A day in the life of a remote interpreter


I switched suddenly from live to over-the-telephone interpreting due to COVID-19. Local courts and hospitals cancelled in-house assignments for the short term. The change presents struggles not encountered on live assignments: adapting to speaker phones, multiple voices on a call and increased concentration to visualize the phases of a doctor’s visit. Luckily I toiled previously for Language Line, Language Services Associates and NetworkOmni. There I refined consecutive interpreting skills and developed a massive terminology database in the medical, legal and insurance industries.


Earbuds may or may not amplify sounds sufficiently. Sometimes providers assume the cordless phone detects all voices equally well. A cordless phone in the examination room may or may not guarantee audio acuity. The interpreter must take into account that an additional muffle enters the scene what with face masks. The other day a chatty physician droned on and on in a low tone. A rich foreign accent permeated her English speech. “Doctor, could you please move the telephone closer?” The patient’s mother willingly responded to questions with a faint voice. “Doctor, let me clarify her response.” In the meantime the door clicks open and a medical assistant announces “Doctor, forgive me, but you have the Cleveland Clinic on line two.” In the meantime the physician brutally pounds on the innocent keyboard to input the patient’s symptoms in the medical record. So much for a gentle touch and sponge keyboards.


I interpret primarily for pediatric specialties and encounter a multitude of sound waves in a single call. Let’s start with volume. A baby screeches when the pediatrician approaches for the examination. Last week a little one maintained a high-pitch scream throughout the entire exam. My $4000.00+ hearing aids faithfully amplified sounds that nearly pierced the eardrums. I couldn’t reach the volume control fast enough. The provider and mother cooed in an effort to calm him down. In the background his sisters and brothers start to join in the din because their little brother suffers. Five voices to sort out.


Another voice may inhabit the encounter. A trusted friend accompanies the patient’s parent and insists on interpreting everything before I have the chance to speak. Ugh. How to politely ask the third party to kindly stop intervening? Add to the mix the requisite intense concentration that may stretch for an hour in a typical appointment. How to sort out many magnified sounds over the phone wires as compared those during an in-person assignment?


Where else can you hear a mother coo a lullaby to calm her little one during a lengthy ultrasound? A little one had to endure an ultrasound that lasted over twenty minutes, an eternity to an eighteen month old. Squidward Tentacles and SpongeBob SquarePants bickered over Krabby patties in the background while a technician completed the exam. Cartoons help soothe a panicked child. This interpreter, too.

Another change is the cordless phone that follows a patient from check-in to discharge. The staff parks me on a shelf till the physician enters the room. In the meantime I hear office chatter about the weekend or another patient’s symptoms. One nurse sang quietly to herself while accompanying a family down the hall. When the phone stays in the patient’s room in-between providers, a family member invariably calls a friend on their cell phone to fill the time. Here’s a chance to become more acclimated to speech velocity and terms peculiar to the dialect. I learned the word “chorro” and “fuente” for tap water once. Those words help to interpret the boilerplate question “Does your child drink city or well water?”.

All in all I’m grateful for the chance to serve our LEP community over the telephone. What struggles have you encountered? Please share them here.

Published by The Interpreter Fellow

I am an Ohio State Certified Court Interpreter and Certified Healthcare Interpreter in Spanish. MA Translation from The Institute for Applied Linguistics at Kent State University. Currently I serve Akron Children's Hospital Pediatrics and local courts.

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thoughts on interpreting

Liam O'Dell

Freelance Journalist and Campaigner

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