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What to Expect!

Updated: Aug 14, 2018



It is exciting!  Medical interpreting has been a developing profession for more than two decades now. Many dedicated people have worked tirelessly to develop standards of practice, standards for medical interpreter training, codes of ethics, medical vocabulary glossaries and now: national certification! The time has come to take our place as a vital part of the medical team.

Medical interpreters are employed in various venues. These venues will often define our role both in the organization and as an interpreter. I began working in an official capacity as a medical interpreter over 16 years ago. I was hired by a Catholic hospital that spoke often about the organization’s core values of reverence, integrity, compassion and excellence. One of the subcategories of compassion in this organization is advocacy. I had just been trained in the Bridging the Gap course and came away thinking that I had to be really careful when taking on the role of advocate. This is a subject for another article, but it took me some years before I could get to a comfortable balance between doing what was expected of me as a Catholic Health Initiatives employee and staying within my boundaries as a professional medical interpreter.

In recent years, interpreting agencies have sprung up all over the country to meet the growing demand for competent medical interpreters. As medical interpreters we often feel we are working in a vacuum, regardless of the venue in which we work. This is perhaps felt even stronger amongst agency interpreters who work traveling from place to place, rarely having contact with a colleague. They frequently have little to no guidance or community. Where do I get my questions answered? How do I debrief from a difficult day? Why is register so important in my interpretations? What do I do if I do not know a specific word?


The first subject I want to cover is: What can you expect from your interpreter agency?

You have a language skill, you have a desire to work with the community, and it would be great if you could get paid for your services. You have contacted an agency and you are ready to go.  Let us talk a little bit about before you are hired. You should expect an interpreter agency to:

  • Ask you to provide proof of language proficiency in your language pair, and proof of medical interpreter training (the minimum standard is 40 hours), or to offer to arrange for this testing and training prior to sending you on assignments. The financial arrangement of who pays for this should be worked out between you and the agency owner. Ideally, you are given a copy of the language assessment and it is done by a third-party, neutral entity.

  • Not ask you to do something that would be apart from the role of the interpreter or something that would be considered unethical. If the client expects the interpreter to transport the patient to and from the appointment, that should be reported to the agency owner. The agency owner should back you up and not expect you to follow through with the client’s wishes.  The client is not always right, especially when the client is not educated on the role of the medical interpreter.

  • Understand if you turn down an assignment. Part of our code of ethics states we strive to maintain impartiality and we refrain from projecting personal biases or beliefs. I am particularly sensitive to issues of domestic violence. My personal beliefs and biases make it impossible for me to be impartial in this subject matter, therefore, I would not be an effective interpreter. Knowing your boundaries is part of being a professional and your agency should respect those boundaries and treat you as the professional that you are.

  • Give you details about the assignment. What procedure will be done, what is the diagnosis, who do I ask for when I arrive? Being a professional interpreter means that you arrive as prepared as you possibly can. If I know the patient will be having eye surgery, I will be sure to review eye anatomy and terminology. If I know the patient has polycystic kidney disease, I will make sure I know what it is and how to say it in the target language.

  • Understand if you are occasionally arriving late due to unforeseen circumstances.  In a related theme, the agency should not schedule you so tightly that you have no choice but to arrive late for the next assignment. We all know how medical appointments go.  At 8am we are reasonably sure it will start on time; at 3pm it is anyone’s guess!

  • Pay you in a timely and accurate manner and provide you with all appropriate tax documentation. Some people are contractors and others are employees so be sure you know which you are and the employment laws and tax implications of each.

  • Pay you a two-hour minimum, pay you for appointments cancelled with less than 1 business days’ notice, pay you for when you show up and the patient does not.

  • Support you in continuing education and obtaining national certification. Again, how much support you receive financially may depend on whether you are an employee or a contractor.  But we all need continuing education and national certification is essential for the profession to grow so if your agency is not keeping you abreast of opportunities to better yourself as an interpreter you will need to locate this information yourself.

  • Have you sign a contract outlining the business arrangement you will have with the agency.

So that brings me to the subject of what the interpreter agency should expect from you.  It is a two-way street and the contractor/employee has responsibilities as well. Here are some essentials for you to know:

  • If you are a contract employee, let your agency know as soon as you can regarding when you will be unavailable to work.

  • If you want to be paid on time, turn in your time sheets in a timely manner.

  • Be aware of dress codes and dress appropriately.

  • Arrive on time. Delays happen, but do not make it a habit of running late to assignments.  Plan to arrive 10-15 minutes ahead of time to give yourself a little wiggle room.

  • Maintain the boundaries of the medical interpreter. This, too, is a subject for another article, but you may find more information on this at the following link: http://data.memberclicks.com/site/ncihc/NCIHC%20National%20Code%20of%20Ethics.pdf

  • Work as harmoniously (within reason) with the client as possible. Remember you are representing your agency and the profession of medical interpreting. If you must lose your cool, lose it outside of the medical encounter and preferably outside the building! Report any difficulties to the agency owner.

  • Seek further training and national certification so that you are the best interpreter you can be. You may have contractual obligations to complete a certain number of CEUs per year. Here are some links to national medical interpreter certification bodies:

  • Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI)  http://www.healthcareinterpretercertification.org/

  • National Board for the Certification of Medical Interpreters (NBCMI)  www.certifiedmedicalinterpreters.org

As alluded to earlier, many of you will be contractors. There are advantages and disadvantages to this set up. Some advantages are:

  • Your schedule is your own. If you need to go out of town to care for your ailing mother, you have the freedom to do that.

  • You can turn down assignments if they will not fit into your schedule.

Some disadvantages are:

  • There is no guarantee of being given a set number of hours.

  • You will need to pay your own taxes.

  • Your assignments can be changed at a moment’s notice.

What about questions to ask the interpreter agency during the interview? Remember, they are interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Will you make me aware of professional development opportunities?

  • Will you train me before being sent to my first assignment? (For employees only. Contractors are expected to come to the job already prepared.)

  • Will you have someone shadow me and give me feedback on my interpreting ability? (Ditto as above. This is only for employees.)

  • What kind of ongoing training do you offer?

  • How often will I get paid and how do I pass in my time sheets?

Some additional points are:

  • Take note that the Industry Standard suggests and recommends a 2-hour minimum for Interpreting Sessions. Anything less just minimizes your services and ends up affecting the market as a whole. For instance, the more professionals accept jobs from institutions and companies for less than the 2-hour minimum, the less leverage WE as interpreters will have going forward when we wish to offer services at competitive rates and conditions.

  • If you are an employee, make sure that your liability as an interpreter is covered by Errors and Omissions insurance from the company with which you work. You would not want to be involved in a legal problem and not have the company you work with have the due coverage to protect you.

  • Maintain yourselves up-to-date with as many as many courses and certifications available to you. This opens up many doors!

  • Be impartial and objective at all times! Avoid confrontation or opinions of your own. This only brings trouble and looks bad on you. Do report any unprofessional situations to the agency with whom you work. These should be addressed from company to company and preferably not by you on a personal basis.

If you have proven language skills and are willing to get the training and certification required to interpret medically, this may be the profession for you.

Visit www.kitanonprofit.org to learn more about medical interpreting and local events.

Visit www.accesslanguagesolutions.org to learn more about our company.

Download this Article (PDF).

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