TRANSLATION ACROSS CAMPUS: Where Medicine Meets Translation – An Interview with Megumi Segawa (UM Healthcare Interpreter), by Anjali Alangaden

Minoring in Translation Studies is perhaps not the most typical choice for an undergrad hoping to go into medicine. And over the past couple years, I have often been asked how I see these two seemingly distinct fields of study interacting. But for me, the connections between translation and medicine are both clear and increasingly important.

On a daily basis, most physicians find themselves interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and identities. Sometimes that means working with patients who may not understand English or who struggle with comprehending often complicated medical jargon. Being an effective and compassionate health care provider requires physicians to bridge these communication divides. If that isn’t translation at work, I don’t know what is!

To further explore how translation and medicine interact, I spoke to Megumi Segawa, who has worked as a Japanese Healthcare Interpreter in the University of Michigan Health System since 2007.

Could you describe a little bit what medical interpreters do and how they function within the medical system?

Interpreter Services is a department at Michigan Medicine and we provide free interpreting services for patients with limited English and deaf and hard of hearing patients.  Staff interpreters are available for Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French, Russian and American Sign Language.  Basically we show up at the patient’s appointment and work with them throughout the medical encounter.  We provide assistance at check-in, in-take, doctor visit, check-out, various testing and procedures, ER visits, and Labor & Delivery.

How long have you been working with the medical interpreters? How does someone get involved in this field? 

I have been working as a staff Japanese interpreter since 2007 but started to work as a temp interpreter a few years before that.  I had interpreting experiences in other fields before I joined Interpreter Services and learned about medicine and medical interpreting though training sessions and online.  There’s a 40-hour medical interpreter training program called Bridging The Gap and that is something everyone must have before working as a healthcare interpreter.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an interpreter?

Interpreting for terminally ill patients are always difficult.  Similarly interpreting for parents whose baby/child has serious problems is also very tough.  What is hard in those situations is that you feel as if you were delivering “bad news.”  On top of that, you also have to voice the reaction to the news, so you end up feeling everyone’s pain.

How many interpreters are active in UMHS and how many languages do you accommodate?  

I think we have about 100 interpreters including staff interpreters and temp interpreters.  We have many temp interpreters for languages other than the 7 foreign languages I mentioned in Q1 such as Romanian, Polish, Greek, Somali, and Hindi.  When there is no in-person interpreter available, we provide phone interpreting services through an outside agency.

Are there any other things you’d like to add?

We also translate medical records and patient education materials for providers and patients.  Translation and interpretation are rather different things.  Just like not all bilingual people are good at interpreting, not all interpreters are good translators and visa versa.

-Interview by Anjali Alangaden