The Medical Interpreter Superhero


Remember when you were training to become a medical interpreter and you learned about the many different roles of the medical interpreter? You remember the titles: Conduit. Cultural broker. Advocate. Clarifier. Maybe even Navigator or Guide.  Yes, I see heads nodding. Do you also remember learning about the very important role of Superhero? No? You’ve not heard of this role? Well, it exists, and whether or not you’ve named that role before now, you’ve probably been in this superhero role on more than one occasion.

You see, being a healthcare interpreter starts with the fundamental role of one who enables communication between medical teams and the people in their care.* But the interpreter must be able to do more than enable communication (a.k.a. interpret). The interpreter must also be a . . .

Customer Service Representative

You are the face (and voice!) that people will associate with interpreters everywhere. Leave a positive impression. This paves the way for your interpreter colleagues. It doesn’t hurt your own reputation either.

You are the face that patients and their families will associate with the healthcare facility, even if you are not a staff interpreter. Be sure to represent the mission and culture of the healthcare facility well.

Team Player

Remember, the only folks who are your adversaries are those who don’t ever have contact with you – the folks who don’t even bother to contact an interpreter. Everyone else is your team member, even the person who might be a bit miffed about your presence. (Remember your “Customer Service Representative” role when these moments come around.) Otherwise. . .

Remember that every person on every team has a unique role to play and a unique skill set to fill. Pull your weight like nobody’s business, but don’t throw your weight around. Respect the expertise that all team players bring. Do your absolute best to interpret like a rock star and work well with others. Even at 3:00 AM. This especially includes your interpreter colleagues, co-workers or otherwise. Did two interpreters show up for the same appointment? Don’t argue over whose appointment it is; solve the “problem” efficiently and discreetly – with no hard feelings! Did someone bash an interpreter for their poor performance? Don’t engage in the bashing; find a way to address the problem in a professional and appropriate way. Did someone sing the praises of a different interpreter? Be sure to share those praises with that interpreter, their manager, and by all means share the praises on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn. . . You get the idea!

Logistics Expert

Yes, this includes showing up at the right place at the right time. “My GPS took me to the wrong city,” is a lousy excuse. I’m just saying. This also includes knowing the finer points of parking at the different facilities. Restricted parking. Designated Parking. Free Parking. Fee Parking. Patients & Visitor’s Only parking. Unless the medical encounter takes place in the parking lot, you haven’t actually arrived until you are at the designated department. 

Learn the lingo of the healthcare facility. Does the staff use a nickname for the hospital? Know it. Are there different types of pediatric departments on the campus (outpatient clinic vs. inpatient services)? Learn how to distinguish. Are there specific titles for different roles (Receptionist vs. Patient Service Representative vs. Registrar, etc.)? Use the titles established by the facility. Interpreters should be particularly sensitive to this last point given the numerous well-meaning titles we’re given (translator, interpretator, operator, etc.).

Administrative Assistant

Details, details, details. Pay attention to the details of whatever information you document or report.  Your interpreting is accurate and complete. Your documenting needs to be as well. Did you document your times? Did you obtain or leave any required signatures verifying your presence? Did you submit your verification documents on time? Unless you have someone doing this for you (most of us don’t), this is just as critical as your attention to detail when interpreting. 

Add all these different roles up, and what do you get? A Medical Interpreter Superhero. Be the hero!

How are you doing on your superhero skills?

*Check out the definition of "interpreter" and other terms in The Terminology of Health Care Interpreting: A Glossary of Terms (NCIHC 2008)