I have been an interpreter for approximately 5 years. I had just moved to Huntsville, AL, where I currently live. I had finished my Masters degree, and had been doing some translation work for private clients while in college. I figured I would continue to do that, so I looked up language service agencies in Huntsville and emailed them my resume. One of these agencies contacted me back 20 minutes later, to ask me if I was interested in becoming a medical interpreter. I said yes… and the rest is history.
Q: What was your first interpreting job?
I first started interpreting in outpatient settings. My first assignment involved pediatric oncology.
Q: How do you prepare for assignments?
I try to find out as much as I can about the appointment. Normally the first thing I do is look up the address and find the best way to get there. Knowing what type of clinic or facility I will be working in (for example, a neurologist’s office), I think about three things: symptoms (what kinds of complaints patients might have), diagnoses, and medication. Based on this, I can review key terminology, and even carry it in my notebook for a quick glance. The last thing I do is pick what clothes to wear. I think how we present ourselves still has an influence in how seriously we are taken as professionals, although some think it shouldn’t.
Q: What was the funniest/most interesting experience on the job?
I’ve had many interesting appointments, but I will never forget going to a urologist with a male patient. It turns out he was there for a consultation about sexual dysfunction! This was something I knew very little about at the time, and I also feared the patient might be uncomfortable having a female interpreter. Fortunately, the patient had a really good attitude, and trusted that I was a professional. That appointment really made me think about gender roles in various cultures, and how we need to be sensitive and professional in these cases.
Q: What was the saddest experience on the job?
The saddest experiences I’ve had were generally end-of-life cases. I understand why that area of work is not for any interpreter, and we must be very self-aware and know our own limitations. In the end, I come out stronger and better as a professional, but it is always sad.
Q: Which social media do you use, if any? If you do, what are your most favorite pages/accounts/groups to read?
I use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. They all serve different purposes. I follow groups for interpreters and translators on Facebook. On these groups, people share articles of interest, but more importantly, they ask questions. I help answer them when I can, but I mostly learn from other answers. I keep LinkedIn updated for possible clients and fellow interpreters and translators. I also look at the job postings, not necessarily because I’m looking for a job, but I like to stay in touch with the job market (Indeed is another good platform for that). I like to follow professional organizations from all over the country, such as CCHI or ATA on Twitter. I find out about conferences and other events, as well as opportunities for professional development. I also like to follow translators like Xosé Castro and Jeromobot because they are very good at marketing themselves and their work, and I think I can learn from them.
Q: What are your favorite movies/literature in your target language? Can you recommend something to our readers?
I may be biased here because it is where I come from, but I think everyone should read some storytellers from Argentina, such as Jorge Luis Borges, or Horacio Quiroga. If you are into poetry, I think Mario Benedetti (from Uruguay) is a must.
Q: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming interpreter?
Get involved in the industry. Join professional organizations and be as active as you can. You can make some important connections that way, and more importantly, advocate for our profession to get the recognition it deserves, and for professional interpreters and translators to be valued and appreciated. I am part of at least one regional and one national organization, and they are very enriching experiences.
Q: How did you prepare for your certification exams? What was the most difficult? What are the differences between CCHI and NBCMI certification exams and preparation? Can you share resources that helped you prepare?
There isn’t much we can share about the exams themselves (the content is confidential), but the single best resource, generally speaking, is the candidate handbook, which is available for both exams. I didn’t take any classes specifically to prepare, but I know there are some available. Both exams have a theoretical component: we have to study anatomy and physiology, and especially ethical principles and standards of practice. Both exams are heavy on ethical content.But there is also a practical component, having to do with interpreting (and translation!) skills. You can study the protocols and procedures on a theoretical basis, but then you just have to PRACTICE. When it comes to skills, both exams require good consecutive interpreting skills, including note-taking. I practiced taking notes and interpreting while watching the news, or shows that I enjoyed. I even took notes while talking to my husband! It’s all about taking advantage of every opportunity: if you’re going to watch TV or talk to people anyway, you might as well use those situations to get better. I also used these opportunities to practice simultaneous interpreting, which constitutes one of the differences between these exams: so far, the NBCMI exam does not include a simultaneous interpreting component, while CCHI does. It is important to understand the differences between these two modes, and when to use each. Other than that, my preparation was rather similar, as the exams have more similarities than they have differences.
Q: What do you do to develop your professional skills? Webinars, conferences? If the latter, which conferences do you prefer and why?
I try to take advantage of every resource available. If I don’t find the topic engaging, I try to find something else to read or another webinar to watch. I have also been attending the conference held by the Tennessee Association of Professional Interpreters and Translators (TAPIT) for several years, and I recommend it to anyone in the Southeast and beyond. I also like to attend big scale conferences like the IMIA or ATA Conferences, because they are generally an occasion where interpreters, healthcare providers, and agencies meet, so there are many perspectives to hear. And of course I learn a lot from attending and organizing our conference with the Interpreters and Translators Association of Alabama!
Q: Is there anything you feel lacking in educational options out there? If you were to choose the topic for a new webinar or course, what would it be?
I think we don’t talk enough about quality control or quality assurance for interpreters. The topic is raised for translation, but not for interpreters, and it is quite complex, as it is not easy to measure, and it is not only in the results, which are typically not durable. In case of translation, you have a document to review. When we interpret, our words are gone as soon as they’re spoken, unless they’re recorded. It is necessary to talk to interpreters about how to monitor our own performance at all stages of the assignment.
Q: What would you like changed or improved in the industry?
There are many things I would like to see changed. I would like agencies to treat interpreters fairly (they don’t always do), I’d like interpreter rates to have a legal minimum established, although I know it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. I would also like certification (in any setting, for translators and interpreters) to be a requirement. The law is not clear enough about what “qualified” means, and that opens the door to many people without enough education to act as interpreters and translators.
Q: What is the most important to be successful as an interpreter, in your opinion?
I think the most important thing is humility, in two senses. One is cultural humility. We have to be sensitive to cultural differences but we are not anthropologists. I don’t believe interpreters should try to “explain” other cultures, as within each cultural group there is also a great deal of individual variation. We can merely point out possible cultural differences, be aware of their existence, and help healthcare providers be sensitive to them.
We also need the humility to stick to our role as interpreters. We may have other ways in which we think we can help, often with the best intentions, but they are not part of our role. The main way we help LEP patients is by putting them on equal footing with English-speaking patients. We must monitor our will to intervene or put the spotlight on ourselves. Things go smooth when each party does what they’re trained to do, and nothing else.