• Yelena McCafferty

Preparing for a medical interpreting assignment

Updated: Jan 11

I have recently had the benefit of listening to the presentation by Kirsty Heimerl-Moggan and Summer Mouallem from InterpMeds on an immensely relevant topic. A trip through medical interpreter preparation - before, during, after.


COVID-19 aside, medical assignments can be quite diverse: from conferences aimed at medical professionals to more specialised research webinars, commercial negotiations or public health meetings.


Our experts in the medical interpreting field have shared a lot of practical tips with us with Kirsty’s main message running through: medical interpreters should study just like medical students.


If you decide to make medical interpreting one of your specialisms, she says it is a good idea to join focused networks, such as the ITI Medical Network. Watching medical documentaries on TV is also helpful for general knowledge and understanding.


When preparing for a specific assignment, in addition to studying the background material supplied by the client, you can use an abundance of online resources available such as portals for medical professionals, students (e.g. www.medstudentnotes.com). You could even start with Wikipedia, but use it sensibly and selectively. You cannot always trust it, however you can pick up some layman’s terms or use a list of references at the end of an entry.


Summer mentioned a few online resources for research and reference purposes. One of them is the Health Information Translations (www.healthinfotranslations.org) portal which provides education resources in multiple languages for healthcare professionals and others to use in their communities. Another is the Translators Without Borders glossary for COVID-19, also in multiple languages.


Pictorial materials and dictionaries are valuable in understanding and cognitive processing as well.


In addition, Kirsty advises researching speakers before a particular event and watching videos of their previous presentations. This can give you a big boost as you can listen to their accent, note their speed of delivery and manner of speaking. Subtitles to videos can also help you filter out terminology. What is more, they can assist you with polishing pronunciation of various long terms and expressions, especially of Greek and Latin origin.


Generally, Kirsty recommends learning a few prefixes and suffixes such as:


-itis – inflammation

endo – within

sub – below

-tomy – the surgeon cut something

-ectomy – the surgeon cut something out

-ostomy – the surgeon made an opening, etc.


Knowing them will help you remember the meaning of longer terms, e.g. endocarditis – inflammation of the inner lining of the heart.


Needless to say, preparation has to be done in both working languages you will utilise during the assignment. As you prepare, create/modify your glossary in whichever way you find easier, Kirsty and Summer use different systems, but Kirsty advises having a clear filing/folder system. When researching terminology for your glossary, a thought shower or post-it stickers can be very stimulating. Summer also recommends filing collocations so terms are memorised as phrases and not on their own.


Preparation for a medical interpreting assignment may also involve researching products, and it is wise to look up their side effects and dosages. Summer warned against using abbreviations for measurements such as ml, when interpreting; it is best to use full versions: millilitre, to avoid any confusion. Researching product dosages in advance can also prepare you as speakers tend to talk too fast about an area they, and perhaps their audience, are proficient in.


Medical interpreting is not always purely about medicine. Assignments can involve legal discussions, statistical analyses and financial calculations. All of this means interpreters are expected to have broad general knowledge outside the field of medicine. You may need to work out your strategies with numbers and figures, and in this respect having all of the speaker presentations available before an assignment is hugely beneficial.


Studying after the assignment as well as prior to it is just as important. Taking time to look through your notes after the conference will allow you to update your glossaries and learn what could be done better next time. It is also a kind of de-briefing exercise you could do with your partner or even colleagues who were interpreting into other languages at the event.


In the current circumstances most events happen online so it goes without saying you need to establish a good line of communication with your partner, test your equipment, in other words make sure you are well-equipped technically.


We need to have more webinars like this one with Kirsty and Summer sharing their expertise in a very comprehensive and viewer-friendly way. Such training without doubt makes us better interpreters.

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