What Is Medical Interpreting? A Short Guide

what is medical interpreting a short guide

One of the sub-branches of medical translation is medical interpreting.

While it’s not a common niche, the rise of COVID-19 and other diseases (Monkey Pox…etc), has increased the need for medical translation services including interpretation.

So what is medical interpretation? And when and why do businesses need it? Keep reading to find out the answers to these questions and more.

What is medical interpreting?

A category within medical translation, medical interpreting is the process of helping non-speakers of a certain language communicate with their doctors, nurses, and caregivers.

Generally, interpretation involves translating conversations on the spot.

Aside from medical interpreting and pre-COVID, interpreters were a common staple in international conferences. In those conferences, heads of state and CEOs from different parts of the world attended but needed someone to translate what the speaker was saying into their language.

In the medical field, things get more complicated because the medical interpreter needs to be quick on their feet with medical experience so they can translate doctor-and-patient conversations.

Medical interpretation vs medical translation

You’re probably wondering about the differences between medical translation and medical interpreting.

While there are similarities, there are notable differences.

Unlike translation where the medical translator has enough time to read, review, and translate the document before them, medical interpreting comes with its own set of challenges.

Medical interpreting can involve one or more of the following:

–        Simultaneous translation: This means the interpreter listens to one party or person and then translates what they said to the second party. Imagine an interpreter standing in a patient’s room and translating what the patient is saying to their doctor and vice versa.

–        At-sight translation: This is where the interpreter is tasked with reading a medical report or document and then translating the content instantly without having to write anything down.

–        Consecutive translation: This is fairly similar to simultaneous translation but usually involves two people having a conversation. In consecutive translation, one person says one or two sentences and gives the interpreter the chance to relay what they have said.

In simultaneous translation, the interpreter doesn’t get this opportunity to have the first part wait for them.

Interpreters would often receive the basic information of a speech or seminar and translate what’s being said as it’s being said.

What should you look for in a medical interpreter?

Medical interpreters need to have the skills of medical translators and other interpersonal skills that help them perform their job better.

what should you look for in a medical interpreter
what should you look for in a medical interpreter?

Here are the prerequisites of a medical interpreter:

–  Great communication skills

Medical interpretation involves lots of conversation, often in less-than-pleasant circumstances. That’s why a good medical interpreter is one who understands the importance of communication and boasts great communication skills.

They must be formal and respectful, especially towards cultural differences, while avoiding being aloof or insensitive.

They should also be able to read body language cues for non-verbal communication.

– Familiar with medical terminology

Medical terminology is complex but medical interpreters need to be familiar with it as much as possible because their work relies on the instant rendering of conversations.

That’s why it’s best to find a medical interpreter with a background in medicine, dentistry, nursing, or pharmaceuticals.

– Has medical experience

Working with a medical interpreter with previous experience at hospitals or medical facilities is a great asset.

They are more aware of the hustle-and-bustle of emergency rooms – which is where many medical interpreters are needed – and they’ve had experience dealing with patients.

– Fluent in two languages

There’s no doubt that in translation and interpretation, fluency in two languages is of the utmost importance. Medical interpreting is no exception.

Medical interpreters need to be able to understand the speaker so they can relay their problems and needs to their doctors or medical professionals.

Being fluent in only one language and intermediate in the other can cause problems that may negatively affect both the patient’s and the doctor’s decisions.  


Medical interpreting is by far the most complex service in the list of medical translation services. Companies that need medical interpreters can work with agencies or individual or freelance interpreters.

However, as is the case with most elements of medical translation, medical interpreters are a rare breed. Accordingly, the cost of medical interpreting services is relatively high.