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Do You Need an Interpreter or Translator for That?

Published: 14 July 2013

[We need to] "...begin to think about the concept of translating conversations, as opposed to translating documents. We need to set standards for and train our interpreters to quickly and accurately "interpret in writing" the content of patient-provider emails and texts."

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A school switches its primary communication method with parents from a monthly print newsletter sent home with students to multiple website updates a week.

  • The Presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica and Panama hold the first-ever virtual summit of multiple Presidents, using Cisco’s Telepresence Technology.

  • Walmart conducts a pilot run of talking drug prescription labels via mail order and onsite pharmacies.

  • A patient is told to access their test results online and is given a link to a website that will walk them through the process.

  • Your bank sends a text message alerting you that you are overdrawn on your account.

These are just a sampling how technology is changing the way we communicate. Increasingly, the interpreting profession is addressing how traditional service delivery models are shifting. We are learning to use video, VOIP, telephonic and even app platforms when interpreting. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath are tectonic shifts in the way businesses, schools, and the healthcare industry are structured and delivering services.

Models that we have all grown up with and which are, in some cases, generations old, are melting away in a matter of years. So while it is true that we may be making headway in adapting to new communication methods being used inside traditional business structures, those very structures are now transforming into something almost recognizable. To date, the interpreting profession is all too often not paying attention.

Healthcare is a prime example. Linda Golley,RN, Interpreter Services Manager at the University of Washington Medical Center, speaks eloquently to how the traditional hospital-based doctor-patient visit is fast becoming a thing of the past. Replacing it is a complex process involving telephone contact, emails, text and chat messaging, tele- and video medicine, and patient access to their online patient information.

“In the medical field our patients already have far more contact with their extended care teams when they are not in the same room than when they are in the same room. I recently cataloged all the contacts that a patient had with his two medical doctors and his dentist in a two week period when he was addressing some clinical issues. He had one face-to-face appointment with one of the doctors, and 12 contacts by phone, email, and text. These contacts included conversation back and forth with his doctors and dentist, the pharmacy, the front desks, and the insurance counselor for one practice. He had to access his own medical record numerous times to see and act on changes in his lab values." 

Golley describes a health care provision model new and unfamiliar even to tech savvy health consumers. Throw in language and literacy barriers and the picture gets even more complex. “If he had been a language needs patient," Golley adds, "he would have needed language support at all of those interface points. We thought we had equal access to care covered. We are about to lose equal access because we are essentially locked out of supporting most interface points." 

How many of these methods of communication do you use at work and with friends and family on a daily basis?

A sobering prospect. What kind of language services do these new "interface points" require? Is real-time translation of a chat session interpreting or translation, or a little bit of both? What about text messages? Should interpreters be cleared to translate quick emails between a provider and patient or between teacher and student?

Golley proposes that "we begin to think about the concept of translating conversations, as opposed to translating documents. We need to set standards for and train our interpreters to quickly and accurately "interpret in writing" the content of patient-provider emails and texts."

"Translating conversations" goes directly against the grain of the translation and interpreting fields, which work hard to distinguish themselves as separate, if affiliated, professions. Especially in community settings, where there is so much ground left to cover to provide basic training for interpreters, adding a translation requirement is problematic.

What kinds of written communications would be acceptable? When do written communications stop mimicking dialog and turn into formal text where translation requirements and protocols would kick in? And how and when would interpreters insert themselves into these written communication processes? Would providers send them to the interpreter who then would send it to the patient? How will the healthcare system flag written communication in a different language that comes from the patient? What kind of work shift model can accommodate these new communication needs?

As with so many other aspects of the digital era, interpreting is on the cutting edge of change. How we respond is up to us.

Is your workplace witnessing rapid change? Leave us a comment and let us know how you are handling the changing landscape interpreters work in.


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