• Johnny Romero

Let’s Talk Sight Translation! What It Is & What It Isn’t

Updated: 21 hours ago



A professional Interpreter is not the same as a professional Translator.

Why is understanding the difference essential?

To say an Interpreter and Translator are interchangeable is like saying a musician (singer, pianist, guitarist, etc.) can play any musical instrument.

Truth be told, to play any musical instrument (voice, piano, guitar, etc.) at a professional level, requires a level of talent, skills, and training. Like a musician, the professional Interpreter and Translator share a level of proficiency in Language Arts, but their “instruments” (spoken vs written word) are uniquely distinct.

Just like musical genres vary for musicians, so do the specialized skills for the professional Interpreter and Translator such as medical, legal, or business.

All about Sight Translation

“Sight” translation is defined by the IMIA* as: “a useful way to verbally communicate the contents of a document, particularly when time is of the essence. To accomplish this, a person reads from a source document and immediately speaks the information in the target language.”

It’s important to note “written translation” is a profession that requires formal education with its own certification body (ATA: https://www.atanet.org/) and is outside the scope of work of a qualified or certified Medical Interpreter. By definition, and in most cases, the Medical Interpreter is untrained and/or unqualified to perform “written” document translation.

In the unique exception that a qualified or certified Medical Interpreter is also a qualified or certified Translator, they would need to be explicitly contracted as such. The following highlights from the referenced sources show that only “sight” translation is an acceptable mode of interpretation for the Medical Interpreter and even that has limits which require a certain level of skills:

NCIHC Standards of Professionalism (https://www.ncihc.org/assets/media/ncihc%20national%20standards%20of%20practice.pdf)

22. The interpreter avoids sight translation, especially of complex or critical documents, if he or she lacks sight translation skills.

IMIA Guide on Medical Interpreter Ethical Conduct (https://www.imiaweb.org/uploads/pages/376_2.pdf)

2. Accuracy


• Select the language and mode of interpretation that best conveys the content and spirit of client messages.


3. Professionalism

• Refrain from accepting assignments beyond professional skills, language fluency or level of training.

IMIA Guide on Medical Translation 1/2009 - Pg. 2, par. 8-9 (https://www.imiaweb.org/uploads/pages/823..pdf)

Are all interpreters qualified to provide translation services?

No, unless they meet the previously described profile, and are thus qualified to translate. In actual practice, however, interpreters are some of the first people called on to perform either written translation or sight translation (an instant transfer from written to verbal language), whether or not they have the skills to do this. “In no case, however, should a translation meant for publication be translated by somebody other than a professional translator. To do so is to risk releasing erroneous information, with all its implications, legal and otherwise.”


To say an Interpreter and Translator are interchangeable is like saying a musician (singer, pianist, guitarist, etc.) can play any musical instrument.

The next paragraph states and illustrates it this way: “Are all bilingual medical practitioners qualified to translate documents? No. Bilingual medical practitioners would need to have the profile described above to translate competently. Just like the medical profession, translation is a profession that must be taken seriously, and which requires formal education in certain areas as well as specific skills. A medical doctor would not allow a tailor to perform surgery on a patient just because the tailor’s expertise at cutting, and by the same token bilingual medical staff should not be asked to, or be expected to perform translation work just because they have a level of fluency in a particular language, often acquired in a family environment and not formally.


Compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

According to the document found at www.healthlaw.org/library/attachment.120355

Item nine in the same document lists recommendations for providers as to when to have materials translated to ensure compliance with Title VI.


Section 1557 of Affordable Care Act (ACA) (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/2016-06-07-section-1557-final-rule-summary-508.pdf) “Covered entities are prohibited from using low-quality video remote interpreting services or relying on unqualified staff, translators when providing language assistance services.”

In conclusion, “written” document translation (pen to paper) by a qualified or certified Medical Interpreter not only goes against the standards and Code of Ethics, but is:

  1. A legal liability for the Provider, the Patient, and namely the Interpreter.

  2. Risks violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (referenced on both national certification tests) and/or Section 1557 of ACA (detailed above).

  3. Is wrong and unacceptable as outlined by the seven common values specifically: Accuracy and Professionalism (detailed above) that are found in the IMIA, NCIHC, and CHIA Code of Ethics which are measured and tested by both the NBCMI and CCHI certification bodies.

  4. Violates the very standards that Colorado 2022 DOWC Rule 18-7 intends to enforce. (https://cdle.colorado.gov/sites/cdle/files/documents/Rule_18_7_H_Interpreters_Adopted.pdf)

Put simply, sight translation is a big deal, but knowing what it encompasses and what it doesn’t serves you whether you are an Interpreter, Language Professional, or Client. Your education, support, and execution within the standards of professionalism and code of ethics, will be “music” to everyone’s ears.



* International Medical Interpreters Association

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