7 Idioms Your Patient’s English Doctor Won’t Understand

When you use idioms common to your native language, you probably don’t think twice about how strange they sound. However, as an interpreter, you need to be aware of idioms in both your native language and your target language - not only to understand them, but to provide a proper interpretation.

Interpreting idioms about health and how people are feeling may occur more often than you think. There are many foreign language idioms for these topics that if interpreted literally into English by a medical interpreter would not make much sense.

In fact they could very much confuse the doctor, nurse, or other medical professional you are speaking with. That being said, many idioms are comical when translated literally – we’ve put 7 of our favorite health related ones below!

Interpreting Idioms: 7 Medical Idioms You Can’t Interpret Literally to a Doctor  How to interpret Medical Idioms

  1. Estar más sano que una pera (Spanish) – “To be healthier than a pear”

Describes a person who is in very good health.

  1. Il-Haraka Baraka / الحركة بركة (Arabic) – “Movement is a blessing”

Means that exercise is a good thing

  1. L’aba elhadeed / لعب الحديد- (Arabic) – “He played Iron”

He lifted weights/worked out

  1. “Ir com os porcos” (Portuguese) – “Go with the pigs”

Used to say someone/thing has died

  1. “Ale nan peyi san chapo” (Haitian Creole) – “To go in country without hat”

Another expression to indicate death

  1. “J’ai la frite!” (French) – “I have the French Fry!”

Means I feel great

  1. “Les jambes m’entraient dans le corps” (French) – “My legs were going into my body”

Means that you were ready to drop

Navigating Idioms as a Medical Interpreter

Interpreting Medical IdiomsPart of the job of a medical interpreter is to not only bridge language barriers, but cultural ones as well. Idioms are directly related to the culture of an individual, and sometimes there is no equivalent in another language.

In an instance where interpreting idioms becomes hindered because they do not have direct translations, professional interpreters should be prepared to explain what the idiom means, and if necessary, its background.

This is especially important because the idiom, albeit a seemingly humorous way to describe a feeling or action, could carry important information for the doctor to know.

How can you become familiar with idioms?

A lot of it involves immersing yourself in the culture in question. Medical interpreters are generally native speakers of a language other than English however, so the challenge is actually more so with being familiar with the English equivalents.

You’re probably already familiar with a few idioms in your native language that relate to health. Making a list of the more common ones and either finding an English equivalent, or explaining them in English, will help you prepare in case you encounter one in the doctor’s office.

Interpreting Idioms Doesn’t Make You a Medical Interpreter

While being familiar with idioms will help you down the road in a career as a medical interpreter, first you have to learn the basics. Interpreting isn’t as simple as orally translating between two people who speak different languages. Medical interpreters, like all interpreters, have a code of ethics to which they must abide.

Then there is being familiar with medical vocabulary in both your native language and the target language. Dealing with the pressure of staying emotionally detached and calm during traumatic events is also a skill that a professional medical interpreter needs.

All things considered a lot of training is required in order to provide high quality interpreting services. The best way to begin preparing to become a medical interpreter is through education. A medical interpreter training program will cover all of the above skills and more – preparing you to assist limited English speaking individuals get the medical care they need.

In the meantime, doing a bit of research on translations of common idioms from your native language never hurt!

Get the necessary, in person training in order to become a competent professional medical interpreter. Register now for our upcoming Medical Interpreter Training Program on our website:

See the course schedule here:  Schedule >>>

Contact us for more information:
Phone:(617) 277-1990

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Yana Fisher

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