Lost in translation

My inspiration for this post.

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.


6 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. becka March 9, 2009 / 3:11 am

    As a new doula this is something I’ve been thinking about, leading up to attending my first couple of births. Not specifically translating an actual language, but the idea of stepping in to interperet what medical staff are saying or being a women’s voice when they aren’t able to. While I know my/our training tells us that this isn’t within our role, I wonder how you can always stick to that. Especially in situations where you know that a woman isn’t fully understanding what is going on, and decisions are being made without her consent.

  2. Alison March 9, 2009 / 4:06 am

    “…even when I felt like I was protecting her from hearing something she wouldn’t want to hear”

    wow, I wouldn’t have thought about this. sound like an impossibly complicated position to be in.

  3. Rebecca March 9, 2009 / 12:47 pm

    You are writing so many of my thoughts from the time I worked with a lot of women who only spoke Spanish. I have had nurses and doctors literally talking to me over a woman’s head, or cozying up to me as I sat at the bedside, and starting a conversation in English that the laboring woman could not understand. So many times women looked at me, knowing without question that the other people in the room were talking about them but not knowing what they were saying. I would often find myself catching the doctor/nurse’s attention and pointedly beginning to translate, only to find them suddenly remember that there was a patient in the room. “Oh yeah, tell her…”

    It was so frustrating, and I think you put it perfectly: it’s power that you don’t want. While I was sometimes able to use it subversively, in the end I wasn’t comfortable having to make those decisions. But it didn’t matter whether I was comfortable, because I had to make them anyway.

    Don’t even get me started on the care providers who thought they could speak Spanish and made it impossible for ANYONE to understand what they were talking about.

  4. Tanya March 12, 2009 / 11:44 am

    Didn’t know that story about your mom and the dictionary – adorable!

  5. vanessa March 16, 2009 / 7:22 am

    what if you said to the medical staff something like “i can understand everything you’re saying, and am thus put into the position of trying to decide what information to relay to our client. could you help me out by only saying things in my presence that you want relayed to our client?”

    i realize that there can be mad tension between hospital staff and doulas/midwives, and that your number one goal is contributing to the best situation for your client. thus, you wouldn’t want to do anything that would tick off anyone who has the potential to mess with said situation. at the same time, though, i think there would be a way to non-aggressively remind them that what they’re saying is heard by both of you, and understood completely by you (and i would imagine at least partially by your clients, since communication is about way more than words).

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