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Medical translator bridges the gap

This is the first article in a new series called "On the job with," which highlights a different job each week.

There is no Russian word for prescription “refill” or “walker.”

So when dealing with her typical clientele -- aging Eastern European patients -- medical translator Veronica Larouche usually has to resort to using what she calls “Runlish,” a rough mixture of pidgin Russian and English.

It’s all in a day’s work for Larouche, who acts as a liaison between healthcare providers and often-bewildered Russian immigrants who are trying to navigate the busy corridors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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“I keep a log of expressions and terminology, because new treatments and diseases emerge all the time,” says Larouche, who is part of a translation team that provides assistance in over 35 different languages, ranging from Farsi to Mandarin to sign-language. “I was able to communicate with the physician and we quickly got him to the emergency room,” says Larouche. “Thank god he had an interpreter there at the time.”

Like all acute care hospitals, Brigham and Women’s Hospital is mandated to provide medical interpreters to non-English speaking patients. And fueled by the growing population of international newcomers, employment of interpreters and translators employment of interpreters and translators is expected to grow by 24 percent over the next decade, with high demand related to homeland security, as well as needs in the judicial and commercial sectors. Translators like Larouche can earn between $15-$20 per hour, with speakers fluent in Middle Eastern and North African languages needed most, along with Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, and French.

Q: You grew up in Waltham, and you’re of French-Canadian and Irish descent. How did you start speaking Russian?

A: I was in high school during the height of the cold war, and they taught Russian. I found it had a certain symmetry and beauty to it, yet was challenging, that’s why I liked it. I lived in Russia for three years, translating for a business school. I couldn’t do this job if I hadn’t lived there and learned the nuances of the culture.

Q: From what countries do your patients come?

A: Most are from Russia and Ukraine. I also see a fair amount of refugees from Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenians who came to America because of the civil war. I also have patients from satellite countries such as Bulgaria, and a few people from Israel who are more comfortable speaking Russian than English.

Q: Why use a medical interpreter - why not just a relative or friend?

A: A family member knows the patient better than anyone, but that can get problematic. An interpreter is an impartial party with no agenda. I’m the voice of the patient and provider.

Q: How does one become a medical interpreter?

A: It helps to have a bachelors or associate’s degree in humanities or science and some interpreting experience, whether volunteer or paid. Organizations such as the American Translator Association and the International Medical Interpreters Association can provide guidance.

Q: You’re not just an interpreter—you’re a cultural mediator and patient advocate. What are some misunderstandings that can occur?

A: The word “angina” in Russian means “tonsillitis.” So, for example, when Boris Yeltsin was sick in the ‘90s with tonsillitis, the interpreter mistakenly rendered the Russian word as chest pains in English. You have to be careful.

Q: So, how do you say “MRI” to a Russian patient?

A: The literal translation is “magnitni resonance,” but there still aren’t that many MRI machines in Russia, so patients would probably just use the American abbreviation, MRI. So, MRI is just that - MRI. That’s an easy one. But the term nephrogenic systemic fibrosis? Well, that’s another matter.


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