Medical Interpreters: Unsung Heroes in the Battle Against COVID-19

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s who the real heroes in times of crisis are. Medical workers, supermarket employees, delivery drivers. Our hearts are filled with gratitude towards each of them–and rightfully so. But there is another group of people contributing to saving lives, often unnoticed: medical interpreters.

In the United States, more than one in five residents speak a language other than English at home. With COVID-19, getting the message across to non-English speaking communities has become more critical than ever.

So what are the hidden battles our language heroes have been facing during the COVID-19 crisis? 

Rebooting the “top-of-mind” medical terminology 

A timely medical translation can save lives. But building a “split-second-memory glossary” takes years of practice.

Before COVID-19, respiratory diseases were not among the top five causes of hospital admissions. Most medical interpreting revolved around heart conditions or diabetes.  

The current pandemic changed that. The medical terminology of the respiratory system became the new norm. By consequence, medical interpreters are called to reboot their off-the-shelf medical vocabulary. In record time. 

Refreshing hundreds of medical terms is difficult, but their job goes much further. There’s a high chance that to a patient, the target-language term is as obscure as its English analog. Hence, interpreters must also learn how to explain the situation in layman’s terms. 

A loanword or a “proper” word? Medical interpreting in a fast-changing vernacular 

A word might have a matching counterpart in the target language. Still, it doesn’t mean people use it in everyday conversation. This is especially true when we experience dramatic social changes. We adopt new words to define our new realities. But these new words are heavily influenced by many external factors. 

A medical interpreter might aptly translate lockdown into cierre de emergencia. Would it resonate with the Hispanic community of New York City as much as with someone from Colombia? Could it be the former group chose to adopt the English loanword instead? 

The covid glossary isn’t available in books yet. Medical interpreters must look for it in the streets, where it’s being shaped and sharpened as we speak. 

Remote: the new standard for medical interpreting 

The lack of protective wear has removed medical interpreting from the hospitals. This has brought a shift in paradigm for doctors, patients, and linguists alike. With, over-the-phone interpreting (OPI), one must make do without reading body language or facial expressions. This is a major shortcoming in situations where a smile or a pat on the back can mean a world. 

From our experience, video remote interpreting (VRI) proved to be a better choice in an intimate, doctor–patient situation.

We learned how to adapt our medical translation services to this new reality. Give us a call or send us an email. We’ll be happy to share more insights.

A mistranslation can cause serious damage. Learn how to avoid it.