How to Become a Medical Interpreter
So, you want to become a medical interpreter and don’t know where to start? This step-by-step guide will walk you through what you need to do to become a successful medical interpreter.
First of all, let’s start by defining what is a medical interpreter:
A medical interpreter is a trained professional who helps people communicate by bridging language barriers in medical settings. If you love helping people, learning about languages, immersing yourself in different cultures, and have a keen interest in medicine, then this career is perfect for you!
1. Know Two or More Languages
(Native or Near-Native Proficiency)
You have to be able to switch from one language to another very quickly in order to be a medical interpreter. In order to do this, you need to know the language thoroughly and understand it like a native speaker. If you are unsure whether or not your language skills are strong enough, you should take a language proficiency test and see how well your listening, speaking and comprehension skills are.
If English is your second language you can take TOEFL, TOEIC, ELPT or any other language proficiency test that gives you a certificate valid for a certain number of years. If you speak a different language, please check this list of language proficiency tests for different languages (including ASL).
But, being bilingual (or trilingual!) does not an interpreter make. Knowing the language is just the minimum requirement. In addition to having native or near-native proficiency in your working languages you also need to:
2. Receive Medical Interpretation Training
The best and easiest way to start is by getting training specific to medical interpretation from experienced professionals. This will save you a lot of time and prevent you from making any serious mistakes as opposed to learning through trial and error. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel!
But what should you learn from your medical interpretation training? The things you need to know to be able to perform your job successfully.
Your training should include AT LEAST:
- Medical Terminology (diseases, organs and body systems, medical tests and devices, medical specialties, healthcare professionals, healthcare system, etc.)
You need to be able to understand and translate the most commonly-used medical terms to start with, but in your professional practice you will need to develop your own medical terminology management skills because you are always learning new medical terms while carrying out your duties as a medical interpreter.
- Interpreters’ Code(s) of Ethics and Standards of Practice
These are the guidelines or principles for professional interpreters’ performance. What should be expected from you as an interpreter? How do you handle a medical encounter professionally? The answers to these questions are critical concepts you must learn if you want to provide professional, quality interpretation services.
- Roles of the Medical Interpreter
The medical interpreter has four basic roles. In a nutshell, these four roles are: conduit (conveying the message from one language to another), clarifier (making sure terms are understood), culture broker (bringing up potential communication issues due to cultural differences), advocate (looking out for the patient’s health, well-being, and dignity). You need to learn when and how to switch from one role to another.
- Consecutive Interpreting Skills
You’ll need to practice with medical interpretation role-plays that parallel real medical encounters before you’ll be ready to do the real thing. In addition, you’ll also have have to work on your speaking/listening skills, learn about note-taking for memory retention (to be able to repeat exactly what was said without adding, omitting, or changing anything), become proficient in code-switching (translating orally) from one language to another, get the hang of asking for repetitions, and learn how to manage impediments of performance. It’s a very long list of skills you need to develop, which is why the best thing you can do is:
3. Practice, Practice, Practice!
Interpreting is a very practical career and it’s especially important to practice when you are a beginner. Through practice you are able to integrate everything that you learned in theory to the real-life tasks and challenges you will have in most (if not all) medical interpreting encounters.
At the end of the day, you need to interpret to become an interpreter.
And what better way to interpret than in a safe environment in which you can make mistakes and learn without putting anyone’s health or life at risk? InterpreMed.com offers that environment and a wide variety of medical interpreting practice materials to set you up for success.
If you have the time, try to interpret this medical role play (if not, skip to step 4). You may find it difficult, but you can learn how to deal with this and many other interpreting situations with practice and quality feedback.
If you’re having a hard time finishing this medical interpreting exercise, don’t be discouraged! It does NOT mean medical interpreting is not for you. It just means you need to learn proper interpreting technique and practice more!
Once you feel your interpreting skills are good enough, you should consider:
4. Getting certified!
If you are located in the United States, there are two major certification agencies for medical interpreters: NBCMI (National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters) and CCHI (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters).
You have to pass a written exam and then an oral exam to get certified. Once you’re certified, you’ll then need to renew your certification every few years.
These two agencies have very similar requirements to sit for their exam:
- At least 18 years of age
- High-school diploma (general education)
- A minimum of 40 hours of medical interpretation training (approved trainings only) OR college-level medical interpreting coursework
- Oral proficiency in English (TOEFL, university degree, high school diploma, etc.)
- Oral proficiency in target language (TOEFL, degree, high school diploma, etc.)
Languages available for these exams:
- CCHI: Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin (Core-CHI for all other languages)
- NBCMI: Spanish, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Mandarin (Hub-CMI for all other languages)
The total cost of getting certified (excluding mandatory training costs) is approximately $485 USD with a renewal fee (of around $300 USD) paid every 4 or 5 years, depending on the certifying organization
If you are not in the US, you should check if there are equivalent organizations like NBCMI or CCHI in your country. For example, in the UK the main organization that awards interpreting credentials is the Chartered Institute of Linguist (CIOL). The good news is that you can get certified by NBCMI anywhere in the world with remote testing!
Once you are certified and have work experience, then you should seek to engage in:
5. Continuing Education
Medical culture and languages are always evolving! You have to be up-to-date with all these changes to adapt and grow with them. As an interpreter you are always learning and being exposed to new things every day: new terminology or idioms, cultural beliefs, ethical dilemmas, medical procedures, you name it! If you want to be an excellent medical interpreter, you’ll need to continuously sharpen your interpreting skills and medical knowledge.
And that’s how you become a medical interpreter! Of course, you’ll encounter unique challenges along the way and it will take years to master these skills. But becoming a medical interpreter isn’t a destination: it’s a journey. It takes many years to be prepared for (almost) anything that could come up in a medical interpreting encounter!
Medical interpretation is a wonderful profession because you never get bored. There’s always something new to learn and on top of it all, it’s incredibly gratifying to give limited English-speakers a voice and make their thoughts and ideas be heard.
Are you ready to start your journey as a medical interpreter? I highly suggest joining InterpreMed.com and becoming part of a community that will help you to become the best interpreter you can be. You’ll have access to a ton of great resources and participate in activities like:
- Weekly Zoom meetings for live medical interpreting practice, discussion and feedback in language-specific groups
- Access to all previous Zoom meeting recordings
- Consecutive interpreting practice audio recordings with scripts and terminology analysis
- English-Spanish and Language Neutral (English only) exercises for all other languages
- Total beginner, beginner, intermediate and advanced levels
- Medical terminology exercises relating to different medical specialties, phrases and idioms (quizzes, flashcards, low-register vs. high register grids, fill in the blanks, etc.)
- Symbols/note-taking training and practice
- Memory retention exercises
- Language-specific Facebook groups for forum discussion
- Access to monthly activities like: book club, championships, challenges, etc.
- English-Spanish medical glossary with definitions of medical terms
- Specialized glossaries and useful links for medical interpreters
As a member you have unlimited access to all of the resources on the site, no hidden feed or strings attached!