16 Expressions Medical Interpreters Should Know

Similar to how it’s difficult to interpret humor into another language while keeping the original meaning of the joke, sometimes medical interpreters run into the issue of English healthcare expressions that are meaningless in a foreign language. While an English speaker may not have any trouble understanding the idiom, a patient who speaks little to no English may.

It’s well known that mistranslations and misunderstandings related to medical interpreting can carry severe consequences – even involving life and death. While common healthcare expressions may not be that dangerous if misunderstood, they can still lead to confusion for non-English speakers. In order to have a constructive medical appointment, it is best if medical interpreters familiarize themselves with common English healthcare idioms that may come up. This way they can be prepared with a good explanation for the patient in his or her native language. This can be done a variety of ways, but it is an important topic to ask about if you’re taking a medical interpreter course. Below we’ve outlined 16 common English healthcare expressions to help you prepare as a medical interpreter!


16 English Healthcare Expressions Medical Interpreters Should Know

  • Healthy as a horse –the patient is in very good health.  Healthcare Idioms in Medical Interpreting
  • Sick as a dog – the patient is extremely sick.
  • Under the weather – used to describe the patient not feeling too well.
  • In bad shape –the patient is not in good health.
  • Blind as a bat – signifies that a patient has extremely poor vision, or is blind.
  • Blue/green around the gills – another way to describe a patient as being sick.
  • Feel blue – the patient is not feeling well.
  • Given a clean bill of health – the patient has been examined, and it has been determined he or she is in good health.
  • As pale as a ghost – the patient is very pale / has lost a lot of color in his or her face.  Healthcare Idioms for Medical Interpreters
  • Fit as a fiddle – another expression to describe the patient being in good
  • Break out in (something) – an expression used to indicate the patient is suddenly suffering from physical blemishes (like hives), or a sweat.
  • Come down with (something) – used to indicate that a patient has suddenly become sick (ex. “Come down with the flu”).
  • Flare up – means a patient’s illness that wasn’t bothering them before, has suddenly come back.
  • Go under the knife – an expression for having a surgery done.
  • In the pink – the patient is very healthy.
  • Kick a habit – an expression for ending a bad habit, such as excessive smoking or drinking.

Sometimes it’s not just an expression that you’ll have trouble interpreting. Certain languages and cultures may not have a word for common diseases. One example is Cancer – in the Hmong culture (a community from the mountain regions of China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, many of whom settled as refugees in the U.S. in the 1970s) there is no word for cancer. Therefore, doctors and medical interpreters will need to work to explain what the disease is to Hmong patients unfamiliar with it. This can also happen with words used to describe symptoms – such as with the question “do you hear voices” used to diagnose certain mental illnesses. In Chinese, the word for noises and voices are the same. If the medical interpreter does not make it clear to the patient, then he or she may not understand the true meaning of the question, and as such could provide inaccurate information.

What Are The Best Ways To Learn Healthcare Expressions as a Medical Interpreter?

Medical Interpreter TrainingThere are many ways a medical interpreter can familiarize him or herself with common English healthcare expressions. One way is to speak to native English speakers, and get their input. Another way would be to pay attention the next time you have a doctor’s appointment or other medical appointment – listen to what the patients and the doctors say, take notes, and look up any expressions that you don’t understand.

A medical interpreter course is a good starting point for aspiring medical interpreters to learn about certain cultural and language barriers they may face for their target languages. Instructors will usually be professional medical interpreters themselves, and will have experience in situations where idioms, or the lack of a word in your target language, made communicating with the patient challenging.

Language Connections offers a 60 hour, 7 week, Medical Interpreter Course. Throughout our interpreter training course, students will be taught  medical interpreting best practices, the medical interpreter’s code of ethics, and real life medical interpreting scenarios. All classes are taught by professional medical interpreters, and class sizes run small. This allows our students to gain the individualized attention they need to excel in their medical interpreter training.


Get the necessary, in person training in order to become a competent professional interpreter. Register now for one of our interpreter training programs: Medical Interpreter Training, Legal Interpreter Training or Community & Business Interpreter Training.

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Yana Fisher

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