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5 Characteristics of a Qualified, Professional Interpreter

Published on April 17, 2018 by Graham Newnum

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With Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act expanding Title VI's language access requirements for healthcare providers, most hospitals and healthcare organizations have a plan in place to provide in-language care.

The next step: Ensuring that all interpreters - whether on-site or via phone and video - are of the highest quality. 

Interpreting is a highly specialized profession that requires training and practice. Professional-level interpreters acquire many skills that the average bilingual person does not possess or has not sufficiently honed. Here are five qualifications to look for when selecting a quality, professional interpreter:

1. LANGUAGE SKILLS

Most people don’t realize the extent to which knowledge and vocabulary an interpreter needs in his/her native language. Michelle Hof, a professional conference interpreter and trainer who runs a blog called The Interpreter Diaries, writes:

“As an interpreter, you need to be able to express yourself well in many different registers and have access to a broad active vocabulary covering different fields. Just growing up speaking a language does not automatically mean you will have these skills. I see it all the time in the early days of a course, when students can’t seem to stop themselves from talking like they do to their friends in the bar and start sounding like interpreters.”

And that’s just what’s needed for the interpreter’s native language. The International Association of Conference Interpreters’ website (AIIC) states that in order to be an interpreter, a person's “understanding of the language should be comparable to that of an educated native speaker of the same language.”

2. LISTENING AND RECALL

There are two main interpreting methods: consecutive interpreting and simultaneous interpreting. Consecutive interpreting is typical for the healthcare industry - it requires waiting until a speaker pauses before interpreting. This modality requires intense active listening, memory recall, and note-taking to produce an accurate interpretation, since the speaker may speak for several minutes prior to pausing.

Interpreting requires more brain power than usual. Scientists have conducted experiments on bilingual subjects and found when a person transitions between two languages, the brain uses regions not active in normal language use. This suggests that interpreting takes greater coordination of mental operations and that the phonological processing is more difficult when having to switch languages.

3. ETHICAL BEHAVIOR

Interpreters may encounter confidential or sensitive information. Those working with medical providers must understand the strong regulatory environment surrounding patient and consumer privacy.

Ethical behavior extends beyond just keeping what you’ve heard to yourself. The US Courts website states that an interpreter must be both impartial and able to accurately and idiomatically turn the message from the source language into the receptor language without any additions, omissions or other misleading factors that alter the intended meaning of the message from the speaker.” An interpreter who interprets unethically in a medical scenario could have an impact on the ability of the physicians to save a person’s life. As a result, Interpreters have a significant responsibility and must be dedicated professionals.

4. CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE

Being bicultural is just as important for qualified interpreters as being bilingual. Bicultural individuals have naturally absorbed the sensibilities and nuances of two cultures and have inherent abilities to mediate between them. Dr. Holly Mikkelson from the Monterey Institute of International Studies states: 

“In all of their work, interpreters must bridge the cultural and conceptual gaps separating the participants in a meeting.”

5. SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE

Imagine listening to an academic lecture about aerospace engineering and then being asked to repeat what you learned. Unless you are deeply familiar with how aerodynamics works, you might be hard-pressed to make any sense of the lecture, much less repeat it back in a way that is understandable to anyone else.

Likewise, it is critical that an interpreter understands the subject material of a conversation they need to interpret. In a medical setting, familiarity with common medical terminology, problems, and procedures is a must. An interpreter confused by a lack of subject knowledge may struggle to understand what is being said.

Now that you understand what it takes to be a qualified, professional interpreter, watch this quick video to learn more about how CyraCom ensures our phone and video interpreters meet these standards: