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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (August 2013)

Anatomy and Physiology and Judiciary Interpreters
By Jennifer De La Cruz

When we think of the variety of venues where interpreters work, it is easy to name at least a few subsets of vocabulary that come up on a consistent basis. In our initial and ongoing training as judiciary interpreters, we are reminded continually of the terms we might encounter in expert testimony on subjects such as DNA, firearms, and fingerprint evidence. However, we often overlook medical terminology, despite how often anatomy and physiology are involved in our work.

It is easy to forget how the medical field is so closely related to what we do every day as judiciary interpreters and thus assume our general understanding of the subject will be sufficient without any proactive learning efforts. Even apparently simple processes such as examining, evaluating, and treating a patient can be beyond what we passively learn while working in the court setting. We often limit our studies to bilingual glossaries and dictionaries for general definitions and translations, sometimes consulting an encyclopedic resource for contextual information. Actively seeking out opportunities beyond the encyclopedia, however, will help us develop a full understanding of commonly discussed medically-related themes.

Working as a medical interpreter for nearly a decade prior to my career with the courts has proven to be a lifesaver when it comes to interpreting medically-related testimony from lay and expert witnesses. Back then, my task was to interpret for just about every aspect of life and death, including clinical symptoms, corrective surgeries, medico-social themes, psychological illness, and beyond. Years later, knowing how often medical issues come up in court has made me realize how helpful it is to have worked in that field, leading me to advocate for others to find ways to gain broad medical knowledge as well.

As we know, actively searching for understanding to connect words to their context is an effort that rewards us with better performance as judiciary interpreters. Knowing how mental illness affects the dynamics of a family, for example, or how a psychiatric patient interacts with society might help us better understand a defendant or witness in court. Our interpreting for a traumatized victim or a witness with head trauma might be enhanced if we have an understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental trauma or how speech is affected after a brain injury.

It is easy to overestimate our knowledge base about medical issues because of our life experiences. We have all been sick, so we know the basic organs and body parts, and this knowledge is probably pretty similar in all of our working languages. Even when we are well versed in medical themes because of passive knowledge gained in life, it is amazing how even personal comfort levels can be a barrier to the search for understanding, especially when dealing with taboo or intimate themes. This was apparent during an interpreting class I once taught, where the majority of the female students had shockingly limited knowledge about the various basic structures of female genitalia. Thus, we cannot say that everyone holds the same passive knowledge of anatomy and physiology, despite having their own bodies as an example.

Where to Begin
Judiciary interpreters can begin their study of medical terminology with a list of commonly used words. Some might start with lists of prefixes, suffixes, root words, and basic anatomy terms, and then seek to learn them in their working languages. What will really take our knowledge over the top, however, is reading, watching, and listening to information that brings the terms to life and helps us remember them.

For example, we can prepare for autopsy testimony by finding sources of essential vocabulary in our working languages, then taking the time to learn about autopsies in more detail. We can now watch them on the Internet (e.g., YouTube), have probably seen them depicted in crime shows on television or in movies, and can search for entries in medical and legal literature that give a more complete picture than what we might hear during a trial. Once that autopsy expert takes the stand and we have prepared ourselves with the specifics of the case, our learning efforts will provide a better idea of what the expert is envisioning while giving descriptions, and perhaps allow us to predict where the testimony and questioning may be headed.

Brainstorm, Then Research
Sometimes, the subjects where we need to expand our knowledge may not be so apparent. What we can do is brainstorm about the types of cases we might encounter on a daily basis, looking for subject matter that is not so familiar. The list might be overwhelming, but it is important to identify the areas where we need to investigate further. Of course, there are always going to be the unusual cases where we have to really think on our feet and research later; but as court interpreters, we know what case types come up most often.

For example, we see many cases of domestic violence, but:

  • How much do we really know about how a bruise heals?
  • What skin features will tend to show red marks longer, or what skin types tend to injure more easily?
  • Where are bruises not likely to have been caused by a fall?
  • What is the thought process that one might go through when an argument begins to escalate, and how does this affect decisions and the body’s reactions to stress? It is easy to see that there are many aspects that we might take for granted about our knowledge in an extremely common type of case. Once we have brainstormed the factors that might play into a particular type of case, we can hunt for resources in print and online to help us understand each factor about which we should learn more.

Never Stop Learning
Aspiring judiciary interpreters currently working in the medical field can rest assured that they will someday be able to apply medical knowledge to work in the courts. In fact, most of the felony trials for which I have interpreted have involved testimony about some sort of injury, or have required an understanding of thought processes, attitudes, or triggers for criminal behavior. Even if we are already comfortable with the subject matter that commonly comes up in court, it is still important to keep an open mind and analyze where we can stand to broaden our knowledge concerning the medical field, the human body, the mind, the major diseases, and life and death.

As we grow in our profession as judiciary interpreters, we have to be looking continually for ways to improve our knowledge in countless areas. Knowing that medically-related themes are so common to court trials, it is incumbent upon us to go beyond the typical expert testimony glossaries. We must analyze the case types we see and brainstorm all of the aspects of mental and physical well-being that could come into play. With endless resources at our fingertips, we can no longer be limited to knowing only what we have picked up over the course of our career. The time we take to think beyond this will serve us well, and take our performance to new levels.

Language Neutral Sites for Medical Terminology
Here are some of the sites to help you in your study of medical terminology. You should also search for bilingual glossaries, non-English medical websites, and sites by physicians who offer expert witness testimony services.

100 Best Sites and Resources for Med Students

Videos of Surgical Procedures

Medical Terminology Activities: Prefixes, Roots, and Suffixes
(This site lists activities to help you learn commonly used prefixes, suffixes, and
roots in human anatomy and physiology.)

Medical Transcription Dictionary and Abbreviations

Jennifer De La Cruz is a federally certified court interpreter and ATA-certified Spanish<>English translator. She is a full-time staff court interpreter in Southern California. She has taught both medical and legal interpreting for over 10 years and has extensive experience as an interpreter and translator in the acute care hospital setting. Contact: