This entry will be aimed at community interpreters, i.e. medical and court, to share a couple thoughts on how to politely and firmly handle two related situations I regularly find myself in: 1) when I have several back-to-back appointments booked for one day, and am only able to stay at each appointment for the requested time, and 2) when the facility staff—nurse, provider, attorney or otherwise—is upset that the interpreter has to leave before the appointment is finished.

Let’s talk about situation #1, the easy one. Here’s what I do:

  • I really make sure to check every appointment’s requested time slot just before I walk into the facility. If I have another appointment I need to scoot right off too, I make double sure that I know this in advance.

  • I let the receptionist know when I check in that I will only be able to stay the requested amount of time, as I have another appointment immediately after.

  • If there seems to be a delay in the facility, and 20-30 minutes has gone by and the patient has not been taken back, I remind the receptionist a second time that I really only can stay another 30-40 minutes. If the staff is flexible, this second reminder often serves to let your LEP jump the queue and be seen early.

  • Whether or not I have reminded the receptionist of my necessary departure a second time, when the nurse or CMA takes the patient back, I politely say “I don’t know if the receptionist mentioned, but unfortunately I can only stay until X o’clock. I hope we’re able to wrap things up by then.”

In my experience, these steps seem to prevent 80%–90% of unpleasantries. Even though I don’t believe it’s technically the interpreter’s job to constantly remind the clinic how long they scheduled me for, I try to go the extra mile to avoid any bumps in the road. It usually works.

Things can get uncomfortable when someone expresses ire at you the interpreter for having to cut the appointment short. I am traditionally a very confrontation-averse person, so the few times a doctor or nurse jumped down my throat in the early days, I had a hard time staying composed.

That being said, I’ve developed a few tactics and mental reminders for myself in these situations. Some of these tactics are based on conversations with personal friends of mine who are healthcare and legal professionals. I’ve occasionally picked their brains about uncomfortable professional situations like this one, and here are some things I’ve heard (from the mouth of the horse):

  • Doctors or lawyers who run a practice and business are used to having things run on their clock, and people essentially always waiting on their schedule to be seen. So when an interpreter shows up and has to rush things, or maybe even leave mid-encounter, this really throws off their groove, and understandably so. I think it helps to understand someone else’s world in this way.

  • I was told by a physician friend that a “God-complex” can be pretty par-for-the-course in the medical world, so an irate reaction from a doctor can at times be expected.

So what does the interpreter do? Thank you for asking:

  • If I have followed all of the above steps (mentioning departure time to receptionist, CMA, and/or nurse, and of course the LEP), and still have to leave mid-encounter, I offer a one- to three-sentence expression of regret over the situation and how this can be solved in the future, “I’m sorry we couldn’t finish this appointment on time. Please feel free to book an extra quarter hour next time, if necessary. Thank you!” And then I show myself out.

  • If the provider tries to blame me (rare occurrence, but it happens), I do not launch into a defense/justification/explanation of how interpreter time slots work. I say something short and sweet that makes it clear that I am also a professional with time-sensitive commitments, just like a doctor or lawyer. Something to the effect of, “I’m sorry your clinic is running behind today, but I have another patient waiting on me. Thank you.” And then I leave. In my earlier days, I tried to do too much explaining, which only aggravated things.

  • A recent example of this was when a clinic erroneously booked me for 30 minutes, but the appointment was actually for an hour. When I had to leave mid-encounter, the provider said irritatedly, “You know, you really need to leave more time for these appointments. A patient can’t be seen in 30 minutes.” I replied, “I understand, but this was actually an error made by your office scheduler. Please make sure the error is corrected for next time. Have a good day!” I didn’t wait for a response, and simply exited the room.

I wish I didn’t have to emphasize this, but interpreters’ time, commitments, and schedules are incredibly valuable, and we need to believe that ourselves in order to behave professionally and respectably. In the same vein, one of the biggest ways interpreters can give and command respect is by showing up on time ourselves. It sounds stupidly simple, but it’s true. Bafflingly, so many interpreters arrive late and you can easily out-perform colleagues by—gasp!—showing up on time.

Thank you for stopping by and let me know if you have any thoughts or questions!

Photo by Victor Benard on Unsplash