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New Approaches to Interpreter Education

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Since interpreting entered academia to meet a pragmatic need, rather than to become an object of study, research questions about practice, specifically in community and then medical settings, and the practitioners, which are essential to understand the underlying complexities of the interpreted communicative event (Angelelli 2000; Metzger 1999; Roy 2000; Wadensjö 1998), were deferred to the market need of practitioners. Logistical questions directed to conducting training took priority over questions that were designed to understand what a well-rounded education of interpreters may look like and how it would account for the differences in settings where interpreters work. For example, based on educators’ personal experience and opinions, rather than on research, many programs that teach healthcare interpreting are reduced to teaching terminology related to the field. While it would be pointless to argue that this is not relevant, it is not sufficient and should definitely not drive the curriculum. A strong focus on terminology is like giving a student a fish instead of teaching him or her how to fish. Terminology and glossaries derive from ways of speaking in a contextualized setting. They need to be studied in this way and should not constitute the centerpiece of any curriculum.

In the next section, I explore concepts on which a curriculum could be based. These concepts or components could be the general goals of a healthcare interpreting curriculum.

Basic Components of Healthcare Interpreting Education

Based on research performed on the importance of the context, the participants in the interaction, or the complexities embedded in the role of the interpreter, I would like to suggest that healthcare interpreting education (HIE) involves the development of skills in at least six different areas: cognitive processing, interpersonal, linguistics, professional, setting-specific, and sociocultural. Most of the commercially available short courses on healthcare interpreting (e.g., Bridging the Gap or Connecting Worlds) generally devote time to terminology or the ethics of the profession and do not even discuss information processing skills. More elaborate programs focus on both information processing and linguistic skills, but may not dive into the specifics of the medical setting and the interpersonal role of the healthcare interpreter.

The cognitive processing area calls for the enhancement or development of specific skills related to the process of interpreting (e.g., active listening, memory expansion, split attention, and note-taking, to name a few). The interpersonal area allows for the unpacking of the concept of role to help students understand the continuum of visibility (Angelelli 2004a and b) and neutrality (Davidson 2000 and 2001; Metzger 1999), and gain awareness of the power they have, their agency, and the responsibilities and duties that arise from it. In the linguistic area, HIE requires ongoing work in the students’ two languages (e.g., enhancing vocabulary, switching from formal to informal registers, etc.). The professional area is concerned with matters such as job ethics, certification processes, and professional associations’ rules and regulations.

At the level of the specific setting, students need to learn the ways of speaking in a variety of discourse communities, as well as the content and terms that are at the core of it. This may mean, for example, studying anatomy and physiology to understand medical interviews, as well as mastering frequent expressions and terms that occur during a specific speech event (e.g., a concern expressed during an interview). Finally, at the sociocultural level, it requires healthcare interpreting students to (a) be aware of the impact that both the institution and society have on the interaction they broker and (b) realize its constraints and cultures. If these six areas are represented in a HIE curriculum, we can clearly see how we move from the narrow concept of teaching isolated terms to the broader concept of teaching interactional competence, which results in forming well-rounded professionals.


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