Medical interpreting is a niche that requires professionalism, in-depth knowledge of the medical terminology in both languages, and discipline. Medical interpreters are intermediaries in delicate moments that include patients, their careers, doctors, and clinicians in medical circumstances.
Medical interpretation influences communication between doctors and patients, so it isn’t something that any bilingual person could do after spending a few hours in a hospital. It’s a working environment that must be free from communication errors, as they could have significant consequences on people’s lives and health.
Medical interpreting is necessary for doctors to make a correct diagnostic, explain treatments, and discuss the medical history of patients. It’s also useful for clinical trials when clinicians need to make sure that all patients understand the risks of taking part in the research.
1. Communication Errors Can Have “Adverse Effects”
Medical interpreting and medical translation, in general, require 100 percent accuracy. That’s because the message that the interpreter transmits on behalf of the patient influences medical decisions.
Family members or other ad-hoc interpreters don’t have the training and experience of professional medical interpreters. However, it happens all too often for social workers, nurses, and even doctors to become interpreters when hospitals and other healthcare institutions can’t find a professional linguist.
What patients and doctors often don’t know is that medical interpreters have mastered special skills that enable them to do their job. A person who speaks both languages pretty well lacks the knowledge and training necessary for smooth communication in a medical context.
What may seem like the best term to describe health issues may create confusion. For instance, any error in the way an interpreter describes pain or symptoms can lead to the wrong diagnosis. In this scenario, the patient risks receiving an inappropriate treatment, which might have significant medical consequences.
2. The Most Common Errors in Medical Interpreting
Due to its sensitive nature and a shortage of language experts, medical interpreting deals with multiple communication errors. Among them, the most common are:
This is by far, the most common issue in medical interpretation. It happens when interpreters forget instructions from the doctors or minimize the importance of specific details that could describe symptoms. Omissions are also consequences of telephone interpreting when the medical interpreters can’t always see the patient. In this case, even professional medical interpreters can miss a series of significant clues given by body language and gestures.
b. False fluency
This happens when interpreters without proper training start making up words to describe symptoms and medical conditions. It’s mostly caused by poor knowledge of the medical terminology in one or both languages.
In this situation, medical interpreters don’t know the exact term between terminology in the two languages. As a consequence, they translate the message using the closest term that could be a good fit in the context. Unfortunately, in medical translation, what may seem like a synonym could be a false friend–words in different languages that sound similar, but have significantly different meanings.
This communication error consists of adding opinions to the translation. Even if the interpreter indicates which parts of the translation are introduced opinions, medical decisions could be influenced by the extra information. Another case of editorialization is when the interpreter instructs patients on how to answer specific questions in the forms.
Similar to editorialization, additions happen when the interpreter adds details to facilitate communication, but without mentioning it. This practice usually changes the initial message, sometimes with severe consequences for the dialogue between parties.
3. The Need for Professional Medical Interpreters
Emergencies often force healthcare providers to work with ad-hoc interpreters or general interpreters with basic or zero knowledge in the niche. It can be an acceptable solution when patients need immediate treatment, but it shouldn’t become best practice.
Interpreters with no specific skills and training in medical interpreting will make a significant number of mistakes, and their slips are more likely to influence the medical outcome. That’s why hospitals and similar institutions must keep an updated database of medical interpreters who can support doctors and clinicians.