Approached by the State Government of Victoria, I had the pleasure to do medical interpreting for 24 Shanghai hospital presidents for their Melbourne visit.

The 5-day intensive programme consists of presentations, site visits and plenty of Q&As. It covers the University of Melbourne, hospitals, and research institutes in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.

Challenges and coping strategies
Understand the interpreting requirement, as it varies case by case

The interpreting from my past assignments was that delegates didn’t need to have all the details, but just a summary of each slide. So my interpreting was slide by slide. For this project, however, the delegates are passionate to learn and requested to know all the details of the talk. I thus interpret with a few sentences’ intervals to give a thorough picture, which puts high demands on both linguistic and medical understanding; – but again, you grow at work!

When slides are not available beforehand

This is because either the content is confidential, or the speakers are too busy on other tasks, and they may only have time to finalise the slides at the last minute, leaving no time for the interpreter to prepare beforehand. Here being in allied health and having a relevant background become vital to doing an excellent job. It also gives delegates confidence and trust in me knowing I have a PhD in Biomedical Sciences as well as many years of experience interacting with clinicians.

Always take notes

Taking notes is critical for accurate interpreting. A speaker can reveal a lot of information before it’s my turn to interpret, esp. when there are figures, numbers, and lists involved. Developing an efficient and fast note-taking method is highly helpful.

Be calm dealing with complex medical terms

Being adaptable and resourceful is key to successful medical interpreting. You never know what a speaker will talk about next that you have no idea of. The challenge is, you can never prepare enough to know everything. On the other hand, no one knows all in interpreting medical specialities, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Dealt with well, it can be an excellent opportunity to build rapport with the audience and the speaker. I find the two ways below working very well.

  • When I spot an unknown word, at the next possible pause, I’d immediately ask the speaker. Usually, the speaker will rephrase for me to understand and interpret.
  • Sometimes the word is a medical jargon, and it can be hard to explain. When this happens, I’ll open the floor for the English-speaking delegates to help me out. I never failed to solicit answers from the expert audience. In fact, they responded with enthusiasm. Asking for help gives them an opportunity to showcase their expertise among the peers, and they welcome it.
Be on-time

It is so obvious, but so important. Always be punctual. Better yet, arrive 10-15 minutes earlier if you can, to familiarise yourself with the speakers, audience, and the environment. Being on-time also shows the delegates in action that you are reliable and trustworthy.

Imagine an interpreter shows up late; – what chaos it may cause! The whole program has to start behind schedule to accommodate one individual.

Satisfaction knowing I am bridging communications

Although exhausted at the end of each day, my work brings about great satisfaction, knowing my professional services are helping both the Australian and Chinese sides.

Half of the delegates don’t speak English. Without an interpreter, English slides coupled with English presentation would mean nothing to them, and the whole purpose of the visit would be negated. My satisfaction arises when after each presentation, there are heated discussions, showing the delegates are engaged deeply.

About half of the delegates speak English at various levels. At the beginning of the program, several interact with the speakers in English, which is understandable as they are unsure whether my interpreting is good enough to capture the medical terminology. With time goes on and every day with 10+ interpreting sessions, they come to trust it’s safe to leave communication at my hand. Later all the questions during the Q&A session, be it from English- or non-English speaking delegates, are in Chinese. What a great affirmation of my work!

Gaining praise from bilingual colleagues

Some delegates and presenters are bilingual Chinese. If I make a mistake, someone will always notice. I was thrilled when a professor at the University of Melbourne, originally from Taiwan, approached me and complimented that I did an excellent job. —He was there for a quality check of my interpreting. How uplifting it felt to know I passed with flying colours! He was even more impressed knowing I interpreted impromptu.

A wonderful learning experience

I was privileged to have this precious opportunity to learn. The truth is, I am the one who learned the most, as I have to make sure I understand to be able to interpret accurately. I was fortunate to immerse myself into learning, which would otherwise not be accessible to me as a small business owner.

Having completed one of the most complex medical interpreting projects in my career, I also gained valuable experience to boost my skills to a new level.

Now, I’m ready to tackle the next medical interpreting project!

Amanda Xiaoqing Mao, PhD is a B2B bilingual Chinese medical writer, interpreter and translator based in Melbourne, Australia. Her medical interpreting clients include governments, universities, hospitals and industry in Australia and China. Having obtained a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Missouri – Columbia, she worked for eight years in the medical and health industry in China. For more information contact her at