Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: How Consistency Can Save Interpreting


Consistency in service is executing a process the same way. It is not something that is devoid of human emotion, presence or thought processes.  There is a consistent process in any user experience.  

The only true way to make it linear, meaning without variables, is to have the user work with a machine. If that is not the case, then the consistent process will have human variable, and those variables may or may not affect the outcome of the process you've chosen to be a part of.  

This is what keeps medical interpreting from becoming a widget. Widgets can be found anywhere. If you wait long enough, the newer cheaper widget will come to market until ultimately there are only cheap widgets to be had. You might call this the race to the bottom. But more on that in a minute.  

Walk with me for a moment... 

When I go to the grocery store I know that I will check out and my groceries will be bagged. The variables depend on the availability of a person whose job is primarily to bag groceries or if I have to wait for the cashier to bag them for me.  

The variable also depends on if the person organizes my groceries to account for weight distribution. Hey, no one likes a single bag full of cans. I'd also say that I'm never happy when my bread is squashed by my bucket of ice cream.  

But the very worst is when my bread is squashed, the handle on the ice cream puts a hole in my bag, and after all of that, the handle on the bag of cans breaks in the garage and I have to chase them around the floor.  This process failed and I wasn't able to achieve my desired outcome.  

The desired outcome when I leave the grocery store is to depend on their bagging process to give me groceries in a bag that I will be able to carry from my car to my kitchen and my bread will still look like bread instead of a young child's pottery project.  

In each case my experience can be smooth or rocky, but I choose to go to the store because of the entire experience. And when my bags are trashed before I get my food to my kitchen, the system has broken down.  

I could have avoided all of this with Amazon or any other number of web sites. Truth be told my kiddos would probably prefer this so food would be more readily available. But hey, life happens.  

I have to say, when my groceries are evenly distributed so my bags stay upright in my trunk and I can pick them up and put them away in a logical order...joy fills my heart!  It was pleasant, easy and no unnecessary work required on my part. The process was executed with the human element, and it was a success. And boy are my girls happy to have food in the house! 

So why am I talking about groceries?  Because there is a consistent system in buying our food. And the value comes from the predictability, the smiles, and the people around me who can answer my questions. I know exactly where the produce and the dairy and the cereal will be each and every time I go.  

And the human element- walking past other shoppers and seeing a smile, hearing a hello, a baby smiling, or maybe crying (I'm happy to be passed that stage), a polite nod or running into someone I haven't see in a while- are all elements that make it a pleasant user experience.  

Interpreting is no different.  Effective interpreting is all about user experience.  It is the human element that makes our work so valuable. Consistency, process and standards are not words meant to limit the work or our ability to be human. Interpreting does not mean you are a machine. Machines can translate but they cannot interact with people.  

Interpreters are not intangible machines.  You are not invisible and common courtesies like making eye contact, offering a consoling smile or assuring successful communication are critical differentiations.  And only interpreters know how to do this because it is your job to know.  

Knowing what a complex word is in another language does not qualify you to be an interpreter. You have to be a critical thinker. You have to know professional ethics and theory. And please, oh please, make sure you are natively fluent.  

Interpreters are flesh and blood with feelings and thoughts. You are educated and can form your own opinions on a matter. You can make judgement calls based on reason and logic.  

To think that you should act invisible is hogwash. Any interpreter that does not focus on the intent of a message and only delivers verbal translation has missed the boat on our true purpose.  

Medical encounters do not exist solely on words. Words are only a small portion. The medical encounter is an experience. An interpreter that can manage an encounter and empower providers and patients to trust one another is a true professional.  

Empowerment happens when honest communication flows. You have to think, "If there was no language barrier how would this encounter go?"  That's your job. There would be laughter and questions and clarification. An interpreter's job is NEVER to determine what a patient may be thinking or feeling. Who are you to decide? 

You must empower that adult to be the adult. There are at least two competent and responsible individuals in the room that need to communicate with each other. If they didn't HAVE to have an interpreter they wouldn't.  

Interpreters must be human. You are present. You do have to be a critical thinker. And you are not a machine. You are not an oral translator.  

Professional interpreters assess each and every situation and use their skills to empower the healthcare providers AND their patients. Using big words to impress someone that you know the big word in two languages is highly ineffective if it stops communication.  

It is also not your job to do the doctor's job for them. They are responsible for treating their patients, watching their body language, making sure they understood what was said and asking the patients if they have other questions.  

If you're doing the doctor's job for them, they will never learn how to work with an interpreter. And if you're doing their job, they will NEVER get to know their patient nor their patient them. If you only practice parrot translation, you add no value.  

And finally, a professional interpreter is not defined as whether or not you get paid. Professional interpreters know their role in the healthcare setting and integrate value into the lives of those you interact with. A professional is a professional because they have standards and integrity and work hard each and every day to be better.  

I want to be clear.  If the healthcare interpreter theory continues to insist that interpreters act without humanity and become a warm blooded blob in the room in order to parrot words then our profession is doomed.  This is not an interpreter and any type of language access will be relinquished to the partnership of Siri and Google Translate.  

Oh what a travesty!  So think beyond the words of your professional training.  Respect your role as a human being and help the providers treat their patients with effective and efficient interpreting. Don't forget what you learned, but don't let that stop you from being all you can be. And I promise there is nothing better than being a professional medical interpreter! 


© Connecting Cultures Inc. 2018