KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Being Mindful of Gender as an Interpreter of a Gendered Language

I often find myself in discussions about LGBT+ topics with other interpreters, and these discussions are more and more frequently revolving around gender. Some interpreters find the idea of interpreting for patients who are non-cisgender (i.e.: transgender, nonbinary, etc.) to be difficult to wrap their heads around. Language shapes our world view, and as such if you are a native speaker of a historically gendered language such as Spanish, breaking free from that linguistic gender binary may seem like an insurmountable task.

Cisgender refers to people whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth. I was assigned female at birth, I identify as a woman, therefore I am cisgender.

With the increasing awareness and acceptance of non-cisgender people, more and more individuals are using gender-inclusive language. Like it or not, the reality is that gender-inclusive language is on the rise, and as interpreters it is our ethical responsibility to stay abreast of these linguistic changes.

Getting Started

If this all sounds like new territory for you, you likely feel a bit overwhelmed. You want to be sensitive to your patients’ and/or clients’ needs and preferences, but it’s no easy task to break free from established habits, linguistic or otherwise. Furthermore, interpreting mindfully about gender isn’t just about learning new vocabulary, but also about thinking about language and gender in a more open and fluid fashion. This is why breaking free from gendered language can be so intimidating: it’s also about a change in mentality.

To begin with, it’s helpful to think of some ways in which we are (or should be) mindful of gender when interpreting. Since my language pair is English/Spanish, those are the languages I will use in my examples.

Male or Female Nurse?

The word for nurse in Spanish is “enfermera” and it assumes the gender as feminine. Without any contextual clues, we are to assume that a nurse is female. This is based on a series of assumptions, namely that historically nursing has been a profession for women in medicine, whereas “doctor” is considered by default to be masculine.

But what if, without any context whatsoever, the receptionist tells your patient, “The nurse will call you shortly.” How do you interpret this in a way that is mindful of gender?

I usually interpret this as, “La enfermera o el enfermero le va a llamar pronto.” I include BOTH primary genders when interpreting for my patient. To be fair, this is still in keeping with a binary view of gender, but we are interpreting the ambiguity of the gender of the person who will be calling the patient.

The gender binary is a concept in some cultures that there are only two gender options: male or female.

I have run into situations before where the patient does not respond to someone because they are expecting a person of a certain gender. If you simply say “la enfermera” and a male nurse calls the patient, it’s not unheard of for the patient to think, “Well, they told me a female nurse would call me, so I’m not supposed to go with them. It’s the wrong nurse!”

It not our responsibility to impose our own assumptions on what we are interpreting. Even if we ourselves assume the nurse is female, nothing about what the receptionist said implies this, but rather implies gender ambiguity.


This is perhaps my favorite example because it comes with a riddle!

A father and son are in a car accident and the father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital. Just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on that boy; he’s my son!” How is this possible?

Many people are left confused by this riddle because of gender bias. Typically we conceive of doctors and surgeons as males, so it doesn’t compute that the fallen father is somehow alive and well and about to operate on his own son. The typical solution is that the surgeon is actually the boy’s mother, but they could easily be a gay man or non-cisgender spouse!

Gender bias is the preference or prejudice of one gender over another.

The fact remains that doctors are not just men, and this should be taken into account when interpreting. Some common questions I interpret for my patient are:

  • Who is your primary care doctor?
  • Who is the last doctor you saw for your condition?
  • Which doctor ordered this test?

Depending upon how you interpret these questions, you may get some different answers if you take on a very narrow view of gender. For instance let’s look at, “Who is the last doctor you saw for your condition?” If you interpret doctor as “doctor” (and not “doctor o doctora”) The patient may only think of the male doctors they’ve seen and not mention a female doctor they have seen, painting an incomplete picture of their medical history. As you can imagine, this could result in serious consequences for the patient.

How many children do you have?

The English word “children,” unlike doctor or nurse does not imply gender at all. However, the Spanish word for children “hijos” can also mean “male children.” There is no widely-used word in Spanish for children that is gender neutral. As such, it is imperative that “children” be interpreted as “hijos y hijas,” otherwise the patient may only answer about their male sons!

Moving Away From the Binary

All of the examples thus far have focused on a very binary view of gender (male/female) but have hopefully opened your eyes to being more mindful of gender biases and implicit gender in language. This is only a stepping stone to interpreting for non-cisgender (i.e.: transgender, non-gender-conforming, etc.) patients/clients. The ultimate goal when interpreting for this particular population is moving away from the binary entirely, or at the very least being able to switch into what I like to call “non-binary interpreting mode.”

But that’s a post for another day. Stay tuned for more posts and discussions about interpreting and gender!

I’d like to thank Carolyn Hutchinson, Ph.D., for their invaluable assistance with the writing and revisions of this article. Carolyn is a VAP in the department of biology and chemistry at TAMIU and a member of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals. They dedicate a lot of time outside the classroom to LGBT inclusion outreach.

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About the author

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

Kelly is a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. She work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical and mental health interpreter. Her passions include affirming interpretation for sexual and gender diverse populations, supporting interpreter mental health, and interpreting developmental-behavioral pediatrics.

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KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

I am a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. I work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical interpreter. Click here to read more about me.

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