Interpreters Reveal The Most Awkward Conversations They've Had To Convey
Language barriers can be a real problem, so people often seek the assistance of an interpreter if they need to communicate effectively with someone who speaks a different language. Professional Interpreters adhere to a code of ethics (an example can be found HERE) that requires them to relay exactly what the person they're interpreting for is saying,
Profanity, anger, innuendo, and blatant sexual language are all translated faithfully. This can lead to some extremely awkward situations for the interpreter.
There are a few. One of the worst is having to relay bad news, like cancer diagnosis, especially when the doctor is extremely blunt or hurried. As an interpreter, you cringe and wish you could change even just the tone or the insensitive wording to make it sound more humane, but you really shouldn't because as an interpreter your job is to relay the info as closely as possible.
Another difficult situation is when you're called to a patient that is coding (this was especially difficult when I worked with pediatric patients at the Children's Hospital and trying to calm down the frantic parents).
Another one is being called to the ER and then upon arriving, finding out it's a person I know outside of work, like a family friend. In that situation, I would try to get someone else to interpret because of ethics, but it's still a tough situation, because you want to help as much as you can while you wait on someone else to take over. I honestly could go on and on, but these are usually the exceptions, as I love my job. There's just some days that are more difficult than others.
This may not be awkward/uncomfortable per se, but I once worked for an American teacher in Taiwan who expected his interpreters to be able to translate puns into another language. He did not or would not understand that a pun in English isn't a pun in Chinese.
I was interpreting for a high school teacher who was participating in an event to try to get dropouts to come back to hs in a majority hispanic neighborhood. Anyway, the school gave us a list with addresses that we had to go to to try to persuade the kids/parents. We go to this one house and ring the bell, the mother answers. I start translating what the teacher was saying and we go back and forth with the mother, asking her to see the kid, lets call her Maria. The mom kept insisting we couldn't talk to Maria and the teacher kept giving the whole spiel about dropping out and to think of the future etc.
About 10 mins into the conversation, the frustrated teacher wants me to ask the mother why on earth couldn't we talk to Maria, to which the mother breaks down crying and says that she died a week before from a long illness, that's why she had dropped out. Ensues the worst and most awkward maybe 5 mins of our lives, between apologies and condolences. Needless to say, we didn't go to any other house that day.
Btw, the school turns out was aware of the kid's passing but had forgotten to take her out of the list, smth...
I worked at a place that captioned telephone calls for customers who were hard of hearing. We only heard one side of the phone call then basically repeated what we heard into our voice recognition software and then corrected it on the fly. Most of the conversation we're boring as hell old people talking to other old people, 50 people in a row calling in to vote for Dancing with the Stars. But ever so rarely you get a good one, mine was what I'm assuming was a deaf young lady and her boyfriend because the conversation very quickly turned from how are you doing to I want to to tie you spread eagle on the bed and lick you all over. This continued for about 15 minutes but the best part is all the cubicles around you hearing you loudly and very clearly speak (so the voice recognition doesn't f--- up) graphic sex acts while they are trying not to lose their shil*t laughing and still keep up captioning an old ladies cookies recipe.
I'm an interpreter for the deaf as well, and over the past 11 years interpreting, I've had quite a few awkward experiences.
My first most awkward was when I was interpreting for a client and his mom, both were deaf, the son was on probation but had done something to get called into his Probation officer's (PO) office. He was cussing out both his mom and PO. I'm sure that was just a normal situation for them both, but to force myself to say the vulgar words and phrases he was using was painful for me. Don't get me wrong, I can cuss like a sailor, but I know my place when I'm in the company of someone in authority and my own family, so I would never say such things in front of people like them. But I did because that's what he was trying to convey and he has that right.
Second one that comes to mind is when I was interpreting for a couple trying to conceive. They had to test the husbands sperm count so he had to ejaculate into a cup. He'd never done this procedure before so the nurse had to explain step by step what he had to do. Trying my best not to blush was the hardest part of this job. I just maintained as neutral a face as possible and did this job as professionally as I could, but when I walked out of that room I knew what he was doing behind that door, and then I had to wait with him in the lobby until they analyzed the count. Then there was more after this to explain the results. It was very detailed, and I know they had to give that information and this office deals with it everyday, but I don't and it was a very interesting experience.
I was called to the lab to help a patient register for, understand, and drop off his semen analysis following his vasectomy. I am a female. As we were finishing up the interaction, I asked the patient if he needed anything else.
"The lab has our number (their interpreter team) and can get us if anything else is needed or to call you for results."
"No, I need your number."
"Um, sorry but I don't give out my personal number to patients." Cue guy putting sunglasses on inside, under the florescent hospital lights and awkwardly trying to get out of there as fast as possible. It still took at least 5 minutes before he was done confirming everything with the lab team.
Translator - was working with a group translating transcripts that were going to be used in a legal case, and the speakers were using really filthy, really creative curse words. We all had to discuss frequently, either to figure out what it meant, or the best way to say it in English. So there we all are in a law office, in our suits and ties, deciding whether it should be "rip his a** up and drag him home" or "plow his a** and drag him home". (Subject matter was financial, they just enjoyed a colorful metaphor, those guys)
I was translating during a divorce trial. You have to swear that you're translating to the best of your ability, just like a witness swears that they're telling the truth. No sweat. You're pretty much a machine, you just translate whatever they say so the judge, clerk, attorneys, and husband and wife hear what is being said. Well, at one point the accusation comes out that he was sleeping around. Well the husband loses it and starts cursing up a storm, calling her a whore, prostitute, etc. Well... I just translated what he said the best I could. Eyebrows were raised and I just shrugged my shoulders. Just doing my job. The judge reprimanded him (the wife was testifying at the time) and the guy yells back at me asking what did I say? The judge was cool and winked at me. It was awkward. But he did tell me afterwards that I did a great job.
My mom is a sign language interpreter. And she's the most sweet as pie mom you can imagine. I've never seen her take a single sip of alcohol (I'm 30), she says things like oh durn, and son of a gun...
She told me about one time interpreting on the psych ward at the hospital. The deaf patient was throwing chairs at the doctor and signing every obscenity you can think of and many that don't even have an actual sign to them. And, as an interpreter should.. my American sweet as pie mommy had to aggressively cuss the doctor out word for word.
It was the best thing I could ever picture... I was dying laughing.
I'm a trained interpreter and translator but I'm a better at the former. I recently had to translate a document for immigration that were text messages from a married couple that frequently used emojis. It makes sense, they're two people still learning each other's language, so they would use the emojis to completely replace the words in the text (eg I love your 😘). I had to send out a huge email blast to my colleagues on how to translate emojis, it was a bizarre moment for me. I think I'll stick to the spoken form.
I work tech support and often have to use a language line. My favorites are Asian languages and when people are pissed. The interpreters bless their hearts will faithfully translate, but every so often will say "They are saying not kind things about you personally"
I'm a translator, which means I only work with the written word. Not normally anything particularly juicy.
However, I once had to deal with a landlord writing to Facebook to try and get Facebook(!) to take down derogatory comments from his tenants. Basically, the landlord was accused of giving apartments to people who would sleep with him, so I had to translate a whole bunch of comments calling him a horndog, saying the whole towerblock had been under his desk, etc. Someone called him the Lidl version of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I thought was pretty hilarious.
Edit: I actually did once have to interpret between a woman having a stroke and a first aider (NOT as a professional interpreter, just happened to be there and speak her language). I did ok at getting her info and keeping her calm waiting for the ambulance, but then the paramedics wanted me to tell her that she was probably having a stroke and I couldn't remember the word... so I said she was having a brain attack :/
The company I work for has a Spanish translation team that I use very frequently and know all of them. We basically do customer service. The most awkward conversations is when you have an irate person on the other line that is cussing you out. Our translators are supposed to translate word for word unless vulgar language is used, then they can summarize.
Basically what I hear is about a minute of someone screaming at me, using multiple choice words that I can recognize as curse words, then the translator "translating" essentially "they are not happy with your answer."
It's awkward for everyone because the translator is basically getting yelled at and has nothing to do with anything other than he picked up that call, and I have to just sit there for minutes at a time listening to someone scream and a short 5 word translation. The customer usually catches on after the first tirade or two that there is no point and they should just calm down and be a decent human being and talk it out.
“He is insisting that you do something vulgar and physically improbable to him.”
Similar to others, not an actual translator but my parents spoke poor English when I was younger. When I was 12 they filed for bankruptcy and took me to the lawyers office to translate for them. Having them go through and tell me everything they blew money on was extremely uncomfortable. Now as an adult they get offended when I don't want to take financial advice from them.
My elderly parents spoke English very poorly and I often translated for them. After my father passed away, I took my mother to the Social Security office to take care of paperwork. One of the questions they asked was whether there were any other potential beneficiaries of my father's benefits such as other children or ex wives. Being an only child, I immediately answered "no". My mother asked me what the question was. I interpreted with my answer. She looked at me sheepishly and answered, 'that's not exactly correct'. It was then, at the age of 50 in the Social Security Building, that I learned that my father had previously been married and had had a child. Mother and baby died during childbirth.
My cousin is a sign language interpreter and he says a big problem he and his clients have is that people talk to him rather than the client. Even at really important things like doctor appointments, the doctor will spend ages asking my cousin where he learned BSL while the Deaf client just wants to get their medical issue looked at. It's against policy for my cousin to hold their own conversation with the doctor when he's working, as he's only there to help the client understand what people are saying.
He and his clients find it really frustrating and rude, so basically if you see someone with a sign language interpreter you can literally just ignore the interpreter and everyone will prefer it that way, as they can just get on with their job!
Also one of his first ever clients saw his doctor was Indian and signed "where's my curry". That was pretty f*cking awkward, especially when the doctor then asked what the sign meant.
I've been on multiple medical trips to Mexico with my urologist father. Bringing translators that have little to no medical experience is incredibly difficult, and in the OR, no one knows the different names for instruments (differs between states/ countries).
I've sat in on multiple appointments and surgeries with translators, and by far the worst is when my dad makes the (usually very religious) translators talk about sexual health.
In addition, often times people only speak Mayan in this particular village, so there has to be a English to Spanish translator, and a Spanish to Mayan translator.
Ok, so my parents are divorced and my dad is deaf. He's not the brightest fellow, so I sort of manage his medical stuff for him when his parents passed away. Now typically I'd book a sign language interpreter for medical appointments so I can just take notes and ask questions, but this time I didn't bother... figured I could just interpret. Now dad had a new girlfriend, and I had the joy of interpreting my father's struggles with erectile dysfunction. See his new girlfriend, who was 10 years younger, was looking for more frequent performances than dad could muster. So we got in depth about how frequently was appropriate for man in his late 50's and then had to discuss the risks of erections going on too long with Viagra. Yeah...I always book an interpreter now, and no...I never did figure out the correct sign for erection.
Not an actual translator but my parents don't speak English and I use to go with them to doctor appointments to translate. I was ~14 and my mom was pregnant. The NP told me to ask them when was the last time they had sex and then proceeded to tell me to translate sexual positions they could pertake in while my mom was pregnant. I didn't want to tell my parents or translate anything but she kept stressing that it was good for them. I don't think my parents understood me or wanted to understand what I was trying to tell them.
I was interpreting for an elementary age Deaf girl. She was having trouble understanding an issue at school and some of the other students started mocking her. I had to interpret their insults to her. I felt absolutely torn apart by that.
Why did you have to interpret the insults?
I've been in this exact situation before too. As an interpreter you have to interpret everything that is going on. It's my job to include the deaf student in all conversations, good or bad. If I started screening what I do and do not interpret that takes the power away from the deaf individual. They have every right to know if someone is mocking them, same as a typical hearing kid.. . but it does f*cking suck to interpret.
"It wasn't me!"
There's not much you can do when the righteous fist of the law comes down on you. Call it a mix-up, or call it a mistake, if someone's pegged you at the scene of a crime there's not much you can do but trust the justice system to prove you innocent. However, that's a gamble, and just because you've been given a "not guilty" doesn't mean the effects won't follow you for the rest of your life.
Reddit user, u/danbrownskin, wanted to hear about the times when it wasn't you, seriously, it was someone else, when they asked: