3 Useful Positioning Tips for a Healthcare Interpreter

Note: While the following outlines a general guide to interpreter positioning in healthcare settings, the position chosen by an interpreter will be different for a signing interpreter versus a spoken interpreter. For the purposes of this article, we will be discussing spoken interpreters. The suggestions of this article are also not relevant if whispered interpretation is required, as in this instance the interpreter should position themselves directly adjacent to the LEP individual so they can hear the whispering.

Searching for tips to be a good medical interpreter? Have you considered interpreter positioning in healthcare settings?

medical InterpreterA medical interpreter can have multiple options when it comes to choosing their positioning during an assignment. While this choice may seem inconsequential, it can actually affect the flow of communication and comfort level of the patient.

When it comes to interpreter positioning in healthcare settings, you generally want to be close enough to both the doctor and patient that you can hear and see them clearly, and they you.

But does this mean you should be next to the patient? How about next to the doctor? Should you sit between both of them? What if the patient is being examined – do you stand next to them or behind the curtain?

As you can see, there are many considerations interpreters in healthcare settings must make when choosing where to position themselves in an appointment. While there is no set standard for positioning, we’ve listed a few tips for medical interpreters the next time their deciding where to place themselves in a room.

A Guide to Positioning for Interpreters in HealthCare Settings

As a first general rule, interpreters in healthcare settings should not position themselves so close to the patient that it makes them uncomfortable. The concept of personal space varies greatly between cultures, and nowhere is privacy more important than in a medical setting.

Medical interpreters should also aim to remain at eye level with the patient and the doctor.

However, does this mean the interpreter should place themselves next to the patient, next to the doctor, or an equal distance away from both?

Positioning in relation to the doctor and patient

Medical Interpreting ServiceThe answer to this will depend on the medical interpreter’s preference; however the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) has outlined a few pros and cons to each position.

While sitting next to the patient allows you to see the doctor, and hear the patient clearly, the patient may view you as more of a friendly assistant as opposed to a neutral party. As such they may not give their full attention to the provider as is generally recommended, or they may ask for the interpreters input.

Placing yourself next to the doctor will allow you to see the patient clearly; however it may send signals to the patient that you have aligned yourself with the medical professionals. As such it may make them feel less comfortable about sharing personal details.

Placing yourself between the two parties will diminish any association with either party; however, it tends to cause both the patient and the doctor to speak to the interpreter directly, as opposed to speaking to each other through the interpreter.

Whichever position you choose, you want to do your best to appear as out of the way and in the background as possible. The reason for this is that the doctor and the patient should still be directing their speech and interactions to each other, not with you as the interpreter.


In the event a patient needs to change or be examined, the medical interpreter should stand or sit behind the medical curtain when possible, or else place themselves in a position with their eyes averted and their back turned to the examination.

In the Emergency or Operating Room

Positioning Tips for Healthcare InterpretersIt is generally suggested by the NCIHC that a medical interpreter position themselves by the patient’s head in both of these instances. While the interpreter might need to move to allow for the use of medical equipment, this position generally allows them the best chance to hear and be heard by the patient.

Choosing the proper position when providing interpretation does in many instances come down to personal preference, and reading the unique layout of the room in which you’re providing services. The end goal for any interpreters in healthcare settings should be to provide accurate interpretation in the least intrusive method as possible.

The more you act as simply a voice in the room, and not a source of medical information for the patient, or a replacement of the patient for the doctor, the more successful your assignments will be.

Preparing for Medical Interpreting Assignments

Medical Interpreter ServiceThere are many more considerations when it comes to positioning yourself in an optimal way to encourage communication between patients and providers. While the knowledge of what works best for you comes with real world experience, you can begin to get the feel of a standard healthcare interpreting assignment through medical interpreter training.

Language Connections offers a medical interpreter certificate program designed to teach aspiring interpreters the necessary skills and knowledge to work in a healthcare setting. The 7 week course covers the following:

  • The interpreter’s code of ethics
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Medical terminology
  • Best practices for providing interpretation

All language groups are taught by native speaking, professional medical interpreters. Class sizes are small to encourage the maximum amount of one on one time with students and instructors.

Interpreters in healthcare settings have extremely important, albeit out of the spotlight, roles to play. Choosing a place in the room is the first decision an interpreter makes on an assignment, and can affect the entire proceedings thereafter.

Go into all your medical interpreter assignments with confidence not only on where to position yourself, but how to provide the best interpreting services possible - begin your medical interpreter training today!

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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