I've been a Spanish interpreter at the Rotacare Free Clinic for over two years now, and it's one of the most rewarding things that I do. It's a chance to help people far more directly than I do in my day job, as well as work with a diverse, caring group of medical professionals who remind me that there is a whole big world outside the profit-driven, high-tech corporate environment. And, unfortunately for me, it's just about the only opportunity I have to converse in Spanish with native speakers.
Of course, I began volunteering without knowing all of this, simply looking for an opportunity to gain some practical experience in interpretation. Indeed, as with all subjects, what comes out "in the field" can be very different from the ideal, perfect renditions we strive for in the classroom. And although I've been at the top of every interpreting class I've taken, despite my imperfect Spanish, I've had my fair share of embarrassing---but instructive---experiences. Here are some of the more interesting ones.
Relatively soon after I began doing medical interpreting, I was working with a doctor who wanted to ask the patient whether she had blood in her stool. I used the clinical term heces (feces), which she didn't understand. Struggling to come up with an alternative, all I could think of was the vulgar mierda and kaka, which I really didn't want to use. In desperation, I tried, "¿Número dos?" and was rewarded with a smile and a nod of understanding. Incidentally, the word I should have used was the middle-register term excremento. The ability to communicate in several different registers is useful in medical interpreting but absolutely essential in legal interpreting, and something I continue to work on.
I'm pretty good at remembering the Spanish words for even obscure parts of the body, but I've always had trouble with barba (beard) and barbilla (chin), since the terms are so similar and refer to two things located close to each other (I have a visual "map" in my head for such vocabulary). And, of course, the one time I had to interpret for a woman, "Lower your chin," I chose the wrong one. Metí la pata, to be sure, but fortunately she didn't seem offended.
This next example shows why literal translation is bad, not only because it often doesn't make sense but also because it can be downright wrong. In Spanish, the word for "chest" is pecho, and just as in English, it can refer to the general thoracic area as well as the breasts (breast cancer is cáncer del pecho). So when I was recently interpreting for a doctor who asked the patient, "When was your last chest X-ray?" I, somewhat in auto-pilot mode, inquired about her last radiografía del pecho, and the doctor and I were both confused when she denied ever having one. It took me a second before I remembered that radiografía del pecho is an X-ray of the breasts, i.e. a mammogram. A chest X-ray, the test used to diagnose tuberculosis, is una radiografía de los pulmones, or an "X-ray of the lungs." This is also an example of why medical interpreters need to be familiar with a certain amount of medicine, legal interpreters need to know something about law, and technical translators need to know, well, technology. One simply cannot accurately interpret what one does not understand.
I remember now that two and a half years ago, fresh out of my summer class in medical interpretation, I almost didn't apply for this volunteer position exactly because of my fear of making such errors. I'm not a person who likes learning on the job; I hate making mistakes that may inconvenience another person or cost a company money. Yet, I'm learning more and more that sometimes---in fact, often---there really is no other way to learn. All the Rotacare interpreters, including the native Spanish speakers, make mistakes, and it's not as if what we do is ever a life-or-death situation. I won't put myself in that position until I'm far more certain about my abilities. And in the meantime, I'm both learning and doing some good for my community. That's nothing to sneeze at.