Grace Under Fire – A Rewarding Career as Medical Interpreter

photo Alison Rives

According to the latest industry survey conducted by the Association of Language Companies (ALC), the biggest revenue-generating sector for U.S. LSPs is the hospital and medical offices.  (See slide courtesy of the ALC below)  This is clearly a sector that will continue to need talents.  I sat down with MIIS alumna Alison Rives (MATI ’08) to learn more about her path to her current role.  Her heartfelt words of wisdom also came through clearly in this conversation.  Enjoy!


ALC Survey 052316


  1. What does your typical day look like as a medical interpreter at Mt. Sinai Health Systems?

My first priority as a medical interpreter is to respond to interpreting requests from hospital providers. The provider could be a doctor, physician assistant, nurse, social worker, physical or occupational therapist, nutritionist and others. These providers are requesting an in-person interpreter to speak to patients in outpatient and inpatient units as well as the Emergency Department including the Psychiatric Emergency Department. Medical interpreters mainly use short consecutive mode during an interpreting session although there are some situations when simultaneous is more appropriate. Interpreting sessions cover a wide variety of topics such as explaining a diagnosis, informing a patient about and obtaining consent for a medical procedure, physical and occupational therapy sessions, admissions and discharge instructions, nutritional evaluations, and social work assessments, among others.

Medical interpreters at Mt. Sinai Health Systems also conduct patient rounds. This means we visit limited English proficient (LEP) patients and educate them on their right to a medical interpreter and inform them of the service we provide. We also round on all hospital units to educate staff and providers about the proper use and documentation of interpreter services.

Furthermore, my interpreter colleagues and I are responsible for maintaining a daily log of all interpreted encounters and entering that data into a computer system for statistical purposes. Other administrative duties include monthly Quality Improvement data collection to monitor the use and documentation of interpreters in the hospital. We also request and manage contract interpreters for other languages such as ASL, Mandarin, Russian, etc. On occasion we do translations of hospital documents, as well as editing and revision of these documents.

Our Language Services department also provides several medical interpreter trainings a year. We test the language proficiency of potential medical interpreter candidates, interview them, and then train them in the classroom and in the field.

  1. What aspects of your education at MIIS do you feel prepared you well for your current work?

Apart from the obvious improvement I experienced in my language skills, MIIS prepared me to stay calm under pressure! In the classroom at MIIS you feel a certain pressure to perform in front of the professors and your classmates. Practicing in the MIIS environment taught me to keep calm. As a result, I’m able to maintain my composure (or at least display a calm composure) when the situation is tense during a medical interpretation. For example, patients or their family members may be emotional, I may have to interpret a serious diagnosis to a patient, or during a family meeting everyone may try to talk at once without waiting to hear my interpretation before speaking. It’s important in these situations to exude self-control in order to interpret accurately, manage the flow of communication, and ensure all parties feel confident in your interpretation.

At MIIS I also learned how invaluable one’s colleagues and their experience are. My graduating class at MIIS built a strong relationship of support. We constantly relied on each other for feedback to improve our translations and interpretations. I experience and try to foster the same relationship with my fellow medical interpreters to support each other and exchange information for continuing education.

  1. What are the useful tips you would like to share with our students on how to prepare themselves to be medical interpreters?

The most valuable preparation to be a medical interpreter is internships. I interned at two hospitals while I was a student at MIIS and had amazing mentors guiding me. Once I started working as a medical interpreter I also sought out the mentorship of senior interpreters whom I trusted. Beyond that, becoming a member of professional medical interpreter associations has helped me to stay abreast of what’s happening in the field of medical interpreting across the country and to maintain connections with my colleagues.

  1. What are the things that you know now that you wish you had known when you were a student at MIIS?

I wish I hadn’t been quite so sensitive to constructive criticism while at MIIS. The feedback from my MIIS professors and classmates made me a better interpreter and translator. Instead of taking the constructive criticism personally today, I use it to improve my skills.


Winnie Heh
Career & Academic Advisor

The Send-off Message of a Career Advisor



My 2nd year T&I students are about to graduate.  I spoke with them during their last “Translation and Interpretation as a Profession” class today.  This is my “send-off” message as their Career Advisor:

In the last two years, you have spent thousands of hours honing your professional skills and you are ready to be strong contributors to our profession. Here are some lessons I have learned in my professional career and would like to share with you.

First, speak your gratitude. A simple “thank you” goes a long way AND it makes you feel good saying it.

Second, I can guarantee that you will encounter setbacks in your career. When I encounter a stumbling block, I tell myself I am going to use it as a stepping stone.  Rather than allowing it to block my way, I step on it.

Third, make your communication actionable and precise. Minimize adjectives and adverbs.  Discipline yourself to use verbs, nouns and numbers.

Fourth, when you are in meetings and see people talk round and round in circles. Remind yourself of this question:  “What problem are we trying to solve?”  If it is appropriate, ask this question respectfully.  You will stand out as the voice of reason.

Fifth, Be nice to people. The best thing to do is to be nice always.  This way you don’t have to expend mental energy to remember:  Am I being nice on my way up or on my way down now?

Sixth, when my team comes to me all flustered because we have encountered a problem. This is what I say:  “No one is going to give you their good money if you can’t make their lives easier.  Problems are job security.  Be the solution.”

Seventh, don’t gossip. Eleanor Roosevelt said:  “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people.”  Stay away from small minds and strive to have great minds.

I wish you the best of luck.

Winnie Heh
Career & Academic Advisor