VOX, LASU host ‘Translateathon’ to help Spanish-speaking patients

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Friday April 13, members of VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood and the Latin American Student Union gathered at the Hispanic House for a 'translateathon'. COURTESY PHOTO / LATIN AMERICAN STUDENT UNION

Friday, April 13 starting at 2 p.m., members of the College of William and Mary’s chapter of VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood and the Latin American Student Union sat in the colorful lounge areas of the Spanish House for two hours, translating medical forms from English into Spanish. The “Translateathon” was a collaborative event held by the two student organizations in an effort to help Tidewater Physicians for Women, a women’s health clinic based in the Tidewater region of Virginia. 

Surrounded by chips, salsa and Skittles, student volunteers employed their knowledge of the Spanish language, looking up unfamiliar medical jargon in texts provided by members of VOX. Their goal was to improve access to information about women’s health for members of the Spanish-speaking Latinx community. The information ready for translation focused primarily on maternal health and contraceptives. 

“When we think of Williamsburg, we don’t think of a huge Hispanic population, but they’re there,” Lopez said. “And if we can just provide two hours of our Friday to help them in any way possible, I said ‘why not.’” 

LASU President Carolina Lopez ’20 said that she was involved in the event because she wanted to help the Hispanic community in Williamsburg.

“When we think of Williamsburg, we don’t think of a huge Hispanic population, but they’re there,” Lopez said. “And if we can just provide two hours of our Friday to help them in any way possible, I said ‘why not.’” 

The idea originated at the end of last year through a former executive member of VOX who reached out to local women’s health clinics to see if they needed documents translated. In the beginning of the spring semester, VOX Vice President Jessica Seidenberg ’19 and current VOX member and outgoing LASU Vice President Vanesa Martinez-Chacon ’18 reached out to each other to begin the project.

“[Jessica] had emailed a bunch of places, and then [Tidewater Physicians for Women] actually responded, and were like, ‘We’d love for you to do it!’” Martinez-Chacon said. 

For Martinez-Chacon, the event was about creating more spaces for Spanish-speaking Latinx individuals to feel comfortable.

“It’s important because we don’t have an official language in the United States, and there’s people who for various reasons, they still have not learned English, or can’t learn English,” Martinez-Chacon said. “So it’s really important to give people access to medical material especially.”

Patients who speak limited English have to rely on others to help them communicate effectively with their doctors. When hospitals don’t have a professional translator available, the patients often have to turn to a relative with better English skills to translate for them.

Missing pieces of information can often lead to serious miscommunications, which can result in medical complications and harm to patients. The necessity for clear communication becomes even more vital when dealing with sensitive, personal operations like labor procedures or abortions. 

“Communication errors are one of the most prominent issues in healthcare, especially when trying to talk between a clinician and patient,” Silverman said.

Therefore, the link between translation, access and safe medical practice is a very important one, according to VOX Publicity Chair Emma Silverman ’20. 

“Communication errors are one of the most prominent issues in healthcare, especially when trying to talk between a clinician and patient,” Silverman said. “And there’s been a lot of studies that prove that if we just had actual interpreters, instead of ad hoc interpreters, it would just be easier on so many levels.”

The “Translateathon” aimed to help mitigate some aspects of the problem by translating vital medical forms, sourced from the Tidewater Physicians clinic, into Spanish, so that Spanish-speaking patients can understand exactly what they are consenting to.

Spanish speakers with skill levels ranging from intermediate to native fluency paired up to translate, chatting in both English and Spanish as they worked. The collaboration between members helped to solve some of the challenges of translation, such as consistency in word usage, given that there are many variations of the Spanish language. 

“We have so many different words to say the same thing,” Lopez said. “We want to keep it as objective and uniform as possible.”

It also helped members identify unfamiliar medical terms.

“A lot of us don’t know what the medical terms mean in English, so it’s hard to know if you’re translating them right into another language,” Seidenberg said. “We got lucky because there’s a medical interpretations class [at the College].”

Hispanic studies professor Paulina Carrion, who the event organizers reached out to, teaches Medical Interpretation. They said Carrion responded enthusiastically.

“This is a class that provides a framework to students on the reasons why this profession (medical interpreters) is needed and how they should be trained to respect the cultures of the individuals that are involved in the process,” Carrion said in an email. “At the same time it provides to the students with different techniques, code ethics, and the understanding of the role of the interpreter. … There is a big need of bilingual information all over the place, specially in education and medical environments.”

She also offered to proofread the translated documents before they were sent back to Tidewater Physicians for Women.

“[Her reading of the documents] is really important, because this can be life or death kind of stuff.” Seidenberg said. “So we’re not about to hand some shadily translated documents over to this clinic.”

Many of the participants felt that the event was very important and hoped both clubs would hold another “Translateathon” in the future, perhaps expanding beyond women’s healthcare into other areas of medicine, or into other fields like education.

“This is a very important issue that not many people know about,” Silverman said. “And I think some people are often at a loss for what to do, and here is an easy example of how students can be involved, and how you can help in your communities.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. I applaud the efforts to volunteer and get involved in the community. It’s great to share your experience and talent to help others. However, I caution you as budding translators to be careful. Healthcare is difficult for English speakers to understand. Literacy and health literacy also have to be taken into consideration. There are already professionally translated forms put out by CMS for health agencies to use. Remember, it is required by law for a health agency to have it in the patient’s language. Healthcare translations are a technical subject and there can be a lot of confusion with different terminology. There have been calls to standardized this terminology in the industry to decrease confusion – see our Whitepaper https://langsolinc.com/healthcare-terminology-our-white-paper/ I am concerned that non-professional translation was used by Tidewater Physicians for Women for cost savings. There are many guidelines for quality control in professional translation. You’re right…..it can be a matter of life and death

  2. Melissa — did you read the article? It’s very clear that they had professionals around and a professor who literally teaches a course called “Medical Interpretation.” These students are not stupid….

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