There are a myriad of questions you could ask to determine if a medical interpreter is capable of doing a good job. During the patient encounter, of course, you can’t audit their performance because you don’t know the language—that’s why you need them in the first place! So here are some straightforward questions you can ask before things begin to make sure you’ve got a competent professional to help you communicate with your patient:
1) Are you a nationally-certified interpreter?
There is now national medical interpreter certification available in a variety of common languages, including Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Korean. The certification tests for linguistic and interpreting skill, as well as knowledge of interpreting ethics, standards of practice, and medical terminology.
If certification is not yet available for the language in question, there is still a provisional credential that tests an interpreter’s knowledge of ethics and protocol in English only.
Read more about the certifying bodies here:
- The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters
- Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters
2) Are you proficient in both the spoken and written language?
Interpreters are mainly responsible for transmitting an oral message into another language, but sometimes they need to translate documents, such as discharge instructions or consent forms. Although longer and more technical translations should always be handled by a qualified translator, an interpreter should be able to be trusted to do a good job on short translations.
A mastery of both spoken and written language will also generally mean that an interpreter has received formal education in that language, rather than just speaking it at home.
3) What kind of training do you have?
There’s a lot more to interpreting than simply being bilingual. A well trained interpreter will usually render a more accurate and faithful message than an amateur. The minimum training for a medical interpreter should be at least 40 hours. There are several 40-hour trainings readily available for medical interpreters throughout the country (like the Bridging the Gap course we offer), and quality online training is on the rise as well.
4) Where is your medical dictionary?
Any good medical interpreter will carry some form of bilingual medical dictionary as backup. Interpreters have to manage very complex terminology in multiple languages and work in specialties as diverse as oncology, to psychiatry, and gastroenterology. Most interpreters rely on digital dictionaries on their tablet or phone these days, but many still carry physical dictionaries. If an interpreter does not understand a word, or simply cannot recall it, a dictionary is their backup—guessing or making something up is not an option. That is what the dictionary is for. Without one, an interpreter is not properly prepared.
It All Comes Down to Trust
In the end, working with an interpreter always comes down to trust, and asking these four questions will give both you and the interpreter a foundation for building it.