How do I Become a Medical Interpreter?

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  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2019
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A medical interpreter is an essential person in countries where multiple languages are commonly spoken. In places like the US, for example, especially in large cities, there may be numerous calls for interpreters to work as the intermediary between doctors and patients who do not speak the same language. There may be different routes to become a medical interpreter and fill this role. Some of these involve formal education, while others simply involve bilingual skills.

The number one requirement to become a medical interpreter is fluency in two languages. In the US, the highest demand may be for people who can speak Spanish and English, but there are plenty of other languages needed too. Interpreters may speak several, but they tend to need to possess fluency in at least two. Fluency is usually not attained by taking one or two courses in a language. It may require at least four years of study at the high school level, or even more study at the college level. Alternately, some people may be native speakers.


Usually, hospitals also require those who want to become a medical interpreter to hold a high school diploma. Yet many hospitals may have other requirements for interpreter jobs. Hospitals and other medical facilities might request people take courses in medical terminology in several languages, have training as a medical assistant, or complete a medical interpreting program. There are a number of universities and private companies that offer certificate programs in medical interpreting, and these may last a semester or more, or they may be completed with intensive study over one or more weeks. They typically don’t teach language, except for medical terminology.

Formal medical interpretation programs often spend time dealing with one of the key aspects of this profession. There is more to it than language and medical knowledge. Interpreters must understand the cultures from which people come in order to fully facilitate conversation between medical staff and patients. Culture gaps can be just as significant as language gaps and they may obstruct medical care when the interpreter is not sufficiently skilled.

Presently, a person hoping to become a medical interpreter is not required to complete certificate training, and there is no US national certification for interpreters. Hospitals and other medical facilities can each determine exactly what standards they impose on hiring new medical interpreters. It is expected that this will change, and possibly quickly. Organizations like the National Medical Interpreter Certification Board are moving in the direction of pushing for national certification as an effort to keep quality of care and competence consistent among interpreters.

While certification may not yet be required for a person who wants to become a medical interpreter, there are other requirements besides language skills, cultural knowledge, and strong medical terminology skills. Interpreters may be present during medical examinations and even emergencies. This means they may see a lot of medical treatment and must possess a strong stomach or tolerance for this, in addition to being discreet and professional in a variety of circumstances.


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