Date Authored: September 23, 2016


Interpreters provide services in one of two modes – consecutive or simultaneous. In the consecutive mode, the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish a sentence or an idea, and then renders the speaker’s words into the target language. In the simultaneous mode, the interpreter listens and renders the interpretation at the same time as the speaker, producing the target language only seconds after the speaker provides the original message.

Additionally, interpreters are often asked to perform sight translation in which they read a document (e.g. letters, patient forms, educational material, etc.) out loud into the target language. Sight translation is a supplemental skill that requires different abilities than consecutive or simultaneous interpreting. Sight translation is not as easy as it may look.

The following videos help to illustrate examples of when it is appropriate for interpreters to sight translate documents and when it is not. At times, due to content or length, it may be inadvisable or inappropriate for interpreters to sight translate. These vignettes include two illustrations of inappropriate requests, two illustrations of appropriate requests, examples of how to manage these types of situations, and debrief discussions about each scenario.

Scenario 1

In this video, the doctor asks the interpreter to sight translate a lengthy pamphlet about his disease process. While it is very useful information for the patient, the interpreter explains the reasons why she refuses to sight translate and some options for getting the necessary information to the patient (e.g. contact the Interpreter Services Department or an outside agency so a thorough and accurate translation can be performed). Note that the interpreter explains that Spanish and English are structured differently, warranting special care in sight translation – this is even truer for languages less closely related to English or those that use different writing systems (e.g. Thai, Amharic, Arabic, etc.).

Discussion of Scenario 1

Scenario 2

During this encounter, the patient is being consented for an invasive procedure. The physician asks the interpreter to sight translate the consent form and the interpreter explains her rationale for not doing so while the physician tries to walk out of the room. The interpreter’s foremost role is to interpret between two or more present parties and never to obtain consent for a procedure – the provider consents while the interpreter interprets the message.

Discussion of Scenario 2

Scenario 3

In this scenario, the physician provides additional information to the patient via a handout. The interpreter gladly sight translates the one-page document with the provider present. Take note of the time that the interpreter spends to adequately scan and review the document. It may feel like it is a long period of silence, but it is necessary so the interpreter can sight translate without stumbling or suddenly halting, making comprehension more difficult.

Discussion of Scenario 3

Scenario 4

Even though a majority of sight translation in American medical settings may go from English into a target language, it is important to remember that an interpreter might need to sight translate from another language into English. Patients might bring medical records from their home country, certified documents, or, as in the case of this video, a letter of support. In each encounter, the interpreter must decide if documents are appropriate for sight translation and how to render them correctly.

Discussion of Scenario 4


Sight translation is a separate skill in addition to consecutive or simultaneous interpreting. A skilled interpreter will work with the provider, patient, and text to make sure that it is rendered accurately and efficiently. Consider these summarized points: 

  • One to two pages is generally an appropriate length for sight translation; however, topic and density are always considered.
  • The provider must remain present during the sight translation to clarify or answer any questions from the interpreter or patient. 
  • Seek additional resources for texts requiring document translation. 
  • Automated services like Google Translate, FaceTime, or Skype are never appropriate or secure for medical interpreting and translation needs.