The three top behaviors that surprised me as a newbie interpreter



Photo Credit: Pixabay

Photo Credit: Pixabay


Elena Langdon

No matter how much one prepares to work as an interpreter, each assignment brings its own idiosyncrasies and surprises. Community or dialogue interpreting in particular is a type of performance with so many varying factors and agents that, even though some speech is highly predictable (a straightforward arraignment for a driving violation, for example, or a six-month wellness visit with a baby), a lot of it is not; meaning and therefore its transmission are negotiated on the spot. For interpreters, this is the thrilling part and par for the course. In a solid training program, a novice will learn about active listening, translating meaning instead of words, flow, and other dynamics of dialogue interpreting. Still, there is no way to cover every facet of the job. Below are three common occurrences (at least in my world) that no one told me about before I first stepped into an exam room as an interpreter.

Code-mixing ― This is slightly different from code-switching, according to some linguists at least.  I am using the term to describe the language used especially by immigrants with little grasp of the language spoken in their new home (code-switching, on the other hand, is usually used to describe the mix of languages that bilinguals or multilinguals use when talking amongst themselves, knowing that they don’t need to stick to one language; it can also be used to describe what children first do when they are learning two languages simultaneously). Of course, everyone is familiar with Spanglish, and what I encountered with Portuguese and Brazilians in Massachusetts is similar. The Portuguese they speak has several words that are borrowed from English and have replaced the original Portuguese term. I don’t necessarily mean the false cognates–these are easier to spot and handle because of their auditory similarity, such as aplicar for applying for a job, corte for court, and countless other examples. The tricky ones are the words that are simply lifted from English and pronounced with a Portuguese accent. In Massachusetts it’s been terms like estoua, draiva, and bimba (*). When I encountered each for the first time my brain temporarily shut down and I couldn’t figure out what the person was trying to say. The analogy for me is like looking for a sock in a sock drawer when in fact it’s in the pajama drawer (or, more likely in my case, on the floor). A similar minor panic overtakes me when I hear the name of an unfamiliar street, town, or business, but at least then I know it’s a foreign word being pronounced by a Portuguese-speaker. In the case of bimba or rufu, it’s trickier.

Brazilians identifying as Spanish speakers ― I was prepared for Portuguese immigrants to complain about my Brazilian variant, but I didn’t know how many Brazilians would think it’s easier and quicker to ask for a Spanish interpreter at a hospital. It’s a small matter but it was initially quite baffling, and it always adds a layer of confusion to the encounter. It can be difficult to convince providers that Spanish and Portuguese are separate languages, and to see patients unraveling this delicate net was frustrating. (Recently a Spanish speaker did the same in courthe wanted me to interpret in Portuguese for him. Is it more about ease and quick access than meaning? One would hope not.)

Boundary violations by providers ― I knew to watch out for patients violating boundaries, but providers who were experts in their field? The worst was a mental health provider at a locked behavioral health unit who asked me to go into the room where all the patients were having lunch, by myself, and talk to the patient. It was his regular daily check-in with the patient. I had been there two or three times that week and I guess the doctor felt comfortable asking me to conduct his interview alone: “Go in there and ask him how he is doing, if he is hearing voices, if he wants to harm himself or someone else, and then come find me and let me know what he said.” Another startling request came from a nurse as she reached across a semi-conscious patient while she was changing his bed linen: “So do you think he’s demented?” she asked me, earnestly seeking my opinion based on a short exchange between her and the patient. The first example is a bit extreme, but the second one has continued to happen throughout the last twelve years. Providers still do not understand our role, and we need to do more work to help them understand the boundaries.

If you are a practicing community interpreter in the United States, I doubt these stories surprise you. What behavior baffled you when you first started?

(*) Have you figured out what bimba means yet? What were some anglicisms that caught you off guard? Drop us a line and let us know!


A Brazilian at heart, Elena Langdon has worked as an interpreter and translator for over 14 years. She is certified by the ATA as a translator (PT>EN) and by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters as an interpreter. She holds an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has been teaching interpreting and translation since 2005. In addition to being part of the PLD Leadership Council and one of the copy editors of our blog, Elena volunteers on committees for the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare and the New England Translators Association. She is a past administrator and treasurer of the PLD, and was the second chair of the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters. Raised in Brazil by an American parent, Elena now resides in Massachusetts. She is also a dedicated triathlete and mother to three adorable children.

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