Question: What is the one skill medical interpreters need in order to:
- determine what words to use to convey equivalent meaning between languages,
- decide how to respond to any situation in an ethically appropriate way, and
- navigate the logistical requirements of their average work day?
Answer: In all of the above situations, and in all other situations interpreters face, the one skill that is required is critical thinking.
As a trainer, I don’t care that you give me the right answer to an ethically challenging scenario. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I do care.) What I really, really care about is that you give the right answer and can clearly explain the ethically-guided thought process that brought you to the decision. (I’ll even give you invisible bonus points if you can clearly explain why one or two other responses would be ethically unadvisable or flat out wrong.)
This isn’t always an easy thing for interpreters (or anyone) to do. For some, the extent of explaining why they did what they did is limited to stating that “it just felt right” or “it was just common sense.” Making the right decision, however, has to come as a result of something more reliable and trustworthy than feelings, which can be misleading, and common sense, which isn’t all that common or universal.
Coming to the right conclusion is nothing to downplay. That really is the whole point. However, it is impossible to train, teach, or educate interpreters – newbies or otherwise – on what to do in every situation. Every situation – even similar ones – has a unique set of nuances that the interpreter must consider when thinking through the encounter.
So, what we really need to develop in interpreters – in addition to all the other interpreter things – is the ability to think critically. (If you do a web search for “critical thinking” you’ll find lots of interesting things.)
As a bonus, the more interpreters are able to explain the “why’s” for their decisions, the better equipped they will be to contribute to professional discussions with other interpreters, allowing for better collective professional growth. They’ll also be better equipped to discuss and explain the interpreter’s role to non-interpreter medical professionals, patients, and family members.
Before wrapping up this post, I’d like to swing back to the opening question and emphasize that critical thinking skills are not only essential for ethical decision-making. Critical thinking is essential for every aspect of the interpreter’s work. This includes sorting through linguistic challenges, interacting with medical team members, focusing on self-care needs, juggling multiple responsibilities, and the list goes on.
It is important to work on all the skills interpreters use. But if you had to work on just one skill, consider sharpening your critical thinking skills.