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.