Medical Interpreter Accuracy

What exactly is accuracy when interpreting? This might seem like an obvious question, but it is more complicated than you realize.  Why do I say that?

The challenge of identifying a competent interpreter

For individuals that speak one language, trying to determine an interpreter’s accuracy is a great challenge. The best approach is to hire a certified healthcare or medical interpreter.  These professionals have demonstrated that they possess the minimum standards of proficiency, just as nurses must pass the National Board.  However, monolinguals often follow a few common guidelines that may assist them in making that judgement. Do they really work? Let’s see.

Interpreting word-for-word

People are often told to observe if the interpreter seems to be rendering verbatim. It is falsely believed that “word for word” ensures a precise rendition of the information In fact, interpreting verbatim often leads you away from a precise rendition.  The complexity of language includes grammar, syntax, semantics, and false cognates.  Often, the same word, although correct, might evoke a different mental image or understanding.

  1. Grammar and Syntax
    • In English, typically the direct object pronoun follows the verb
    • In Spanish, typically the direct object pronoun precedes the verb
    • The passive voice is structured differently in each language

Sentences may be reversed; a complete reworking of the sentence structure is needed. This alone makes it impossible to interpret verbatim and conserve accurately.  A backwards sentence loses its meaning in the target language.

  • False Cognates
    • These words sound like English terms but have completely different meanings, e.g. carpeta does not means carpet or rug; its translation is folder
    • If an interpreter seems to employ vocabulary that seem almost like the English version with the same sentence structure, he is likely doing a terrible job and committing critical errors
  • Semantics
    • A web is woven by a spider to catch food, and a net is used by fishermen to catch fish; both are also technical terms used synonymously with Internet
    • A juicy burger will make our mouth water and whet our appetite; its Spanish cognate equivalent means rich in nutrition value (let’s convey the same message in Spanish with delicious)

The argument I provide with three examples of grammar and syntax, false cognates, and semantics demonstrates that certified interpreters utilize their language expertise to reformulate the message into the target language with precision.

Concise Answers

It is often considered a serious red flag if the interpreter conveys an answer with one word or a brief statement when you observe the LEP patient speak for at least one or two minutes.

  • Interpreters must relay the entire message without summarizing or paraphrasing
  • If you perceive this occurring, my recommendation is to conclude the appointment and locate a certified healthcare or medical interpreter


People also seek transparency to verify an interpreter’s qualifications. You should never see an interpreter having a private or side conversation with the LEP patient unless the interpreter has asked permission of the healthcare professional.  Is this true? Absolutely!

  • The interpreter’s function is to serve as a conduit of information; all statements in both languages must be conveyed for the sake of clarity
  • A professional interpreter relays all the information in both directions, also establishing impartiality and removing doubt
  • Unprofessional interpreters break the code of ethics when offering medical or legal advice to patients, casting suspicion upon the interpreting profession

We considered three common methods to establish if the interpretation is complete and true: verbatim, abbreviating, and transparency.  You can now understand that verbatim interpreting is inaccurate and can distort the source message.  Additionally, one or two minutes of speech cannot be interpreted with a concise rendition.  Finally, transparency generates trust among all persons in the interpreter’s vital, unbiased role. I urge you to opt for certified healthcare interpreters who have proven they possess the minimum standards of proficiency and knowledge of both terminology and ethics.

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2 thoughts on “Medical Interpreter Accuracy”

  1. That is so true. I have had medical professionals tell me that they would give an explanation of a procedure wich could take 2-3 minutes, some just give a 30 second translation. They tell me that they don’t trust those interpreters because they are a danger to patients care and recovery.

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