domingo, 23 de febrero de 2014

Modern Interpreter/Translator Skills 5

Okay, so there are many things in life that we use daily, with ease, but have no idea how they work. At least not all the details, we don’t. For example, we all drive around in cars. But, how do they work, exactly? Few people understand all the details. Yet, not many people have trouble getting into the cars, turning on the ignition and mosey on down the road.

Well, one of those daily-use thingies which not everybody knows how they work, exactly, is the Internet. Specifically, I’m referring to the World Wide Web. Yes, Virginia, they are different things: the Internet is the network of interconnected computers which can access and share information with each other by means of a common protocol of communication. The World Wide Web is just a part of the Internet, where the information is available in documents accessible through hyperlinks. I recommend that you read the Wikipedia articles on both subjects. Here are the links:

Anyhoozle… So, as we were saying, the World Wide Web (WWW) has a lot of content. I mean it, tons: It’s a huge collection of data, text, images, videos, and other stuff. How does one find something in it? Well, that’s why search engines were invented. As far back as 1993 there were some valiant efforts in finding ways to navigate through all the information available online. Sure, back then there were just a few thousand things in the Internet, so it seemed easy. But the contents of the virtual world have been growing exponentially, and it becomes more difficult each day to find specific information. In the present time, we all can count on Google to search that huge ocean of data and find things that might be of interest to us. We use keywords, which then Google tries to match to its indexes in order to give us lists of documents which might contain the keyword of our search.

It’s wonderful, but as with many things, how Google finds stuff for you is also widely (and wildly) misunderstood. Many people think that Google shows them everything there is related to their search. False. Google only estimates the amount of documents which just might have the information you are looking for. It has some very complicated and advanced algorithms which determine how many results you could probably find for your search, according to certain restrictions. For example, your location matters a lot. Google has whole buildings filled to the rafters with servers, in order to scour the Internet with their special programs called “spiders” or “bots.” These tiny programs go to any WWW address and start “reading” the page, following all the hyperlinks it finds. That information is stored in something called a “cache.” When you type your keyword in the Google search engine, it takes that keyword and matches it to all the “pictures” it took of documents with its “spiders,” and shows you the list of possible matches. It’s up to you to follow the link in order to connect to the specific server that contains the actual information. So that means that, depending on where you are physically connected to the Internet, Google will find all the probable matches to your query locally.

But that’s not all: Google works actually as a marketing tool, and it records all the interactions you have with its search engine in order to provide a more… personalized experience, to call it something. The reason why it customizes or personalizes the results it shows you is because then it can suggest a few sites where you can buy goods or services, and Google will make money if you follow those links. Have you noticed all those ads on the side bar of Google, and all those “sponsored” sites? Well, Google is really hoping you will visit those sites and buy stuff from them, so that they can make some money.

Is that bad, you ask? Well, not really, except that, in order to customize your search, Google leaves out a lot of information that might be pertinent to your search, and which you would find out only if you were not being targeted for commerce. That is the sticking point. Many proponents of confidentiality, and privacy watchdogs, worry that companies like Google have so much information about their users, especially because hardly anyone realizes they are being catalogued and classified. You might think that Google (or other services on the Internet) cannot possibly know all that much about you just because you used their search engine, but, boy, oh, boy, you are in for a surprise. The “cookies” which are placed in your computer when you interact with an Internet service give them access to many personal details. Not only can they know the kind of computer you’re using, or the Internet provider of your connection, but also they can find out where you live, your phone number, your social security number, your weight, the color of your eyes, and what you dreamt last night… Well, maybe not the last thing…

Or can they? (Insert ominous music here)

The point is, with all this targeted information being directed at you as a potential costumer for goods and services, a filter bubble begins forming around you. Every time you interact with the Internet, your results are being fine-tuned to your preferences, more and more each time, until a moment comes when no information that might displease you or bother you will reach you. You will, in fact, only be receiving information which agrees completely with your tastes. And that’s okay, if you’re not interested in finding out about the real world.

What can be done in order to avoid this filter bubble? I’m glad you asked. There are other services which are not interested in selling you anything. As a matter of fact, there is a website known as “Wolfram Alpha” (, which is not really a search engine. Instead, it’s a “computational engine.” It accepts your queries and “calculates” the answer. Instead of showing you just a list of documents which might include the information you’re searching, they use a knowledge database in order to calculate answers for you. You can ask not only about the meaning of a Trigonometry function, but also for the results of it. It’s pretty cool, if you’re interested in finding out how things actually work.

And, if you’re worried about your personal information being spied out of your computer so that corporations can sell you things, then you can go to websites like “DuckDuckGo” (, which is actually a search engine, but they have no filters and do not store any user information… or at least that’s their claim.

I recommend that you burst your own filter bubble!

sábado, 22 de febrero de 2014

Modern Interpreter/Translator Skills 4

MediBabble is an “app” available for iPhone or iPad, which consists of over 2,500 questions used for physical exams. The wording of the questions allows patients to simply answer yes or no, point to a part of their body, express numbers by raising fingers, or interact with the screen (as for when providing birth dates and such.) It was created by a team of doctors, medical translators, and programmers based on an idea two doctors had while doing Practicals as residents, when they suffered much frustration for the lack of resources available to communicate with LEP’s. The app requires only to be downloaded, and then it doesn’t need to connect to the internet again in order to fully function. This app is offered free of charge, and was sponsored by Apple, Google, and other corporations. It does not have “ads,” but anyone can “donate” money through PayPal in order to support the further development of this app. At the present time, seven languages are available (Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, and Russian.)

The app is very intuitive, since it is organized in the usual way that a physical exam is conducted. The main sections are:
• Introductions & Explanations
• Chief Complaint
• History of Present Illness
• Past Medical History
• Medications & Allergies
• Family & Social History
• Review of Systems
• Physical Exam
• Follow-up Questions

These sections branch out into many more specific fields. For example, for Chief Complaint you can go to Constitutional, Cardiovascular, Pulmonary, etc., with more specific questions as you branch out further. Also, there is a section where the app stores the 50 most recent phrases used, so that answers can be reviewed quickly, when in doubt.

As a professional medical interpreter, I find this app very impressive and much more useful than many of the current automatic translators, such as iTranslate and Google Translator. It is obvious that the use of an iPad would enhance the functionality of the MediBabble app: in order to accommodate for the needs of the hard of hearing or the deaf, if you turn your device’s display sideways, the current question being played displays a large cue card, easy to read. Also, in noisy environments, the use of headphones is very easy to set up: just plug them in and play. All the questions are read by a feminine voice, because it is easier to understand.

I have spent quite a considerable amount of time listening to the translations, and so far there hardly have been any dangerous mistranslations. There are times when the question cue card has the proper translation, but the person reading the question in Spanish says something else. There are a few times when the words are mispronounced. And there are very few times when the translation is not appropriate at all. For example, there is a question about “bone marrow,” but the translation asks about “médula espinal (spinal cord).”

In general terms, I would recommend the use of this product but with certain caveats. For example, I believe it could be very useful as a Triage tool and for less urgent care, especially if displayed in an iPad. The larger screen and better speakers of the device would lend themselves to a much better experience. I believe that for more detailed medical histories it might become very tedious for both interviewer and interviewee. Besides, the medical staff using the device and app would have to be very familiar with all the questions available in order to effectively navigate the 2,500 options. Also, for more intricate clinical conditions, the medical staff might find the use of a device a bit alienating, and a barrier to developing personal rapport with their LEP patients.

Here is a sample list of mistranslations of the first two sections of the app, with the explanation as to whether it is a factual mistake or a subjective misuse of register: Throughout the whole series of translations “visits” are translated as “visitas” when it should be “consultas.”

Introductions & Explanations: Explanations/Instructions
• “No” (no audio)

Introductions & Explanations: Introductions
• In the 4 questions that have the word “terapeuta (therapist)” in them, the voice reads “terapAuta.”
• In “Vine a controlar cómo se siente (I’ve come to check how you are feeling),” the voice reads “vine a controlar los medicamentos (I’ve come to check on your medicines).”
• In “Vine a cambiarle la ropa blanca (I’ve come to change your linens),” the voice reads “vine a cambiarle las sábanas (I’ve come to change your sheets).”
• In “Vine a cambiarle los apósitos (I’ve come to change your bandages),” it should be “vendajes.”
• In “Vine a cambiarle las líneas intravenosas (I’ve come to change your intravenous lines),” the voice reads “intravAnosas.” And it should be “vías” instead of “líneas.”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Constitutional
• In “Alguno de los siguientes problemas es el motivo de su visita: mareos, fatiga, fiebre o escalofríos, sudoración nocturna, nódulos linfáticos dolorosos o hinchados, debilidad muscular o variación del peso (is the reason for your visit one of the following: dizziness, fatigue, fever or chills, night sweats, swollen or painful lymph nodes, muscle weakness or weight change),” the voice reads “fÁtiga (wrong emphasis)” and “varAción (missed the letter i).” It should be noted that throughout the rest of the questions, every time the word “sweat” or “perspiration” is mentioned, the translation is almost always “transpiración,” which might not correspond to “sweat” directly.
• In “¿Experimenta vértigo, mareos o una sensación de que el mundo gira a su alrededor? (Are you experiencing dizziness, lightheadedness, or a sensation that the world is spinning around you?),” is difficult to justify “vértigo” for “dizziness” since in the previous question it was translated as “mareo.” And “lightheadedness” is mostly “aturdimiento,” rather than “mareo.”
• In “¿Ha experimentado sudoración nocturna…? (Have you been experiencing night sweats…?,” the voice reads “expIrimentado sudUración…”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: HEENT
• In the first question it says “afonía” for “hoarseness,” which presents two problems: it should be “disfonía,” but the register is different and should be instead “ronquera.” Besides, the voice reads “afÓnia (wrong emphasis).”
• In “Escucha un sonido resonante, rápido, pulsante o similar a un chasquido en el oído? (Are you hearing a ringing, rushing, pulsing, or clicking sound in your ear?),” the actual translation for “ringing” should be “de zumbido;” “rushing,” “como de un torrente;” and “clicking,” “chasquido,” without the “similar a un.”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Cardiovascular
• In “Alguno de los siguientes problemas es el motivo de su visita: malestar en el pecho, latidos anormales, desmayos, hinchazón o tumefacción en las piernas, los pies o el abdomen (Is the reason for your visit one of the following: chest discomfort; an abnormal heartbeat; fainting; or swelling or puffiness in your legs, feet or abdomen?,) the voice reads “lÁtidos” (wrong emphasis.) Also, “tumefacción” is a higher-register synonym for “swelling.” I’m not sure what difference there might be between “swelling” and “puffiness.”
• Then, in “Recientemente, ¿ha notado alguna hinchazón o tumefacción en alguna parte del cuerpo? (Have you recently noticed any swelling or puffiness anywhere on your body?),” there’s that word again. The voice omits “tumefacción.”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Female Reproductive
• In “Are you experiencing any pain, itching, burning or unusual discharge from your vagina?” there’s no audio.

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Neurological
• In “Is the reason for your visit one of the following: headaches, confusion, memory loss, difficulty walking or standing, tremor or seizures?” the translation for “tremor” says “estremecimientos,” which is closer to “shudders” or “shaking,” and should be “temblores.”
• The same happens in “Do you have a tremor, or have you noticed shaking or trembling in any part of your body?” Tremor should be “temblor.”
• In the last two questions the written translation reads “alguien de su entorno” but the voice says “alguien a su alrededor.”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Dermatologic
• In “El motivo de su visita es una afección cutánea o un sarpullido?” the voice says “vista” instead of “visita.”

Chief Complaint: Chief Complaint: Psychiatric
• In “Recientemente, ¿se ha sentido depresivo, triste, irritable o afligido?” the voice says “a punto de lágrimas” instead of “afligido.”
• In “¿Su capacidad de funcionar normalmente se ve afectada por nerviosismo, ansiedad o miedo excesivo?” it should say “excesivos.”

viernes, 21 de febrero de 2014

Modern Interpreter/Translator Skills 3

In the beginning, when the Internet moved at the slow pace of 56k modems, and computers were still not very powerful with only Pentium III’s onboard, the dream of having an automatic translator seemed a science fiction dream, only possible in movies and books. As a matter of fact, the author Douglas Adams invented a universal translator for his 1979 book “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In his book, space travelers needed only to place a tiny fish in their ear to hear any language in the known universe translated directly into their brain. The little fish was called a Babelfish.

Fast forward to the early Nineteen-nineties, and the website Altavista became one of the very first websites to offer a free online multi-language automatic translator. It was called “Babelfish,” and it’s still available for use online. In this website you can enter a word or a phrase and ask the website to translate it into your language of choice, from a list of available languages. For the most part, it works pretty well, but sometimes there are many errors because of the context or because of how idiomatic your phrase might be. However, it still took a lot of time to turn on your computer, open a browser, go to the website and then type all the information you wanted translated. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could have a real-time automatic translator? Well, that still seemed a science fiction dream…

Except not. Fast forward again to the last years of the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, when, with much fanfare, Google announced that shortly they would be able to add voice recognition to their own version of their free online automatic translator “Google Translate.” For a few years Google had been developing their online automatic translator, and it grew from being a website similar to Altavista’s Babelfish to being a plug-in for any web browser (a plug-in is an auxiliary program that runs additional functionality to a web browser; for example, the search bar on the tool bar of the browser is a plug-in). Google Translate was even able to translate whole web pages from one language to another with a few simple clicks of the mouse. But soon enough the voice recognition programs were powerful enough to understand most anybody, and they were incorporated to the Translate application. The result was a website in which you pressed a button and recorded a phrase, and the program would automatically translate what was said and spoke the translated text back to you!

Fast forward again to a few years later. The proliferation of “smart phones” and ultra-fast wireless Internet connections made possible for anyone who owned one of these devices to connect remotely to the Internet. People were able to install “apps” into their phones, which allowed them to use their phone as a portable computer. One of the apps available is, of course, Google Translate. Now anyone can have an automatic translator in the palm of their hand. And that is not the only automatic translator available. There are others, with varying degrees of dependability and accuracy. Of several I have seen, the better ones seem to be Google Translate and iTranslate (except this last one offers only limited functionality for free, and full service for a fee.)

But how reliable or useful are these automatic translators in the medical field? Now, that’s the $64,000 question. As an interpreter, I can tell you that all those programs are not only impressive in their technological prowess, but also in their high level of accuracy. Long gone are the days when all automatic translators made laughable mistakes. The way they work is that, in several buildings choke-full of servers, at several locations in different countries, there are vast and extensive databases of terminology available for these programs to be able to translate not only automatically, but also in real-time. However, they do depend a lot on the skill of the user. For example, if you are not familiar with the more standard language of your native tongue and rely too much on idiomatic expressions, the error factor in the translation is very large. And sometimes you have to know more or less what the grammatical structure of the foreign language would allow before you submit your phrase to be translated. If you cannot formulate your phrases accordingly, you will get the wrong translation. A pretty straight forward example is the simple phrase, “when he ate last?” (when talking about a patient.) Both Google Translate and iTranslate make valiant efforts in translating this phrase, with varying results which could be usable, but will still be mostly incorrect. A human interpreter might never have difficulties with this phrase, because he understands the context of the phrase. But a machine, as powerful and efficient as it might be, still depends on the user to give it sufficient information for it to perform correctly. In this case, the user might be better served if he were to ask, “at what time did he eat the last meal?” This phrase seems cumbersome and stilted, but it would yield a better automatic translation into Spanish than the more idiomatic and common phrase.

I imagine that, at the pace in which technology advances, in a few years all these problems of context might be resolved and the accuracy of automatic translators might start to rival that of human interpreters.

But even then, there will be many other considerations, such as cultural brokerage or advocacy, which cannot be downloaded in an app.

jueves, 20 de febrero de 2014

Modern Interpreter/Translator Skills 2

So, how fast can y’all type? Give this website a try:

Here you will find a short and easy typing speed test. It asks you to click “start” on the clock and then copy the example paragraph. When you’re done you click “stop” and it measures how long it took you to type the paragraph and how many mistakes you made. Then it shows you your typing speed in words per minute. So far, my best speed is 66 words per minute. Can you beat my score?

One of the most basic skills that can help quite a lot in the daily interactions with your computer is the ability to “touch-type.” This is a skill that requires you to know where all the letters are located on the keyboard and to be able to type without looking at your fingers. Sure, it requires practice. And I mean it: a lot of practice. When I was a teen I used to go to a middle-school that didn’t have any cool “elective classes” like all the other schools: In some schools you can choose automotive shop, wood shop, drafting (technical drawing), art, music, band, orchestra, spaceship design, or whatever it is that cool schools offer their students. No, in my middle school we only had “secretarial skills.” In that class they taught you to write in short-hand (and not even the cool “Gregg method shorthand,” but the nerdy Pitman instead) and to “touch-type” (also known as mechanography). We had a very stern teacher (a little bit too… Prussian, if you know what I mean), and she made us practice and practice and practice. And for a break, she made us practice some more. But it all worked out fine for me. See? Thirty years later I can still type at a reasonably fast pace. Of course, there’re people who can type way faster. My wife used to type 95 wpm! I know, it’s disgustingly fast, I know…

However, this is one skill that you will have to develop on your own. Fortunately, in the age of the Internet there are many places where you can get lessons for free. You could even get a learning method installed in your computer, or you could enroll in college in order to acquire this very useful skill. I highly recommend that you try to learn touch-typing. It takes a lot of effort, but it’s worth it, IMHO*!

Here’s a link to a site that offers free lessons:

Go forth, and happy typing!

• In Internet-parlance, many phrases are shortened to acronyms. “IMHO” means “in my humble
opinion.” So now you know.

miércoles, 19 de febrero de 2014

Modern Interpreter/Translator Skills 1

As you might have heard, technology will never replace you as an interpreter: an interpreter who uses technology will replace you, no problem!

In the next series of essays I will try to convey information that might be common knowledge to some, but will be useful to all. It’s not a matter of taking everything you already know and jettison it in order to acquire brand new knowledge. It is not such a radical departure from your knowledge base, but the rapid advances in technology do put pressure on all of us to find ways to incorporate those changes into our every activity, especially in regards to the performance of our duties as interpreters/translators. All the information that will be shared should be considered as one more viable option for “doing things,” and not an imposition on you to drop everything you are already doing and adopting somebody else’s way of “doing things.”

For instance, a large part of our duties include a hefty amount of computer usage. From reading work-related emails to checking terminology in online dictionaries to charting our activities, we all are obliged to interact with computerized systems. We all must interact with computers, and we all must be proficient in the general environment of computers. Most computers are controlled by means of a QWERTY keyboard and a mouse. At times, this is cumbersome and tedious, since it is not an “intuitive” activity. The secret to improve your computer experience is to avoid “wasted motion” as much as possible. For this, you must learn which “shortcuts” are available for each particular program you might use, and for the general Windows environment.

For example, in Windows 7 you can log off your session by grabbing the mouse and locating first the cursor and then the “Start” bubble, click to open it, click to open the “Shut down” submenu, and finally clicking on “log off.” Or you could use the following shortcut and avoid any unnecessary fiddling with the mouse:

Windows key   -->   -->   "L" key

By using this keyboard shortcut, the computer will know to close all open programs and log off the current user. There are many combinations of keys that work in many programs across the Windows environment. The most useful are CTRL+C (copy), CTRL+V (paste), and CTRL+X (cut). Also, the navigation keys are more convenient to use than the mouse in many instances, like when you are writing a document and you need to copy and paste a text selection, but have problems highlighting the precise selection. To use the directional keys to highlight a selection, instead of using the mouse by placing the cursor on the beginning of your selection, pressing and holding down the left button, and then dragging the cursor until the end of your selection, all you need to do is move the cursor to the beginning of the selection, hold down the SHIFT key, and then use the directional keys to advance the cursor to the desired position.

For a more comprehensive list of shortcuts, please read this link: 

There you will find many interesting tips, especially the ones about assigning your own shortcuts to the Office suite.

Small things, all of these shortcuts, but they can help to avoid “wasted motion,” and keep you focused on the actual task at hand, not on your dexterity.

¡Mini WordReference!

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