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Lilia Karapetyan’s first experience as a medical interpreter came after a massive earthquake in her native Armenia in 1988. As foreign aid workers arrived, Karapetyan, who spoke English, volunteered to translate for American doctors. “Thousands were dying and many more injured,’’ she said. “Interpreters were needed everywhere. I hope I helped save lives.’’

Nine years later, Karapetyan immigrated to the United States and settled in the Watertown area, where she was inspired to become a liaison between the large Armenian community and the medical system. Today, Karapetyan, 54, works for Mount Auburn Hospital’s interpreter services department, translating for Armenian and Russian patients.


“The interpreter is only the voice of the patient and doctor,’’ she said. “You can’t add your own personal emotions, feelings, or thoughts, otherwise the doctor doesn’t know if it’s the interpreter speaking or the patient.’’

How did you learn to speak English?

My mother was an English teacher in Armenia, and my first English teacher as well.

What sort of patients do you typically interpret for at Mount Auburn?

Many of the Armenians moved to this country in their late 60s or 70s to be with children and grandchildren. Some are uneducated small villagers; others are highly educated architects, dentists, and scientists. Some can read English, but have difficulty speaking or understanding doctors when they talk. I have interpreted for Armenians from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia, of course, as well as Russians from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Uzbekistan.

Do you keep a log of expressions and terminology, since new terms arise all the time?

I have notebooks in my home and office, and as I learn new procedures I add them to my vocabulary.

What’s an example of phrase that’s challenging to interpret?

When I first started I didn’t understand “Can’t keep anything down.’’ You just have to know what it means. The exact translation doesn’t make too much sense.


How can cultural misunderstandings lead to complications or problems in treatment?

Sometimes a patient will refuse a cup of water with ice cubes after having surgery. The doctors and nurses think they are being difficult or are confused, but in my culture, if you are sick, you drink only room temperature water or tea. Another example is when patients are told they will be seen by a nurse practitioner, they get upset, thinking that a “practicing’’ nurse, not a real one with a license, is going to experiment with their treatment.

My job is not only to interpret, but to be patients’ guide to the American medical culture.