“When I started throwing up this morning, it was like, chunks of food mixed in with snot. Yeah, like slimy, barfy food chunks. And like, these little black specks mixed in,” I’m telling the triage nurse. “But now I guess my stomach’s empty, ’cause the only thing that comes up now is this bitter clear stuff.” I’m not telling the nurse about my vomit (thank heavens), I’m interpreting what the patient is saying to the nurse. So, I’m saying what someone else said, but saying it as if it were me. That’s the easiest way I know of to describe interpreting in the first person, and it’s the standard for professional interpreters.
When we train interpreters, I can really feel them digging their heels in on this one.
Why? Why must we interpret in the first person? Why must I talk about someone else’s bodily functions and body parts and aches and pains and head-to-toe complaints as if they were mine? It’s embarrassing! Why can’t I just tell the triage nurse, “She said she’s been vomiting since this morning and now she’s dry heaving.”? Well, because using what we call “reported speech” (he said, she said) doesn’t support the patient-provider relationship (which is a huge function of the interpreter) and it kinda trashes our standards of practice. That’s why. So when someone says something that makes you squirm, or something that seems offensive, no matter! You interpret all of it as if you said it. When a patient goes on an I’m-so-sick-and-tired-of-being-treated-like-a-pin-cushion-and-you-and-your-needle-can-go-to-hell tirade, let it rip. You are ethically bound to interpret absolutely everything. For an interpreter, it’s just another day at the office.
Interpreting is a funny job that way. You find yourself saying things you would never, ever say. Ever. A woman interpreting for a male patient? You might find yourself talking about body parts that you don’t even have. My favorite is interpreting for a patient and a provider who are really clicking. They’re joking around. The doc will say, “Are those your real teeth?” and the patient will come back with, “They’re real. All crooked, but they’re all mine.” Or a young doc will tell his elderly patient waiting on test results, “I’ll be back soon to see you”, and she will wink at him and say, “Oh, I’ll be waiting for you, doctor.” This stuff doesn’t happen with reported speech.
That’s the fun part, and that’s when it happens: That moment when two people who speak different languages make a connection, and it feels like magic. Cheesy? Maybe. And then there are other connections that aren’t so joke-y, and some that feel a little too familiar, a little too close to home, and that’s where the challenge lies.
I’m interpreting for a woman about my age. “The man in that room is my world,” she tells the doc. “You have to promise me you’ll take care of my dad.” I feel the knot in my throat as I interpret these words. I already know how it feels to say these words. The helplessness. Seeing the well-being of a loved one in other people’s hands, and wanting desperately to feel a connection with those people. “Don’t worry, we’re taking good care of him, and he’ll be just fine,” the doc tells her. As I interpret these words to her, I recognize the relief in her face. The doc puts his hand on her shoulder, and I recognize that connection. It’s not the fun stuff, and it’s not joke-y, but it still feels a little like magic.