While working as a social worker in Boston, Maria Vertkin found a new calling: helping homeless, often immigrant women learn to become medical interpreters. Vertkin, 31, is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Found in Translation, a Cambridge organization that has helped nearly 200 women receive certification to work as interpreters in the critical settings — hospitals and medical clinics. Named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs to watch, she spoke with the Globe about her own immigrant experience and why the program works.
1. Born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Vertkin was 11 years old when she arrived in Massachusetts to live with relatives. She founded the organization as a Kip Tiernan Social Justice Fellow (Tiernan started Rosie’s Place, the first women-only shelter in the United States). Vertkin doesn’t like to dwell on it, but she, too, was homeless for a period after coming to America.
“The cumulative pieces of my life led me to found this organization — being from a low-income background, emigrating twice, and [as a child] kind of being the guide to my family through these new worlds.”
2. Vertkin says her family was poor and in search of a better life, but the adults were often diminished by the immigration process — moving to a foreign place where their degrees didn’t count, and their experience went unappreciated.
“That led me to enter social work in the first place. A lot of people I was working with had a lot of life struggles and education and undervalued cultural wisdom and they were also bilingual. That’s a skill that’s very marketable if you dress it up right.”
3. Found in Translation is a 16-week program that offers selected participants a medical interpreter certificate free of charge. The program offers 100 hours of intensive sessions in anatomy, physiology, ethics, and other areas. Typically, it takes about three months after completion of the program to get a job.
“Just because you speak two languages doesn’t mean you can interpret. Just because you have two hands doesn’t mean you can play piano.”
4. Vertkin said the most of the program’s interpreters-in-training speak in-demand languages in the Boston area are Spanish, Haitian-Creole, Portuguese, and Arabic. The program has also trained interpreters in Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal. Medical interpreters are in demand because hospitals are required to relay medical information in a patient’s primary language, and not through a child interpreter or a stranger who happens to speak the same language. More than 400 women applied for the program’s most recent certification, but only 35 were accepted.
“We’re more competitive than most of Harvard’s grad schools. Our big hope is to bring this to more women who need it but we’re only able to train so many people at a time.”
5. It’s not just about relaying words. Pronouncing “hypo” and “hyper” correctly, for example, is critical, but so is conveying the proper tone and broader medical message to a patient.
“In interpreting, the words are only 20 percent. We communicate so much with tone and gestures, nods and winks.”Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.