Blog 3: Medical Interpretation. ¡Hola! Soy Vivian, la intérprete.

“Gallbladder…gallbladder…what’s the Spanish word for gallbladder…” I wracked my brains, but somehow it seemed the word “gallbladder” had never appeared on a single one of my vocabulary flashcards from high school. Nor had I come across it in the great works of Cervantes, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or any other famous Hispanic writer I could think of. And it wasn’t like gallbladders had been a key element of discussion in any of my Hispanic Studies seminars. Go figure, right? Turns out the word for gallbladder in Spanish is “vesícula biliar.” Vesícula biliar?! I groaned when I saw that one. It was going to be a mouthful to remember. Embarrassingly, only a whole three weeks later after the incident did it occur to me, completely out of the blue, the logic behind this term—“vesícula,” meaning “vesicle,” and “biliar,” indicating “for bile.” Ah. Absolutely brilliant. I won’t be forgetting that one any time soon.

If you read my previous blogs, you’ll know that I had been shadowing a professional medical interpreter at the Virginia Department of Health for several days, and now for the rest of the summer I was using what I learned from that experience to try and do some volunteer interpreting of my own, once a week. My experience volunteering at Loudoun County Free Clinic has been one of my favorites this summer so far.

Almost everyone at the clinic was a volunteer, and so I found the atmosphere to be more relaxed than at the VDH. Patients were there for a much broader variety of reasons than at the family planning clinic—there were patients with arthritis, thyroid problems, Bell’s palsy, general back pain, and even a woman who had been burping chronically for a year (they still have absolutely no idea why). For the first couple of times, I shadowed the other interpreters and tried to practice in my head how I would translate each time the patient or doctor spoke. It is a challenge to remember everything the patient or doctor says, especially if they begin to monologue their instructions or speak on various tangents. I wanted to try to emulate Mrs. Carrión, the professional interpreter, who had a talent at mentioning every detail with as much accuracy as possible.

After my first day, I went home and found a list of medical terminology that I thought might be useful to know. Some of it definitely came in handy when I least expected it! It really does get a little easier with practice, though, partly because my brain would begin to recognize common medical phrases, or because I would pick up tips on how to elicit vocabulary that I was familiar with. For instance, when asking “how does the pain feel?” I might at first receive a complicated response involving adjectives I hadn’t heard before. This was initially frustrating, because I knew that if a trained interpreter had been available, they could have understood the patient much better than I did. But sometimes, it wasn’t even my lack of Spanish that was at fault—the interpreters emphasized to me that the patients are from many different countries, and so often one word in one country is completely different from the same word in another country.

I soon figured out that to make sure there was a solid understanding, I could try a method like suggesting a few options to the patient—“maybe burning? A stabbing pain? Itching? Something else?” so that the patient could agree or disagree with a word I was certain about, and then elaborate from that starting point. There were a few instances when I felt disappointed in my interpreting skills, but at some point as a volunteer you have to realize that you are doing the best you can, and that you might be the patient’s only option, especially if you are the only interpreter available that day. Other times, however, I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I could see myself effectively getting a message across, especially when the patients thanked me later for my help.

In terms of the overall social dynamic, another Loudoun County Free Clinic interpreter estimated that about 75% of the incoming patients were Hispanic, but that also means about a quarter were not. Among the medical, interpreting, and registration staff, there were mainly whites and Hispanics, but also South Asians, East Asians, and African Americans. There were only a few instances when one particular nurse made a couple of stereotypical comments, such as “remember, some of these Hispanics just keep rambling and you have to cut them off before they recount every tortilla they’ve eaten for lunch!” Perhaps she didn’t realize it, but her comments were homogenizing an entire group of people. I mean, come on—not every Hispanic rambles, and not every Hispanic eats tortillas non-stop.

But really, other than those instances, there was a remarkable fluidity and sense of respect that was not disturbed by any racial differences, and many of the people I met were incredibly kind. I am glad that I got the experiences I did at the VDH and Loudoun County’s free clinic. Above all, it gave me a chance to get to know and understand some members of the Hispanic population in a way that I had never experienced before.


  1. epszymanski says:

    Vivian, this project is amazing. I’ve also spent time this summer volunteering at a free clinic, which exposed me to all of the effects that a language barrier can have. I don’t know any Spanish, and I felt bad whenever a Spanish speaker would come up to the front desk, or call on the phone, and I couldn’t help them. I got very good at saying “no hablo Espanol, un momento” and then going and getting someone who could actually communicate with the patient. There is a huge need for interpreters, and I felt useless every time I had to say “unfortunately not” when someone asked me if I spoke Spanish. I wish now that I had taken a more practical language than Latin…
    Because of those experiences, I really admire you for going and becoming an interpreter, and also for approaching it with such professionalism and with such good intentions. This is a very timely and important topic, and you’ve made some great observations!

  2. Kelly Watson says:

    This is a great experience, Vivian! I thought the idea of giving patients suggestions for describing their pain was very clever.
    Communication in Spanish has been on my mind this summer as well. I spent a month in Honduras and while I didn’t have to speak a lot of Spanish, I noticed that they have very different accents when compared to people from, say, Puerto Rico. You mentioned people from different countries having different vocabulary, but what about accents? Was it ever a problem for you? Just wondering. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  3. valentinams says:

    Vivian, this is indeed a wonderful project and an even more wonderful service that you are performing. I can even say that I relate to this topic on a personal level: the first few times I visited a hospital in USA was also my first summer in the country, and I can recall how difficult it was for either me or my mother to communicate with the doctors… No matter how good my English skills were, medical terminology, even as simple as the names of different childhood diseases, was not something that I had learned with my tutor back in Russia (which seems to be a regrettable shortcoming of foreign language education: if the goal is to allow a student to do alright in a foreign country, then some knowledge of medical terminology is most appropriate). So I can appreciate how valuable your help is to the patients. It is necessary to say that even in cases where you had difficulties with translation, your very presence in the clinic was still beneficial, because it gave Hispanic patients a proof of attainable medical care.

  4. Vivian, your project sounds great! At my day job I’ve been collecting grad school contact information for my office to send out publications, and I’ve looked into quite a few public health master’s programs…it’s a really interesting area of the health profession that I think gets overlooked by a lot of college students who just decide they want to be doctors. Way to put your Spanish to really good use helping the public! Are you keeping a journal or anything to record your experiences? Looking forward to seeing your project!


  5. Vivian,

    I absolutely love your project! I can’t imagine how intimidating and stressful it must have been to have a patient’s health on the line when trying to overcome a language barrier. On the other hand, I’m sure your Spanish improved immensely =) I’d love to hear more about the cultural aspect of your experiences this summer… comments like the one you mention towards the end must have been pretty commonplace, and I’m sure you saw a lot of stereotyping in action on both sides of the clinic. Fascinating research – I’m so impressed!