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Medical translator bridges the gap

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  March 17, 2009 10:00 AM

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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.

“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.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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11 comments so far...
  1. Medical interpreters are definitely one of the unsung heroes in health care. A good interpreter is worth their weight in gold and makes a significant impact in providing quality care.

    Posted by egomaniac March 17, 09 12:58 PM
  1. It's pretty sad that they only make $15-$20 per hour. Linguistic ability is so undervalued in this culture.

    Posted by felixzeiler March 17, 09 07:57 PM
  1. This is a great reason why English should become our official language and why immigrants should be REQUIRED to learn it before becoming citizens.

    Posted by Wednesday35 March 17, 09 08:06 PM
  1. Brigham and Women's should not be MANDATED to provide translators. Immigrants should be MANDATED to learn English!!!

    Posted by Celeste March 17, 09 08:08 PM
  1. This job shouldn't exist because hospitals shouldn't be MANDATED to provide them. The immigrants coming to this country should be REQUIRED to speak, read and write English before becoming citizens.

    Posted by Wednesday35 March 17, 09 11:45 PM
  1. Very True, about Medical Interpreters. I have also heard of a company that offers over the phone medical interpretation in 170 languages, for institutions that do not have the funds to hire an onsite interpreters. I heard they have pretty reasonable rates also. Visit to learn more.

    Posted by Bob March 18, 09 11:35 AM
  1. wow some ignorant comments here........hope you never get sick on vacation to another country and need help!
    but that wouldnt happen, you people would not leave the comfort of your white bread xenophobia.
    People who only speak one language..I pity your ignorance.There is a big world out there...the US is not thecenter of the universerve!!!!!!

    Posted by kxs March 18, 09 03:00 PM
  1. These people are not getting sick while they are on vacation here. They come to live among us, they become citizens and do not speak English. Please make English our OFFICIAL language.

    Posted by Margarita Vazquez March 19, 09 05:21 PM
  1. Why English be the official language? Why not the Indian from the Native Indians? Just because Englishmen came and occupied this country doesn't mean this is the center of universe! So many ignorant in US. This crisis will put them to their place a be less full of themselves.

    Posted by Emily April 11, 09 11:38 PM
  1. Even native english speakers have trouble understanding doctors. A non-native speaking patient who speaks good enough english to get by on a day-to-day basis may not be familiar with the hospital jargon that confuses a lot of people. Or just as bad a case, non speakers who bring friends/family who translate incorrectly for them.

    Posted by Anonymous April 16, 09 12:07 PM
  1. Hey Emily, we "Englishmen" (and women) civilized this continent... I'm sure you can go back to living in a teepee if you really want to though. And this "crisis" was caused by the immigrants and illegals lining up for handouts from "President" Hussein Obama... guess he looks after his own.

    Posted by marka243 April 16, 09 09:38 PM

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