes we utilize in our work and the vocabulary and ability to explain them set us apart as professionals. The expectation that we must function ethically, following a Code of Ethics or Code of Professional Conduct raises our work to an even higher level of professionalism. Education takes a bilingual person and teaches him/her that one’s own feelings and desire to give advice need to be removed from the process. We have the responsibility to communicate the two parties’ thoughts, emotions and intent without interference from our own beliefs and feelings. A great deal of training is required to learn how the professional medical interpreter must function in different situations. A lot of analysis and even role playing takes place as novice interpreters work through how a Code of Ethics should and does effect professional behavior, and the consequences of our behavior on our clients, patients and on our profession. Professional education makes it possible to choose a word appropriate in context and register from a group of words similar but not identical in meaning and intent. People without training may have a more limited vocabulary, be unfamiliar with synonyms or the subtle differences between words. Word choice is crucial to both parties being accurately and fairly understood. A bilingual person untrained in professional interpretation may color the exchange inadvertently or incorrectly transmit a piece of critical information with dire results. Professional medical interpreters have working knowledge of specialized medical vocabulary and procedures in two languages further distinguishing us from interpreters in other fields. This knowledge is acquired through formal training. We take courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology and we learn about medical and surgical procedures. This includes not only pertinent vocabulary, but also concerns about our placement and safety in these settings. Professional medical interpreters also have knowledge of and adhere to privacy practices such as HIPAA. Medical interpreters are a very important part of the healthcare system, ensuring that all language speakers have the right to understand and be understood. Medical interpreter training is crucial so that medical providers, institutions and patients have access to the most skilled and professional interpreters in numbers adequate to fill this need.