by Jacqui Kukulski
“¿Está tomando algún medicina?”
I’ve been working at Frances Nelson Health Center for roughly three months at 7.5 hours a week. When I first started I was only on the phones, and occasionally translating at the front desk. They had me shadow the translators in the room so I could learn how to translate for the doctors and learn the medical terminology in Spanish. When November came, I was still following the translators around, like a lost puppy. I only had the freedom to go to the front desk and translate there or answer the phones without them having to be near me. If I was ever in a room I certainly wanted them there. I didn’t have the confidence in my Spanish or my medical terms and if I was ever translating for a patient I was glad that there was another translator there to help out when the patient or doctor said something that I understood but couldn’t translate effectively (or didn’t understand in the case of the patient).
All of that changed on Friday, my last day there for the semester. There were two Spanish speaking patients. One for the normal doctor and one for the eye doctor. They were both going to be seen at the exact same time, and both of them needed a translator. I was going to follow the other translator into the exam room with her as I have for the past three months. The CNA looked at the other translator, hurt that she wasn’t going to have someone help her with the Spanish. Seeing this and knowing that it was only an eye exam, something that I have been to several times and knew the general procedures, I offered her my help. After all it was only an eye exam; there shouldn’t be anything crazy going on that I wouldn’t be able to translate.
I followed her into the exam room and the patient was very nice. He understood that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. Both the CNA and the patient were patient with me as I translated various directions. After a while we switched to the eye doctor’s exam room and I continued to translate there. The eye doctor was calm and patient as well. As I explained to the patient about eye drops that would dilate his pupils, something crazy happened. Because this information was so familiar to me, I simply just understood what it was that I had to tell him. There was no need for me to think hard about translating a word I had heard only once or never before (in that case you translate in a roundabout fashion, you explain what the word means without using the actual word.).
When I explained it to the patient, I was in the zone. I was thinking in Spanish. I was speaking in Spanish. But, more importantly, the patient understood me. Afterwards, the doctor asked me where I learned my Spanish. Everybody is always surprised when I tell them that I learned my Spanish in school. I then go on to explain that I studied in Spain for a few weeks and that seems to make more sense to them.
The patient had to wait for 15 minutes for the eye drops to work, so I went back to the phones and talked with the other translator. After a while, I came back and started talking to the patient. He asked if I was married and we discussed the problems in Mexico. We went back into the exam room and finished the exam and I walked him back to the front desk. The whole time I was in the zone though. I got very confident after translating for this patient. He was really nice and helped me feel at ease.
I’ve talked with the other volunteer at the clinic who looks more of a Mediterranean descent than I do and he often gets people assuming he knows more Spanish than he does. I look more of a northern European descent so I always surprise people when I start speaking Spanish. I feel that this helps me out when I’m translating because the patients are no longer expecting me to know every single word in Spanish and have a little more patience with me than they would otherwise. I have also found that translating for men is easier. Which seems odd. They always seem more willing to help me and have more patience than the women. I often start translating for a woman but then they’ll look to the other translator the second I start having a bit of trouble.
With my new-found confidence, we had another situation arise in the clinic on Friday. The translator and the other volunteer were going to a room and I was sitting by the phones. We got a page for another translator to a room and I showed up. I was expecting another translator to come and hoping one would come, but of the three translators that worked there, one was home sick and the other was off for the day. So when the doctor was ready to go into the room, it was just me by myself. I thought of telling the doctor that I was going to try my hardest but I might have to go get another translator at some point, but the opportunity never really arose to tell her. So I jumped in.
It was crazy. The second I translated something the doctor said, the woman started ranting about something in Spanish. Luckily her son was there with her and would help me understand what his mother was saying when she started ranting. I found that the most difficult part of this was knowing the right words to say in English. Translating what the doctor was saying was pretty simple. I knew most of the words and those I wasn’t completely sure of I was able to explain in a roundabout fashion. When the patient explained her symptoms I understood in Spanish what she was trying to say, maybe it was because she was using motions as well. Although I understood what was being said in Spanish, I understood it in my head in Spanish and not in English. But I worked through it and at the end of the exam I felt confident that everybody understood what was going on.
At one point during the exam everybody was talking at once. The doctor was talking in English to me. The patient and her son were trying to explain something to me in Spanish. I don’t know if they realized that I was trying to help them understand one another, but having all of them talk to me at once was not helpful. Even if they were all speaking the same language I wouldn’t have known what they all were saying. At one point I thought I heard the doctor say we needed another translator. I would have gladly gotten the other translator, but then they all stopped talking and I figured out what they had been saying.
At the end of the day, I was excited that I had finally translated on my own, but it was nerve racking. The eye patient was calmer and I had more time to think. The regular patient was not nearly as calm. Most patients for regular exams tend to be less calm. Maybe it’s because the doctors all feel rushed to get through their patients or maybe it’s because their problems are more life threatening or important in their eyes. Either way, next time (I’m returning next semester) I’ll do my best to remain calmer and think clearer.