Squinting, Hummingbird, Scab, Treasure: A Linguistic Journey into Medical Interpreting


We recently had a discussion with our team on our internal discussion board.  These boards are a great tool to help your interpreting team stay connected even when they're not physically present in office spaces.  I hope you enjoy! 

How do you say 'squinting'? 

Below is the circumstance presented by our interpreter: 

"I had an experience yesterday while interpreting for a Spanish speaking family at an ophthalmology appointment. The mother, was explaining to the nurse that her son, after watching TV for a long period of time, starts to "do this with his eyes" (as she is squinting her eyes to demonstrate to the nurse what he does). At that moment I was a little relieved (being honest) that she did not use the word squinting since it didn't come to mind at that particular moment on how I would have interpreted to the Spanish language. 
Thankfully, the message was delivered completely to the nurse, and therefore the nurse was able to comprehend what the patients mother was referring to." 

I love to engage in this type of discussion.  Playing with words and meaning and lead to robust and fun discourse.  It is always helpful to see which words people use when confronted with various circumstances.   

As a Spanish speaker I drew a blank with this one so I asked a friend whose native language is Spanish.  It was a fun exchange of word play!  He was thrown off with the word 'squinting' in English so I took a picture of me squinting and he said his term would be 'enfocando (focusing)'.   

I offered this as a suggestion and following my answer the interpreter said, "I feel enfocando would be more so focusing."  

Thoughts to ponder

This is true in its literal translation and I agree with her response.  However, I posed the following as thoughts to ponder: 

The beauty of interpreting is that it isn't translation. In an encounter you could connect focusing with the action of squinting. One could argue that at an eye appointment saying that they are focusing their eyes could easily be connected to squinting...I don't know what else someone would do to otherwise indicate that they have difficulty seeing. 
I am not an expert on direct translations. I miss accents marks and don't know when to put two dots above a 'U'. Ask my host mom from Argentina and she'll probably say I am horrible with formal verb conjugations. But I am a very good interpreter.  
My intent with the discussion here is to show how different experiences can shape how we interpret. As interpreters there are different tools at our disposal. It is important, VERY important, that we know the exact words (jaundice story to come later) we are interpreting. However, we can reference the action or intent to get through the appointments so we don't get stuck on the word but rather on making sure the message comes across clearly and coherently.   

Highlighters and jaundice can create yellow skin

Jaundice is a very technical term with a very specific meaning.  Most identify it as indicated by its most obvious symptom where the skin appears yellow in hue.  Providers talk about jaundice specifically and most often use this actual term while some patients may refer to it as yellow skin.   

While shadowing an interpreter they told me that they just interpret yellow skin whenever they hear jaundice in English.  That was appalling to me because this is a common term in many pediatric encounters.  An interpreter must know both references so as not to change the register of the communication.  It would not be appropriate to continually interpret the term jaundice simply as yellow skin.  The condition is not the same as the symptom and we must know the term in order to provide proper communication. 

For example, the patient may say that the child has yellow skin and is concerned.  The provider would say that the child may have a slight case of jaundice.  While the patient may now know this term, the interpreter must use it.  If they do not understand then the provider will see this and explain or adjust to match the register and terminology of the patient.  This is the beauty of interpreting.  Our clear interpretation of the meaning brings patients and providers to the same page and enhances their abilities to communicate without the need for any specific interpreter. 

Picking off my linguistic scab

I learned Spanish as an exchange student in Argentina.  My development in the language was done like a child learns their first words.  And sometimes you never know the word until it is presented.   

Early on in my career I was at a physical therapy appointment.  The patient was a man that had lost his thumb in a work accident.   His doctors used amazing innovation and transplanting his big toe and transforming it into his thumb was the solution.

During the therapy appointment he turned bolts and screws to build up his agility and coordination with this new finger.  As the therapist was talking she asked how his scab was doing.  I froze!  I had no idea how to say scab.   

I quickly told the therapist that I did not know that specific word and asked if I could interpret it as the area where the blood had dried.  She smiled and gave me the go ahead.  Then I turned to the patient with the same apology and asked him how this area was doing, repeating in Spanish verbatim what I had clarified with the therapist.  I did this while physically pointing to the area we were talking about on my own hand.  The man smiled and gave me the word for scab in Spanish... costra.   

Now scab is the most common of words.  Everyone gets them and everyone learns very early on what that is.  But in my linguistic journey I had never encountered it.  Learning Spanish as an adult I never fell off a bike and scraped my knee or cut hand with a scissors.  I was stuck on this basic term that all children learn in their very first years of life. 

The feeling of ineptitude I felt in that therapy appointment was one I never wanted to feel again.  So almost 20 years later I still remember learning that word, more than any other, most vividly.  But I learned a very important lesson as an interpreter.  Clarifying and being transparent about your linguistic shortcoming is not a bad thing.  It taught me that I can make it through any encounter with these skills.  However, I also learned the importance of my ability to learn on the job.  This is critical to any interpreter's success. 

Learning on the job is done best when there is collaboration with others in the same field.  Whenever we get stuck, it is so important that we have conversations like these to help us build our vocabulary and knowledge.  It is also important that we don't continue with the easy and instead learn the hard. 

That's the beauty of working at Connecting Cultures and being a part of our interpreter team. These are great conversations to have. They used to happen while people were in the office between appointments. Now that it's not so easy to be together in the same place physically, I love how our discussion board can help us recreate this! It's so important to our professional development. Good discourse among friends is the best conversation to have! 
I can say jaundice, gall bladder and pneumonia in Spanish with ease because of my training as a medical interpreter.  But treasure and hummingbird?  Well, that's a different story. 

My ability to learn turned hummingbirds into treasure

As my kiddos got older they asked me, "How do you say treasure in Spanish?"  I immediately felt the same feelings of ineptitude when confronted with the word scab.  How could I now know how to say treasure when every child searches for them?!?  Later my youngest became fascinated with hummingbirds and I wanted to share that with my host mom the next time we spoke.   

Unfortunate for me I had never encountered those words before. I didn't know how to say hummingbird or treasure. I looked them up to share them with my kids but when I was on that phone call to Argentina I couldn't remember those words.  So, I explained what I wanted to say. By communicating the intent and describing what I need to say I was able to carry on enjoyable conversations with my loved ones because the intent was shared.  
Now I know that treasure is tesoro and hummingbird is colibrí
As I'm rereading this before post I am realizing that phone interpreting is an entirely different conversation. The tools and the context available to telephonic interpreters has its own tricks of the trade.  The voice of Erin Rosales came into my mind and I am seeing the tangents that can come from such a great discussion.

Posted on December 26, 2017 and filed under Interpreter, Newbie, Trainer.