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How to Maintain Accuracy In Medical Interpreting

medical interpretation

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High stakes and censorship in medical interpreting

Accuracy is often one of the first cannons in interpreters’ codes of ethics, and there is a good reason for it: in order to trust the interpreter, both parties have to know that their message will be rendered faithfully.  On the face of it, this makes absolute sense – all you have to do is interpret everything you hear exactly as it’s being said.

However, in practice, interpreting is fraught with challenges – including those that may affect accuracy. To help with this, we have prepared a helpful list of tips on ensuring accuracy in medical interpreting.

Beware of idioms! 

We all know that literal translation isn’t always the best translation. This is especially true when it comes to idioms and other examples of figurative languagesuch as phrasal verbs. The thing about such figures of speech is that, quite often, their meaning cannot be understood from interpreting each individual part of such phrases – you have to treat each figure of speech as a whole. Consider this: would these phrases make sense if they are interpreted into your working language(s) literally, or word for word?

  • a game plan
  • rule of thumb
  • between a rock and a hard place
  • the early bird catches the worm 
  • to cost an arm and a leg

When interpreting idioms, be strategic and either find an appropriate equivalent in your working language(s), or interpret the meaning behind the idiom or other figure of speech.

Don’t censor rude language 

Sometimes the message interpreters have to render into another language contains language that is less than polite.  Rendering harsh words, critical opinions or expressions of frustration may be uncomfortable business. However, according tothe National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care, “The interpreter renders all messages accurately and completely, without adding, omitting, or substituting. For example, an interpreter repeats all that is said, even if it seems redundant, irrelevant, or rude.” So, if an interpreter finds themselves struggling with interpreting something rude, it might be helpful to remember that they aren’t the ones saying these words – they are simply doing the job of facilitating communication between parties, without changing the content or making judgements about its quality.

Don’t ‘clean up’ an unclear message 

The example from the National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care cited earlier in the article mentions interpreters repeating everything that is said – even those parts that may seem redundant or irrelevant. Some examples of this could be somebody answering a simple yes/no question with a long rambling story, or speaking incoherently using unconnected words (‘word salad’). While it might seem reasonable to pick out only the pertinent information, or try to order an incoherent speech segment into something more comprehensible, doing so would violate the accuracy cannon. So, once again, interpret everything, change or omit nothing.


As interpreters strive to interpret everything accurately and completely, they should remember that literal translation is not always the best translation and that, no matter how difficult or incoherent a message is, interpreting it exactly as it is said is the most ethical thing to do. After all, as Jim Rohn, a prominent motivational speaker once said, “Accuracy builds credibility.”

If you’d like to understand our healthcare and medical interpreting options better, you can visit our Medical Interpretation page.

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As technological innovations emerge at a rapid pace, we’re living in an increasingly interconnected world. Breakthroughs in transportation and telecommunications have allowed us to engage with people from different corners of the world and this newfound interconnectedness has revolutionized global interactions. But as the world gets smaller, language barriers bring an additional layer of challenges to cross-cultural engagements.