When the interpreter has to deal with someone flirting

Sometimes the interpreter finds himself in very unusual circumstances.  I have talked about the uncomfortable feeling of interpreting vulgar language. How about interpreting for someone inappropriately flirting?

A while back, I was assigned to interpret for a patient who thought he was Don Juan.  He oozed with a self-delusional swagger and charm.  He imagined himself as the ultimate Latino ladies’ man, the smooth-talking romancer.

The therapist would ask, “How are you feeling today?”  His reply, coupled suggestive countenance, “Oh, I’m feeling better now that I’m with you!  You are looking fine today!”  Sometimes the therapist would state, “You need to work hard at getting better so that you can go back to work and have a regular life.”  He would respond, “Yes I need to get better so I can take you out dancing.  Do you know how to dance Salsa and Cumbia?”  The therapist answered, “No I don’t dance.”  “Well, I can teach you!  You have a great body for dancing!”  I felt like saying, “Eeeew!”

Sad to say I had to repeat conversations like this quite regularly.  It was embarrassing to repeat.  I could not believe that anyone could be so tacky and worse yet the words had to come out of my mouth.  Sure, the message wasn’t coming from me, but I could not help feel like somehow I was an accomplice to some kind of sexual harassment.

Note a few ethical principles of which I have to remind myself:

1)    Interpreters are to remain impartial and neutral where they serve.

2)    Interpreters should also maintain the appearance of impartiality and neutrality

3)    Interpreters are to use the same grammatical person as the speaker.

With those ethical guidelines in mind, I remind myself that the therapist is a full-grown adult, capable of putting the patient in his place if she wanted to.  I am tasked to be faithful to the speaker.  It is up to the one receiving the message to respond accordingly.  I also have to remind myself that although I love my job, there are also unpleasant moments.  Take the good with the bad.

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3 thoughts on “When the interpreter has to deal with someone flirting”

  1. Awkwardness arise when patients convey uncomfortable messages. I always remind myself that I am NOT part of the conversation, and the message solely belongs to the speaker. Once I have drilled that concept in my mind, I’m able to interpret messages that are uncomfortable to interpret with much ease.

    Most uncomfortable message I had to interpret was a bigoted one. Provider is African-American and patient blatantly uttered [in Spanish] – “I hate coming to this clinic because of so many black people around the area. You already know how ‘these’ people tend to be.”

    Obviously the patient was not doing a good job at remaining to speak directly to the provider. So the patient’s message was meant more towards me, the interpreter.

    The provider obviously was appalled by the patient’s comment and asked why they felt that way about African-Americans. Patient was upset at me for interpreting their message. I had to remind the patient that interpreters must render all messages into the other language to adhere to accuracy and impartiality.

    The takeaway; interpreters are never part of the conversation. That is the beauty of interpreting.

    1. Gerardo, Thanks for sharing.
      I once had to interpret for a doctor who asked a patient, “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?” Then he asked the patient to stand on his toes. When the patient said he was unable, the doctor told him the exam was over. He would report that the patient was uncooperative and that he could return to work with no restrictions.

      I maintained my professionalism and simply conveyed the message, however I was incensed at the level of Racism shown on that occasion. Later I was careful to report the facts of what happened to my client without passing judgements.

      From that point on, I realized that I was no longer unbiased with that particular doctor, so I always sent someone else to interpret instead.

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