They say laughter is the best medicine. And like the rest of you, interpreters sometimes have to laugh so we don’t cry. One interpreter told me she does stand-up comedy as a relief and release from the heaviness of working on violent criminal cases. She was surprised to find out how many defense attorneys are out on that stage, using humor as a release. It is almost an occupational hazard. She also mentioned that most of the amateur comedians she meets are outliers, which is a nice way of saying weirdos. And let’s face it, we need weirdos. We need people who see things differently and show us their points of view.

Most jokes are about something that we are trying to figure out. Something that has wounded us. Something we still need closure on. Whether societal or very personal, as we try to figure out the cultural overlays of our individual experiences, humor is a way to cut into and then cleanse our psychic wounds. Humor gives us a much needed, very healthy dose of medicine. So we tell silly jokes about things we are uncomfortable about, and laugh as we cringe.

A patient has just been roomed after surgery. His new nurse comes in to assess his pain level and get him settled in. As trained, she ends with the now standardized, open-ended invitation:

“What questions do you have?”

The guy is woozy and still wearing an oxygen mask. He mumbles:

“Are my testicles black?”

The nurse is confused. The patient just had a small tumor removed from the colon. She glances at his chart. Nothing about excessive bleeding into that area. Hmm.

“I don’t think so. I’m not sure,” she answers him hesitatingly.

The guy gets impatient.

“Well, could you please check?!”

The nurse approaches the bedside, pulls down the blanket, unties his hospital pants, gently moves his member to the side and cups his testicles in her gloved hand. They don’t seem swollen. She puts a brighter light on and looks closely. The patient is fair-skinned, and his testicles appear to be an appropriate color. The nurse adjusts his hospital pants and ties them, then covers him back up with the blanket.

“Sir, your testicles are not black!”

The guy rolls his eyes, pulls his oxygen mask to the side, and says:

“Good to know, nurse, but – are my test results back?

Interpreters love this because “are my testicles black” and “are my test results back” really do sound the same. Interpreters are constantly and perilously taking leaps of faith and doing educated guesswork, flying optimistically on context and intuition, and sometimes crashing. Interpreting has a lot to do with predicting and supposing and that is what makes it scary and funny and terrifying. So we throw in a pair of testicles, and we laugh so we don’t cry.

Of course working toward best practices, asking speakers for repetitions or clarifications as needed, being in a good position to hear clearly, having some context, and using our common sense can reduce the likelihood of the kind of errors that change the outcome of a case. What lawyers call material errors and doctors call malpractice. Of course we understand the very high stakes of the work that we do. Of course we do our best.

At the same time, we need to make friends with our humanity. We need to recognize and acknowledge our frailties and fallibility. Like everyone else, in every field, to err is human. And there is usually too little open discussion about how inevitable it is that we make mistakes. Accepting that our best efforts are all we can offer can help us to keep a shred of our sanity as we interpret. So this kind of laughter, as silly as it seems, really is good medicine. It goes very deep, and it is cathartic.