Tell me about your work as an interpreter.
November 12, 2010 9:18 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever worked as an interpreter, had experience working closely with interpreters, or used one yourself? I'm pondering quitting my boring, but unstressful part-time job to work as a Spanish medical interpreter, and am looking for inside stories of what the job may really be like.

I'm a full-time undergrad, planning to attend grad school full-time starting in September 2011. I have held the same well-paid part-time job for over two years, and although it isn't stressful and includes nice benefits (such as medical insurance), I'm really, really bored. It does look good on my resume, but is in no way related to the field I want to go into. I frequently feel frustrated by my job, as I don't feel that I'm doing anything productive (other than making money, which could be accomplished in other ways).

I'm a native English speaker, and have studied Spanish for over two years. I recently passed the first portion of my state's interpreter certification exam, and am fairly confident that I will pass the second (and final) part of it sometime in the next 6 months. I am interested in moving into this field, but because I am a student and my main focus in life right now is on completing school, I am concerned this job will turn out to be stressful or exhausting. This job would be related to the field I'm hoping to go into, it would be a pay-raise over my current job (although I honestly don't need the extra money at the the moment), and would look more impressive on my resume than my current job. There are also aspects of it that I know I would enjoy and find rewarding, unlike my current job... but there are also aspects of it that may make me feel much worse than my current job.

So, given this situation, I'm looking for more information about "the human side" of being an interpreter, and general advice on making a job-change in the near future.
posted by wansac to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak for medical interpreters, but I work with interpreters on a very regular basis as an attorney. I'm guessing that being a medical interpreter is not unlike being a courthouse interpreter: fast paced, difficult, and requiring a specialized vocabulary. The typical experience of being a courthouse interpreter seems to be that you're constantly wanted in three places at once. When you get there, you'll have a few minutes to do a rough translation for someone who will probably only sort of understand what's going on. During that time, the non-English speaker might well become confused and/or angry. The English speaker might become confused or angry, then someone will come yell at you to be some place else.

On the surface that sounds horrible, but it also sounds like my job as a public defender, and I love my job. I like the pace, I like working with people and feeling like I'm helping them, even if there are times I wish I could do a better job with them. Some of the interpreters I work with seem to enjoy their job, others don't. It seems stressful to me, but that's not always a bad thing.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:37 PM on November 12, 2010

Medical translation might be a little slower paced, depending on the setting. The bigger issue is that you will be dealing with sensitive issues and problems, and you need to be able to handle that. It will never be boring.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:44 PM on November 12, 2010

I helped my mom become an interpreter a few years ago and it's been a really successful career change for her. She bills more than 1k a day, doesn't work with agencies, and has traveled all over the world. However, she works REALLY hard to learn vocabulary and scientific or legal concepts, especially doing depositions etc. for large companies that use technical terms she doesn't know in either language. And it doesn't hurt that she was a bilingual doctor and entrepreneur for 20 years first.

The reason I'm telling you this is that the interpreting business is full of people like my mom-- native speakers of another language who have been speaking English for 30+ years. It'll be hard for you to compete with people like that. IMO the medical interpretation business (which is far less lucrative than private work) is incredibly difficult, due to the required vocabulary (BEYOND fluency), medical knowledge, and sensitivity.

That said, if you still want to do this, then I suggest you turn on the TV and try simultaneously interpreting the news or, better yet, some kind of medical show. If you don't feel pretty comfortable after a day or two I'm not sure if it's worth the effort for a short career.
posted by acidic at 11:16 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I work with medical interpreters all the time. I've mostly worked with Spanish, Arabic, and the transliteration specialist, which is something I didn't even know existed. And I'm going to tell you outright, I don't know any of the Spanish interpreters who didn't grow up speaking Central or South American Spanish. I think of our whole cohort there is or was one, since I haven't seen her in ages. You're in competition with people like the guy who was a doctor in Columbia and is being an interpreter while he saves up enough money before he does his new required residency here in the States. It's not just 'Spanish' - it's knowing colloquial terms in dialects from Argentina to Puerto Rico, and scientific terms and how to make those accessible.

Anyhow, I'm going to answer this now: this is what one could be doing as a medical interpreter, as through the experiences of my favorite interpreter C:
* coming to clinic and translating for patients in a room. This means you, the doctor, and the patient, maybe the patient's family, in a relatively low-stress but fast paced situation. This is pretty much also the case when there's an inpatient and the doctors want to discuss their case or care in the room - the doc grabs an interpreter (or the phone, if she's stuck) and does the interpretation nearly 1 on 1.
* being in the ER and translating there. Don't know much about this, but then there's also:
* being in (not-general-anesthesia) surgery or on labor and delivery, where everyone's stressed out and there may be a dozen people shouting back and forth in any given language.
* phone interpreting; when a patient calls, I can do a three-way call with the patient, myself, and an interpreter for any of hundreds of languages via AT&T, although we keep Spanish and Portuguese interps in house.
* in the community health clinic, doing a 'group' interpretation, like for child-care classes or contraception class - usually this means one or two English speaking presenters and a dozen or so learners.

There's probably other stuff I'm not 100% aware of. There's a growing amount of video interpretation in my area for some of the languages we don't have (any/enough) qualified interpreters for.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:29 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two years of study -- even for an "easy" language like Spanish -- does not sound nearly sufficient to move into interpreter work. You mention passing an interpreter's exam, but nothing about living or traveling in Spanish- speaking countries. Do you know different accents, slang and idioms, can you understand people if they're mumbling or upset or tired or angry? Do you understand nuances of words? Can you do this all at lightening fast speeds? There's no time to reach for a dictionary or even think about it for very long. There is also the specialized vocabulary if you are moving into a medical or legal field.

My boyfriend is a non-native English speaker and he can do all of these things in English when it comes to translating and iterpreting -- but after 25 years of using the language a decade of study. Through him I've met a lot of people from different countries. There is a strong correlation between their level of English proficiency and 1. the amount of time they've been learning and using the language and 2. the amount of time they've spent using it with native speakers -- i.e., living or traveling in those countries.

You may be succesful if you live in area with a dearth of Spanish speakers (i.e., you are better than nothing), but as acidic points out you're going to be competing against people who have been using both languages for decades.

Of course, I don't know you, so it may be possible that you're a language whiz. But I think before even attempting this, you need to give yourself some real-world tests -- even just turning on the TV as acidic suggests, but more ideally, going into the world and speaking with native speakers in non-classroom or test settings.
posted by unannihilated at 6:46 AM on November 13, 2010

should be "25 years of using the language AND a decade of study." I would also point out that he has spent extensive time in the States as well, using the language with native speakers.
posted by unannihilated at 6:47 AM on November 13, 2010

I agree that the points against you are:

- 2 years of study
- not native speaker
- native Spanish speakers are a dime a dozen in almost all of the US

Sorry to burst your bubble. :%
posted by k8t at 9:52 AM on November 13, 2010

Response by poster: Hi guys,

Thanks for your responses. I think I was a little unclear about my proficiency and experience. The exam I've passed is on specialized vocabulary. I currently work in a hospital and speak to patients in Spanish almost every day, so things like understanding "people if they're mumbling or upset or tired or angry" is something I'm very comfortable with at this point. I would rarely, if ever, actually feel that I need a dictionary, and have already done some interpreting between staff in my department and the families of patients. I watch Spanish TV and listen to Spanish radio programs (many of them about health topics) on a daily basis, in addition to the fairly intensive studying that I am doing in college. So the fact that I've only studied for two years may be a little misleading at this point. Spanish interpreters are in extremely high demand in my area, so I would be able to get work (although it may or may not be work I find that desirable).

My question is not about proficiency; I'm already aware of the requirements in this regard, because I've done extensive research on that aspect of it. The difficulty is that I haven't found much about what it is like to actually work as an interpreter, hence this question.

Thanks for all the input so far!
posted by wansac at 4:44 PM on November 13, 2010

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