Interpreting Humor and Slang

My dad used to always say, “Mind over matter, when your mind’s made up, nothing else matters!”

Imagine trying to interpret that! In this case, matter in English has a double meaning. Mind over matter, (the substance of which a physical object is composed) When your mind is made up, nothing else matters! (A subject under consideration, or a subject of disagreement.)

Here is the problem with humor and slang in interpreting. Interpreters try to convey meaning accurately. I could define the words and transmit the information, but it wouldn’t be funny and the whole purpose for the joke would be missed.

Often, when I am interpreting for a patient, the healthcare professional is trying to put the patient at ease and find common ground. They use humor and often tell jokes to do that. As an interpreter, I must find a way to convey that to the patient. If the patient doesn’t understand when something is a joke, he may become more confused and irritated.

For me, this is probably one of the most challenging things to do as an interpreter. I often spend time trying to learn Spanish sayings that correspond to English ones. For instance, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” in Spanish is “el que no chilla, no mama” (The baby that doesn’t cry, doesn’t get milk) It’s a different collection of words with the same meaning.

Humor and slang can also be a challenge because it is often regional. For instance, in South Carolina I had a therapist say, “That dad gum hand!” Actually “dad gum” or “dad gum it” are euphemisms for “darn it.” As we know, darn it is the softer euphemism for the vulgarity “god dammit” So, in this case I said “ese maldito mano” maldito being the equivalent to darn.  If I would have transliterated the words, it would have been “padre de las encillas” or father of the gums (as in the gums in your mouth).  The meaning would have been totally lost!

Why am I saying all this? To make you aware of the challenges interpreters have. If you can use humor in a way that would be easy to interpret and avoid using slang, the interpreter’s job will be much easier, more accurate, and your patient will likely be at ease.

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