3 Reasons Why Consecutive Works Best in Medical Interpreting


Interpreters in different areas of specialty will use different modes to facilitate communication. Sometimes interpreters employ the simultaneous mode. Other times interpreters employ the consecutive mode. More often than not, interpreters in the medical sector tend to work in the consecutive mode. This is not because simultaneous interpreting is too hard. It is also not because interpreters want to drag out the encounter. Believe it or not, medical interpreters primarily interpret in the consecutive mode because this is what works best to facilitate communication in medical situations.

Here are three reasons why consecutive interpreting works best in medical encounters:

  1. It allows listeners to listen effectively. Imagine yourself in a small exam room having a conversation with your doctor. Now imagine there is a person standing in the room 1.5 feet away who is talking incessantly. Distracting, huh? Even if you can’t understand the language of the incessant talker, it is disruptive. What’s more, if you can understand the language of the incessant talker, you’ll have to work that much harder to tune that person’s voice out so you can concentrate. (Remember: Many people we interpret for have limited English proficiency, not no English proficiency.) Concentration is pretty important when it comes to things like, say, understanding a treatment plan, for example.
  2. It fosters turn-taking.  It’s hard for some people to wait their turn to speak. (Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself.) Waiting turns, pausing a speaker, interjecting a time-sensitive comment and other techniques are all part of dialogue communication, even when no interpreter is involved. These communication norms are very difficult to manage when the interpreter is working in simultaneous mode because there is no “space” for the interpreter to manage, respond to, or incorporate them into the full-scope of the communication. The interpreter is too busy “keeping up” with all the talking. In the consecutive mode, the interpreter is better positioned to manage the flow of communication between multiple speakers and the participants are better encouraged to engage effectively in the interpreted communication.
  3. It helps interpreters uphold ethical practice.  Dovetailing on the previous point, if everyone is talking at the same time, it is simply not possible for the interpreter to interpret everything that everyone is saying. Now, are there chaotic situations in healthcare when the interpreter has to switch to simultaneous or choose to interpret one person’s voice over another? Definitely. Ever interpret during a delivery while the nurse is coaching the patient on pushing while the doctor is telling the patient to stop pushing? I have. But these are the exceptions that interpreters skillfully adapt to. They are not the rule. Remember, the ethics aren’t just about the interpreter; they are also about ensuring the best possible medical outcome. Complete and effective communication is critical to achieving that outcome.

A note to interpreters: Keep in mind the reasons why consecutive is effective. Avoid switching to simultaneous just because you can. Remember, the communication isn’t about what skills you have; it’s about using your skills to allow others to fully communicate with each other. Employ the best method to achieve that purpose.

What are some other reasons why consecutive tends to work best in medical encounters? Share your experiences.

P.S. If you're not familiar with terms like "consecutive" and "simultaneous," check out The Terminology of Healthcare Interpreting published by the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare. You'll find lots of cool terms and definitions related to interpreting.

Posted on March 31, 2016 and filed under Interpreter.