Interpreter Becomes “Interpretee”

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Reprinted with gracious permission from the Delaware Valley chapter blog and the author Mary C. Barrera

I am a Spanish medical interpreter and I am used to being the one in control of linguistic entanglements. I understand what the medical staff say in English, what the patients and families say in Spanish, and I am able to communicate all messages from one language into the other. I often notice that many families and patients seem very happy and relieved when they meet the interpreter they will have for their appointment; it seems to take a huge weight off their shoulders. I guess it’s hard for us interpreters to know how helpful we really are to our clients, until we end up needing an interpreter ourselves…

I was recently traveling in Thailand and I needed to do laundry after spending a couple of weeks traveling around the country. I found a small wash and fold laundry service in Bangkok, where I dropped off my clothes and was supposed to pick them up the next day. The middle-aged Thai woman who runs the service gave me a receipt I could use to get my clothes the following day. Her English was very limited, but with some difficulty and in a thick accent she managed to say “Hello,” “Two kilos,” “80 Baht,” and “Tomorrow, 5 p.m.” I walked away feeling really happy that my clothes were going to be washed and ready in 24 hours.

The next day, at 5 p.m., I returned to the laundry place to pick up my clothes and to drop off a new load that I had found at the bottom of my suitcase. The lady greeted me with a smile and a kind “Hello,” grabbed my new load, weighed it, made a receipt, and told me to pick it up “Tomorrow, 5 p.m.” I thanked her, and proceeded to ask for my laundry from the day before.

Unfortunately, I had left the receipt at my hotel and I hoped she would remember me and give me my clothes without a problem. Unfortunately, she didn’t. I told her in English, “Yesterday I brought clothes to pick up today at 5 p.m.,” to which she responded in broken English, “No, no today, tomorrow 5 p.m.” I knew she was referring to the load I had just dropped off, so I continued to try to use simple language and only a few words to make her understand, but it wasn’t working.

An interesting tidbit about the culture I was in is that Thai people are very careful about “saving face” and they’ll do whatever it takes to avoid starting a conflict or causing other people even the slightest bit of embarrassment. After a few attempts, we both wound up laughing about the silly and confusing situation we were in. At one point she even paused, thinking, and picked up a piece of paper sitting next to her scale and handed it to me. It was a long list of phrases in English with their translations in Thai; she signaled me to point at one. Funnily enough, the phrases read: “Today at 5 p.m.,” “Tomorrow morning,” “Tomorrow afternoon,” “Tomorrow at 5 p.m.,” “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…” – but there was no “Yesterday”! I could do nothing but smile and laugh, because I knew we were not getting anywhere.

Since my hotel was too far to walk to get the receipt, I decided to go across the street to a restaurant and ask if there was someone who spoke English and could help me. A young, shy girl agreed to help and after I explained the situation to her she turned and started talking to the lady. She talked and talked and talked. The laundry lady responded, and they engaged in a long conversation which ended with the girl looking at me and saying, “Yes.” I stood quiet for a moment trying to process what this one-word answer could have been a response to. “Yes, I can pick up my laundry now?” I asked, to which the girl responded “What?” I laughed, but I could see the woman from the laundry service was starting to get frustrated.

Abruptly, the young girl left and returned, after a few moments of awkward silence, with a Thai man in tow. He said to me in perfect English, “Do you need help?” I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” I explained the situation to him. He told the laundry woman a few sentences in Thai and I could see the light dawn in her eyes. She turned and looked at me and with the biggest smile on her face and said, “What you name?” “Mary,” I said. She ran back into her shop, grabbed a big laundry bag that had a copy of the receipt with my name stapled to it, lifted it up, showed it to me, and said “Mary?” I replied, “Yes! That’s my laundry!” We all laughed and celebrated the fact that we were able to communicate thanks to the help of the kind man who acted as an interpreter and solved our communication confusion in less than a minute.

This experience has since made me think about my job and the importance of having qualified interpreters, particularly in more specialized situations, such as in a medical setting. There are over 46 million people in the United States who don’t speak English as their first language, yet, they will all need medical attention at some point. Medical interpreters facilitate communication between doctors and patients, but they also help avoid misunderstandings that could potentially put a patient’s life in danger. Going to a hospital or clinic can be intimidating, even for people who speak English proficiently. Imagine how much more nerve-wracking it would be for someone who has limited English-speaking abilities. When there is an interpreter, patients usually feel more comfortable, safe, and at ease when interacting with their doctors.

When I was able to find “my Thai interpreter” (as I refer to him), I was very thankful and glad.

I realized this is the same reason why our clients at work are always so grateful and relieved when they see us walking into their appointments along with their doctors. There is no more valuable lesson for an interpreter than to be in a situation where we need an interpreter ourselves. As we say at work, “Interpreters save lives” (and laundry too!).

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