The ABCs of Interpreting in Pediatrics

abc pediatrics

Connecting Cultures is grateful to Jennifer Flamboe for contributing this article! 

Overview of Pediatric Medicine

For many, the thought of pediatric medicine stirs up memories of screaming children in cramped waiting rooms, intrusive tongue depressors, and painful immunizations – memories that most of us would prefer to forget. While a valid portrayal in some cases, pediatrics expands beyond the stereotypical administration of vaccinations in a physician’s office to include a wide array of specialized services that involve entire hospitals, surgical suites, home health agencies, and more. In fact, pediatricians do much more for our community than most realize. 

As the branch of medicine that focuses on the physical, emotional, and social health and well-being of young people ages 0-21, pediatrics is among the top three medical specialties selected by practicing physicians. Pediatricians treat illness and injury, promote healthy lifestyles, and are key contributors to controlling chronic conditions. Beyond general practitioners, there are 20 pediatric subspecialties that focus on treating more complex diseases and disorders.

Interpreting in Pediatrics

Interpreting in pediatrics is unique to other settings in that interpreters, like pediatricians, are dealing with young patients and their caregivers. Therefore, as another person in the room, it is essential that interpreters build a rapport with children and their families while abiding by the Code of Ethics.  Pediatric providers are taught how to communicate with children based on their age and developmental level; interpreters should also have working knowledge of this.

Similarly, controlling the flow of conversation can be difficult with bilingual participants due to conversational patterns and family roles. Understanding the interpreter’s function as the facilitator of communication is indispensable during the encounter. Having extensive knowledge of the culture(s) involved is crucial for not only understanding behaviors and social, situational, or power dynamics but also for engaging in cultural mediation.

Maintaining the spirit and tone of speech is critical.  When dealing with children, many providers seek to lower the register to make a procedure less frightening or at other times approach the child sternly to elicit respect and cooperation.  The interpreter must mimic the spirit and tone so as to succeed in adhering to the provider’s communicative or therapeutic techniques.

In many pediatric settings, the environment is playful, upbeat and even fun. Interactions between providers and patients tend to be jovial and engaging.  However, in some cases, the interpreter may have to convey a difficult diagnosis, such as telling a family their child has cancer or that their child sustained life-threatening injuries in a car accident.  The emotional impact on an interpreter can increase if she or he has a child the same age.

Building Your Skills

Like all professionals, interpreters must keep themselves abreast of new changes in their field – this also includes medicine.  Regularly read publications related to pediatrics and healthcare, and make an effort to do so in your language pair.

Consider the everyday aspects of conversation that occur with children, from discussions about school, holidays, vacations, television shows, movies, and popular culture pertinent to that age group so that you are better-prepared to be accurate in your interpretation.  Design a personal glossary of these items to enrich your vocabulary.

Establish a reliable network of colleagues to exchange resources, dialogue, debrief, and support each other’s professional development.

American Academy of Pediatrics. "Pediatrics 101." American Academy of Pediatrics Publication (2011): 35.PDF Online.

Marcia Levetown, MD & the Committee on Bioethics. "Communicating With Children and Families: From Everyday Interactions to Skill in Conveying Distressing Information." Pediatrics 121.5 (2008): e1441-e1460.

Roat, Cynthia E. Healthcare Interpreting in Small Bites. Bloomington: Trafford Publishing, 2010. Book.

About the author: Jennifer M. Flamboe is Chair of the World Languages department at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis., where she is also assistant professor of Spanish and director of the Spanish/English Healthcare Interpretation program.  She holds an M.A. in Foreign Languages and Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with concentrations in Spanish linguistics and translation.  In addition to being a nationally-certified Spanish interpreter through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), Jennifer has over 10 years of experience translating and interpreting – more than eight in pediatrics – and has presented to groups at the local, regional, and national level on topics relevant to her field. 

Editor's note:  You can learn more about this topic during Jennifer's presentation Interpreting in Pediatrics: Building Blocks for Success at the Midwest Association of Translators & Interpreters (MATI) 11th Annual Conference on September 20, 2014 in Madison, WI. Don't miss it!