Guest Post With Catie Street: A Participant's View of SimLab Healthcare Interpreting Intensive
Updated: Apr 10
In January 2020 I attended SimLab’s Interpreting Intensive for Healthcare Interpreters in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The experience was challenging, reinvigorating, and unique… so unique, in fact, that when reflecting on how to approach this blog post, I found myself at a bit of a loss. Despite repeated efforts from the left side of my brain to impose some structure, the right side of my brain kept shouting about sphygmomanometers, Grey’s Anatomy, Zapotec, and unlimited supplies of coffee and collegiality. You can probably guess which side won that battle. So, I invite you to breathe in the bougainvillea, sip some citrus water, and enjoy this winding path.
First, an unsung hero: a sphygmomanometer. What’s that you say? You don’t know what a sphygmomanometer is? Wait, I thought you spoke English.
Sorry, bad joke…Just a nod to the training and preparation that it takes to be a healthcare interpreter, above and beyond “being bilingual.”
A sphygmomanometer is a blood pressure monitor, usually the type with an arm cuff. To my delight, one of the doctors that participated in our interpreting encounter “simulation” used one on my partner. I almost laughed out loud when he looked at the result and shook his head with feigned concern.
Speaking of heroes--we couldn’t have done it without the local Mexican healthcare professionals that generously donated their time in working with us. In a typical interpreter training activity, two interpreters sight-translate (read out loud into the target language) a pre-written doctor-patient dialogue. Here, two interpreters acted out the roles of interpreter and patient, together with a doctor, in order to simulate an actual triadic encounter. Though sight translation is a valid training exercise, a simulated triadic encounter such as this is leaps and bounds ahead in terms of authenticity and efficacy.
But, let me take a step back. I should mention that, above and beyond actively “role-playing” the triadic encounter between doctor, interpreter, and patient, all parties had to do their research beforehand. The doctors provided sample clinical histories, and the participant playing the role of the patient had to use that information to generate a realistic character, as well as prepare for the doctor’s unscripted questions about “her” family history, medical history, symptoms, and medications. We participants received multi-page documents including information such as this:
(Why don’t you immediately understand what this indicates? I thought you spoke Spanish.)
When I first looked at the document, I thought of a common scene from Grey’s Anatomy in which the attending asks the resident to verbally summarize the patient’s clinical history on the spot. The actors make it look easy, but it’s not. Reading and understanding medical jargon and shorthand, lab results, and other clinical information written by doctors for doctors is extremely challenging. That’s part of what made this exercise so beneficial. Digging into dense medical texts such as these can only better prepare us for real healthcare interpreting encounters, because we need to understand the content being discussed in order to successfully interpret the message.
Did I mention Zapotec?! Zapotec is one of many indigenous languages spoken in Mexico, and, fortuitously, three Zapotec interpreters participated in the training. This was special for many reasons. As a Spanish<>English interpreter based in Boston, I personally have limited exposure to interpreters of indigenous languages, and could only imagine some of the unique challenges they may face. One such challenge I learned about during this training is that a concept that can be expressed in one or two words in Spanish may require an entire phrase in Zapotec, so a Zapotec interpreter has to speak for a greater length of time to convey the same message faithfully. We interpreters saw how this played out when we performed relay interpreting in one of the sessions. (Briefly: Relay Interpreting involves a human “language chain” and includes at least two interpreters. In our case, the chain went like this: “Doctor” (English speaker) – Interpreter A (English<>Spanish) – Interpreter B (Spanish-Zapotec) – Patient (Zapotec). The message is transmitted from the doctor to patient and back via TWO interpreters, because there is no single interpreter available with the exact language pair of English<>Zapotec. ¿Qué padre, no?)
Lastly: coffee and collegiality. The coffee provided was local, delicious, and much appreciated, but more importantly, the coffee breaks afforded participants an opportunity to get to know each other and ask off-the-record questions. Healthcare interpreters don’t normally see each other on a day-to-day basis, so opportunities to bond and commiserate are invaluable. Building and maintaining a sense of community is important to our well-being as professionals, and as a profession.
There was a wonderful sense of collegiality during the scheduled sessions themselves, as well. SimLab provided us an opportunity to collaborate directly with colleagues that share the same or overlapping language combinations as us. Interpreters provided support specific to their partners' own goals, so learning was self-driven. We also discussed complicated scenarios productively and transparently in structured sessions. As a result, I for one left Cuernavaca as a better interpreter, and imagine fellow participants would feel the same.
Thanks for wandering. If you’re up for more, you can explore your own SimLab trails online this July!
Catherine M. Street is a freelance Spanish<>English interpreter and translator based in Boston. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and a Business Administration Minor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as a Master’s of Arts in Spanish from the University of Georgia. Catherine has wide-ranging professional experience, including in the financial services and pharmaceutical industries. She holds a Massachusetts Initial License for teaching Spanish and currently teaches a course called "Spanish for Healthcare Professionals" on a part-time basis. In her free time, Catherine enjoys traveling, exercising, and reading. Connect with her on LinkedIn!