With rates under increasing pressure from globalization and other trends, many translators are turning to specialization. But the leap is not always easy.
BY QUYEN NGO
This article was inspired by recent postings from several NCTA members inquiring about transitioning into certain fields, and the respective pay rates that one might expect. In today’s general translation marketplace, with more competition and lower pay, translators are looking to focus their content expertise, and specifically in the specialized fields of medical and legal interpreting.
Many translators and interpreters are what I would call generalists. A random peek into their profiles shows the ability to work in a variety of fields, ranging from finance, engineering, and education to telecommunications, law, medicine, and science. These professionals tend to work on a few projects in each area, allowing them to (justifiably) tout the range of their capabilities.
Other translators and interpreters, however, specialize in one or two fields at the most. A specialist can be a generalist, but not vice versa: even the slightest interpreting errors in fields such as medicine and law can have grave consequences for the limited English-proficient (LEP) client. As an interpreter in these two highly specialized disciplines, I know that success requires significant dedication, study, and training. It can take anywhere from four to six years to be a proficient interpreter in either of these fields.
The best medicine
Working as a medical interpreter, I am of course well-versed in medical terminology but am also familiar with many medical procedures as well. When a doctor gives an NOP order, I know exactly what that is (no oral products). When a patient requests a DNR order, I also know that he does not want to be resuscitated in a life-threatening circumstance. It’s not reasonable to expect a translator who doesn’t have such training—a generalist—to walk into a medical interpreting setting and be able to know what these terms refer to.
Other times, the medical translator specialist will be required to work in emotional and stressful conditions such as emergencies or life-and-death situations. There was an occasion where I interpreted a religious prayer conducted by a hospital chaplain for a terminally ill patient. This event had nothing to do with medical interpreting, yet of course it was an important part of the job.
Rules of law
In the field of legal interpreting, many will find the compensation fairly good. Legal interpreting is one of the most comprehensive interpreting fields in that it requires broad knowledge of numerous other subfields. For example, family and probate law will require knowledge of financial terms. Criminal cases will require knowledge of science and medicine pertaining to forensic evidence. Civil suits involving worker’s compensation or personal injury will require knowledge of medical, vehicle, and insurance terms. Immigration, small claims, juvenile, and other specialized areas all have their own terminology. And, needless to say, courtroom interpreting can be challenging and intensive when opposing lawyers, witnesses, and judge are all talking at once.
When generalists take on the work of specialists without the proper training, few of them will be able to render acceptable translations or interpretations. Once, a medical glossary translated by a generalist provided me with incredulous comic relief. The term athlete’s foot was literally translated as “the foot of an athlete”; hives was translated as “disease of beehives”; and speed (methamphetamine) was translated as “velocity.”
The client comes first
A generalist may go into a medical or legal interpreting setting believing that he can render an interpretation without the adequate training, and thinking that no one will know if he makes an interpretation error, but this may not be the case. I have known of some interpreters being sent away in the middle of a job for poor performance.
On one occasion, I provided interpretation for a couple whose child was hospitalized. At the end of the session, the father posed several questions to the doctor in perfectly good English. I inquired afterwards why they needed my services if the father was proficient in English. The father answered that my services were for the benefit of the mother, who did not understand English; that even though the father’s English was good, it did not mean that he could accurately interpret for his wife. They were more comfortable employing an interpreter. Another time, while interpreting in a deposition, the client, client’s attorney, and I all spoke the same native language. If an interpreting error was made, the client’s attorney would definitely have noticed.
Some generalists will accept assignments that they are not qualified to do for financial reasons. I view being a translator or interpreter as a noble profession that is rewarding in so many ways. We are the conduits that enable LEP clients to have fair access to a number of services that might not have been possible because of language barriers. Without them, we wouldn’t be working. Therefore, we owe it to them to be properly trained and qualified so that we can deliver the exceptional service that they deserve.