Lost in Translation Again – The Life of a Hotel Doctor

“Speak Spanish?”

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Two of my least favorite words. Ninety percent of Latin American guests speak enough English to get along, and Hispanic hotel staff are usually available. Unfortunately, this visit occurred at a small Super 8, and the single employee on duty was American. Under these circumstances, I shake my head apologetically and proceed in English.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I asked.

As usual when someone exotic like an American doctor appears, there was a substantial audience. Usually someone volunteers to interpret. Sure enough, a man stepped forward. He tapped patient’s abdomen and then whirled his finger around his mouth.

“Is she vomiting?” I asked.

Blank looks from everyone, a bad sign. I waited, hoping someone else would contribute, but the man merely repeated his gestures.

I phoned the insurance agency’s 800 number. Its employees are Hispanic and willing to interpret.

“Would you ask what’s bothering her and tell me what she says?” I said after explaining the situation.

I handed over the phone and the lady began a long monologue. When she finally handed back the phone, I listened to the insurance clerk. “She is sick from eating. She give medicine from Argentina, but it does not help. She wants a medicine to help.”

That was too little information. I tried to be specific. “Would you ask what are her symptoms?”

Another long conversation followed by a short, unsatisfactory translation. Eventually I learned enough to thank the clerk, adding that I would examine the patient and then call back for more interpreting.

At the end I gave instructions and medication, and everyone seemed happy. I always leave with the uneasy feeling that the interpreter has left out a great deal. Fortunately the ailments I encounter are usually easy, and the occasional exception is obvious.

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