How Do You Interpret an Untranslatable Medical Idiom?

When you’re training to become a medical interpreter, it is common to envision the worst case scenario for a given assignment in attempts to prepare yourself.

For many, this is a scenario where you either don’t know how to interpret something or else say something embarrassing or funny.

Perhaps one of the biggest causes of such scenarios is an untranslatable word or medical idiom.

Hats, Cows, and Medical Interpreters

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a doctor and a Haitian patient – you’re interpreting along when all of the sudden you notice the doctor giving you a strange look.

Immediately you begin to wonder if perhaps your words didn’t come out right, or if you missed a vital piece of information.

Once you finish speaking, the doctor asks you to explain what exactly the patient meant when she said that her father’s medical condition caused him to “go in country without hat”.

Or try this scenario on for size:

You’re interpreting for a Swedish patient and a nurse, where the patient is trying to convince the nurse that “there’s no cow on the ice”.

Become a Medical InterpreterYou repeat the question to the nurse, looking just as confused as he does.

While in the first scenario you may have meant to indicate to the doctor that the patient’s father had passed away, and in the second you wanted to let the nurse know that “there’s no need to worry”, that’s definitely not what came out.

More importantly it’s not what the patient directly said either.

There are often unique expressions in one language that are unable to be rendered into another. These idioms and colloquialisms are used for everything from describing your day to talking about intimate medical conditions.

Culture and linguistic differences between patients and medical staff mean that these phrases won’t necessarily be understood if taken at face value.

If you aren’t careful, a misinterpreted medical idiom could impact the level of care given.

Interpreting the Un-Interpretable

For medical interpreters, nothing is worse than the fear that you might say something incorrectly in the middle of an important consultation or meeting. The truth of it is mistakes – both funny and embarrassing – are a fact of life as a new interpreter especially where idioms and colloquialisms are involved.

Training to become a medical interpreterAs an interpreter you need to be prepared to encounter medical idioms every once in a while, and that means becoming familiar with some of the most commonly used ones. There are ways to do this aside from fully immersing yourself in a culture – including reading, watching popular TV shows, and frequenting popular social sites where these phrases may be commonly used.

On top of recognizing these phrases, you also need to know how to deal with them to ensure the patient still receives the care they require.

When these scenarios arise, you generally have two options:

  1. Find an equivalent expression in English
  2. Interpret the expression as plainly as possible

It isn’t always possible to find a similar expression in English, and usually the safest choice is to explain the meaning of the expression as plainly as possible to the medical staff.

If you do happen to directly interpret the saying, just make sure you quickly explain its meaning before anyone gets too confused!

That being said, English has its fair share of medical idioms that might not translate directly into the patient’s language either.

Some that may require further explanation include:

  • “Green Around the Gills” – to seem sick
  • To be “in good shape” – to be healthy
  • To be “in the pink” – another expression indicating good health
  • To “black out” – to faint

Again the same rules apply when explaining a medical idiom to a patient – if you can find an equivalent in their native language do so, otherwise explain plainly the meaning behind the phrase. The more direct you are about the meaning behind a health idiom, the less likely it is that important information gets left out of the discussion.

Training to Become a Medical Interpreter

Hospital interpreterThere’s much more to becoming a medical interpreter than understanding how to interpret medical idioms and expressions. While you may encounter some funny scenarios every once and a while when culture and language clash during your interpretation, more often than not you will interpret in serious and focused situations.

This requires knowledge not only of the target language, but of cultural differences in medicine, healthcare vocabulary and concepts, and of the various skills needed by interpreters on a daily basis.

Language Connections offers a 7 week, Medical Interpreter Training Course that is built to give students the knowledge and a basic foundation for becoming an interpreter.

The classes are conducted by working medical interpreters, and cover the following:

  • Interpreter ethics
  • Language training for medical vocabulary and concepts
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Example “real world” scenarios experienced by medical interpreters

8 language classes are offered in small group settings to encourage dialogue between students and coaches. Upon completion of the course, students obtain a certificate of completion which can be used as proof of training for job applications or to sit for the National Medical Interpreter Exam.

Understanding a funny idiom or saying is only part of the battle as a medical interpreter - you need to know how to act in the situation too. So make sure you don’t get caught in a silly (or embarrassing) mistake, sign up for our medical interpreter training today!

Expand your medical vocabulary by checking out our 7-week Medical Interpreter Training Program, designed to train participants to effectively communicate bilingual medical terminology.

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Yana Fisher

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