Demystifying Sight Translation in the Healthcare Setting

by Monica Lange Reprinted with gracious permission by Translorial, the newsletter of the NCTA, and the author

Medical concept


On Saturday August 12, 2017, NCTA held another excellent continuous education workshop at the Golden Gate University in San Francisco. I arrived early at the classroom, and there she was—pretty in fuchsia. Margarita Bekker demystified not only sight translation in the healthcare setting, but healthcare interpreting as a whole. I have recently moved from Switzerland to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I am used to the conference interpreting setting for international organizations in Geneva, so this is a completely new field for me.
Margarita has an impressive resume: CoreCHI™ interpreter, educator and trainer at Stanford University Medical Center, chair of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters, curriculum developer for Glendon School of Translation at York University in Toronto, Canada, interpreter of the year by CHIA in 2016—just to name a few of her numerous accomplishments.
During her lecture, she talked about the several types of medical and legal texts that an interpreter might encounter in a typical day at work—from health history forms, intake forms, patient educational materials, care instructions, informed consents, legal and health insurance documents—she covered them all.

Translate or sight translate? – That is the question!

As a conference interpreter, I have done some sight translations, or rather, sight interpretations of speeches when I was lucky enough get them at all beforehand, but the difficulties I had to deal with are not even close to those faced by interpreters working in hospitals or healthcare practices. The challenges here are different: in addition to the language and cultural barriers, there is also medical and legal terminology defining the patient’s aches, pains, fears, and insecurities.

Margarita dissected the several types of documents and their characteristics, explaining which should and which should not be sight translated and, most importantly, why. She explained proper ways for interpreters to translate “on the spot”, the differences between sight translation, written translation, and interpreting, the grammatical peculiarities of healthcare documents, the importance of understanding healthcare and legal lingo, and interpreting techniques like paraphrasing and chunking. There was also a very interesting discussion on ways for interpreters to recuse themselves to sight translate specific documents taking into account patient safety and Joint Commission directives.

After the coffee break, it was time for some “hands-on” training. Divided into groups of the same language pairs, attendees had the opportunity to sight-translate documents and unravel some of the medical interpreting mysteries. The classroom was filled with a diverse audience—from highly experienced and skilled interpreters to those exploring this new field of opportunities and professional growth—and the exercises were dynamic, fun and, at least for me, very enlightening.

The Lady with the Lamp and the importance of certification

To wrap up, Margarita gave a very enthusiastic speech about the importance of certification for medical interpreters. Just like Florence Nightingale, the pioneer in professionalizing the nursing profession for women, Margarita is also a trained nurse. With her own lamp of knowledge and a delicate Russian accent, she talked about the importance of Ms. Nightingale’s work and the power of certification.

Like many of us, I started in the translation and interpretation profession by mere happenstance—or as I like to say, fate. Some may even say it was karma! I have a degree in veterinary medicine, which—together with my lifelong passion for languages—led my way into the mysterious and fascinating world of medical translations. As years went by, and I fell in love with the profession, I looked for a formal education and became a trained professional. Certification is my next step. As mentioned by Margarita, certification elevates our profession. The more of us are certified, the more we will be perceived as a profession. Also, certification is not a one-time effort. It has to be maintained by continuous education, involvement, and – for those of us who do not like to admit it, but are somewhat lazy—it encourages us to study, to be committed to learning and becoming better professionals.

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