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

11 thoughts on “Interpreter of Maladies”

  1. As we say in Cuban Spanish “Te la comiste”. Great job! Not only from the point of view of the content which is so valuable, but also in the way that it is written. You willingly suck the reader into your world immediately, although we do not know where we are going but we want to know how everything will end.

    Thank you for sharing this real-world experience as seen from the two ends of the interpreting spectrum. I loved the telescope image, so true.

    Can’t wait to see your next post. (Now you have built expectations and have to deliver :))

    1. Thank you, Maria Cristina, for the warm feedback. I am glad to hear that the article sounds like a story. Ultimately, that is what it is. As for delivering… I will try my best. Thanks.

  2. Gio Lester says:

    Love the style, Teach! Very moving story and it highlights ever so well the value of the work we do as language bridges. Thank you!

    1. Hi, Gio.
      I am glad you enjoyed it. Let us keep in touch.

  3. Ana Helena Lopes says:

    Very well put Ewandro, as always. Now, let me give you the other-way-around input. Conference interpreting for me is the opportunity to take a break of this, sometimes, harsh reality of human beings’ problems. As a court interpreter I deal day in and day out with people’s encounters with the Judicial system, be it for a simple driving without a license charge to more serious and sad charges, such as murder and I do love what I do. I never know what or who is awaiting for me when I open the courtroom door. The human interaction is always gratifying, despite the issues that are being dealt with. The booth, with its darkness, isolation and distance from the human beings on the either end of the bridge, is also marvelous place, where interpreters can let the mechanical aspect of their role flows freely.

    1. Hi, Ana.
      Thank you for your very relevant comment. I can relate to that, too, a 100%. It works both ways, of course. Thank you for stopping by.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Very nicely put, Ewandro! It is always a humbling and humanizing experience to be able to act as a bridge between people who need so much to communicate with each other. I am a court interpreter, but I also work pro bono in community mediation sessions. Just last month I worked on the case of two sisters who had been charged with misdemeanor assault when a family argument got out of hand. The case was sent to mediation,and the English-speaking mediator, with me interpretering back and forth, helped them work out their differences. Tears and hugs ensued. It felt great to interpret on a personal level rather then in the formality of the courtroom!

    1. Hi, Kathleen,
      Thank you very much for your input and for sharing such an interesting story. I believe the take-home point is that this is but one multi-faceted profession offering those who are open a vast array of ways to make a difference.

  5. Vivian Lai says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written experience sharing. As a trainer of consecutive interpreting courses, I always begin my lessons by telling the students that they must be prepared to be exposed in the spotlight with the speakers and be ready for engaging the pressure of public performance because they cannot hide behind booths. This article is a valuable testimony from a professional and will be included in the reading list.

    1. Hi, Vivian. Thank you for your comment and your kind words. You raise a very valid point. At the end of the day, there is nowhere to hide.

  6. Estela Corbellini says:

    An inspiring initiative translated in beautiful words. Thank you!

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