Category Archives: INTERPRETERS

STILL LEARNING

I was able to participate in an online training for court interpreters to learn the latest in technology for remote interpreting. They went into great depth about equipment, brand names, and the best systems for interpreting with maximum sound quality and least disturbance. All good information, culled from a pool of professional interpreters and their wealth of experience and knowledge. But the best takeaway for me was not the technical information. It was the philosophical idea of the “flexible purist” – the person who for all her idealism must stay flexible in order to survive. Letting go of the “best practices under ideal conditions” model and accepting “best (and new) practices under these circumstances” is not easy for all of us. And by all of us, I mean me.

For courts, transitioning from our “in-person is required” to trying to avoid being in the same room with others in order to save lives – in a patchwork of independent courts with a variety of equipment – was a leap of faith and a need for technology that confounded many of us. It only grew worse as the weeks and months of courts being mostly shut down dragged on. With cautious re-openings, and most court interpreters working from home, faulty equipment and new and untried applications have added to our transition woes.

Half a year into the pandemic, the idea that interpreters can work from home with high quality equipment, and avoid being vectors for infection throughout the court system, has gained traction and acceptance. Yet some of the technology bugs remain. An added challenge is that court contractors routinely interface with dozens of courts large and small (and deal with each court’s chosen modalities, applications, and anomalies). There is still a lot of confusion about what to buy, what platforms to learn and sign up for, whether to use laptop, desktop, or something else. Lots of us are scrambling. In the webinar, they offered a quote that interpreters will not be replaced by technology, but by other interpreters who are better at technology.

I was surprised to have one of the speakers present at length about preferred equipment, home office setups, and other specifics without the use of any visuals. Then I looked down at the questions section button, and saw there were suddenly 37 outstanding questions. The off-screen co-presenter popped onto the screen and let the the person presenting know that she was not sharing her screen. It was refreshing to have expert speakers on technology face an issue with technology, and they were able to go back and give us a quick look at the slides we had missed.

During a demonstration of several applications, we were shown a sample of remote conference interpreting. There was a small set of languages to click on to hear a sample of live interpreting into those languages. And there was an OFF button for listeners who wanted to hear the actual speaker. As I clicked between languages, I noted that the Spanish button brought up a Mandarin interpreter, and several lines were silent. Finally, our presenter announced, “The buttons are mixed up. For those who are asking how to listen to Spanish, it is somehow the OFF button!”

With a large crowd, participants were neither visible nor audible, but I imagine we shared – remotely – a bit of relieved and gentle laughter that even experts can have their technical glitches. We are all still learning, and it is likely to get easier as we have more practice, says this flexible purist in training.

EVERY DAY’S A SCHOOL DAY

My sister, a schoolteacher working remotely through these hard times, sent me a cartoon with an older fellow sitting on a stool in his kitchen, a pen and paper balanced on his knee, leaning forward and peering intently at the microwave, while asking his wife in frustration, “Where the heck are my students?!” Her calm response was simply, “That’s the microwave, Bob.” Truly a cartoon for our times. My sister also told me that a fellow teacher brought up a good question: “Does anyone know how to make myself the one in charge of my virtual classroom? Because one of my students is the monitor and he keeps muting me while I am trying to lecture!”

As an interpreter, I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home and limit my exposure to disease, but like Bob and many others, technology does not come easy. Especially when we have to try and learn it in isolation. Getting back into court interpreting after their cautious re-opening, I was nervous about it all: the video remote, my new headset, using WebEx for the first time, logging into pre-planned sessions, potentially doing simultaneous and switching different parties onto mute, getting codes, getting more codes, remembering to block my call if I was asked to originate the call to a defendant, and much more – both real and imagined. To add a bit of spice to my day, the court staff were given my phone number, and I was expected to take all incoming calls, which today of all days included frequent spam robocalls from ever-varying numbers with dire warnings about my social security number being hacked – which I had to keep answering in case it was a court clerk working from home.

I miss being physically in court, with my phone on silent and my laptop miles away. I miss running up and down the stairs at the courthouse and reminding the different courtrooms I am available. Seeing for myself who is in which court – whether a defendant has no-showed, whether an attorney is with another client, whether the prosecutor, crime victim, and victim’s advocate are ready for a chat. Whether a social worker or probation officer wants to talk to someone prior to the hearing, whether an attorney wants me to “go down to the tank” and interview a defendant in jail. Whether there is a walk-in for urgent help with domestic violence or housing, or someone who needs to screen for an attorney, quash a warrant, or pay a ticket. I miss seeing the familiar faces and sharing information in person. I want to see what is happening. I want my familiar world.

Working in isolation from home exacerbates my already pathological sense of helplessness and personal frustration with all the new modalities, new technologies, and very distant, sometimes even disembodied, human contact. I miss being recognized and acknowledged, even with something as subtle as eye contact, a half smile, or a silent nod of appreciation. With the inevitable stress and trauma of our work, any sense of camaraderie, of reassurance, would help ease me into the new technology. It can be lonely and scary and sometimes funny, although on the whole it is only funny in afterthought. Kind of a “someday we will look back and laugh” situation, presuming things get better. Things will certainly never be the same. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t feel good yet.

My first call of the day was a clerk asking me to get onto the WebEx platform for a video remote jailhouse arraignment, but I had no information about the case because it was not on my schedule. So he emailed me an invitation, and I tried to sign into the hearing from my laptop. But I could not get onto their audio system. There was no sound. I called the clerk back and he told me that had happened to him as well, so I should try to call in via phone instead of on my laptop. So I tried that. But as soon as I entered the meeting room code into my phone keypad, my phone auto-filled some password, then rejected it as wrong, and then hung up on me. I tried several times, seeing if I could input the correct password from the email before my phone took over, with no success.

Meanwhile, the clerk was calling me back, and that call was clicking through while I was desperately trying to call into the hearing. Also meanwhile, I was going into sensory overload and having to breathe to keep myself grounded. I took the clerk’s call and told him what was happening with my phone-in attempts, carefully masking my voice so I sounded like a functional human being. He sighed and then passed the call over the another clerk “who is good with technology”. She in turn suggested I hang up, go back onto the laptop, open my email, use the invitation to log in to the WebEx session again, and choose the option from the dropdown menu for a callback instead of calling in myself, and then stay off my phone, and wait for them to call me back at my phone number. That would bypass the need to keypad in the password, and avoid the auto-fill. Nice workaround.

I did that, but instead of someone in the courtroom making the decision on when to call me, the system called me instantly, and when I answered, I was auto-clicked right into a courtroom, without video, where it sounded suspiciously like they had just started the hearing without me – if it was even the correct courtroom. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, of course. And I knew they couldn’t see me, so I immediately piped up and announced my presence and identity to the judge, stating that I was standing by to interpret.

One invisible person giggled shortly, but no one else said anything. I had no way of knowing whether the giggle was for my interruption, or whether anyone had even heard me. No one directed me to interpret. No one directed me to stand by silently, or hang up, or get into another courtroom. Just the short and mysterious giggle into the void. So I just stood by as my heart rose to my throat and I thought about getting a job in a daycare or as a gardener. Would it really be that much less money? Plus they cannot make you do those jobs remote! After an ice age, there was a short break in the hearing, and I heard and recognized one of the clerk’s voices as they chatted. I called him by name and asked him if I was in the right place. He told me yes, and to stand by. They had passed over my hearing, he explained. A voice from the darkness. A voice of comfort. I was okay. My hearing would be next.

The day crept forward between these blind calls and some short written translations for traffic court. Between interpreting sessions, I exchanged many emails regarding scheduling updates, and received 5 or 6 more robo-calls about “criminal or fraudulent activity in Texas using YOUR Social Security card! Urgent action is needed! Please stay on the line!”

At the final hearing, we had a pro tem (substitute) judge. She was asking a lot of questions and trying to make sure everything was done correctly. This was an old pending case that had been in line to become a dismissal, except the defendant had picked up new charges, and thus lost her chance to avoid a conviction. The two sides had negotiated an overall settlement for both old and new cases with a guilty plea, and credit for time served. The hearing went well, I thought. The sound was fine, and I was allowed to interpret consecutively, which was very nice. Everyone stayed close to their microphones.

Then the prosecutor was asked to fill out the Judgment and Sentence. He did so as we stood by, then announced that when he sent it electronically for all signatures, it had turned into a blank form. He asked for time to fill it out again. Granted. But the same thing happened. He then found that the version that he had originally filled out was still on his computer, and asked if “instead of reinventing the wheel,” he could send it as a PDF, because it was “not transmittable from Library”. A voice from the void stated that a PDF does not allow for signatures. Meanwhile, another voice from the void, likely a clerk, offered the opinion that “you should never send a document from Library, but only from Workflow, because it generates an automated sending to all participants while Library blanks things out”.

The prosecutor announced tersely that he had to use Library because Counts 2 and 3 were being added to the same case resolution, and you cannot have added counts in the Workflow system. Workflow doesn’t allow it! Another voice suggested just printing it and handwriting in the new counts, but that didn’t seem adequate to preserve the record. The judge suggested that the document should stay intact in Library but be emailed for signature as an attachment, and then signed through Adobe Sign. Another voice stated the defendant herself would not be able to sign the document in Adobe Sign, not having a login, and there was an unresolved discussion about whether you need a login.

The clerk circled back around to suggest strongly that “nobody should ever use Library” while one of the lawyers reminded her again that “it’s the only way to add the two new counts!” and this discussion went on for a while. At some point, people clearly moved away from the microphones to look at and discuss the paperwork, presumably looking at each other’s screens, and conferring about how to make this happen. From my perspective, darkness, mumbling, and personal discomfort.

Things were eventually resolved – I was not privy as to how. The final document was sent around and signed electronically, and that was clearly stated on the record, and duly interpreted. The judge brought the case to a close with a sigh of relief, and reminded us that “as a family member of mine likes to say, Every Day’s a School Day… we are all here learning together. And we will figure this out! Thanks everybody for your patience! And thank you, Madame Interpreter! You are released!”

I would have liked to be physically present and look around the courtroom just for that brief second, to share in a communal sigh of relief with my colleagues. To nod in acknowledgment of the judge’s encouraging words. To catch someone’s eye on the way out with a silently shared, “This is hard, right?!” But I am not standing in the courtroom as the case goes off the record. I am sitting here alone at home, in my basement office, with a disconnected phone in my hand. And with all due respect for the luxury of working in a suit jacket with pajama bottoms, it can be disheartening. Trying to figure out the technology, working in the dark, and remaining isolated are heavy weights to bear. Others have it worse, of course, and my heart goes out to them. But I direct some of my compassion back to myself, in a very small circle of comfort indeed.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Like a fairy tale movie, imagine a humble and unpretentious young woman who suddenly gets a horrible disease. During her ordeal, her kidneys fail, her liver is affected, and the treatment itself causes the lining of one of her coronary arteries to be eaten away, causing a thinning of the wall. She is now at even higher risk of dying suddenly. But she somehow manages to hang on by a thread of life. She languishes for months in intensive care.

The doctors explain that she is in a race for time. If her organs recover quickly enough, they may be able to operate on the coronary artery before it bursts. If not, well, they are very sorry. It may burst at any time and then she will “bleed out” and die within minutes. She must simply trying and remain calm and let time pass. Try to relax and not panic. Stay strong. A true fairy tale ordeal, calling for the greatest feats of endurance.

Doesn’t sound much like a modern fairy tale, of course, where the ordeals are often quite trivial and last less than an hour on screen. Traditional fairy tales were much more reflective of the human experience. They had more gut-wrenching decision to be made, shifting and confusing scenarios requiring heroic choices and efforts. There were offers of wise or fatal advice from elders and others, often in disguise, to be heeded or ignored at the peril of the explorer. And discernment was required, as things were not as they seemed. Three choices. Two choices. Facing pain and uncertainty. One chance to survive. Fairy tales were life and death warning tales.

In the US especially, we like to pretend that life is safe. If we work hard, and keep our nose to the grindstone, and do our best, we will be rewarded with long life, money, a good partner and healthy children, and probably a house. Yet we, like our fellow humans around the globe, find to our dismay that our life is filled with perils. This young woman went through a long series of painful procedures, with sometimes conflicting and ever shifting high-tech advice pouring in during the daily rounds. She lay there like a boat in harbor, calmly waiting to see whether she might emerge in time, or be destroyed there. Months went by.

Not having grown up in our modern fairy tale rewards-based culture, she never seemed to feel that what was happening was unfair to her in particular. It was nothing personal. It was fate. She simply accepted that she might die, and waited. As the months passed and her health rose and fell in a series of complications, yet not resulting in her death, she quite naturally decided that the doctors, for all their expertise, were ignorant at best. They did not know what her ultimate destiny was to be. They were not, after all, above God. There was something magical, something miraculous even, in her slow and jagged recovery and eventual discharge to her home.

At discharge, she was warned once again that she must always consider her coronary artery and the known fact that it may burst at any moment. It was like a very bad varicose vein. She was not healed! She was still fragile and weak. She was barely well enough to go home. But there was a slight hope. She had made it this far. Over time, if her lab work looked good enough, a cardiologist might decide on her behalf that the risk-benefit analysis made the heart repair a worthwhile endeavor. They would let her know. She should stay in touch and of course see the cardiologist regularly.

She went home and did something that was quite natural if terribly risky. She apparently decided that if she might die so soon, just as her life was beginning, that she should at least produce a child before she goes. Leave something behind her to carry on. Experience the natural progression of events. Apparently. Because she got pregnant. The doctors are dismayed, and they plan to give her a good talking to when she comes to the clinic for her maternal care. I am guessing she will sit and look at them quite seriously, nodding in polite agreement as she did from her hospital bed, knowing that if God wants her baby to survive, then her baby will survive. That her life is in God’s hands and always will be. But the actual words that are to be exchanged at the visit need to be spoken, and adequately interpreted.

As interpreters, we try hard to stay in neutrality. To allow our patients the dignity of applying their own value system to the choices they make. In this kind of a situation, some of us might wish we could advocate for her to live her own life and not feel like the only meaning it could have is through reproducing. Others might support her doing exactly what she wants, even if her choice seems self-destructive or wrong-thinking from our cultural bias. Some might condemn the poor communication skills of the doctors who didn’t make it clear enough for her to process, even during months of hospitalization, and fret about whether she can understand her risk.

The neutrality clause for interpreter ethics is not about not having any feelings or thoughts. It is about being able to put ourselves aside for the moment. Whichever interpreter ends up getting invited to this difficult prenatal appointment for this heart-wrenching discussion, must go into it with a straight face, and allow the parties to communicate without intruding our own values, hopes and fears into the situation. Once we come out of there, we are free to cry or laugh or call a colleague and debrief while protecting patient confidentiality. Meanwhile, the patient gets their care and advice through a clean conduit, and we can lick our wounds, and make up our fairy tale endings, on our own.

TRUST

In marked contrast to my current work, I used to attend political asylum hearings as a refugee advocate during several civil wars. I was not interpreting then, but sitting with the refugee and their attorney as support. And I remember things the judge at that time would say. At one hearing, after reviewing a doctor’s statement and attached medical record confirming electric shock to the kidneys administered with two knives to the back, the judge simply stated that “I know you guys all play soccer and I have no way of knowing this isn’t a sports injury.” Political asylum denied for lack of proof. Applicant ordered held in custody.

This trial remains in my mind because of the hours of detailed testimony about torture from a kind-faced man whose mother was wailing softly in the corner with a handkerchief held over her face so as not to disturb the judge. She was allowed to stay in the room after she had testified about how he was taken from their home before dawn, roused from his bed and forced to leave in his underwear, because the soldiers assured her “he won’t need any clothes where he’ll end up!” The mother went on to testify that so many dead bodies were being tossed into their local river during the civil war that the residents didn’t have the heart to eat fish from there any more, “because we fear we may be dining on our beloved missing ones”.

I cannot describe the emotion and the strain of that immigration case in words, except to mention that at the end of the trial after the decision was rendered, the attorney stood up with tears on her face, and sent a shock wave through the courtroom by straight up saying to the judge: “I hope you can sleep tonight!” The judge from his throned chair was able to calmly reply, “Thanks, it has been a long day!” and adjourn the session. One guard led the refugee away in handcuffs, and the other ushered us back into the street, as our trial had run over and the building was closed. Having to stand by the mother while armed men once again took her son away. Saying our goodbyes outside of court, leaving the mother bereft. Knowing a young man who had been tortured in prison was now facing custody again. Imagine the pain. The suffering. The helplessness. Multiplied.

I once worked with a man who while under interrogation in his home country, was presented with a psychiatrist on his torture team. Not a treating physician, but a military staff doctor who would come in and see if he was close to breaking under interrogation, and make sure he wasn’t likely to die before he had said everything they wanted to hear. With post-traumatic stress, you can imagine how hard it was for this counseling patient to accept meeting with a psychiatrist here in the US, who was sadly quite a cold fellow, and limited his “treatment” to pharmaceutical side effect oversight, such as appetite and sleep. There was no reaching out or acknowledgement that “someone in his position” had so irretrievably harmed this patient, even after the refugee tremblingly explained in wrenching detail what the “other psychiatrist” had done. It left an aching void in all subsequent sessions that was never healed over.

These are extreme cases, and I sometimes comfort myself by choosing to believe they are rare, because the alternative is too painful. Let us turn to more everyday disappointments and reasons not to trust. What about interpreters? How many of our language service recipients have had another “interpreter” let them down? How many have had their voices cut off or skewed? How many were not fully and accurately told what the English speakers with power and control were actually saying? How many suffered some degree of harm? Probably most, to one degree or another, over time. From a bilingual border agent to a resident doctor to a teacher’s aide at their children’s school. To a certified interpreter, yes, it can happen. Do interpreters have any obligation to acknowledge the harm, acknowledge the power dynamic, and vow to do better? Do we have any obligation to reach across to them? Are we even allowed to?

In discussing this with various colleagues who work in the medical field, where such a pre-session would be allowed, while some agree, others don’t seem to fathom the problem. Some have shrugged and claimed, “I just say what they say.” Some talk about how they are not responsible for what someone else said or did, so why should they apologize? Most of those cases were not even “real interpreters” so what does it have to do with us? Some feel that even a two-sentence introduction before an interpreting session could seem invasive and center the interpreter, where we are supposed to be “in the background”. They hate pre-sessions and just want to dive in. A few have even told me that they cannot possibly know, nor do they need to, whether someone has had a bad experience in the past with an interpreter. Not their problem. They do a good job!

It may be worth pondering how healing, how helpful it might be, to have a very brief acknowledgement: These can be difficult experiences, but I want to assure you that with me, you will be heard and respected. Or should our work, should our words, should our voice, as it becomes their voice, tell them all they need to know? Should we silently expect them to take that leap of faith, once again, and trust this unknown and imperfect process to keep them safe? I find that with a clearly hesitant or worried patient, it merits a quick statement, even a couple words and a nod, to reassure them that we are here for them. That we will do our work honorably, and serve them faithfully. A quick acknowledgement to let them know that we care. Remembering the many ways in which our patients may be particularly vulnerable, this is a kindness that should not be overlooked.

STRAIN OF NEUTRALITY

Since the Spanish occupiers wrote up an interpreter code of ethics around 500 years ago (hint – it includes an absolute ban on assisting the native population or advocating for them in any way in their “negotiations” with the Spanish occupying forces) and likely even before, interpreters who work between two unequal parties may feel the strain of enforced neutrality. Never as much as the disenfranchised party does, of course, but the strain is there. The “just doing my job” while witnessing injustices becomes vaguely reminiscent of extreme cases, such as war crime tribunals.

It is an absolute requirement for interpreters to stay neutral, but as the power differential between the two parties grows, so does the strain. Having worked with interpreters from around the world, including war zones in which the United States is implicated, I have met people who have provided language services during interrogation. I have also met people who have witnessed and been the direct victims of torture under interrogation during imprisonment for their political affiliations. And I have met people who have interrogated and even killed prisoners.

I feel fortunate to live in a city where by and large, our judicial system is open, transparent, and follows the rule of law. The laws and the system are not perfect, and I would be either a fool or a knave to make such a claim. But in general, in my little duck pond, due process is followed. The people for whom I interpret, including the accused, the crime victims, and many parties in civil proceedings, are shown respect and treated with dignity by the judges and the court staff. There is even room for compassion and healing with alternative programs for the mentally ill, veterans, and impoverished defendants.

People ask me how I can “stand” to hear all the sadness, the violence, the failures and betrayals of human society, over and over again. My true answer is that I do believe in the rule of law. I do see people getting fair trials, and crime victims having a voice and support through their advocate, and low income, uneducated parties having court facilitators to help them access the court system. I do see people seeking and finding some modicum of justice, some redress and protection from further harm. The system is far from perfect, but there is a concerted effort to follow the law and provide assistance where possible. And this makes it much easier for me to “stay in the field” and keep to my vow of neutrality as interpreter.

I AM HERE!

Medical interpreters for common languages struggle with doctors, usually residents, wishing to display their spotty “second language skills” to their colleagues. I am consistently fascinated by how little self-aware these highly trained individuals are in assessing their own language skills, and in judging the appropriateness of their taking over someone else’s certified and regulated roll in the hospital. I can only presume they have a deep-seated, unmet need to display non-medical “expertise” that would somehow make up for their Impostor Syndrome feeling of not knowing enough in their chosen field of study. This is my working theory on why it is most painfully prevalent among young and insecure residents.

No doubt many of these doctors would be surprised to hear that their behavior is tainted not only with their personal insecurities, but also with an unhealthy dose of underlying racism and xenophobia: “My second-language skills are good enough for THIS KIND of patient – and it is fun for me to practice (even if the patient may understand a little less, or I may mislead them, the consent for a serious procedure may not be fully informed, and my supervising doctor may not even know what I told them) because THESE KINDS of patients will be quiet and docile, and I want to impress my colleagues! I didn’t spend three months abroad for nothing!”

Some will tell me it is not racist, and not even wrong, but simply friendly. They just want to help! Okay, if you say so. But let’s face it. These simple monolingual mortals with stethoscopes and scrubs have others skills, too. They know how to clean and cook, perhaps even garden, or tinker with repairs around the house. Therefore, I will believe these doctors are not acting on subconscious bias just as soon as I see one of these “helpful” doctors grab a broom or mop from a cleaning staff, because they “know how to clean”. When they shove aside the guy on the riding lawnmower, or grab a rake. When they leap over the cafeteria counter and start flipping burgers. Or when they mount a ladder to work on some pesky wiring in the ceiling of the clinic hall, because they are quite the handyman. But why stop there? They could even shove aside the hospital clergy at a deathbed gathering, announcing to the spiritual care team, “I’ve got this! I know how to pray!” and pop out a childish version of the Lord’s Prayer. A few missing lines, maybe the wrong theology, but close enough. Unless and until any of that happens, I will persist in my belief that the behavior is racist, and the underlying thought is that these patients – our patients – my patients – don’t deserve equal care.

Meanwhile, the interpreters are put into the awkward position of having to argue with the doctor to try and make them stop practicing their second language on the patient, all the while in front of the patient and the doctor’s colleagues, in both languages. Or trying to guess at what the doctor meant to say and give a corrected version of it. Or stand awkwardly by and then try to mitigate the harm by asking if the patient has questions, or has understood. Or announce that as everyone present doesn’t speak that language, the interpreter must now back-translate into English everything that the resident is saying. Or try to apply any spectrum of other gut-twisting remedies for a situation that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. This would include pointing out to these doctors that their language skills are lacking, that they are setting themselves up for personal and institutional liability, by providing sub-standard and inadequate care to a vulnerable patient. Not a conversation ideally held in front of a patient. But what to do? Should we clench our fists and ask them if they want to “take it outside”?

Come video remote, now, during the COVID pandemic, and hand me a sweet solution. Simple. To the point. And fun. When a resident doctor turned to the patient in front of the team yesterday and decided to display his mediocre language skills to a patient who needed serious surgery that was being delayed because of even more serious fluid retention and hypertension in the pulmonary artery, which made the urgent surgery too dangerous to perform immediately as hoped, and they were weighing peritoneal dialysis versus a continued course of intravenous diuretics, or going ahead with surgery by first threading a cardiac catheter through the neck directly into the heart to better monitor the pressure under anesthesia, this interpreter was able to leap into passive-aggressive action.

Imagine a quiet interpreter who has been unobtrusively interpreting for about half an hour to a team of doctors in a patient room. All going smoothly, in spite of masks and equipment, side conversations, and decisions being made and changed on the spot. The patient is comfortable enough to ask questions and get explanations as to why the surgery is being delayed until tomorrow. It is a difficult situation, but things are going smoothly and patient needs are being met, including pain control. Enter: young resident. He starts to say in his second language: “You have a – I don’t know how to say – the lung, the blood…machine come, for looking…” Now, I could guess that he means to say that they are coming in to do an echocardiogram, but it is really not my job to guess. Instead, I call out from a great distance via video remote, in my sweetest and most innocent but now very high volume voice:

“DOCTOR! This is the INTERPRETER! I am STILL HERE! I am still on VIDEO! Can you SEE me? Can you HEAR me, Doctor? I AM HERE TO INTERPRET! CAN YOU HEAR ME OKAY? Hello?!”

Doctor (sheepishly): I guess I should switch back to English, then.

Interpreter (neutrally): That would be handy.

TONGUE-TIED

People tend to ask interpreters if it is hard to “say all that” and to find the words. To speak quickly enough and not leave things out. To remember what someone said, and to switch from consecutive to simultaneous. But for some of us, the hardest part is not how we say what we say, but what we are not allowed to say. We are not allowed to speak in our own voice, except to clarify a linguistic issue. There is an argument that we may be “cultural brokers” as well, but I want to bring up something else today. I understand all the reasons why interpreters must “stay out of it” and mind our business, which is to provide clear and transparent communication for others. Our clear professional duty is to be impartial messengers. And yet at times, it can be painful to be tongue-tied.

The vast majority of interpreters have multiple skill sets, multiple degrees, and even several professions. And we may change hats and take on a different role from one day to the next. Yours truly, for example. I happen to be the first certified doula in the state where I live, and for those who are not familiar, we accompany women on their birth journey, providing support, encouragement, information, and sometimes negotiating on their behalf with staff, something an interpreter is absolutely not allowed to do, according our ethical guidelines. And yet in almost 100% of interpreted sessions, we know that one party is vastly more defenseless, while the other is powerful and competent within the society they serve. So standing by silently when it appears that someone is pressured, overlooked, or disrespected can be quite traumatizing.

Moral distress is defined as the painful gap between how you envision something should go, and how it plays out, while being helpless to make it go the way you want it to, or believe that it should. A very few interpreters tell me they just disconnect (or even dissociate?) and interpret by rote, thinking only of the words, guarding themselves against feeling anything, especially helpless compassion. And all good interpreters make it a practice to “stay in neutrality” and remind ourselves that we cannot possibly know what is best for the patient in any situation, and it is not our job. Yet we are still human, with our full range of emotions and values, and interpreters naturally suffer from moral distress in varying degrees while interpreting in healthcare and other settings.

As we witness the care people receive, whether they get it in a safe and respectful environment, whether they seem to fully understand and truly consent to the care they receive, or even when they are denied needed care, we find ourselves both helpless witnesses to what appears to be avoidable human suffering and at the same time complicit in conveying the communication leading toward less than ideal outcomes. But we cannot do anything about it, because after all, we are just “doing our job” – and what a loaded phrase that is, coming out of all the war trial testimonies. There is a conundrum here that is rarely talked about, well worth pondering and contemplating as we go about our daily tasks at our respective jobs.

To change hats, though, for a moment. Let me share with you the honor, the pleasure, the deep love and gratitude, that I am flooded with, having recently been chosen to be the doula to a wonderful and brave birthing mother. The details I provide here are with the mother’s permission.

As doula, I had the power to encourage at every step where the mother was discouraged. As staff kept warning the mother that she was going to need technical interventions – not for any medical reason – but because the contractions would get “bad” and “painful” and “hurt” and I kept reminding her that they would be “strong, powerful, effective and intense”. They kept telling her she was getting too tired, or looking uncomfortable, while I reminded her that she had the innate strength and endurance to ride out the contractions, one at a time. They kept treating her overall like something was wrong, when nothing objectively was – it was an extremely low-risk, completely healthy mother and full-term baby showing zero signs of distress, and the labor was advancing very typically and normally.

Why does one institution treat childbirth as a terrifying disease, while another treats it like a natural event that most mothers and babies can get through just fine? Why, at last count, did this hospital have the highest cesarean rate in the whole state, a whopping 40%, while another hospital had only 8% cesareans and the state as a whole averaged out at around 25% including all the high-risk pregnancies? This hospital is not particularly high-risk. Mothers were generally coming in very healthy. The nurse told me they were aware of their high cesarean rate, and had instituted a “better communication” policy with a whiteboard in each room that all staff were to read and write upon. The doctor even had a hospital-issued jacket emblazoned with a “use the whiteboard” slogan in large letters. But the communication they were praising was among staff, not with the mother.

I did not hear a single doctor telling the mother that she was doing great. That she was perfectly healthy. That the labor was quite normal. That everything was going fine. That she was going to be able to do this. That her body had its own wisdom and knew what to do. That it was natural for her to feel fear and doubt, but that we were all here to support her, and the doctors could intervene if needed. But no interventions were needed at this time, because this mother was rocking it. This mother was riding the waves of every contraction as it came. This mother’s body knew how to open up for her baby, just as a baby bird pecking it way out of its egg shell already instinctively knows and can sing the melody of its family birdsong.

The overall message was “things can go wrong so we’d better hurry up” rather than “you are doing great, but we’ll keep an eye on you and we’re here if you need us!” Throughout the birth process, staff kept telling Mom that it was going to take so long and be so hard, unfortunately so. They talked about childbirth as if it were some kind of cancer that needed high-tech treatment to relieve Mom – of the baby. The doctors seemed intent on convincing her (against all science) that she was not a live-bearing mammal. That her body would be totally bewildered about how to birth a baby, and thus she would have to rely on their expertise, their interventions, their technology, and at this hospital, for 40% of mothers, their operating room, to get the baby out of her mammalian womb.

How can this be? How did this patient, this first-time mother, this non-staff member, out in the community at large without a stethoscope, miraculously and unwittingly – without studying the matter – manage to grow every fingernail, both eyeballs, and every hair on the baby’s head? How did she quite naturally, in the dark, build a lovely placenta and nourish her baby from a two-cell creature to a full term baby, complete with all its organs and parts, without a doctor micro-managing the process? Well, nature is mysterious and miraculous. And natural.

I remember specifically that this mother spent four hours between exams laboring to fully effaced (the cervix is then paper thin and ready to open quickly!) and very stretchy and soft, all the while the baby was doing just fine and so was mother. But the doctor focused on how she had “only” moved from 5 to 6 centimeters dilation, ignoring what she must, as a doctor, know as well as I do, that labor tends to speed up once the cervix is fully effaced. Instead of any encouragement, the doctor came out with a dire prediction: If you keep taking 4 hours to open each centimeter, it will take you 16 more hours, and then you will have to push for 4 more hours, and you will not be able to do that, so you will need a cesarean! A false premise leading logically to a false conclusion, and for what purpose? Oh, and by the way, the average pushing time for first-time mothers is 1 to 2 hours, not 4.

So here was Mom advancing by thinning the cervix and making it soft and stretchy, as the doctor had noted. She was in a regular, intense pattern of contractions every three minutes, as the monitor displayed. Mom was rocking it like a snowball heading downhill. Mom was absolutely speeding up in the process, as is predictable in a normal, healthy birth, but our births have been taken over by the medical establishment and abnormalized. Even pathologized. And here was a doctor standing in front of this healthy birthing mother, telling her she needs to start her on IV Pitocin, a hormone to speed up labor, right away, although it is carries a risk of stressing the baby and mother out with too frequent, too long, and too painful contractions. When she was already in a great pattern of healthy, active labor, heading close to transition. But on the off-chance that it takes 16-20 more hours, she will be too tired to keep going, so let’s intervene right now!

As interpreter, we all know what we would have to do. Ignore our own voice. Tie our own tongues. Our job is exclusively to be the messenger of other people’s opinions and words, not our own. In this case, the interpreter would tell the patient, because the doctor just did, that her labor is abnormal. That her body will not work. That she is simply incompetent to have a baby without intervention. But I am here as a doula. Blessed hat change! Blessed freedom. I was able to appropriately encourage the patient. It was even my job to do so! I was able to remind her that her body was working, that there no signs of any distress in the baby, and that she was advancing. The baby was tolerating labor just great. That she could change plans if and when she medically needed to.

After thinking it over, the patient told the doctor she would like to keep going without interventions for now. The doctor shook her head in disapproval, then raised her eyebrows and reluctantly agreed that she would “let” us have a “trial” of two hours, but then she would have to insist, because this mother was NOT going to have the baby without the doctor’s help! “Remember, if you don’t get Pitocin soon, you’ll end up laboring all day and all night and then end up with a cesarean tomorrow. I’m trying to help you here! You can’t go on forever!” the doctor ominously warned her.

A doula is not going to leave such a discouraging message hanging over the rest of mom’s labor like a black cloud, so this doula told the doctor with a smile, “Here’s our plan – why don’t you come back when you said, and I predict that you will find this mother fully dilated and ready to push, and she will absolutely NOT push for 4 hours, because she is strong and athletic. So I predict that she will likely push around 57 minutes or so. Besides which, I know this baby, and she is a daytime baby, and her birthday is today, not tomorrow! So this mother doesn’t have to ‘go on forever’ because she is having this baby today! She has the strength she needs, and she is doing a great job!”

The doctor just laughed and said she liked our plan better than hers, but she didn’t think it would happen. We need to be realistic! This mother needs help! “I’ll be coming back in at 2:00 to Pit her,” she concluded, then walked out. Now here is the lovely part. The doula part. When I turned back to the patient, I saw a sparkle in her eyes. She had focused on my encouraging words. I saw renewed confidence, renewed energy, a deep realization that she was able to give birth, and that she was giving birth. She was filled with determination. With sweet hubby on one side, and doula on the other, she was ready to labor on, unless and until she needed an intervention. Which she didn’t end up needing. Woohoo! Yay biology.

When the doctor came in 90 minutes later to “set her up” for Pitocin, guess what? She was already 10 centimeters and pushing! And when doctor gloved up and announced herself “ready to deliver the baby,” this doula reminded us all that it was the mother delivering this baby. Yes, folks. Believe it or not. We have been trained to consider it the exception to the rule, but the mother herself was actually giving birth. The mother, a live-bearing mammal, was delivering a live baby mammal, capable of giving birth in her turn, hopefully in a more natural and more humane setting, a quarter of a century from now. Yay mothers. Yay Mother Nature.

When did the industrial medical complex take over? Was it when they burned the midwives, witches and healers? Was it when we founded a country on the principles of greed and profit, and set up a for-profit medical care system (with a few charity programs to take the edge off and avoid revolution) in which patients are told they need doctors for everything from acid indigestion to constipation? In this birth, my job as doula was to help this mother find the space and tap into her strength and confidence so that her body could do its work unimpeded, within a very distracting and discouraging hospital environment. And I did it, to my absolute delight, by using my own words. Which is absolutely forbidden as a medical interpreter. Sweet, wonderful words!

Let me be clear that I have been to many births as interpreter where it was healing, safe, respectful and appropriate. But I wish to point out that treating the human body as if it cannot eat, poop, birth and die without lying in a hospital bed hooked up to massive amounts of expensive medications and constant monitors, being “rounded” upon by a team of so-called experts who will decide how to treat you, and who believe they have done their job as long as they measure and document every step they take, and treat you more like a helpless, diseased animal needing to be “relieved” of your birth experience and “delivered” of your baby … no. Humans are mammals, and not so surprisingly, most of us are quite able to naturally get pregnant, bear our offspring and breastfeed.

Let me assure any worried readers that never have and never will, whether doula or interpreter, stand in the way of a mother getting the medical care she needs, or even the medical care that she wants. I am certainly no proponent of putting babies or mothers at risk. The ultimate goal of every birth is to have all parties come out of it alive and well! Mothers with complications, diseases, premature labor and unhealthy babies should absolutely have access to the high-tech cutting edge medical care available at teaching hospitals, from fertility treatment to sewing the cervix shut to hormone treatment and even surgeries in the womb. Mothers who want pain meds or anything else that is safe and available to them should get it. Absolutely, and no shame! But let us not forget that childbirth for the vast majority of healthy women is a natural process that interventions, noise, interruptions, constant monitoring, negativity, and technology will only disrupt and complicate rather than serving. And I am glad I could say so, and be a part of welcoming this baby into the world, as only a doula can.

The ancient wisdom encapsulated in the saying that “The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.” Yes. That. It was so healing and satisfying to be able to remind this mother, over and over, that she has inner knowing. That she has a body capable of birthing her child. That she can trust herself, and trust the process. And seeing her progress through her labor, in spite of constant interruptions and even discouragement, yet stay strong and focused within herself …. What a wonderful testimony to this mother’s courage. And how utterly sweet for me not to be tongue-tied, for this magical, life-affirming moment.

MISS THE JUDGE

Working in both hospitals and courts, I sometimes wish I had a judge to order the doctors about at the hospital. How convenient that would be! I could use an arbiter who could direct the doctors to slow their rate of speech, repeat their last utterance, rephrase a convoluted statement, or pause appropriately for consecutive interpreting for a question and answer session (instead of talking over me and confounding matters!) A judge could issue a general ruling that doctors stop interrupting me while I am doing my job. Or issue an absolute prohibition on doctors trying to do my job when I am so strictly prohibited from encroaching on the practice of medicine. Fair is fair! And a justice would understand the justice. Alas, I am on my own with no one to turn to when doctors behave badly. So I have to do my best under adverse circumstances, and decide in each case when and if to stop the session and attempt on my own to direct the medical staff so we can have more adequate communication and understanding.

Today in court was one of many routine occasions where I enlisted a judge to order a speaker to improve their manner of speech. This time, it was a new prosecutor who spoke very softly while pouring out a veritable gush of staccato words in her rush to present one of her very first cases. It was clear that she was not aware of her speech pattern although everyone else in the courtroom surely was. But thanks to being in court and not the hospital, I didn’t have to stand by wondering how to tactfully guide her into better communication. In court, I had the luxury – and the recognized right – to simply interrupt her by calling out, “Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear the prosecutor and requests that she repeat her last utterance, speak up, and slow her rate of speech!” The judge so ordered, and we started over. Wouldn’t that be nice in a medical appointment? To have an actual judge in our corner!

In my experience, when doctors go into verbal overdrive, it is not so much nerves as hurry that causes them to squeeze words into small spaces and then either hammer them home or cut them to pieces. One solution is to switch to simultaneous and simply render the doctors’ words while they are still speaking. But for those patients who speak and understand some English, they are apt to reach cognitive overload and cannot parse out the interweaving threads of the two languages spoken at the same time. It can be confusing for doctors as well, some of whom have told me that they “cannot think while you are talking!” The standard for most medical centers is to use consecutive across the board, but for that to happen, the doctors need to pause regularly and cede the floor to the interpreter. In lay terms, the doctors need to “let the interpret interpret”. Sounds elementary, but I would literally need a judge and a court order to make some doctors do it. They are in their own world, and sadly it is one that tends to exclude their patients by obstructing clear communication.

The situation is exacerbated when some care providers understand some – but not all – of the target language, and start interrupting and talking over the interpreter before I can get the words out. Like an eager squirming child raising their hand in school and calling out while the teacher is still talking: “I know the answer!” Some doctors don’t seem to understand that from the patient perspective, when they interrupt me while I am conveying what the patient just said, the patient consequently feels interrupted. Why? Because the patient cannot possibly know how much is understood by the doctor without full interpretation, so the patient naturally feels cut off every time that I am cut off. The patient feel disrespected. Once that happens, the patient grows quiet, disengages, and doesn’t ask any more questions. How could they dare to when the doctor keeps cutting off their words, just as they are about to arrive – just as they are literally in the process of being conveyed into the doctor’s language?

I had a doctor the other day who spoke a language close to the target language and kept guessing ahead, not listening to the interpretation, and cutting me off. The patient had come in hoping to ask questions about the dire things he had read on the internet about the proposed treatment for prostate cancer. To start, he said with great fear in his voice: “I read that my penis could be dead and my kidneys could fail.” Before I could even convey that much, the doctor had raised a hand to interrupt me (but was of course interrupting the patient) while loudly exclaiming, “No, no no! That won’t happen! No!”

The patient was immediately shut down, and could not fully discuss what he cared most about, because the doctor had already moved on. So he just sat and listened resignedly with a deer in the headlights look. At the end, the doctor wondered if he had any questions. What the patient was too uncomfortable to say was: “Uh, no, doc. I just offered two questions but you shut us up by yelling no and waving your hands at us, so no. Never mind me. I can just keep waking up at night in a cold sweat, worrying about the things you didn’t have time to hear me say. Worried sick that I will either lose my life or lose what to me makes life worth living. No questions. I’ll just go back to the internet and try to figure it out myself, thanks.”

Now, I get the doctor. He had other patients waiting. He was feeling rushed. He was frustrated by his own lack of language skills, and he understood the patient to some nebulous extent. But what I also know is that his frustration was only partly due to his scheduling. It was also due to his subconscious resistance to (and shame about) needing an interpreter. And subconscious class prejudice in judging the patient for immigrating from a poor country without any education, and not learning English. Thus he vigorously interrupts me to signal that he already knows the gist of what the patient is trying to say. He knows! He is competent! Let’s skip it and move on! Close enough! He doesn’t take a moment to realize that his patient is having a very different experience. And with all due respect, the patient would love it if the doctor would just shut up for once and listen to the patient, through me. The patient wants carefully considered answers, not an offhand dismissal. His fears remain foremost.

The patient is uttering his deepest concerns and needs clear answers. He is talking about a very central organ, his precious family jewel, and the loss of his male identity. He is talking about becoming disabled, needing dialysis, and other scary, life-changing possibilities. He is being brave and vulnerable. He deeply fears the answer to his high-stakes questions. And the doctor’s manner of response to his questions and concerns is of utmost importance to him. Too bad the doctor, for all his learning, has not yet learned that the very first thing that patients using an interpreter wish to hear is their own question, their own statement, their own words, conveyed safely into the ears of the care provider, in words that the care provider can understand, by yours truly, the humble yet kick-ass interpreter. Getting their fears and doubts across is such an offload of care and worry – such a relief! Seeing it happen, watching the delivery, is hugely important.

Dear interrupting and hurrying medical care providers. God bless your fragile little hearts. Please be aware of the complete lack of respect you show when in your hurry, or in your eagerness to display your knowledge, you cut off your patient’s interpreter. You don’t have to arm-wrestle us for control of the communication. Try to think of it as a shared dance rather than attempting a submission hold in a mixed martial arts contest. The interpreters are not talking simply to display our knowledge and make you feel inadequate. We are conveying what our patient wants to say. Never forget that they have no way of reading your mind as to what you may (or may not) have understood (or misunderstood) before you interrupt and talk over us as we convey their words and thoughts. So let us do our job. Let us get their words across to you, whole, unharmed, and uninterrupted. Your answers will mean so much more to them if you do.

FAMILY HELP

Interpreters sometimes talk about the pros and cons of family members assisting patients in communicating with their healthcare team. We tend to focus on the cons: The relatives take over. They want to interpret, but they don’t say everything, and they create a conflict of interest, among other perils. And even if the family members are simply adding information in English to staff, interpreters then have to switch to simultaneous mode and back-interpret so the patient can know what is being said. Pushy or anxious family members, especially bilingual ones, take attention away from the patient and the patient ends up ignored. The list of cons can be extensive.

But here is a little story of when I was very glad to have a grown daughter to help me in a communication that I could not have effectively completed without her insider information.

Here is what I said, as a direct interpretation of my patient’s speech:

“I didn’t eat, but I drank my malted drink and I had my honey. I was told that was okay before this study. Hey! (directed to the interpreter) What you are doing here?!? Aren’t you my liver doctor’s wife? So tall and gorgeous! Just glorious! Not her? So odd! You look exactly like her! So regal! Just like her! And same hair color! Say, aren’t you my doctor’s wife?”

Now for the daughter’s explanation:

“Dad is confused because of his liver. When he said malted drink, he means his protein shake, because he’s lost a lot of weight. Honey means his lactulose syrup for the brain fog. And Dad is convinced that his doctor’s nurse is really his wife even though we keep telling him she is not, and now apparently Dad is now confusing this interpreter with the nurse!”

I simultaneously interpreted for our confused patient what the daughter was saying in English to the nurse, and the patient was very surprised that this interpreter was not married to his liver doctor, and that even my “double” was not married to the liver doctor. Wait, what? That was really a surprise to him. “Oh dear! Are there three women, then? A wife, a nurse, and another one? Oh dear! I am confused! But say, are you my doctor’s wife?” Of course I dutifully interpreted for the nurse what her patient had just said.

The daughter went on to scold the Dad for thinking the doctor is married to his nurse and that I am the nurse/wife. She told him over and over that he is wrong and that I am the interpreter. The interpreter!! Meanwhile, I was back-interpreting everything she said to her father to the nurse, who thought it was pretty amusing. It was a light moment but with a tinge of melancholy, watching this daughter try to orient her father, and watching him struggle. The nurse and I agreed, though, that it was very helpful to have a family member present and assisting with this communication.

Having a family member explain some things, just as an English-speaking family would do, is not at all the same as recruiting a family member to take on the role of nurse, interpreter, doctor, or any other paid healthcare role at the hospital, especially for free and without certification. Of course I do not advocate that. I just want to make sure that in our eagerness to avoid conflicts of interest, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and unwittingly exclude family members from their very important and valuable role of – family member. Because family members can offer extra-linguistic information that can be very important, especially for vulnerable patients.

Including family members can get messy. But it is important for interpreters to willingly switch to simultaneous as needed, and back-interpret whatever is being said across languages, so everyone present knows everything that is being said. This serves to bring our patients and staff as close as possible to the experience of sharing a common language. Yes, it is an added burden compared to the “clean and easy” interpreting session with one patient alone with one healthcare provider, each taking their turn and pausing for interpretation. But these family sessions, as sloppy, funny, interrupted, and often frustrating as they can be, are something interpreters need to be well prepared for. Because in most of our immigrant communities, a patient coming to the doctor alone is the exception to the rule, while bilingual, highly involved and opinionated adult children are standard issue.

JOANNA

People who don’t interpret tend to ask how interpreters can “think so fast” and be so ready to pop out what someone just said in a whole different language, just a split second behind the speaker (simultaneous). Or how we can remember what someone said in a paragraph or two of speech and then say it all back (consecutive). One answer is practice, and of course fluency. Another factor that few people consider is that interpreters are doing what all listeners subconsciously do. We are predicting what people will likely say based on context and whatever other knowledge we have of the situation. It is the same skill that close relatives and partners use to drive each other crazy by finishing each other’s sentences.

Of course, we don’t always know what a person is about to say, or even what they are saying once it is being spoken. I had a nurse who was practicing her language skills tells me that our patient was an ex-combatant. She even told me outside of his room that his military experience explained how impatient and controlling he was with the staff. She knew all about it, she told me. She was an army brat! Weeks later, someone asked his visiting wife about it. And it turns out that he never was a soldier at all. He simply comes from the state of his country named “Warrior” in his language, and the nurse has misunderstood him. It didn’t help that the word for “state” in his language is the same word as in the phrase “I have been” so I can see why she had heard him say “I have been a warrior” rather than “I come from the State of Warrior”. She also had preconceived notions about how veterans behave, so it fit into her mental picture nicely. And it led her straight to a false conclusion.

This nurse is no exception to the rule. Interpreters also jump to the wrong conclusions. I was interpreting for a cancer patient who was asked to say what side effects she was noticing with her chemotherapy, specifically headaches or nausea, and she pointed to her nightstand and said it was hard for her to do the “point of the cross” because it would give her a headache. I looked at her nightstand, and the first thing I saw was her rosary. I also knew she came from one of the many speech communities where they don’t pronounce their “s” so I jumped from the singular “point” to the plural “points of the cross” and asked her if she meant she was praying the stations of the cross on her rosary. She smiled politely and reached back to show me the embroidery she was working on – a cross stitch needlepoint. Not what I expected. “Interpreter correction: Not stations of the rosary, but cross stitch needlepoint.”

In a court hearing where a defendant was explaining why he had not followed a court order, he told the judge through an interpreter that Joanna had told him he didn’t have to do that any more. The interpreter presumed that Joanna was the name of the defendant’s probation officer. The interpreter stated, “Joanna told me I don’t have to do that any more”. The judge responded by asking him who this mysterious Joanna was, and his answer came through the interpreter: “You are Joanna, Joanna.” There was a confused pause, and then the interpreter snapped to and added, “Uh- interpreter correction: You are the judge I am talking about, Your Honor.” (Your Honor pronounced with an accent sounds quite like Joanna.) The judge was able to look up the record and see that she had reduced his day reporting to twice a week, so the defendant was not found to be out of compliance. The interpreters all ran around greeting each other as Joanna for a number of weeks because it was somehow so delightful to say, “You are Joanna, Joanna!”

A friend of mine was doing a deposition in a fish processing plant accident, and the person being deposed explained that he was working next to Joaquin about the time the accident happened, and then he slipped and fell just as he was stepping into Joaquin with the next load of frozen fish. The lawyers for the insurance company wished to go on record that the witness was not making any sense, putting into question his credibility. The lawyer for the plaintiff wondered on the record whether the interpreter was really able to understand the defendant. The interpreter asked for permission to get clarification, and asked him who Joaquin was, and what he meant by stepping into him. The injured worker was very surprised and loudly repeated, “Joaquin! Joaquin!” This didn’t clarify much. Eventually they were able to figure out that he was talking about the walk-in freezer where he had slipped and fallen with his tray of flash-frozen fish. Walk-in sounds a lot like Joaquin. If this interpreter had worked on ships like I had, she would likely have guessed it right away. But she had no context for it.

I was once doing a therapy session and my client stated he had seen a wonderful movie called What the Wind Carried Away when he was a child. Presumably some obscure movie from his country of origin. Then he went on to mention someone named “Escarlet” who said she was going to “think about it tomorrow”. This is when I realized I had misstated the film title. So I raised a hand to interrupt, and said: “Interpreter correction: The name of the film is Gone with the Wind”. The psychologist and I both spontaneously giggled, and I immediately asked his permission to clarify for the client that we were laughing about my mistranslation of the title of a very famous movie, and not anything about the client, of course. Then they were able to get back to the client’s procrastination problem, and his underlying perfectionism that makes him put things off rather than risk completing them imperfectly.

Years ago, I was with another client who had a very strong accent, a very short temper, and never pronounced his “s”. The social worker was trying to assist him with housing support along with drug treatment, and needed to know where he lived. There was some question of dual diagnosis, meaning underlying mental or cognitive difficulties. They wanted to get him services close to home. Not the easiest guy to interpret for, and I was not understanding him well. He couldn’t remember his address or the name of his neighborhood, but said he lived near the coconut. I presumed he must live near a coconut palm tree, or a small stand of them, but where would that be? Then he said no, the helmet. I interpreted that, and wondered if he lived near some motorcycle shop that had a big helmet on the roof, or what kind of a landmark that might be. He kept repeating palm tree and helmet, and so did I.

Then he got really angry, and I was able to interpret his next utterance into English, yelling just as he had, as: “The palm tree – the helmet – the palm tree- the helmet – what the f%*k don’t you understand?! This last utterance was directed toward the interpreter.” At that point, I finally got it, to his great relief, and told the social worker, “Interpreter correction: I live nearby Costco.” For the record, coco is coconut and could be a coconut palm tree, and casco is a helmet. And Costco is Costco. When something is unexpected and unpredictable, we are not able to guess our way forward. If I shopped at Costco or drove past it regularly, I would have got it right away. But it was off my radar.

One of my favorite interpreters likes to say that the only time people notice us is when we have messed up. There is some truth to this. As long as interpreters are doing our job well, it can be fairly seamless and we will be mostly invisible. The jurors will be focusing on the witness, and the healthcare providers will be focusing on the patient. The interpreter will be unobtrusively passing ideas, words and phrases back and forth but not holding onto them for long. Having heads swivel toward me when I least expect it is an uncomfortable wake-up call, much like a dash of cold water on the face. It is a sign that I have likely overstepped my mark while making one of the thousands of tiny predictive jumps that we all make every time someone opens their mouth. Then it is time to backtrack, regroup, and stop my predictions from carrying me away.