Like most (all?) medical interpreters, I never imagined myself working in such a job.
When I came home after a year of study abroad at the University of Costa Rica, with less than a year of classes till graduation, I ditched school and began my restaurant career. The original plan was to make some quick money waitressing and head back to Costa Rica. I ended up in the kitchen. I worked with a lot of good guys who spoke Spanish, cooking Italian food. Lasagna. Pasta Bolognese. Tiramisu. We made friends. I made friends with their friends. They asked me to take their friends and their friends to the doctor.
Holy crap. How do you say “gallbladder” in Spanish? “Your Spanish is so good”, they’d say. “Why don’t you get a job as an interpreter at the hospital?”
That’s a job?
Working in a kitchen is rough. Hadn’t I gone to school to analyze the use of irony in 18th century Spanish literature? Maybe.
The year I went back to school to finish my Spanish degree, I started interpreting in hospitals through an agency. The learning curve was steep, and usually painful. I was fortunate to be working for someone who gave me words of encouragement when I needed to hear them, and in spite of that painful learning curve, I kept at it. Most of the time, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I kept going back for more.
That story began in 1999. And now I know what all medical interpreters know: What’s coming when the conversation starts with, “How much do you want to know?” How it feels to interpret the good (“The tumor is responding to treatment.”), the bad (We didn’t find a heart beat.”), and the bittersweet (“She didn’t die alone.”). And everything else that everyone who works in direct patient care knows: Holding back the tears till you can open that doorway to the stairwell, and those things that don’t need interpretation, like a smile, or a hand on the patient’s shoulder after I’ve interpreted, “We’ll do everything we can.”
In future posts, I’ll be exploring language-specific experiences, interpreting-specific experiences, and my own human experience as a medical interpreter and interpreter trainer. I’ve got a lot of stories to share.
And just for the record, I still make a killer Bolognese.