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Everything You Need to Know About Medical Interpretation

In any healthcare setting, communication is vital. Whether it be a doctor-patient relationship, two researchers discussing experiment results or a delegation of healthcare officials meeting to take important decisions. When it comes to medicine and healthcare, the same rules apply to people across the globe. Well, all but one – language. 

Often, language creates a barrier that restricts equal access to healthcare, whether it is access to information or treatment. Given that, many nations have taken stringent measures at ensuring that access to healthcare is not restricted due to a lack of proficiency in a language. These measures include providing a medical translation of documents and extending professional medical interpretation services when necessary.

The benefits of professional medical interpretation

Unlike translation, which gives the translator some amount of breathing space from the time that they are assigned a project until delivery, interpretation happens in real-time. 

An interpreter mediates a conversation between two or more people who speak different languages. Depending on the mode of interpretation, an interpreter may require native-level proficiency in multiple languages. 

Most of us have encountered situations while travelling, where a bilingual local has helped us communicate with a taxi driver or a vendor. So how is this any different? The reason is the context. Everyday communication, like in the example above, is different from that of medical interpretation which requires thorough knowledge of the healthcare industry. Merely knowing a second language isn’t enough if a person lacks industry knowledge.

Additionally, medical interpreters also have the necessary skills to communicate with patients, doctors and their families in stressful situations without compromising on maintaining neutrality or the patient’s privacy. 

Professional medical interpretation is preferred for the following benefits that it offers: 

Accuracy: Professional medical interpreters have the necessary certifications, experience and medical know-how that helps to ensure that information is being as correctly interpreted and conveyed as possible.

Objectivity: Unlike bilingual friends and relatives that can help mediate a conversation, professionals are not emotionally invested in the situation and can maintain a neutral perspective, remaining undisturbed mentally and being able to focus on interpreting. The remaining objective is critical in being able to achieve positive medical outcomes.

Cultural Sensitivity: Interpreters with native level proficiency are well aware of the cultural nuances of regions where a given language is spoken. This helps them reach out to listeners more effectively without running the chance of offending them.

How are medical interpreting services delivered?

There are two main ways in which interpretation services can be availed. Either in person, where the client and the interpreter meet face-to-face or, through remote means where the client and interpreter connect virtually via a phone call or a video conference. Each delivery method has its advantages depending on the situation where the service is needed.

In-person Interpretation: In-person or on-site medical interpretation requires the interpreter to be present at the location where the service is to be carried out. It is arguably the most accurate method. Having someone present in person inspires more confidence in patients, and the interpreter can pick up on expressions and other nonverbal cues which aid the information exchange.

This method is best used in high-anxiety settings like hospitals.

Phone Interpretation: Over the phone, medical interpretation is a fast and easy option when multiple people need to communicate and can’t meet in person. Whether a conversation takes place in the same room or across continents, a medical interpreter can assist in communication just by being on the line.

This is great for general information exchange, or in situations where no other means of communication is possible. 

Video Interpretation: Medical interpretation through video conferencing offers the best of both worlds. It supports the visual element that phone interpreting misses out on, without the added logistical hassles of in-person interpreting. Like phone interpreting, video conference platforms allow multiple people to communicate from different locations.

This is a suitable option for most situations, and a great one for patients that are being tested, diagnosed or treated for highly infectious illnesses which require the patients to be quarantined or in isolation. 

Different modes of medical interpretation

A good interpreter will be able to interpret in different scenarios adopting various modes, whether interpreting in person or remotely. Let’s take a closer look at the 6 main modes of interpretation and their application in medical and healthcare settings. 

Consecutive Interpretation: This mode involves a speaker addressing an audience (or another individual) and pausing after delivering a few sentences, generally every 1-5 minutes. At this point, the interpreter repeats the sentences in the target language (the language understood by the listener). While the speaker is talking, the interpreter may take notes in the source language (the language that the speaker uses) to help remember the content. 

Consecutive Interpretation

Consecutive interpretation is useful at medical conferences or meetings where the majority of people speak a common foreign language. For example, a Japanese researcher that delivers a speech in China may require consecutive interpretation services for the Chinese audience.

Simultaneous Interpretation: Here, the speaker delivers a message in the source language, while an interpreter simultaneously repeats it in the target language without any stops or pauses. Interpretation is carried out from a soundproof booth where the interpreter listens to the speaker through a headset. Within 30 seconds of the speaker talking, the interpretation is transmitted through headphones to the members of the audience who speak the target language. 

Simultaneous Interpretation

This mode is widely used in large formal settings like diplomatic meetings related to medical advancement and healthcare conventions.

Whispered Interpretation: This is a sub-type of simultaneous interpretation where the interpreter whispers or delivers the interpretation in a lowered voice to the listener(s) so as not to distract the speaker. Although this also happens in real-time, like simultaneous interpretation, it is usually used in smaller groups where not everyone speaks the same language.

Whispered Interpretation

A hospital visit is a good example. While the tour guide talks in the source language, an interpreter may be used for some of the visitors who do not understand the source language. 

Sight Interpretation: Sight interpretation is slightly different in the sense that the input medium of the source content is in textual form rather than auditory. The interpreter’s job here is to deliver an oral account of the source text in the target language. 

Sight Interpretation

Sight Interpretation is of great importance when dealing with any medical documentation, such as reports, certificates, forms, etc.

Relay Interpretation: This mode of interpretation is used in settings where interpretation is needed for an uncommon language pair. When a single interpreter can’t mediate between two languages, two interpreters are often employed. Each one interprets what his or her speaker says and communicates with the other interpreter in a common language, who in turn conveys it to the listener. 

Relay Interpretation

For example, if A speaks Urdu and B speaks Welsh, it may be challenging to find an interpreter with native-level proficiency in both those languages. In that case, an interpreter who speaks Urdu and English may be hired for A, and an interpreter that speaks Welsh and English for B. Whatever A conveys to the interpreter in Urdu would be interpreted in English by A’s interpreter to B’s interpreter who would convey the message to B in Welsh, and so on. 

Liaison Interpretation: Unlike relay interpretation here the interpreter does have native level proficiency in both the languages spoken and can easily help mediate a conversation between two parties.

Liaison Interpretation

This is mostly used for conversations between two or more individuals like in medical consultations, meetings etc.

Errors associated with medical interpretation

Although professional interpreters are trained to maintain accuracy, they too can make the occasional error. As there are several types of mistakes that can be made with medical interpretation, it is essential to choose a medical interpretation service provider that mitigates the risk by selecting only top-quality professionals. Here are some of the most common mistakes that interpreters need to steer clear of:

Omission: This standard error takes place when interpreters knowingly or unknowingly leave out crucial medical information because they have forgotten it or in an attempt to either paraphrase what is being said or simply because it appears irrelevant. Although medical interpreters are trained, they are not doctors, and therefore the entirety of the conversation must be interpreted and conveyed to both parties.

Substitution: When interpreters don’t know or are unsure of specific medical terms, they may substitute them with a synonym that they feel would fit the context. Often, however, what appears like a close term, can actually have a very different meaning which can in turn negatively affect the conversation.

Addition: Sometimes, Interpreters may add some details to help the information exchange without explicitly mentioning that they have done so. This can drastically alter the conversation between the speaker and the listener.


Communication in the healthcare domain can make or take lives. Ensuring that all documents are appropriately translated, and all verbal communication is interpreted accurately, is not negotiable, but essential. When selecting an interpretation service provider, ensure that they keep in mind the legal, social and ethical implications of medical translation and interpretation. Moreover, their interpreters should be certified, experienced and hold native-level proficiency in the languages they work with.

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