Comedy Central Interpreting Experiences – Part I


I occasionally see requests from our language forums for contributions of funny instances that have occurred at work.  I am never able to remember them off the cuff so I made a special effort to create an ad hoc list to share with you.  I recalled several stories, although I am generally of a serious nature, because they have taken place over a period of + 30 years.

In retrospect, I realize that  the anecdotes mentioned here could have been avoided if I had been more mindful and not on automatic pilot when they took place.  I have duly learned my lesson.

Once upon a time when I was a young housewife, I had a dinner party planned for a Friday evening, when a good client called with a last minute request for an interpreter late that afternoon.  We were not able to find someone else to cover due to the short notice so I went.  It was a very sad case of a young woman who had gone on her honeymoon to Mexico. Her husband, who had a cardiac condition, had suffered a heart attack and died.  There must have been a good eight attorneys asking questions.  It was late in the day, there were no signs that the depo was winding down and my guests were scheduled to arrive at home for dinner at 7:00.  While I was interpreting I was wondering to myself what I was going to do (fatal misstep!). My client proceeded to ask the witness what they were doing when he had the heart attack and she answered that they were making love.  The next question was “Were you engaged in foreplay?”  I thought about how to interpret that into Spanish in an elegant/efficient way and I was successful.  The woman answered after pausing to think. Still on automatic pilot thinking about the dinner, I blurted  out, “We were kicking”.  I only realized my error when the attorney turned around quizzically and said to me “Mrs. de la Vega,  that’s a strange way to go about it, don’t you think?”  The witness had used the verb for “kissing” in Spanish but I inadvertently turned into “kicking”.

Another time, in that same vein, I was interpreting for a plaintiff who was suing a doctor for malpractice. She testified about a number of terrible mistakes that had been made by the physician that resulted in the death of her child.  She was then asked when she had decided to sue Dr. Padrón.  When I interpreted the question to her, I committed a Freudian slip and unwittingly changed the doctor’s name to “Cabrón”, which means sonofabitch in Spanish. None of the attorneys spoke Spanish and the words sound so alike that they never noticed.  I only realized what I had said when she stared at me incredulously and the little “tape recorder” in my brain played back my answer. Without batting an eyelid, I simply repeated the question to her, substituting the correct name.  She visibly relaxed and answered, probably thinking she had heard wrong.

One of my all-time favorite war stories happened when I was interpreting at a meeting of the World Boxing Association.  Roberto “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone) Durán,  considered by many to be the greatest lightweight of all time, was reading a tortuous, flowery speech sprinkled with all kinds of obscure boxing terms about his achievements in the ring.  I asked my male booth partner to speak to him during a break and get a copy of the text that he was speed-reading out loud.  My partner came back and told me that Durán had insulted him and said he didn’t need to be giving the interpreters anything, that it was  up to us to do the job right without any help. I immediately got up to try my luck with him and the guy fell all over himself to get me the copy, hitting on me in the meantime.  When I came back to the booth with the papers, my colleague asked how I had gotten them, and not realizing the mics were on, I answered, “because Manos de Piedra is a dirty old man”.  There was a lightning-like response as all the press and the attendees wearing headsets roared with laughter, while the honoree looked at them nonplussed. Needless to say, as soon as we were done, I exited the building through the emergency stairs so as not to run into anyone.

I will save the rest of my treasure trove for another day so that we can savor an additional chuckle and trust that you will all be inspired to take a walk down memory lane and share your comical tales with me.

About mariacristinadelavegamusings

Certified SpanishEnglish interpreter by the Administrative Offices of the U.S. Courts, the State of Florida and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), where I have served on the board of directors, am chair of the Public Relations Committee, and have a column entitled "Getting Down to Business" in Proteus, the association newsletter. I am a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) and have a monthly column named "Interpreters Forum". In addition to the prior two associations, I also belong to AIIC (International Association of Conference Interpreters). I own ProTranslating, Inc., an LSP in Florida. I hold an MBA, which keeps one foot firmly grounded in everyday waking consciousness while the other aggressively seeks unity consciousness...

Posted on September 21, 2011, in Interpreting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hilarious! Reading this was a nice way to start my long, long day today. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Maria Cristina!
    Looking forward to the next anecdotes already.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Very funny although sad situations in the first two cases. I’ll try to think of something similar 🙂

    • Sonia, the work can be stressful if you let it get to you but if you have a tool to handle it, in my case it’s yoga, then you can enjoy it and it is very rewarding to help people communicate. From a personal standpoint it is a career where you are always learning, you can never know too much. I also travel a lot, which I love, and it can be very exciting.
      Although it’s better if you know three languages or more, I only work professionally in two and I have always had work. The last point is the sticky one. You definitely HAVE to be focused. We’re human and we have our lapses but you have to be on the ball.
      Thank you for commenting and please come back again.

  3. During my college years I worked as a personal interpreter
    (EnglishRussian) for a night club owner. Once a year the owner
    would organize a weekend at the beach for all the employees and he
    would collect about 100 rubles (~$3, it was years ago, in Russia) from
    everyone for beer and snacks; rent, daily meals and transportation he
    paid for. The owner was asking his bodyguard to give him 100 rubles
    and I, absent-mindedly, interpreted: Vlad, give me 1000 rubles for
    snacks and beer. Vlad became visibly agitated and retorted, “It’s a
    lot of money for just beer and stuff, if it’s that much, I won’t go at
    all!”. The owner insisted that everyone was contributing, from
    dishwashers to managers, and that it was not much at all, especially
    considering that the bodyguard was the highest-paid employee. Both of
    them became extremely angry, then the owner (he was pretty
    hot-tempered) scratched “100 rubles” on a piece of paper. Bug-eyed and
    spitting saliva all over the place, he stuck it in his face and
    yelled. “Is this too much to ask?!” At that moment they both realized
    who was to blame, but they let it slip and just laughed.

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