Memory and the Medical Interpreter


Question: How good does a medical interpreter’s memory need to be?

Answer: As good as it needs to be to facilitate the communication in any given healthcare encounter.

Here are a few points to consider when applying that answer to the real world of interpreting in the healthcare setting:

  • Know the limits of your own memory capacity and work within them. It does no one any favors if you constantly have to ask for clarification or repetition because you cannot remember “the rest of” the speaker’s message. Accept that your memory capacity will fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including fatigue, hunger, familiarity with the subject matter, environmental distractions, stress, etc. Use techniques and tools to support your memory, especially when you’re not at your usual full capacity. Just don’t try to do more than you can do. When athletes try to do more than they can do, their body gets injured. When medical interpreters try to do more than they can do, the patients get injured. Well, that’s maybe not 100% accurate, but close enough to give some consideration to the point. If your memory is slowing down the communication, by all means, work to improve it. Just don’t slip into the trap of summarizing or conveying the gist of the message; that won’t do anyone any favors either, including yourself. 

The opposite end of the memory-capacity spectrum is also true.

  • Don’t show off your extensive memory skills for the sake of showing off. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can listen quietly and attentively while the patient gives a 5-minute explanation about why she’s seeing the doctor today and then give a spot-on interpretation, doesn’t mean that you should do that. Why? The doctor doesn’t want to wait 5 minutes before hearing what the patient is saying. Likewise, the patient doesn’t want to wait 5 minutes before hearing what the doctor has to say. What’s more, you’ll be 1.5 minutes into the 5-minute interpretation when the listener (could be the patient, could be the doctor) is going to interrupt you to ask a clarifying question that needs to be addressed and 3.5 minutes of communication will be lost forever.  As interpreters, we are there to give voice to the various speakers, but we also have to allow the listening participants to engage in a timely way. This can’t happen if the interpreter doesn’t manage the flow of communication to the benefit of all participants, even when the interpreter hasn't reached memory capacity. 

Which brings us to the next point.

  • Your memory capacity shouldn’t be the only consideration when timing your interpretation. Yes, you need to pay attention to your own memory abilities. This is an internal function, which no one else sees or perceives except for you. At the same time, you also need to be aware of external clues that will indicate when it is time to interpret. These might be subtle things, like the listener’s body language or facial expression. These might be more obvious things, like the urgency of the medical encounter (Imagine the trauma team is assessing a patient’s injuries), or the immediacy of the message (Imagine an otorhinolaryngologist explaining ear infections while pointing to different areas of a 3D model of the ear.). Make sure to always keep the full picture in focus.

Interpreters, how have your memory skills been put to the test when interpreting? How have you managed those challenging times? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Interested in developing techniques to sharpen your memory recall when interpreting? Join us for the Fighting Mental Decay online continuing education course for medical interpreters. 

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