Interpreting: insanely scary but totally rewarding

It’s not a big crowd, but I’m still nervous standing in front of a couple dozen people while clutching two microphones in my sweaty palms. The forty people in the room are there because they need to receive food and clothes from my local church’s ministry called the Healing Center, and I’ve been randomly selected to translate all of the information into Spanish.

Don’t get me wrong–I love Spanish, I’m pretty good at it, and I would be a happy person working as a translator in pretty much any language you throw at me. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that the hardest part wasn’t even the Spanish!

Me at the Healing Center showing guests where ad how to receive food. Next to me is my little sister.

Me at the Healing Center showing guests where and how to receive food. Next to me is my little sister.

I was supposed to be listening to a man named Mark as he read off all the information for the night. Having never been an interpreter like this before, I assumed he would say a few sentences and pass the mic to me so I could translate.

But no.

He talked.

And talked.

And talked.

He kept talking until I wasn’t even sure if I could repeat what he was saying in English. Then he kept talking to the point that I knew for sure I couldn’t repeat everything in English. The red tickets went to the photographer, the pink ones went to the food pantry, and the blue tickets went to the Christmas raffle.  There was a mandatory class at 8:00 for all new guests in room 201, unless they spoke Spanish, in which case they could go to the front desk and get the same information. But THAT process was optional. There was a table for women–who have to be over the age of forty–to get mammograms and health screening. They were now serving numbers 642 through 734 in the food pantry.

My head spun from all the numbers, times and places being thrown around, and I felt a pang in my stomach every time I didn’t know how to say something. Even my little sister, standing up in front of everyone with me, gave me a look of pity when I finally was handed the set of microphones.

As I was standing in front of the small crowd, I couldn’t help but stare at the group of Spanish-speaking volunteers who were, in my mind, secretly judging me and my abilities. Finally, I convinced myself that I was one of only two or three people in the room who could speak English and Spanish well enough to do the job, and I began to speak.

The ease of which the words came to me was such a deep relief. I somehow managed to recall which color tickets pertained to which activity, when each person could receive clothes, and which classes were mandatory. Of course, there were plenty of words I didn’t know–for some reason, the word “mammogram” has not come up yet in my high school textbook (it is ‘mammografia’, if anyone was wondering). And I blanked out on how to say “to take advantage of” even though it is one of my favorite words (that one is ‘aprovechar’).

But with my training in circumlocution, I managed to communicate everything pretty efficiently, at least I thought. And, I was called up many times again during the night to make more announcements. As I was walking out of the building, I was stopped by a man who told me what a great job I’d done. He didn’t speak Spanish himself, but a Spanish teacher had commented on it. Knowing that I was understood was a huge payoff for me.

The other big payoff was learning what my strengths and weaknesses are. It wasn’t hard for me to speak quickly and fluently, but (just like in English!) I had trouble pronouncing my words and not speaking too quickly or mushily. I learned a few new words that will be useful to me in the future, and I got to help out a lot of people.

So bottom line? Even though my clammy, nervous hands could barely hold the microphone, and I was seriously questioning what I thought to be my upper intermediate Spanish, having learned a language helped me a communicate with a group of people not used to having someone identify with them. And that, above any other motivation, is what I strive to do. 🙂


Sydney Sauer • December 27, 2015

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  1. Susa January 15, 2016 - 6:28 pm Reply

    This Sounds terrifying! Awesome job!

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