By Angela Fairbank
Previously published in the STIBC Voice October 2019 edition, reprinted with permission.
Since I began working as a peripatetic health care interpreter in the lower mainland of British Columbia, I have experienced not only situations I was prepared for, i.e. appointments that go pretty much as planned, but also some challenges. For this type of job, apart from excellent language skills (including an ability to adjust to dialects) and a thorough understanding and knowledge of medical vocabulary, one also has to be extremely flexible.
Health care interpreting opportunities vary widely. I have interpreted mere hours after birth and probably a few hours before death (other people’s births and deaths, mind you, not my own). I have worked in some psych wards behind protective glass or standing between security guards and in others walking freely among patients. I have been seated in swank palliative care suites with marvelous views over the city, and in some rather cluttered private homes. I have assisted communication in schools between social workers and children during interviews about domestic violence. I have been placed at the foot of a dentist’s chair while my client’s teeth are being cleaned. I absolutely love the variety — of venue, of subject matter, and of people.
I was a young 20-something, a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia with a double major in French and Spanish, when I had my first health care interpreting gig: I accompanied my father, a general practitioner, on a two-week medical and dental mission to Honduras as a volunteer interpreter. As a team, led by North American doctors and student dentists, we would set up improvised clinics at schools in a different town each day. Whenever we arrived at a new place, we would find mums, dads, grannies, granddads and kids from neighboring villages who had taken the day off work or school to queue up from early morning to dusk waiting to consult with us “gringos” and be cured of real or imaginary ailments that they had accumulated since the last time foreigners like us had come. One volunteer’s job was to take the children out of the queues momentarily and dose them with de-worming medicine, while their parents, men and women with bent backs and bowed legs from hard labor in the fields, waited patiently to list their aches and pains and perhaps take away a pill or two, a donated pair of glasses, or some general medical advice.
I can still remember three highlights from that experience: once when we were holding the clinic in a dark school room (no electricity available), the doctor asked me to aim his flashlight onto a middle-aged woman’s private parts so that he could see to do a pelvic exam; on another day, I was there to assist the same young doctor as he removed a mole from a young woman’s arm — my first surgical experience as an observer; and on the day I worked with the dentists, an ancient granny begged them to remove almost all of her remaining teeth (about 4 or 5, I think) leaving her with just one central lower incisor. I still remember her smile of pain-free glee — with the glint of that one remaining tooth — after it was all over.
Later that same year, when I returned to Vancouver, I continued volunteering as a linguist and my most memorable experience was interpreting during the 25-hour labor of a 16-year-old Salvadoran refugee. I’ll never forget the image (and sensation) of having her bare left foot braced against my chest as I encouraged her (in Spanish) to push.
Now forward some thirty years, and I am actually paid for the privilege to interpret. I travel by bus and train within a vast area that includes about a dozen hospital zones, not to mention scores of medical clinics and specialists’ offices. I have not witnessed any surgeries or births lately, though I have interpreted during surgery prep and before and after colonoscopy procedures. I also interpreted for a mother a few hours after birth, while the doctors were monitoring her newborn in the ICU.
However, on one occasion, in November 2018 actually, I was asked to interpret for parents whose young adult child was dying of leukemia. It was just before the November 11th weekend (Remembrance Day for Canadians, Veterans’ Day for Americans) and the parents, who had flown to Vancouver from their country especially, knew next to nothing about Canada. They asked what the holiday was all about. This question prompted the doctor to launch into a short history lesson about the First World War, Armistice Day and the Canadian troops’ role in it. Then she began quoting John McCrae’s “In Flanders’ Fields*.” Of course, not only was it my duty to interpret the history lesson, but also the poem as the doctor read it off her mobile phone. An unexpected request? Sure! Did I enjoy the challenge? You bet! Incidentally, the doctor used this same cell phone a few minutes later as a means to shed light into her patient’s mouth to check for ulcers. Alas, gone are the days when a doctor asks me to hold the flashlight!
* A well-known Canadian poem, often read on Remembrance Day, it starts out “In Flanders’ Fields, the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row…”
Angela Fairbank, M.A. C.T., a full-time freelance translator and interpreter from Vancouver, B.C. Canada, is an ATA-certified French-to-English Translator and a Canadian-certified Spanish-to-English Translator. She currently volunteers her time as Vice-President of the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, the certification body for T&I associations in seven Canadian provinces, as well as Registrar of the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia (STIBC), certifying on-dossier candidates. Editor of the STIBC Voice, a quarterly magazine for the association, and a T&I graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, her greatest passions are traveling and travel photography.
Images by the author and the author’s headshot by Walter Aleman