Medical Interpreters on a Different Stage

By Helen Eby

[Medical Interpreters on a different stage by Helen Eby]

March, 2015. I was sitting at home, talking with friends. Ring!

—Hello? This is Portland Public Schools. Could I talk to Helen Eby?

—Yes… That’s me…

—Are you available on April 16 to interpret for a Nobel laureate, Dr. Rigoberta Menchú, from Guatemala? Oh, please keep this totally confidential. We don’t want anyone to know about it except through us…


—Thanks! Oh, she doesn’t want to work with court interpreters.

—But… Uh… Well, I’m a court certified interpreter, but I do very little work there right now, and I’m mostly a medical interpreter trainer. I think my distinctive mark is advocacy for quality interpreting so that the limited English proficient speakers (LEPs) can have access to quality services, which she would understand.

—Thanks! If you could send me an email with this explanation as well as your budget, that would be great.

“And so started the adventure. I set out to research Dr. Menchú’s work.”

And so started the adventure. I set out to research Dr. Menchú’s work. I had been in Guatemala with the MV Logos, a missionary ship, just one year after the Guatemalan civil war had ended. As I read Dr. Menchú’s books, in preparation for interpreting, I remembered my time in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador back in 1987. The area was suffering. People were struggling with the concept of how to be at peace with each other. I remembered the military trucks driving around after the ceasefire. It was a privilege to interpret for Dr. Menchú as she brought a message of peace to Portland. She had overcome that struggle.

[Medical interpreters... - Helen Eby and Dr. Menchú]

Dr. Menchú and Helen Eby

The phone rang again.

—Helen, this will be a four hour assignment.

—Uh… For something that long, I need a team.

—We know that, so we will find a couple of people to work with you.

—I get to pick my partners. You want quality, and I want to be able to practice with my team ahead of time.

—OK, just let us know who they are.

OK! Now, it was time to find my partners! Medical interpreters who were awesome: certified, experienced in simultaneous interpreting, highly accurate in consecutive interpreting and reliable in front of an audience of 1500 people…

Jazmin! She can do it! Jazmin was ready. She’d been through a few adventures with me already.

Heidi! She was getting ready for the court exam, and was up for the task.

We got together, read about Dr. Menchú, and had a day on the stage.

We went through the agenda. We set it up so nobody would be interpreting for any two people who spoke in succession and we assigned a specific interpreter to each person who came to the microphone.

We planned what to wear.

We were invited to the school the day before, to run through the agenda. That day we took the opportunity to have a “dress rehearsal” on the stage, and we practiced speaking confidently to an empty hall for 1500 people.

“That day we took the opportunity to have a ‘dress rehearsal’ on the stage, and we practiced speaking confidently to an empty hall for 1500 people.”

We tested the sound on the stage, saying things like, “I like potato chips!” with clarity and confidence, just to break the ice and speak in the empty hall. While we did that, in turns, the others were standing halfway down the hall critiquing the clarity of our sound and diction. Why? In case the microphones failed.

We left, and in the parking lot, we had a D’Artagnan hug, “All for one and one for all!” We were a team. We were going to succeed or fail as a team. Actually, the plan was to succeed! But we were in this together. Nobody was the star.

The next day we went to the school to interpret. We were funneled through security from here to there, and enjoyed meeting Dr. Menchú as well as the people we were there to support. Each one of us immediately connected with the person we were assigned to interpret for and held a pre-session. All of them had a chance to talk about their presentations with us.

The first part was informal, with Dr. Menchú speaking to the students. We worked as a well-functioning team, responding to the need of the situation. I sat by Dr. Menchú, interpreting for her, and Heidi and Jazmin supported the English speakers in the room.

Then we went to the Green Room to get ready for the public part of the assignment, on the Jefferson High Auditorium stage.

—What is the Green Room?, asked Dr. Menchú.

—Well, it sure isn’t green… It’s the place where artists and speakers rest and get ready for their time on stage. I have no idea why they call it the Green Room!

[Medical interpreters... - Interpreting team]

Dr. Menchú and the interpreting team

On stage, it was time. The lights came on, cameras rolled, and the medical interpreters had to step out of the cubicle and into the limelight. There was no hesitation. We were professionals, doing what we were prepared for. Our colleagues were in the audience, and we knew it. It was rewarding to get compliments (not rotten tomatoes) on Facebook!

It was an exciting assignment. We did something special that day. But what so was special about it?

We put interpreting quality on display for the City of Portland to see.

It was clear to all that we were a team and were in this together. The team, of course, included the speaker and the school administration!

We showed that medical interpreters can be awesome!

Watch the show here!




[Helen Eby]

Helen Eby has been working in translation and interpreting since 1984. She has been participating actively in ATA, performing different roles for quite a few years, helping with the Spanish Language Division, the Business Practices Education Committee, and the Interpreters Division. She is also involved in the ASTM Standards for Translation. Of course, she keeps it real by keeping it local, working with the Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters in Oregon!

Image by PeteLinforth via
Photos kindly provided by Helen Eby

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1 comment

    • Katharine Allen on January 5, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Wonderful story and well written! Your story is a PERFECT example of how interpreters who get solid training and experience in all modes have access to such a wonderful and broad array of experiences. This kind of interpreting opportunity is actually pretty common and usually gets booked outside of traditional language companies and pathways. When universities, non-profits and other groups need interpreters they don’t know where to start so they start with local interpreters who are visible in phone books or online in some way. Thanks so much for sharing!

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