Medical Interpreters vs Legal Interpreters: Which is a Better Career Path?

Medical and legal interpreters are similar in many ways.  They’re both highly sought-after professions in courts, hospitals, and service agencies, as well as in legal and administrative offices. In fact, according to UC San Diego, translation and interpretation were 2017’s top emerging careers in the US. Additionally, in May 2017, the highest 10% of interpreters and translators earned more than $82,290 annually! Interpreting breaks down language barriers between speakers of different languages. Medical and legal interpreters allow lawyers and medical caregivers to provide the best level of services and treatments.  However, despite the similarities, medical and legal interpreters share differences that deeply differentiate their professions.  Their day-to-day activities vary greatly.  Read more about details on their credentials, training and certifications, to determine which field you’re best suited to!

More than Meets the Eyes: The Profession of Medical and Legal Interpreters

Medical Interpreter1. Models of Interpretation

Medical interpretation is mostly done consecutively, which begins only after the speaker has said or signed a group of words or sentences. Before presenting their interpretation, the interpreter may take notes while listening to or watching the speaker.

On the other hand, legal interpretation is done consecutively and simultaneously. Simultaneous interpreting requires interpreters to listen or watch, and speak or sign at the same time while someone else is speaking or signing. It requires a high level of concentration to carry out and can often only be done effectively for shorter periods of time.


2. Sight Translation

Sight translation is when interpreters read a text from the source language and interpret it into the designated language. However, it's not always presented as a mode.  It’s performed often and is not often written in interpreter manuals.  In the medical sector, documents that can be used for sight translation include health care documents, medication instructions, medication labels, patient history forms, medical reports, waivers, and consent forms.  In the legal sector, documents vary from witness statements, court rulings, legal documents, sentencing orders, bail conditions, conditions of probation, police reports, and affidavits.

Court Interpreter 3. Modes of Interpreting

The 3 main modes of interpreting include:

On-site interpreting: Also known as face-to-face interpreting, where translations can be done consecutively or simultaneously. This is the most popular mode for both medical and legal interpreters.

Over-the-phone interpreting (OPI): Telephone conversations, accompanied by interpretation, allow people to communicate freely over the phone at the designated time from anywhere with a fixed or cellular connection. This type of translation is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to in-person negotiations due to its convenient format, time-saving quality and the significant reduction in the cost of the service.

Video remote interpreting (VRI): Another type of interpreting is through a video call to a live interpreter from a tablet, phone or computer (at a time that is convenient for the consumer).

4. Employers 

Both medical and legal interpreters have a wide range of places they can work.  Medical interpreters branch out to work in doctor’s offices, hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics, mental health facilities, dentist offices, rehabilitation centers, or substance abuse clinics.  Legal interpreters have an equally wide array of potential employers.  They can work in courthouses, detention centers, police stations, legislative hearings, administrative hearings, real estate offices, law offices, or jails.

5. Types of Appearances 

Medical interpreters help clients during surgeries, medical emergencies, therapy and general medical appointments, independent medical exams, and psychological evaluations.  Legal interpreters appear in trials, depositions, arraignments, civil and criminal hearings, pretrial conferences, interrogations, and motions.

 medical interpreter in a hospital6. Academic and Certification Requirements

Although it is not required, some professionals get a bachelor’s degree in interpretation or in a foreign language to become an interpreter. They must adhere to standards according to regulations and law, as work in medical and legal sectors are overseen by the government. Both medical and legal interpreters have to have some form of certification approved by different authorities. Obtaining a medical interpreter certificate from medical interpreter certificate programs or a court interpreter certificate from court interpreter training programs are ways interpreters can distinguish themselves from others.

Aspiring medical interpreters are required to attend a minimum of 45 hours of training in medical interpreter programs before they receive certification. After attending medical interpreter classes, they may want to be further certified by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.

Similarly, aspiring legal interpreters may want to pursue certification by the state or the federal court to work in a trial court. However, depending on the employer or institution they want to work for, a legal interpreter certification already fits the bill.  They could work at private law firms, non-profit organizations and health centers.

7. Work Ethics and Responsibilities 

Medical interpreters work as a limited patient advocate, while legal interpreters adhere to the role of a strictly impartial party. Both types of interpreters have to deal with private and sensitive information, and are obliged to keep them confidential. Like other professions, they are bound by a Code of Professional Conduct. They must maintain a professional level of ethics as well as legal responsibility.

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Yana Fisher

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