Being an interpreter is a pretty interesting job. You have the potential to really help someone who doesn’t speak a given language (or possibly doesn’t speak/hear at all). That being said, it’s also extremely challenging at times – imagine if you mess up a translation between two hostile world leaders… you could end up starting a war!
Even when the stakes aren’t that high, there’s still plenty of potential to have to translate something rather awkward/unpleasant. Case in point: these responses from translators on AskReddit.
1. Try to remain calm
“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.”
2. Bad news messenger
“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.”
3. Not gonna translate
“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.”
4. Time for a talk about the birds and the bees
“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.”
“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…”
6. Your number
“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.”
7. Sexy time
“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.”
8. Vulgar language
“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.”
9. I don’t need your advice, thanks
“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.”
“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).”
11. Not until the age of 50
“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.”
12. Try to keep up
“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.”
14. Emoji translation
“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.”
15. “Not kind things”
“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.”