The Sight Translation Booby Trap


If you want to stir up a rowdy debate among interpreters, bring up the subject of sight translation. Say something provocative like, “interpreters should never sight translate,” or “interpreters should always sight translate.” Then, sit back and watch the drama unfold. Pop some corn. Have a refreshing beverage.  Good times.

I say this in good humor, but it’s really no wonder that it’s a contentious topic when considering the numerous complexities that go along with sight translation.

There are many reasons why an interpreter should sight translate and many other reasons why an interpreter should not sight translate. Some of these reasons are presented in the publication Sight Translation and Written Translation: Guidelines for Healthcare Interpreters, which is very helpful in making on-the-spot decisions about what to do when faced with a request to do a sight translation. Still, even with these guidelines, it is clear that there are not a whole lot of “absolutes” that interpreters can hang their hat on. It turns out that the decision on whether or not to sight translate something can be just as complex as the act of sight translating itself.

For me, sight translation is like a booby trap in the medical interpreter’s professional practice. In some cases, the booby trap might remain undisturbed and cause no harm. In other cases the trap might go off, seriously wounding or flat-out destroying any effort to bring about effective communication. I see heads nodding.

It isn’t too surprising that users of interpreter services, unaware of the complexities of sight translation, will ask the interpreter to “simply” sight translate some seemingly benign information.

One situation comes to mind when a nurse, without realizing why her request was not exactly appropriate, asked me, the interpreter, to go into the patient’s hospital room and “just review the list of medications” because she was going to be occupied with another patient for a while. Of course, red flags went up in my interpreter brain, and I politely declined the request stating that the communication will be more effective if she reviews it directly with the patient while I interpret. She wasn’t frustrated or annoyed with me (although sometimes that is the response we interpreters have to deal with); she was just hoping to keep things moving along since she had more demands to manage than time or energy afforded her. (It is worth noting that nurses are true heroes and amazing medical professionals!)

Long story short, when the nurse did finally review the list of about a dozen different medications with the patient, it took close to an hour to sort everything out. What the nurse anticipated would be a quick “yes/no” task became a lengthy interview and investigation, which ultimately involved calls the patient’s PCP and pharmacy. By the end, I didn’t have to say, “I told you so” about declining the request to sight translate. The situation spoke for itself. 

So, when faced with the request to perform a sight translation, I consider the professional guidelines, my own skills and ultimately what will be best for effective communication. I remind myself that, “just because I can, doesn’t mean I should,”  “just because it’s efficient, doesn’t mean it’s effective,” and “just because I’m asked to, doesn’t mean I have to.”

It is no surprise that the 2009 Job Task Analysis revealed that, yes, interpreters who work in healthcare settings do perform sight translations. There are many situations that call for the interpreter to do a sight translation. There are other situations, however, that call for the interpreter to lead the requestor to pursue a different way of communicating the information to – and especially with – the patient.

The next time a member of the medical team asks you to “just read this to the patient,” take a breath and consider the full scope and implications of the request. Then, decide how best to proceed.  Remember, you’ll be aware of and perceive booby traps that others don’t. Do your part to avoid setting off a booby trap and uphold effective communication for all.

Coming soon: Thoughts on encouraging medical team members to think twice before requesting that the interpreter sight translate written information. More on that here.

Posted on July 27, 2016 and filed under Medical Team, Interpreter.