I’m bilingual. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English because I grew up with two Cuban immigrant parents. My mom likes to joke about how she dropped me off at my preschool in my mostly White Southern town and handed the teacher a Spanish/English dictionary so she could communicate with me.
Being bilingual gives you an interesting lens on the world. Mine is particularly interesting because although I am Latina, you wouldn’t necessarily know by looking at me. I pass, most of the time, as white. That means a lot of things, some of which I may some day tackle here, but in this context it means I get to hear things, in both languages, that other people don’t.
As a doula this was particularly enlightening/challenging because I got to hear and understand everything a doctor was saying but not communicating to their patient when she didn’t speak English. I got to witness the jokes between doctors, the decisions about care that were being made without consultation, the idle chatter and conversation that they carried on in her presence. Then I had to make a decision. Do I tell her what they are saying?
I was taught that a doula shouldn’t be a translator. My doula trainer explained, with the best of intentions, that those roles should be separate. Just like a doula doesn’t replace a partner, they can’t replace a translator.
That’s great in an ideal world, where everyone has exactly what they need. But let’s remember where we live: planet not so ideal. On this planet, translators are only brought in when there is paperwork to be signed. On this planet, doctors/medical students/nurses with a working knowlege of Spanish get to communicate with the patient when and if they want to. On this planet, a Spanish speaking doula may be the only thing helping a Spanish speaking mom/family/partner feel safe.
So I had to make decisions. Constantly. Decisions about when to translate, what to translate, how to translate. Having to be a filter never felt good, even when I felt like I was protecting her from hearing something she wouldn’t want to hear. I didn’t want to be the only one in the room who could communicate her needs/questions/concerns to her providers. I didn’t want that power.
What would my ideal world look like? Well, first of all, women would get treated exactly the same regardless of what language they spoke. Doctors/nurses/people wouldn’t talk about a patient in a language she didn’t understand in front of her. They would get consent for everything they did, before they did, and explain every step along the way.
And that’s just the beginning.