Interpreting in the ED is going to either make you or break you

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This week we are featuring one of LEO’s favorite conference speakers Jorge Mejia, CCHI-certified interpreter with 15 years of experience. Jorge is a Medical Interpretation Coordinator at Natividad Hospital in California. 

Q: How long have you been an interpreter, and why did you choose this profession?

I have been a professional interpreter for the last 15 years. But I actually started interpreting from a very young age, since I was eight years old. This, I believe, is a shared experience among many interpreters, or anyone who is bilingual and a child of immigrants. So I can’t say I chose the profession, but rather that it chose me.  

I used to be in retail customer service and then in financing, but language always came into play anywhere I worked. There were times when the only real reason I was hired was my fluency in both English and Spanish. This is when I first realized that interpreting is more than just communication, but rather a connection of two humans and their respective worlds in that one moment.  

  Q: What was your first interpreting job? 

I had many jobs as a freelance interpreter in various settings, both OPI and VRI, or on-site across many clinics. But the job that I remember as my first was as a healthcare interpreter at Kaweah Delta Hospital in Visalia. It was an exciting time for me because I finally got hired to work at a hospital, and I was working the night shift in the ED. This experience was going to either make or break it for me in this career.  

I remember a trauma doctor pulled me aside and said, “I need your Spanish,” so as we were walking over to the room, he said, “I hope you are not weak of stomach.” I remember thinking at that moment that if I couldn’t handle the sight of blood, I wasn’t going to make it as a healthcare interpreter. I figured I could try court interpreting, but I wasn’t too fond of that. As soon as I walked in, the scene was like from the TV show ER. I knew at that moment that I would not be phased by what I saw and smelled. It was a pretty graphic scene with two patients who were involved in a bad car vs. a semi-truck accident.  

Q: As an interpreter coordinator at a hospital, what do you like most about your job?  

Many things change when you are in a position of overseeing. But I have found that teaching is another big part of what I like about this profession and my role in particular. Mentoring and training are essential parts of interpreting. It’s fascinating to take part in the molding and guiding of a new generation of interpreters. I have the opportunity to work with trilingual-indigenous interpreters as well. It is very moving to see them connect with a concept that they have felt was needed for so long, but didn’t know existed as a profession. To see new interpreters gaining direction and skills is a gratifying experience. But to be a part of a hospital that provides them with employment and support for their families is a unique privilege. So, for me teaching, training and mentoring are the best parts of my job.  

Q: You are certified with CCHI. Can you share tips on how to pass the certification exam? 

Practice. Practice. Practice. Doing the job makes the most significant impact on your chances of passing the certification test. Of course, training, acquiring vocabulary and terminology are also essential. But suppose you have had reasonably good training and have acquired enough terms, words, and phrases in both target and source language. In that case, developing more words or terminology will not help as much as you may think. Just like filling a cup of water, if you put too much water, it will spill over, and that water is lost. In that manner, you lose terminology if you do not know how to use it or do not have a chance to implement it. I always encourage anyone who gets ready for the test to find practical application of what they have learned. Focus on actual interpreting: consecutive, simultaneous, and sight translation.  

Aside from that, an extra tool that helped me gauge my progress was recording interpreting renditions when practicing. I know this is a very awkward and tedious thing to do, but it works wonders for self-assessment and bettering your skills. Finally, the practice of reading anything you can in any of the languages you are fluent in and doing it as often as possible.  

Q: What do you do to develop your professional skills?

I read aloud quite a bit. This has helped me tremendously. It helps me not only with pronunciation, but also to articulate ideas. I listen to books on Audible, which is both a hobby and a type of training for me.  

When it comes to professional development, nothing helps more than teaching the subject matter or interpreting techniques to others. With our training workshop at the hospital, I get the opportunity to cement any skills that I may know in theory and polish them. In teaching, you see how the skill works and what it takes to learn and develop it.  

I also think it is essential not to make your view on training limited to just language or interpreting skills. I try to acquire as much as possible education in other areas like customer service, conflict resolution, and public speaking. There is always something to learn. A big part of professional development is communicating with other interpreters and sharing experiences. This year’s theme for the conference is visibility, and I think the most incredible tool we have is being visible as professional interpreters to each other. 

The most important thing is an attitude of being of service 

Q: Is there anything you feel lacking in educational options out there? What would it be if you were to choose the topic for a new webinar or a course?  

I feel that our educational options are very rich in content and variety. Many well-equipped and generous interpreters are out there willing to share all they have learned throughout the years. Also, in my experience there is a strong camaraderie between most interpreters, if not all, so the educational options are well rounded.  

I suppose the only thing I would suggest would be bringing some of the past protocols and standards of practice up to the current state of events. In the last two years, a lot has changed. I think LEO’s conference and others similar to it help bring light to how the industry is changing and what is necessary to adapt to the current needs. Regarding a topic for another webinar or course, I think a good one would be Creating and Supporting the Need for a Language Access Program at Organizations. 

Q: As a trainer, what do you first teach interpreters about? 

One of the building blocks, in my opinion, is teaching them motivation for interpreting. The way this is explained, and I believe it personally, is in the phrase “Communicative Autonomy.” This concept is so powerful, because it is the basis for interpreting and why it should be a profession. We are the bridge in giving someone a voice and allowing them to use it to communicate, so that they may be able to make decisions and be responsible for those decisions. I try to teach interpreters the value of that concept. 

Another focal point when I train is terminology acquisition and implementation. It’s relatively easy to give anyone a list of terms or a list of acronyms or idioms and have them search for their corresponding translations. But how to implement them is also important. It is equivalent to a surgical team having various tools with their specific use. They need to have these tools and know how and when to use them, and sometimes even improvise. Language is often very similar; there is more than one way to say something. The better we become with our language, the easier it will be to adapt to conversations you need to interpret.  

Q: What would you like to change or improve in the industry?  

I believe there is a need for awareness for language access and understanding what that is, particularly from administrative staff or providers. I think it’s not just fulfilling the request for an interpreter. Rather it is about understanding the process and the concept of “Language Access”.  

The need for professional development is ongoing. It’s also a continuous part of our job to help providers see the same need that we see to train interpreters and continue holding the bar high for other interpreters joining the ranks. All of this echoes the theme of LEO’s 4th International Virtual Conference: Visibility of a Professional Linguist. It’s an intrinsic profession and deserves to be supported and developed.  

Q: Which social media do you use? What are your most favorite pages/accounts/groups to follow?  

LinkedIn is great, although I can try to be more active. I don’t do too much social media because it doesn’t always serve its intended purpose, at least with me. I do try to keep up to date with conferences and training that are available to interpreters. I also try to keep my ear to the ground with others presenting or participating in committees. I think a great place to get information is YouTube. There are channels on YouTube that are great at illustrating subject matter that interpreters deal with every day.  

Q: What is the most important thing to be successful as an interpreter, in your opinion? What advice would you give to an up-and-coming interpreter?  

I think one of the most important things is to keep an attitude of being of service. This will allow us not just to interpret and work with our team, but to create a reputation for ourselves. I think this is very important because it contributes to the profession as a whole.  

Regarding the second question, I touched a bit on it on the trainer question. But I would probably tell them not to over-stress on acquiring terminology alone. I would say know your strengths but, even more importantly, know your weaknesses. If you struggle with short-term memory, take notes or use another technique to lengthen your retention span. If you have a hard time with simultaneous, then focus to the degree possible to know the structures of the sessions you are interpreting for. This way, you can anticipate what is coming. Being adaptable to the circumstances that you face is one of the best skills you can master. Also, tap into the experience of others. There is an overwhelmingly big bank of knowledge and expertise in our interpreter community, and we have access to it.   

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