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4 Trouble Spots in Spanish <> English Medical Interpreting


During my weekly medical interpreting, I’ve had the chance to speak with patients of several nationalities, especially Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Argentinians. I’ve also been able to chat with dozens of Spanish-speaking healthcare professionals, patients, and other interpreters and learned various ways to express medical ideas in Spanish. Here are 4 points for English-speaking interpreters, translators, and healthcare professionals.

An explanation of how to treat a sinus infection in El Salvador. Source: Wikimedia

An explanation of how to treat a sinus
infection in El Salvador. Source: Wikimedia

“Arthritis in my foot”: Spanish Medical Synecdoche

Referring to something by a part of the whole thing is called synecdoche and there are a few common Spanish examples that anyone working in healthcare should be familiar with. Spanish 'pie' literally means 'foot' but is commonly used to mean 'leg' and arthritis in your leg could really be in your knee! In each case, only context and patient gestures can clarify what exactly is meant. If you're not sure, ask!
Yo tengo artritis en el pie. I have arthritis in my foot/leg/knee.
Me duele la pierna. My leg/knee hurts.

Everyday medical Spanish

Like English, medical Spanish exists on a continuum from more formal specialist language to more common / everyday language. I've pulled out some pairs below of more specialized vs. more everyday words. In each case, both are likely to be understood by most speakers, but if there is a communication problem, it can help to explain using the less formal option.

Don’t leave personal articles unattended!

One of the first things most people learn in Spanish is not to use personal pronouns with body parts, so we say "el ojo" instead of "mi ojo". However, the person whose body part it is often crops up elsewhere in the sentence, as in these examples:

Apriéteme la mano. Squeeze my hand.
Voy a sacarle sangre. I’m going to take your blood.
Voy a tomarle la temperatura. I’m going to take your temperature.
Voy a sacarle una radiografía / una placa. I’m going to take an X-Ray.
Voy a pedirle unos análisis de sangre. I’m going to request some blood tests.

Commonly-used English among Spanish speakers

The hardest thing in medical Spanish is sometimes understanding the English words that are used in Spanish! Some English words have become more common than the 'actual' Spanish whereas some are practically unknown. Speaking Spanish in the US sometimes means, as T.S. Eliot would say: “to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Olivia Barrett