A big thanks to Tricia Perry, editor of Caduceus for letting us share this wonderful article! It originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue and spotlights our very own Cristina McDowell. Stories like hers are great for helping consumers of interpreting services understand everything that goes into being a professional. Enjoy!
Lorena Ortiz Schneider, e-Voice Editor
I was born and raised in Barcelona, Spain. My father came from the Canary Islands and my mother from a town in the Pyrenees, so I grew up hearing both Spanish and Catalan. However, my love for languages started during our long summer vacations on the coast of Spain, also a destination for many sun-seeking Northern Europeans. I used to make friends with children from other countries like Belgium, Germany, England, The Netherlands and France. I was absolutely fascinated with their languages and their songs. In school the first foreign language I learned was French, later replaced by English. Since I had family in London I would spend some of my teenage summers there learning the language.
Later on in high school I took Latin and Greek and at that time I discovered that I loved to translate. I was passionate about deciphering the meaning of the texts and diving into the dictionaries, mesmerized by the usage of the same word in different expressions and finding out which one fit like the magical key to unlock the hidden meaning of a particular sentence. When it was time to make a decision about college I still was not thinking of translation as a professional career since I was not aware that such a career existed.
When I finished high school I spent a summer in Majorca with a good friend at her parent’s house. One night we were unfortunately involved in a severe car accident and I had to be admitted to the hospital in Palma because of an injury to my neck. Considering the circumstances, it was miraculous that it did not have a worse outcome. The reality was that I had to spend 4 days with my spine immobilized on a hospital bed and this seemed bad enough given the alternative of swimming leisurely in the pristine waters of Cala Murada with my friends. I was not allowed to be in any position other than on my back, so it was painful on my kidneys and, above all, boring. After spending my first day looking at the ceiling, a 16-year-old Dutch girl was brought to my room and put in the bed next to mine. She had been in a serious motorbike accident and had fractured her hip. In spite of our misfortune I was happy to share the room with her. I still remember vividly that she could not speak any Spanish at all, but she could speak some English. My English was not great by any means, but it seemed the right thing to know at that right time, since the nurses that took care of her could not speak either English or Dutch. As a professional interpreter it is awkward to admit that even though I was an immobilized patient without any professional training, I became an ad-hoc interpreter between hospital staff and the Dutch girl. I was very happy that I was able facilitate their communication until the girl could be stabilized and flown back to the Netherlands in a stretcher. I still had no knowledge that medical interpreting was a real way of making a living.
After that eventful summer I was going to start law school without a lot of conviction when a friend of mine told me that there was a brand new school of translation and interpretation studies at the Universidad Autonóma of Barcelona. They offered a three-year program and I thought this was a dream come true. I also spent a year in West Berlin and even though I was exposed to several languages in my childhood, German became the first language I was really fluent in apart from Spanish. So I graduated with a degree in English and German translation in 1984.
After graduation, I could not find full time work as a translator so I had a series of jobs, the most enjoyable of them being in the medical department of a pharmaceutical company (Organon Española) where I enjoyed working on writing the medical newsletter for the sales force. I also worked in an advertising agency and a bank while I finished a program in Marketing Management.
The year in which my life was going to radically change was 1992. The Olympic Games were held in Barcelona and they attracted not only tourists but professionals from other parts of the world. This is when I met my husband; he is an architect and came to the city to work on a project. We got married and we came to Philadelphia, where I have been living since 1993. I did not have much interest in going back to the banking industry and I started to teach Spanish as a second language both in the private sector and later on at the Wharton Business School for six years through an agency. It was the first time that I worked with the language itself and I enjoyed it a great deal. I joined ATA around that time and I became aware of all of the other possibilities for work, so I became a freelance translator working with the language pair English>Spanish. I would translate documents such as hospital bills of rights, letters of enrollment and coverage for medical insurance companies, webpages, packaging, promotional materials, museum signage, materials for focus groups, standards of business practices for pharmaceutical companies, employee applications, codes of conducts, hotel brochures, surveys, student assessments, a magazine for a missionary order, airline menus, media outreach campaigns for the pharmaceutical industry, and children’s comics for a leading company. Even though I did a little bit of everything, it was recommended that I find a specialization or two and also a sub-specialization if possible, and I realized that what I enjoyed the most was the medical field.
After several years as a freelance translator, I wanted to work out of the house again and to specialize. I needed training to become an interpreter so I enrolled in the Bridging the Gap certification course, still in serious doubt as to whether interpreting in the real world could be for me or, being honest, whether I would be any good at it without the luxury of having the time to research terminology, draft and polish a sentence. Practicing with the book The Interpreter’s Rx by Holly Mikkelson gave me the necessary confidence to launch myself into the ring and start interpreting in consecutive and simultaneous mode. She was my savior.
I also took an online medical translation course at NYU and I learned a great deal from a book called The Language of Medicine by Davi-Ellen Chabner. I became a freelance Spanish interpreter mainly at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for twelve years and I got certified by CCHI. Over these years I developed my own glossary using clinic webpages as a guide, since they contained the main diagnoses and terms common to each practice (and by common I also mean the rare metabolic diseases one encounters at a children’s hospital) and cutting-edge surgical techniques. I worked on memorizing this vocabulary so that I would not be caught off-guard. Since it was a teaching hospital, grand rounds were very thorough and at times attended by a large number of medical students and professionals. They can be daunting at the beginning, and the first time interpreting for those rounds feels like going through a fire bath of acronyms, diseases and numbers delivered at a high speed. A great source of information for keeping up with their fast pace was the forms that the hospital staff used for the grand rounds. I studied the terminology, concepts and abbreviations in these forms ahead of time; every second is loaded with information.
One of the things I enjoy most about being a freelancer is the variety of assignments and jobs. I edited my first book last year. It was a brief hiatus from medical interpretation, but I can say that I enjoy the research done prior to a translation as much as the adrenaline rush of a simultaneous interpretation. If I were to give any advice to a novice medical interpreter, it would be to learn as much as you can about all the different medical specialties, to follow the code of ethics and hospital protocols strictly, and to network at the conferences and events held by ATA and your local chapter. Never stop learning, continue improving your interpreting skills, pay attention to all the different varieties of the language pair you work with, and don’t forget about note-taking and idioms. I found that nurses in particular used them all the time. Coursera or online MIT courses are a great resource for self-improvement as well. Once you feel confident, get your certification! Also, volunteer! As a volunteer blog master of the Interpreters Division’s e-Voice, I would never have suspected what a learning experience it would be and what a privilege it would be to be able to work with such competent colleagues. If we want to move forward in our profession, we need to start by delivering the best interpreting services — and last but not least, we need to charge accordingly.
Image by markusspiske via pixabay.com