Interpreting East Tennessee
A thick, horizontal rainbow spills onto the tiny mountains. It rained earlier and the streets offer me little diamonds as presents. In this quiet Appalachian corner, nature feels a bit much at times. Okay God, we get it! I can almost understand the religious obsession of the locals. Almost.
I tap my fingers on the steering wheel, glancing at the time displayed on my phone. My twelve-minute calculation has failed miserably. Damn you Walmart! One of its gigantic trucks has taken over the otherwise-uneventful traffic down a tight residential street. Seven minutes later—five behind schedule—I make it to “Main Street,” the heart of a downtown from another era, lined by a handful of puny brick buildings, antique stores, and sandwich shops. The blurry display window of the only boutique in sight, hosts a sad party for a trio of beheaded mannequins: handicapped fugitives from the eighties, showing off their gaudy outfits.
Past the train tracks, I find my destination. What a nice job on giving this building the abandoned warehouse look. Kudos to the hipster industrial vibe for managing to sneak into the grouchy bible-belt, right? The dangly Hello-Kitty air freshener seems to agree, moving up and down while I park. The woman from the agency has already called three times reminding me that I need to get there fifteen minutes before the appointment, her Castilian Spanish lingering in my ears with its aggressive z’s and j’s. I pull the rearview mirror down to check my hair—in come my otherwise neglected glasses so that I can look a bit older—and force myself out of the car, leaving behind a book and a bottle of water.
A young receptionist stares at me, her bouncy red curls greeting me with a better disposition than her rigid face. I am here to interpret for patient Iván Jiménez, I tell her. She gives me a look of either doubt or constipation. I recite more details from the agency—memorized right to the z’s and j’s—but she just turns her gaze back to the computer, barely nods, and points to the waiting area.
I flip through the magazines nestled in the wooden rack. What do we have here? The usual, I see. Holy Family, Hunting Machos, and the classic Sacred Fishing. Well, not exactly but you get the idea. I mourn for the book left behind and stare at my phone as if waiting for an oracle to reveal something meaningful. It doesn’t happen. Twenty minutes later, the patient arrives. How do I know it’s him? Well, we are the only people in the room whose skin color would fail at a casting for the next vampire saga.
We are summoned into a spacious rehab room with ancient-looking exercise machines on each corner. The patients using them—like they just popped out of an episode from The Golden Girls— remind me of the sloth I saw back at a zoo in Ecuador. Displayed on the wall like hunting trophies, four speakers beat to light easy-sounding music. The untrained ear could trick you into thinking they are soft rock tunes; catchy melodies that would provide a pleasant background to a small gathering of friends or to a couple at the bar of a three-star hotel. Except, the lyrics of these songs aren’t about stolen kisses or endearing romances. Not really. Though they are about a relationship. One that involves a father and a son and all of humanity.
My head sways to the beat and I wish there was somewhere in this town I could go dancing.
“Why does this man hate Latinos so much? ”Sitting opposite of me in the waiting area, patient Iván Jiménez points at the shiny screen on his iPhone.
A competent interpreter limits personal involvement
with all parties during the interpreting assignment.
I shrug, smile politely, and immediately return my eyes to the safety of my book. Little do I know that this apparent safety will soon crumble just like those chocolate cookies the stocky women behind the front desk gobble down as if there’s no tomorrow—their scrubs taut around their bodies— threatening to burst into hundreds of baby-blue and pink streamers any second now.
After the therapy session, a heating pad offers patient Iván Jiménez some of that relief he craves. Not enough. Frustration creeps up on his face—a furious vine that bursts out of the pain lodged in his shoulder. I pretend not to notice and wait nearby with my book.
“You can read books in English?” The patient’s voice twinges as if the vine has gotten hold of his throat.
A competent interpreter does not share
personal information with a patient.
I provide a light confirmation with my head—looking around—as if the Castilian woman were checking up on me.
“You went to school here?”
His dark eyes demand answers. Why the randomness. Why the difference in the portions of that sour American-dream pie? Where is his piece?
The ruthless vine—insatiable—squeezes and squeezes. I excuse myself and sprint to the water cooler where I stay crushing a paper cup, waiting for the physical therapist to get back to his patient.
Breathe. I ride out the guilt wave and immerse myself in the Jesus song lurking behind me.
I don’t bring a book to my interpreting appointments anymore.
While we wait for the session to begin, I stare at my phone, pretending I am just as enamored with the screen as the young receptionist seems to be, her green eyes enraptured by the light, the likes, the selfies. Blink, blink—to the rhythm of the country song spilling out of the radio.
“The treatment isn’t working; the pain hasn’t improved at all” It takes a minute for the health provider to remember that I am only a decoder relaying a message. He finally turns his gaze to where it needs to go—a fake smile barely masking his annoyance—as he reads some notes from his fancy tablet, evidence that the patient has only confirmed positive outcomes after each session.
I am not a mediator, that’s not my role. But I know they are hoping I can be just that for them. Iván ends up apologizing—the pain has gotten the best of him—and I interpret that he wishes to continue the treatment. The therapist gives us a better attempt at a smile this time, perfect teeth and all, turning his back to us as he tries to figure out with the receptionist the dates for the remaining appointments.
I let my guard down and before I can stop him, Iván is whispering in my ear. One of his friends has been arrested. He will be deported in a few days. He is scared.
A competent interpreter must advise all parties
that everything which is stated will be interpreted.
I look at Iván, my own dark eyes doing a better job at comforting him than the words I am not allowed to say. I wave my goodbyes forgetting to interpret the patient’s last statement, thinking this is one of those days in which I don’t feel like being that competent.
Melanie Márquez Adams is Ecuadorian by birth and a country girl by marriage. Her story collection, Mariposas Negras, received a 2018 North Texas Book Festival Award for Short Fiction in Spanish. Her work has appeared in storySouth, The Hong Kong Review, Lunch Ticket, Green Briar Review, Asterix Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship.