The seed of my work as a Chinese interpreter was planted during my second year of teaching English in China. While I still wasn't very good a Mandarin, I knew enough to be dangerous. I could order food, direct a taxi driver, and talk about my friends behind their backs;) Being foreigners in a foreign land, ESL teachers need to stick together; we give each other tips, like what teaching plans are effective with students or where to buy household essentials for pennies. One other thing we do, is when we can't speak the language, we rely on our friends to translate or interpret for us. My second year teaching, the other two American teachers I taught with would frequently call me and ask me to tell the taxi driver where to go. It was kind of fun, and I thought, I wonder if I could get paid to do this?
My first chance to be paid for speaking and understanding Chinese was at a medium sized New Zealand company called Lynx Innovation that made interactive retail displays (the things you play videogame demos on at Target or Best Buy—yes, it's not just a console sitting on a rack). I was hired as Director of Language and Culture at the Jiaxing, Zhejiang factory and my main responsibilities were teaching English to the staff and acting as a translator and interpreter whenever called upon.
One time, at a Chinese New Year company banquet I served as the MC; when the owners flew in to spend time in the China office, I acted as interpreter when they spoke with the staff. I had to learn terms that I didn't even know in English, let alone Chinese: powder coating (噴塑), metal-cutting laser (激光切割機), and press brake (折彎機).
When I returned to the US after living in China for six years, I began working as a medical interpreter. A medical interpreter acts as an intermediary between a limited-English patient and healthcare staff, like a doctor. The patient speaks a few sentences in their native tongue and then the interpreter interprets it into English for the doctor to hear; then the doctor speaks back to the patient in English, and the interpreter repeats what is said in Mandarin.
This work taught me a ton of new Mandarin vocabulary and I greatly improved my speaking and listening skills. One of the hardest parts about the job was learning ot understand Mandarin spoken by people from difference parts of China. People have significanltly different accents and ways of speaking!
I began my work as an Mandarin Chinese medical interpreter as a contractor at several agencies in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area. When the agency, receives a request from a clinic or hospital for an interpreter, they contact the interpreter and ask if you would like to take the case or not. You can then accept or decline a case. It's common to work for several agencies at the same time and do work for all of them.
The barries to entry into medical interpreting are relatively low. There is still no nationwide standard or education that interpreters are required to pass like there is with other healthcare staff. What is required varies by agency.
Typicaly, you will need to pass some type of interpretation assessment. This will likely involve doing a mock interpretation with an interviewer, where they pretend to be both the patient and provider and you interpret what they say into the opposite language. There may also be a written exam on medical terminology in English and Mandarin.
Most agencies require you to complete a 40-hour interpreter training. The one I did was called Bridging the Gap. It was administered by the agency I worked for. The training is focused on the role of the interpreter, ethical standards of work conduct, and medical terminology. Another similar certification is The Community Interpreter.
Some states (like Minnesota) will require that you register on the state medical interpreter roster by filling out some information about yourself and the languages you speak, and pay a fee of around $50.
Once you have done all this, you are ready to start interpreting!
As the field of medical interpretation has advanced, national certifications have become available. The main two certifications are given by Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (CMI). You can become certified after passing a series of tests.
These tests include a non-languaged based section, as well an optional full certification in specific languages. Currently CCHI offers full certification in Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish; CMI offers full certification in Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian, Vietnamese, and Korean. The tests cost several hundred dollars to take and consist of a series of written and oral exams in English and the target language. These websites also have a lot of great resources for interpreters.
Below are some of the names of the companies I previously worked for. Some are local agencies that handle in-person interpreting. Others are national agencies that have provide phone and video interpretation servies. A simple google search will show you the names of agencies in your state.
I love KTTS! They are professional and hold their interpreters to high standards. They pay better than most agencies and are very friendly and accomodating. They provide a few cases everyday, which brings in roughly $50-$100. I worked with them for several years and only have good things to say about them.
GBR is another outstanding agency. While they do not have as many cases as Kim Tong, they typically pay a 2-hour minimum for as much as $38/hour and they reimburse for parking.
AMN Healthcare (formerly Stratus Video) is a healthcare staffing solutions company that offers remote video (VRI), over-the-phone (OPI), and in-person interpretation. Their interpreters speak dozens if not hundreds of different languages. I previously worked for this company as a remote video interpreter and really enjoyed it. I liked that I didn't have to leave my home and yet I could answer calls from a variety of medical specialties and help people communicate. This is a challenging job to be sure, though. For one thing, you don't have any downtime between calls if it is busy, wheras with in-person interpreting there is always downtime while you wait for the nurse or doctor, etc. AMN's starting pay for remote interpreters is in the mid twenties per hour.
Certified Langauges International is an on-demand phone and video interpreting company offering services 24/7 in over 230 languages to the medical, finance, and legal industries. I worked for this company as an over-the-phone interpreter and this is without a doubt the most challenging form of interpretation. You have zero visual cues like you would with in-person or video interpreting. It's very common to believe there is just the provider and patient in the room, but slowly more and more people reveal themselves. The more people involved in a conversation the trickier the interpreter's job becomes. Like video interpreting, there is also no downtime if there are back to back calls, so it can get very exhausting.
In addition to the typical medial calls, there are also many calls from banks, medical insurance companies, and the courts system. If you thought medical insurance was complicated as a customer, try interpreting for it for someone else trying to purchase it who lives in another state than you. Learning all of the terminology and processes associated with other fields is a tremendous task.
They used to pay $0.50 per minute, or $30 per hour. In a typical four hour span from 8 am to 12 pm I might be on the phone for 3 hours.
Cyracom is another national interpretation and translation company that provides OPI, VRI, and in-person interpretation, as well as translation and localization services.
The work of an interpreter requires constantly learning new terminology. For your reference, below are glossaries and books I have used over the years.
Mandarin for Medical Students: Mastering Clinical Conversation contains 38 dialogues between patients and doctors covering a wide range of terminology and their context. Each dialogue has a vocabulary list too. There is also an appendix of common doctor's diagnosis interview questions. I highly recommend this book.
Chinese Medical Glossary by the Cross Cultural Health Care Program has over 2,400 biomedical terms in English translated into Chinese (traditional and simplified), with corresponding English definitions. This is a must-have for anyone doing medical interpreting.
Conference Interpreting Principles and Practice by Valerie Taylor-Bouladon gives an excellent introduction to the world of conference interpreting.