29 Mar Interpreter of Maladies
I am ushered through a backdoor by a Korean who calls himself Francisco and who happens to speak near-perfect English, Spanish and Portuguese. He is a regular and quickly shows me around. I sign myself in and stand at a busy intersection of narrow corridors, on occasion leaning out of the way to dodge a nurse or wheelchair.
The first patient approaches, followed by the doctor. I close the door behind me once the three of us have entered the small office. Pablo begins: back pain, difficulty getting out of bed, hard time walking. Complaints overlap as profusely as Spanish words permit, with the patient doing his best to squeeze all his acute and chronic symptoms into the long-awaited five-minute visit. I give his maladies and discomfort a varnish of English as I carry them over to the doctor’s end of the table. Free prescription drugs and recommendations travel back through me in Spanish disguise, landing soothingly on Pablo’s ears. He’ll be OK soon. No big deal. “Gracias, gracias.”
It’s now Maria, Spanish-speaking, Mexican-looking, though actually from Central America. Sad expression, rude hands, voice almost inaudible at the end of a long day of work. Skyrocketing blood pressure, abundant palpitations. “My legs itch and burn when I open the fridge” – go figure! Eleven years in the United States, no English. Homesick and yet unwilling to go back. She needs hypertension medication. She needs a well-deserved rest she cannot afford. She needs attention as well, but is probably too shy to make it known.
I do my bridging number as I best can, imbuing my rendering with empathy and respect, yet careful not to side with either party. Minutes fly by, and the meager time slot is soon over. Maria pushes herself down from the table with a sigh, her chest probably a notch lighter. She almost smiles as she and her doctor shake hands. “Que te vaya bien!” Now it is the doctor who smiles in gratitude.
I allow myself a candy while my colleagues see other pablos and marias in adjacent rooms, in a free health clinic for low-income people, the only hope available to many an immigrant and worker in a 50-mile radius. We’re volunteers helping an English-speaking medical staff communicate in Spanish. Quite a change of gears for conference interpreters like us. Back to consecutive, one-on-one interpretation, in close human interaction. We have emerged from behind the scenes for a close-up look at things in a world of personal, pressing needs.
In-booth conference interpretation, though mostly exhilarating, can be sterile at times. You see the world from a dimly lit cubicle separated from everything else by a solid glass pane, your emotions firewalled by a sophisticated set of gadgets. You are a faceless and evanescent intruder, soon forgotten after the session is adjourned. No lasting impression is left. No permanent memory lingers. No true engagement to speak of. You see the world as if through a long telescope, and the only part of you piercing through is that metallic voice.
Not at the clinic, though. Here one can’t help rubbing shoulders with reality. Here you commit your every sense. Interpreters gain a distinct face, and so do people. Patients have a name, and so do you. Doctors are suddenly too big to hide behind their coats. You stand close enough to hear them breathe. You feel the voices tremble as intimate details are revealed. You watch their gaze scrutinize the floor for signs of hope and away from fear. You shake the hands of ordinary people who long to rest their weary heads on human shoulders, albeit foreign.
Healthcare interpretation is a gentle reminder of what interpreting is about: humans interacting to satisfy immediate needs. It is a departure from the dull routine of stale salutes and compliments lacquered in studied urbanity. It’s an invitation to push ajar the doors of our booths and our soul for a healing gust of fresh air.
by Ewandro Magalhaes