One of the strangest skills that I had to get used to as an interpreter was referring to myself in the third person. Instead of saying, ‘doctor can you repeat that,’ I instead say, ‘the interpreter requests a repetition’. Who talks like that? Interpreters. We also say such things as ‘the interpreter needs to clarify’ when we don’t understand something.
Now you would think that as an interpreter we merely listen in one language and then eloquently repeat it back in a second language. Yes, it should work like that. It doesn’t. Sometimes the provider spits out a list of medications as if trying to break a world record leaving the interpreter with a gaping mouth thinking to themselves, what the heck? Slow down doc! You lost me five minutes ago. Do we, as professionals say anything. Well of course we do, and with a smile on our face too. ‘The interpreter requests a repetition.’ I am not sure how the founders of our profession came up with these clever little tricks; however, I am grateful for them. It certainly sounds more professional than going, ‘Duh! I didn’t catch all of that Doc, can you repeat it and this time s-l-o-w-e-r.’
As interpreters, we also deal with lots of vocabulary, and not in just one language but two. Yes, I know, something easy for an interpreter. It isn’t. Yes, we have probably memorized more terms than the average person, but we get stumped just like everyone else. Okay, a personal admission here. I used to think I was the only one that didn’t know how to interpret everything. I joined several interpreter groups and guess what? I wasn’t declared the dummy of the group. What a relief! In fact, there are no dummies in these groups. We are always sharing and learning from each other. It is just another way that we keep our skills sharpened.
Another phrase or trick of the trade I admire is ‘the interpreter will re-phrase.’ You may be thinking to yourself, Hmm? I thought the interpreter said what they heard without adding or omitting anything. You are correct, that is what we do. Sometimes though, we screw it up and need a nice way to recover. Would you want the interpreter to say ‘Oops, I screwed that one up big time’? How do we know when to use this trick? I don’t think there is an actual rule. After the provider speaks, it is my turn to interpret. After the interpretation, if the client’s eyes have crossed and there is a look of total confusion I immediately know that whatever just came out of my mouth didn’t make any sense. Confession time. I usually know immediately when what I said didn’t make any sense, but I always have that little glimmer of hope that I was wrong and the other person understood me.
One of the things that we often forget is that we are dealing with two different cultures and languages, which by the way includes differences in vocabulary, grammatical structures, and syntax. On top of all of this, we are always switching back and forth our pronunciation. For myself, that means going back and forth between an English and Spanish pronunciation. As careful as I try to be, I admit that I have embarrassed myself a few times with the word coming out as if I am speaking a third language. I have my list of ‘difficult’ words that I practice over and over attempting to perfect the pronunciation in both English and Spanish. I also do whatever I can to avoid having to use these stubbornly tricky words.
I have had the privilege of meeting some great interpreters throughout my career, and I have learned a lot from them, and hopefully, I have been able to share some tricks of the trade too. It took me years to realize that perfection wasn’t the key to being a successful interpreter. Being real, accepting human imperfections and doing the best possible is.
Regardless of how many classes I have completed, how many years I have worked on my Spanish and English skills, or the hours and hours of memorizing terms, there is always something new to learn, which is why I love this profession so much.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program, and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.