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Paths to Success in Medical Interpretation: An Interview with Professional Interpreter and Breaking Boundaries in Healthcare Instructor, Stephanie Wiley

Stephanie Wiley is a professional interpreter and instructor for the Breaking Boundaries in Healthcare® course. Stephanie was kind to sit down with us and share some of her insight on medical interpretation and tips for being a successful medical interpreter.

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How did you first become interested in medical interpretation?

I moved back to Atlanta after 2 years in Costa Rica and wanted a way to use my Spanish every day. I’ve always been driven by the need to do a job that really matters, something that has some sort of positive impact. This job gives me the opportunity to help people every day. You can actually see the relief on a person’s face when they realize that they will be able to communicate easily with their doctor. It’s so gratifying to be able to provide this service.

What is the hardest thing about a career in medical interpretation?

The most difficult thing about this career is also the most beautiful thing. As a medical interpreter, I am present in some of the most definitive situations of many people’s lives. I get to be in the room for the birth of a baby. But I’m also in the room when someone learns that their loved one has died in a tragic accident. I am a witness to people learning that they have cancer, but also when others learn they are in remission. I have the privilege of being present in moments of utter vulnerability, and I’m actually able to help.

It’s awe-inspiring to watch how people connect to each other in these moments. What an honor to be the person who sometimes facilitates this connection. Once I worked with a patient who had spent several nervous weeks awaiting test results. She was going to find out if the tumor that was growing in her body was cancerous or not. When the doctor told her that she had nothing to worry about and that the tumor was benign, tears welled up in her eyes. At first, I thought it was just relief, but then the patient said “No tengo familia aquí en este país. Esta semana, sentí que usted era como mi madre.”- “I don’t have family here in this country. This week it felt like you were my mother.” She was crying not only with relief but with gratitude for the support her doctor had provided her, and I was the lucky person who got to convey that message.

What advice would you give an aspiring medical interpreter?

Read medical articles, and study the vocabulary. Observe the words you don’t know, and then learn them. Prepare as best you can for as many things as possible. And after you’ve done all that, be humble. If you don’t know how to say something, admit it. Don’t just make something up to fill in the gaps.

Also, develop relationships with other interpreters. Have a person in your life that can listen to your stories and understand what you’ve seen. Someone that you can talk to about complicated vocabulary, but also someone who will understand what you mean when you talk about the stress of an emotional interpretation. And be that person to them.

In her book, Looking Beyond Bilingualism, M. Eta Trabing writes, “Having two languages does not make you an interpreter any more than having two hands makes you a pianist!” – What do you think she means by that?

I love this quote. So many people think that being an interpreter is the same as being bilingual. One time at a dinner party, someone asked me what I did. When I told him, he offhandedly responded, “Oh that must be so easy.” What he didn’t understand is that this job requires an enormous amount of precision. Getting every word right is so important. As an interpreter, you have to commit to making sure that you’ve delivered the original message as accurately as possible- even if it seems irrelevant, even if it’s rude, even if it’s redundant. And committing to that accuracy means that you have to develop a large vocabulary in (at least) two languages, extensive memory and note-taking skills, the mental agility to produce an utterance on the fly, and the ability to remain detached from the situation that you’re in. Doing this well takes so much practice. Learning to interpret is like learning to play the piano. It takes a lot of time to get to the point where you can do it gracefully.

What’s the most common mistake that new medical interpreters make?

Many new interpreters are afraid of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing. I feel like this is common anytime you start a new job, right? You feel like an imposter, and there’s this creeping fear that all your coworkers are on the verge of discovering that you don’t know anything at all. The worst mistake that you can make as a new interpreter is to make something up in an interpretation to avoid admitting that you don’t know how to say a word. I’ve heard so many horror stories of interpreters misinterpreting things altogether and causing a serious breakdown in communication to the detriment of both the patient and the provider. If you don’t know how to say a word, it’s ok to say that you need a moment to look it up, or to ask the original speaker to choose a different word. But changing the meaning of what was said is never ok. Give yourself grace! There’s no way you’ll know every word that ever existed and that’s ok.

What are the advantages of becoming certified?

I wanted to become a nationally certified interpreter for several reasons. First of all, it sets you apart in your field. It’s a good way to show employers that you are a capable and trustworthy interpreter. But I also wanted to prove to myself that I was capable. Getting this certification made me believe in my own abilities. Having your name in the registry of Certified Medical Interpreters will open so many doors for you in your career.

What has teaching the Breaking Boundaries in Healthcare course taught you?

Living in Costa Rica for a few years provided me with the ability to observe and learn from a culture that was very different from my own. This class expanded that opportunity tenfold. One of my favorite things about this class is that it’s open to students from all over the world. I’ve learned much just from listening to their stories. Teaching this class has been a really beautiful opportunity to learn about so many different cultures, and to hear different perspectives.

One of my favorite things to do in class is to start out with a question of the day. My favorite teacher used to do this. I go around the class and ask each student the same question, just to get people talking. Sometimes it’s as silly as, “If you could only ever eat one food again in your life, which one would it be?” It’s always really interesting to hear what they say. The week of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut and Nigeria last year, I felt this lingering, overwhelming sadness about the state of the human race. So I changed my plans for the question of the day and asked my students to talk about the things that made them feel hopeful about humanity. Their answers made me cry. One woman talked about how someone in her community had started a soccer team for refugee kids. Another person talked about a doctor who was able to get his patients to take their medications by explaining it within a cultural context that they understood. Teaching this class has given me the privilege of sitting down with a diverse and intelligent group of people regularly both to teach and to learn. I’m constantly grateful to be a part of this program.

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