Interpretation in the Medical Setting: Tips & Resources

09. September 2018 TIPS & TRICKS 0
Interpretation in the Medical Setting: Tips & Resources

A few weeks ago I was pulled out of my clinic to interpret for an elderly unilingual Arabic speaking refugee who had a widespread aggressive cancer. She knew little about her condition. Perhaps most importantly, she didn’t understand that her only remaining option was palliation. I was given the daunting task of explaining this to a frail, vulnerable woman who I did not know, and who spoke an entirely different dialect of Arabic from mine. I whispered a silent prayer as I entered the room.


To the general public, it is assumed that if you speak another language like Arabic, for example, that you could easily interpret for any Arabic speaking patient. Little do they know that the difference between dialects can be staggering. In addition to this barrier,  the vocabulary used in a medical setting is often quite distinct from the vocabulary you use regularly at home or even in Arabic school, if you attended one. Finding the right words in a medical context can certainly be challenging. I believe this applies to many other languages as well.

Although I did my very best during the encounter with my native Arabic, I felt like I lacked the training and the resources to interpret skillfully in the medical setting, should the need arise. Surely, we could do better for our patients!

A few of my colleagues were kind enough to share their point-of-care interpretation resources with me. First, let’s get a few definitions out of the way:

  • An Interpreter is someone who translates orally. (1) This is the professional I would try my best to book for all of my patients who have any form of language barrier. Relying on volunteer staff within the establishment compromises the quality and efficiency of care that patients with a language barrier receive.
  • A Translator is someone who interprets written text. This professional may not be as useful in the setting of a medical appointment. (1)
  • An Interpreter can also serve as a Cultural Broker or cultural interpreter. This means that they have a mature understanding of the patient’s cultural/religious beliefs and practices in order to interpret responses within the appropriate context. This avoids misunderstandings and dispels misconceptions between the patient and the healthcare team.

As a healthcare provider who speaks languages other than English, ideally you can equip yourself with the skills and tools to become a proficient cultural interpreter.


For Android users, you can refer to the following mobile applications which provide free English to Arabic translation:

  1. Arabic Medicine Dictionary
  2. قاموس طبي (عربي – إنجليزي)

For iPhone users, you can refer to the following equivalent offline mobile applications:

  1. قاموس طبي | Offline English Arabic Medical Dictionary, Translator, Pronunciation, Terminology
  2. (قاموس طبي و ترجمة إنجليزي عربي (بدون إنترنت

These offer on-the-spot translation of certain terms which you may forget in the moment.


The World Health Organization also has a multilingual medical dictionary: The Unified Medical Dictionary. Although it is a bit inconvenient to use, requiring multiple clicks at every step, it’s certainly a useful reference tool to keep in mind.


To brush up on your vocabulary from time to time, you can use the following dictionaries.

  1. HTH Worldwide Arabic Medical Translation Guide: This is a short PDF of common medical terms sorted by Arabic and comparing colloquial and medical English terms with their respective colloquial and medical Arabic terms.
  2. Hitti’s New Medical Dictionary, English-Arabic: This is a large PDF with very comprehensive English to Arabic translation of medical terminology. However, I believe this is more geared towards healthcare professionals studying in either of these languages since Arabic speaking laypeople are quite unlikely to understand the terminology in this dictionary. It is, however, a useful reference tool to have on file.


The professional interpreters I’ve had the opportunity to speak to have given me useful tips for those of us who are asked to provide impromptu medical interpretation services:

  • Ask the healthcare professional to address the patient, not the interpreter.
  • Ask the healthcare professional to ask one question at a time without using slang or excessive medical jargon.
  • Introduce everyone in the room to each other and introduce yourself before beginning.
  • Ask both the healthcare professional and the patient to speak 1-2 sentences at a time as a maximum in order to give the interpreter the chance to communicate the information accurately.
  • The interpreter should not be expressing personal opinions or giving advice but providing the most accurate interpretation of what is being said by the healthcare professional and by the patient.
  • There should not be side conversations with patient or healthcare professional taking place unless this is absolutely necessary for the interpretation process to continue successfully. 


For unilingual patients who are admitted, family members or interpreters cannot always be present at their bedside. Nurses often have difficulty communicating with the patient and caring for them. Just the other day, a nurse downloaded the Google Translate mobile application on her phone and showed me how she used it to communicate with her unilingual Arabic speaking patient using the voice option. When no better alternative is available, I would highly recommend this at the bedside for simple questions like “Are you in pain?” and simple statements like “Your surgery is tomorrow morning. You cannot eat anything after 11 pm.”  The best way to use this application is to type in single sentences at a time and play them. Grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure must be as simple as possible. Avoid slang and medical jargon. Try to formulate questions that require “Yes” or “No” answers as often as possible. Provide patients with a whiteboard so they can at least draw or try to write as they wish.

At the end of the day we do everything within our power and leave the rest to Allah. As with most things, you will improve with practice and experience! I have since been put in similar situations and I can assure you that you will learn how to handle things with more grace and confidence every time. Remember, simple gestures of compassion transcend all language barriers!


Comment below if you have any other tips or interpretation resources for Arabic or other languages!

Allah knows best.





  1. “The Difference between Translation and Interpreting.” Language Scientific,
  2. The remaining references are hyperlinked above.