What you’re about to read may seem counter-intuitive.
Sometimes, being able to speak more than one language can be more of a burden than a benefit.
You might ask:
“How so? Isn’t the ability to communicate across language divisions a great thing? Why would anyone want to hide that they can speak another language?”
I speak eight languages. I wrote a book, Language is Music, on how to learn foreign languages using music and the media. I have been on the BBC and other media touting the benefits of learning other languages. Yet, I absolutely hate translating and interpreting as I explained in my popular blog post: Why I Hate Interpreting and Translating: multilinguals are not “natural” interpreters and translators.
being able to understand more than one language in the Tower of Babel is a burden because those of us who can converse across the walls in the Tower of Babel get tasked (often against our will) with interpreting and translating.
Interpreting in critical medical situations
Due the shortage of medical interpreters in the US, family members who are not trained in medical vocabulary or hospital protocol are often forced to interpret for their loved ones. Being multilingual doesn’t make me, or any of the millions of people who are bilingual or multilingual natural or professional translators or interpreters. We’re often put in situations, where we are carrying a heavy responsibility for which we are unprepared.
Last summer, I was tasked with being both my father’s Russian-English interpreter and protector during his minor surgery to take out a lesion on his chest.
I didn’t know the words for “cauterize,” “scalpel” and “stitch.” I told my Dad he was getting thread in his body and that the doctor was cutting him with a knife and not to be worried if he smelled or saw smoke! There was no time to consult an online dictionary or Google Translate. I had to improvise while seeing the surgeon cut into my Dad’s body. It was my first time seeing human flesh.
The nurse covered my Dad’s face with a sterile blanket. He felt like he was suffocating and kept yelling “HELP! I can’t breathe.” I jumped from the chair to his side and lifted the blanket and reassured him that he was fine. The doctor and nurse told me I was not to touch the blankets since they were sterile and touching them could lead to an infection. I felt bad because lifting the blanket was my natural reflex what to save my Dad. I went back to my chair and watched the doctor cut into my Dad’s skin and lift the flesh to take out the lesion. I had never seen the inside of the human body before, except on TV. The (female) surgeon asked me if I was OK and told me some family members faint when watching surgery. Losing consciousness was a luxury I couldn’t afford because my Dad was counting on me and my limited Russian medical vocabulary.
My father was depending on me. I did not want to be my Dad’s interpreter but he only trusted me and didn’t want a hospital-assigned interpreter who would speak to him via a video conferencing service. Since my Dad is hearing impaired, he would have trouble hearing an interpreter through a video screen. I had to stand by his side and yell in his ear while seeing the doctor cut open his chest.
I was so shaken from the experience that when I returned home from the surgery, I couldn’t do anything or talk to anybody. I had a couple glasses of wine and chain-watched a series on Netflix until I fell asleep.
Inconvenient or comical interpreting
Sometimes, we get stuck interpreting in semi-comical situations, like when a Lithuanian pimp asked me to interpret for him to negotiate the price for a Russian-speaking prostitute for a French male tourist in Lithuania! I told the pimp to leave me alone!
When I was in Cuba with non-Spanish speaking travelers, I had to argue with a Cuban taxi driver at the request of my American friend who thought he was cheating us and I had to intervene to make sure a German-Belorussian couple didn’t get charged for a service fee twice at a touristy restaurant. When I was traveling alone in Cuba, no one cheated me because I only spoke in Spanish and could pass as Latin American.
No matter how many times I have told my friends and family that I abhor translating and interpreting, many still assume that I work in the translation, localization and interpreting fields.
Morale of the story:
- Don’t assume someone can interpret or translate for you just because they are bilingual.
- If possible, get a professional medical interpreter instead of forcing a family member to interpret for you.
- We can love speaking in foreign languages and also hate having to speak for someone else.