All you do is interpret? Two ways to change the misconception

By September 14, 2017 February 6th, 2020 General, Interpreting

In nearly 10 years as a professional healthcare interpreter, I have been asked recurrently: “All you do is interpret?” Sometimes stated differently, the intent is never to be deliberately disrespectful or dismissive. However, the fact that this question still arises candidly in a conversation, continues to paint a clear picture of a common misconception about our profession:

Anybody with basic knowledge of a second language can be an interpreter.

Does Bilingual = Interpreter? Watch a quick video!

Let me address the underlying issue. For some people, including language access stakeholders, our profession is not seen for what it really is: a true practice profession, similar to “medicine, law teaching, counseling, or law enforcement” (Dean and Pollard 2005)

Changing this perception is  an exhaustive uphill battle. Nonetheless, it merits our attention and commitment. Over the past few years, I have engaged in several productive conversations with colleagues, healthcare staff, and other language access consumers in relation to this misconception. I discovered that we all have great and positive ideas to effect the needed change in perception. Coincidentally, at last years’ International Language Services Conference® a diverse group of stakeholders arrived at the same possible solutions for increasing the professionalization of our industry.


How can we, as stakeholders, effect change in the professionalization of our industry by advocating for language access? It can start with simple personal gestures that building and establishing awareness.

For example: When asked, “All you do is interpret?”, educate the person posing the question. Take a moment to describe how healthcare interpreters abide by a code of ethics that embodies principles that demand professionalism.


Empower language access consumers who are not familiar with their rights or responsibilities. This applies to the non-English speaking, Deaf, or Hard of Hearing consumer who may not know their rights to access, as well as the English speaking consumer who may not be aware of their responsibility to provide access. This empowerment creates the spark that serves as the catalyst for change.


Our profession requires a significant amount of training before we can be deemed as qualified to begin our work as interpreters. However, initial training is only the first step, and continuing education is required throughout our career. Our profession, like all others, evolves and we should strive to stay current and constantly strive to enhance critical skills required in our practice.

In 2016, MasterWord circulated a survey among different stakeholders to identify the challenges of our industry. The respondents identified “Competency and Qualification” as the main challenge affecting our industry. This information not only reveals the desire for further training, but the importance of certification as a mean to uphold the principle of professional development.

If you are relatively new to the industry:

  • Look for Interpreter Training Programs (ITP) that include a practicum and encourage additional research.
  • Develop a plan of action to obtain national certification and execute it.
  • Keep in mind that learning is cyclical and there is always room for improvement.

If you have experience in the industry:

  • Define a clear plan of action for maximizing your role as a language access stakeholder.
  • Continue your professional development by attending conferences or symposiums.
  • Enroll in training sessions to develop a specific skill that needs reinforcement.

If you are part of an administrative team:

  • Set up a plan to promote further training within your organization.
  • Raise the bar on the qualifications of the interpreters that represent your organization thereby promoting higher quality.

I want to invite all of you to work together to be contributors to the professionalization of our industry. Let’s begin by understanding that we are part of a practice profession, that requires continuous development of critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills. Let’s continue to be active in finding and implementing actionable solutions instead of simply being bystanders in a time of progress. Qualified and professional language access is in our hands.


Dean, Robyn K, and Robert Q Pollard. 2005. Consumers and Service Effectiveness in Interpreting Work: A Practice Profession Perspective. Accessed September 13, 2017.

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