A Note for the Medical Team about Sight Translation


The previous topic on sight translation emphasized a few points for interpreters to consider when facilitating communication in this mode. This topic focuses on things the other members of the medical team should keep in mind about sight translation and its impact on effective communication. So, esteemed doctors, nurses, technologists, therapists, chaplains, support staff and all other non-interpreter team members, this one is for you.

Interpreters have a lot of skills. Many of these skills are so well executed that you might not even notice them. It just seems like the interpreter is doing a lot of talking. That’s true, but there’s a lot more to it than “just talking.” One of these skills is the ability to render the interpretation in a way that captures the style and tone that you have used. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, please take a moment to consider how much meaning you convey to your listeners through your pacing, emphasis, pauses, etc.  Still doesn’t seem like a big deal? Then try this exercise. Say the following sentence out loud placing emphasis on the word(s) in bold:

  • It is really important that you take your medicine.
  • It is really important that you take your medicine.
  • It is really important that you take your medicine.

See how the meaning changes?

What does this have to do with sight translation? Quite a lot, actually.

When sight translating, the interpreter does not have your voice to indicate what style or tone of speech to use. For certain things that align well with sight translation, this might not be too critical to the outcomes of the communication. If the written statement ends in a question mark, the interpreter will express it as a question. No brainer. Not all written communication, however, is that straight forward. Without your voice for guidance and direction, the interpreter has no option but to make the decision on how to express the words. Is that something you want to leave to the interpreter’s discretion? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But at the very least, give this point some consideration when deciding whether or not to request a sight translation.

Consider also this next point. When you hand the communication over to sight translation, the dynamics of the communication are then focused on the document, the interpreter, and the patient. Where did you go? You’ve essentially removed yourself from the interaction, even if you are still standing right there. Be sure to consider the impact this has on your direct care for the patient as well as your relationship with the patient.

Depending on a number of things, there can be times when sight translation is appropriate and can serve the communication needs of everyone well. However, as a general rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t have handed the English-speaking patient (or whatever the shared language might happen to be) a document to “read over,” then you shouldn’t do this when an interpreter is involved. Think about it. When you do this, you’ve just subjugated yourself and your role in the encounter to words on a paper. Words on a piece of paper can never do as good of a job at communicating information as you can in your own words and in your own voice.

This leads to the final point.

Your communication is customizable and personal. The document’s communication is not. Think about the different times when in the regular course of your work that you review written information with your patient. When you do this, how often do you stick to everything that’s written and only the things that are written? When you review a visit summary or discharge instructions with the patient, do you tend to ad lib something, give additional information, or skip information that you know is irrelevant?

  • Is information on circumcision care relevant for the particular newborn?
  • Are there additional tips you like to share with new mothers regarding the baby’s stooling habits when the child is only eating mother’s milk?
  • Does the information for diabetic patients apply to the given situation?
  • Is the section about worker’s compensation relevant?
  • Have you found it helpful to demonstrate post-surgical wound care techniques that will make things easier for the patient and family member?

As the interpreter, I don’t know the answers to these questions.  And frankly, even if I do know, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room for me to make my own judgment calls. As the interpreter, I have the same ethical obligations to facilitate communication completely and accurately regardless of the mode of communication. Sure, I can pause my delivery as I’m working through a sight translation and ask you if this or that part is relevant. Sure, we can take a few moments beforehand for you to tell me what specific pieces to sight translate and which pieces to skip. But at what point is all of that clarification more disruptive than constructive to the natural flow communication between you and your patient? It’s worth giving this some consideration as well.

So, does this mean that sight translation is never appropriate? Of course not. The point is not to drop sight translation like a bad habit. The point is to raise awareness of some of the potential pitfalls of sight translation so that you, the medical team member, can be proactive in thinking through how to best communicate information to your patient. Your interpreter will always be at your side to help you navigate best practices and any nuances of a specific situation.

Let’s work together to get on the same page.

Note: For a definition of sight translation and other terms check out The Terminology of Health Care Interpreting: A Glossary of Terms (NCIHC 2008).

Related post: The Sight Translation Booby Trap

Posted on August 29, 2016 and filed under Medical Team, Interpreter.