I have been interpreting professionally for the better part of a year now. I work mostly in hospitals, servicing Turkish and Spanish-speaking patients in mental health units, before and after surgery, and during occupational and physical therapy appointments. I’ve also worked in a group home for troubled children, a juvenile detention facility (read: I spent the entire day in prison), in schools, and my fair share of social work visits. Recently, I worked a three week assignment in a research hospital, where people from all over the world come for the study and treatment of rare and very serious diseases.
This research hospital is definitely the most intense working environment I’ve experienced. The security to enter the place is at least as bad as the airport. In order to reach the assignment on time, I’ve got to arrive half an hour early, then have my car and my body searched from hood to trunk as though I were a suspected drug trafficker/possible suicide bomber. I can choose to avoid the car search if I park on the distant visitors’ lot, but there’s no getting around the metal detector and X-ray machine, plus, that adds a half-mile sprint to the social work desk where I report to start work. For someone going into the place every day for three weeks, you’d think they’d issue a temporary employee badge. Alas, they do not.
What really makes this type of interpreting challenging, though, is the severity of the diseases, the gravity of the consent forms, the uncertainty of whether the patient will benefit from the treatment, the possibility that the illness may not the complexity of the medical terminology, and the sheer volume of doctors, nurses, specialists, technicians, and other personnel with whom the patient must meet. The job of the interpreter is to render what is said into the target language, not to feel, but in the midst of so many emotions–hope, fear, fatigue, irritation, joy, disappointment, despair–it’s difficult not absorb some of the emotional stress. It’s exhausting, and on busy days, the chance for even a 20 minute break from interpreting to eat lunch is unlikely.
There are aspects of interpreting that I enjoy immensely–variety, for one. Every day is different, and there are things to be learned in every new environment. And the work itself is enjoyable. A former professor of mine used to describe interpretation as mental gymnastics, and it truly is! Flipping from one language to another and back again is challenging–it keeps your language skills sharp and your vocabulary ever-increasing. Families, doctors, nurses and technicians really appreciate the interpreter. Pediatric patients give hugs.
Working as a contractor for an agency, however, I do not feel as though I am fairly compensated. The agency doesn’t seem to much value its interpreters. And when I think about how I am exploited, I feel angry.