Since 2017, Yvonne Simpson has been actively participating as a trainer and events organizer for the Community Interpreter Division at NOTIS, promoting professionalism and excellence in interpreting in service of our region’s diverse language communities. She officially joined the NOTIS Board of Directors in March of 2022, and we couldn’t be happier to have her!
Below is our conversation with Yvonne—NOTIS board member, Director of Interpreter Services at Harborview, hammock enthusiast, and interpreter extraordinaire.
Hello, Yvonne! When did you begin studying the Spanish language? What drew you to it?
My original intended course of study in college was journalism, a major that required a few semesters of a foreign language. I chose Spanish because I had brief exposure to the language in high school, although I needed to start with Spanish 1. My first instructor, a non-native Spanish speaker, was very engaging and encouraging. She made me think, “If she can learn the language, so can I!” Finding I enjoyed it so much, I ultimately changed my major and looked for every opportunity to learn and improve.
I've spoken to a lot of emerging translators and interpreters about the difficulty of breaking into their fields. After completing your degree in Spanish Sociolinguistics, how did you decide to get started as a medical interpreter?
When I lived in Arizona, a friend of mine was the director at a local community center and invited me to interpret at their weekend volunteer health events. At the time I had no formal training in medical interpreting, but when there was a job opening at a hospital in Phoenix, I decided to apply. I never thought they would offer me the position! Arizona does not have a medical certification credential, and I started in the field before the creation of national certifications, so I had weeks of on-the-job training and received a ton of collegial support from my coworkers.
What do you find most exciting about your work? Most challenging?
For me, working at a Level 1 Trauma Center is a great fit. I’m honored that we get to participate in such intimate moments of patients’ lives. It’s also really fun to meet colleagues from around the world (prior to COVID we had the best potlucks!). At our facility we share a common goal of putting the patients first and we use that objective to bring us together when there are differing views about how to manage issues. Certainly, the last two years have brought specific challenges: figuring out how to keep staff safe while caring for vulnerable populations, responding to community concerns about the pandemic response, as well as individual burnout. Many facilities are also currently challenged to provide in-person interpreting services, as it appears that many medical interpreters have moved to work in remote modalities or have left the field.
You’re currently working as Director of Interpreter Services at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, and you state in your bio that your work consists of “providing language access and culturally humble healthcare.” Can you explain what this means to you—both in theory and practice?
It’s important to me that the work that I do align with my values. I love that my work helps to assure that everyone in our community can meaningfully communicate with their healthcare providers. “Language access” refers to the tools or resources for meaningful communication. “Culturally humble” refers to the mindset that none of us can be culturally competent in any culture but our own; however, we sincerely open ourselves to learn about the cultural views, values, and practices of others. As medical interpreters, we serve as a bridge between the patient/community and the healthcare team. Our role is not limited to just transmitting individual words, rather we support clinicians to build trusting rapport with their patients and help patients successfully maneuver through the American medical system.
When and how did you first get involved with NOTIS? And what went into your decision to join the Board of Directors?
In 2017 I was invited by the Community Interpreter Division (CID) to facilitate a continuing education training. From there, I joined the CID and became Chair of the committee in late 2020. I’m grateful to be on the NOTIS Board of Directors to provide representation for the great work that the CID is doing for our members and our colleagues throughout the region.
Any words of advice for those interested in becoming medical interpreters?
A solid understanding of the American medical system is crucial, so read, learn, and ask as many questions as you can. Reach out to professionals already in the field to share their experiences with you - there are loads of us who would be happy to talk! For in-person interpreting jobs, certification will help open doors to opportunities. When you are on assignment, never feel ashamed to ask for clarification or explanation - you can’t interpret if you don’t understand the concept yourself. Practice makes progress.
Yvonne Simpson is certified as a Spanish Medical interpreter by the National Board (NBCMI) and Washington DSHS. She holds an MA in Spanish Sociolinguistics from Arizona State University. She taught Spanish at ASU and Phoenix College and was Lead Interpreter at a level 1 trauma center in Phoenix. Returning to her native Washington, she knew she wanted to work at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and she is now Director of Interpreter Services at that facility. There, she supports a team of interpreters, translators, and cultural mediators providing language access and culturally humble healthcare. Yvonne began participating with NOTIS in 2017 as a trainer for Community Interpreter Division workshops. Her favorite time of year is the summer when you can find her gardening, hiking, traveling, and swinging in her hammock.