Lost in Interpretation?

I am.  I mean, really.  Lost in interpretation.  All things interpretation:  Training, mentoring, evaluating, interpreting.  Reading and talking and writing about training, mentoring, evaluating and interpreting.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  I am lost in it and I adore it.  But you already knew that.

So, what about the words?  Like, the words that get lost in interpretation?  I know you’ve heard the phrase “lost in translation”.  Does anyone even know what that means?  Well, I’ll give you my version of “lost in interpretation”.  Sometimes the words themselves are lost in an interpretation.  Like, when someone says something in English, there are gonna be casualties when whatever was said in English is interpreted into Spanish.  Not all of the English words are makin’ in through to the other side.  Same thing when Spanish gets interpreted into English.  Sorry, articles (like the word “the”), English is not such a happening place for you.  We don’t need you in English like we do in Spanish.  But it’s cool.  We’ll work you to death in Spanish.

What’s that?  You want an example of the word casualties?  OK.  A nurse is getting ready to take a patient’s blood pressure and says, “Roll up your sleeve.”  What word isn’t making the cut?  I’m going to say “up”.  In Spanish, we’d interpret “up” (for simplicity’s sake) as “arriba”.  I can tell you, as an interpreter, there is no way that the word “arriba” is making it into the Spanish version of “Roll up your sleave”.  But how can that be?  I thought that interpreters were supposed to render a literal, word-for-word interpretation!  (I mean, I don’t think that.  I am only anticipating the reaction of the non-interpreter reader.)

So, to say “roll up” in Spanish, we need just one word.  Yep.  Just the one.  I’m going with “suba”.  See what happened there?  We transferred the meaning from one language to another without interpreting word for word.  And that’s what interpreters do.  We focus on meaning, not words.  But it gets tricky.  Because we’re bound by a Code of Ethics that says we interpret without adding, omitting, or changing the message.  There’s a line there somewhere.  Where is it?  In That Interpreter’s opinion, the more experience you have, the easier it is to see the line.  But sometimes, in spite of your experience, you can feel like you got thrown into the deep end of the pool and you got water up your nose and can’t see the line.  Sometimes, experience can lead us to assumptions that can lead to errors that of course, have to be corrected.

Sometimes, the words don’t get lost.  The words themselves get completely changed.  But the meaning stays the same.  Are you still with me?  I have so many examples of this, it’s tough to choose which ones to use.  Let’s start with the meaning of body part words.  Look up the word “cerebro” in a Spanish-English lexicon.  It will tell you that “cerebro” means “brain”.  OK.  Easy enough, right?  So, a patient says, “Me duele el cerebro” and he’s saying his brain hurts.  And look up the word “cintura” and it will tell you that this word means “waist”.  So, a patient says, “Me duele la cintura” and he’s saying his waist hurts.  EGH! (that is the sound of the buzzer sounding when you get the answer wrong).  I think that “brain” is a misinterpretation of “cerebro” in this context, and “waist” isn’t what the patient means when he says his “cintura” hurts.  I’m going with “the back of my head hurts” and “my lower back hurts”.

There’s also the issue of the words for hand and foot in Spanish.  Many patients, depending on their background, will use the word “mano” to refer to the whole arm.  But the word for “mano” is “hand”.  So, when a patient says that her “mano” hurts, I might interpret that as “My hand hurts”.  But then she says in Spanish, “My hand hurts all the way up to my elbow”,  ERGH! (that is the sound of the figurative brakes being slammed on).  Some interpreters will wait until they realize there’s been a misunderstanding (the interpreter interpreted “mano” as “hand” when the patient really meant “arm”) and some interpreters will clarify upfront if the patient is talking about her hand or her whole arm.  No matter how it’s handled, experienced interpreters will recognize this as a pitfall.

Confusing?  Yeah.  But that’s not where the body parts confusion ends.  There are people body part words and animal body part words.  In English we say “nose” for people and “snout” for dogs.  We say “foot” for people and “paw” for dogs (and other animals, yes, but I’m trying to keep it simple here).  I, as a people, would never refer to my foot as a paw.  But in Spanish, the word for paw, “pata”, is used for people, too.  But if someone says, “Le duele la pata” when talking about another person (most likely a term of endearment when talking about a child), the word “paw” isn’t making it into the English version.  However, if someone talks about another person’s “hosico”, which is the word for “snout”, something besides the word “nose” is getting in the English version, since referring to someone’s “snout” is a very intentional, very harsh insult.  For example, if a patient (probably drunk or brain injured or just really rude or all of those things) tells the doc to shut her “hosico”, some pretty offensive English words are coming out of the interpreter’s mouth.

Still confusing?  But, wait!  There’s more!  Just like meaning and words are tricky with body parts, so they are with time.  In English, we talk about a week, two weeks, and three weeks.  In Spanish we talk about eight days, fifteen days, and twenty one days.  I was already aware of the meaning of eight days, fifteen days and twenty one days, but even still, as an interpreter sometimes you feel uncertain about words versus meaning.  Especially when the words are words that the nurse or doctor will recognize in Spanish.  What if the doc understands the patient said “fifteen days” and I say “two weeks” and then the doc doesn’t trust me anymore because he thinks I misinterpreted what the patient said?  I decided to take “fifteen days” out for a spin once.  Once.  The doctor asked the patient how long he’d been in pain, and when I interpreted his answer as “fifiteen days”, the doctor answered, “Wow.  Fifteen days?  That’s really…specific.”  And had I not intervened, it probably would’ve turned into a mental health consult.

Body parts and time.  Oh, so cultural.  But that’s another blog post.

And what about all that’s found in interpretation?  Like a patient’s words to her doctor.  The details of the story that help the doc decide what tests to order and what meds to prescribe (or not prescribe).  What else gets found?  A nurse’s caring words, “It’s going to be okay.  Your son is in good hands.”  And the mental health counselor’s words to the patient who’s revealing why she said she’s had thoughts of hurting herself, “You are not alone.”  When bad news strikes, a terrible diagnosis, “I can help you tell your family”, the doctor says.  A team of healthcare professionals saying, “Something’s wrong, and we’re going to take care of it.”  A community of vulnerable patients saying, “Thank you.”

And as an interpreter you find yourself, lost in service to others.  Lost in interpretation.  And then again, found.

One thought on “Lost in Interpretation?

  1. Molly says:

    My friend, you are truly gifted!! And a gift to our profession! So many years I have been wanting to somehow express the idea you address so elegantly in your latest blog post, but couldn’t find the words. Thank you thank you!! Now to somehow get judges who question my interpretation of “en la calle” to read it!

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