Lina Guerra, with her daughter, on the day of her graduation from Found in Translation.

Photo courtesy of Lina Guerra

Bridging the Language Barrier Between Patient and Doctor

With this job placement program, immigrant women become the voice of the sick.

Lina Guerra used to spend her nights pouring drinks for passengers at Boston’s Logan Airport. The menial job left the 36-year-old single mother of a newborn feeling like she hadn’t realized the economic potential her parents gifted her when they left Colombia in the late 1980s.

During her prolonged hunt for a salaried position, Guerra came across an ad that seemed too perfect. “There’s no way I’ll get it,” she thought. Despite possessing the required language skills, she hesitated, right up to the deadline, before applying. A few weeks later, Guerra received a call to come in for an interview.

The position? A medical interpreter fellowship with Found in Translation, a nonprofit that trains low-income, bilingual immigrant women and places them in jobs at prestigious hospitals in the Boston area. Launched by Maria Vertkin (a Russian immigrant herself) in 2011, the organization has recruited 158 participants that collectively speak about a dozen languages, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Arabic and Portuguese.

During more than 100 hours of training, fellows learn the rigors of medical interpreting. “You have to be very accurate,” Guerra says. A loose, informal translation could lead to the wrong diagnosis. When a patient describes a stomachache, for example, the interpreter must possess the vocabulary, in both languages, to translate “tummy,” “belly,” “stomach” or “abdomen” to convey the right connotation. On top of that, Guerra adds, interpreters must know the slang for each culture.

Found in Translation aims to reduce ethnic and racial disparities in healthcare by training bilingual medical interpreters. Courtesy of Found in Translation

Interpreters act as cultural brokers. During one prep class, for instance, trainees debated the appropriate gender for a gynecologist or urologist. (Arabic speakers believed patients should see a physician of the same gender; those of Spanish heritage believed doing so would imply homosexuality.)

They also learn to advocate, and in a few rare instances, interrupt on the patient’s behalf. “There’s implicit bias and prejudice,” Vertkin says. “It’s the interpreter’s job to say, ‘Wait a minute, are there other options? You’re only offering the cheapest metal filling.’ That might be because of who the patient is and the assumption that they’re poor. The interpreter has the obligation then to intervene.”

With the new commander-in-chief calling for a border wall, mass deportations and an unprecedented Muslim travel ban, times are tough for immigrants like Guerra, who arrived in this country at age 8. She has a message for President Trump: “Please know in your heart that the majority of non-English speaking people have an even greater desire to be American than some people that were born in this country. They are so proud to be in America, regardless of the struggles that they are currently facing,” Guerra says, pleading, “Give them a chance.”

Employed by a translation agency, Guerra makes her living speaking for foreigners. Perhaps it’s time we all starting listening to what she has to say.

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]