Translators are there to mediate conflict both large and small. Some days on the job might be lax, other days, there might be some tough messages to deliver. From unexpected medical afflictions to extramarital affairs, translators have the duty to deliver the truth, even if it's incredibly difficult to tell.
Translators and interpreters from Reddit shared the most unbearably awkward or difficult conversation they've had to translate, and what went down after.
This Interpreter Had A Brain Fart
“I once had to interpret between a woman having a stroke and a first aider (NOT as a professional interpreter, just happened to be there and spoke her language). I did okay at getting her info and keeping her calm waiting for the ambulance, but then the paramedics wanted me to tell her that she was probably having a stroke and I couldn’t remember the word… so I said she was having a brain attack.”
“I Don’t Want To Take Advice From Them”
“I’m not an actual translator but my parents spoke poor English when I was younger.
When I was 12, they filed for bankruptcy and took me to the lawyer’s office to translate for them. Having them go through and tell me everything they blew money on was extremely uncomfortable.
Now as an adult they get offended when I don’t want to take financial advice from them.”
“I was a Spanish medical translator for a while, and there were some pretty bad ones, but one really stands out above the rest.
I followed a nurse into a room where the patient was waiting. Now, I know nothing about the patient, I’m only there to translate what the nurse says, so when the nurse says ‘You’re pregnant!’ I gave a huge smile and repeated with excitement in Spanish.
Patient stares in shock for a second, and then bursts into tears. The nurse stammers a bit, and then goes, ‘No bueno…?’
The news we had to give was bad enough, but the fact that I thought it was supposed to be a happy announcement made it 10x more cringeworthy!”
“I Always Book An Interpreter Now”
“My parents are divorced and my dad is deaf. He’s not the brightest fellow, so I sort of manage his medical stuff for him when his parents passed away. Now typically I’d book a sign language interpreter for medical appointments so I can just take notes and ask questions, but this time I didn’t bother because figured I could just interpret.
My dad had a new girlfriend at the time, and I had the joy of interpreting my father’s struggles with erectile dysfunction. See his new girlfriend, who was 10 years younger, was looking for more frequent performances than my dad could muster.
So we got in depth about how frequently was appropriate for man in his late 50’s and then had to discuss the risks of hard-ons going on too long with supplements. Yeah… I always book an interpreter now, and no… I never did figured out the correct sign for hard-on.”
“The Mother Broke Down Crying”
“I was interpreting for a high school teacher who was participating in an event to try to get dropouts to come back to high school in a majority Hispanic neighborhood.
The school gave us a list with addresses that we had to go to to try to persuade the kids/parents. We go to this one house and ring the bell, the mother answers. I start translating what the teacher was saying and we go back and forth with the mother, asking her to see the kid, we’ll call her ‘Maria.’
The mom kept insisting we couldn’t talk to Maria and the teacher kept giving the whole spiel about dropping out and to think of her bright future.
About 10 minutes into the conversation, the frustrated teacher wants me to ask the mother why on earth we couldn’t talk to Maria, to which the mother breaks down crying and says that she died a week before from a long illness, that’s why she had dropped out. What followed was the worst and most awkward maybe 5 mins of our lives, between apologies and condolences. Needless to say, we didn’t go to any other house that day.
Also, the school was aware of the kid’s passing but had forgotten to take her out of the list.”
“That’s Not Exactly Correct”
“My elderly parents spoke English very poorly and I often translated for them. After my father passed away, I took my mother to the Social Security office to take care of paperwork. One of the questions they asked was whether there were any other potential beneficiaries of my father’s benefits such as other children or ex wives. Being an only child, I immediately answered no.
My mother asked me what the question was. I interpreted with my answer. She looked at me sheepishly and answered, ‘That’s not exactly correct.’
It was then, at the age of 50 in the Social Security Building, that I learned that my father had previously been married and had another child. Mother and baby died during childbirth.”
“It Was Too Much For Her”
“A dear friend was a refugee when she came to the US fleeing the Bosnian genocide. She was brought into the translation/interpretation business out of necessity, assisting fellow refugees with communication throughout the process of being granted asylum, finding apartments, entering the work force, all that.
Over time she got all of her certifications, but just last year she up and switched careers, quit her job and matriculated as a full-time MA student in a completely different field in a city two hours away (and she commutes every day).
About a month ago, she told me the real reason for this abrupt change in life trajectory. She’d been hired as the court interpreter for a fellow Bosnian refugee, one whom she’d known a long time but whose story she wasn’t familiar with. This man had, during the genocide, been forced to violate his own young son.
My friend was charged with listening to him regale his and his son’s suffering before a judge, then translate it into English for all to hear. She said that usually, her policy when helping fellow refugees in a courtroom setting was ‘be a chair.’ She avoided emotional involvement out of her own necessity.
But this case was too much for her… She saw it through but immediately started hunting for a new job.”
This Kid Grew Up Fast
“My parents don’t speak English and I use to go with them to doctor appointments to translate. I was about 14 at the time and my mom was pregnant.
The nurse practitioner told me to ask them when was the last time they had hooked up and then proceeded to tell me to translate various positions they could partake in while my mom was pregnant.
I didn’t want to tell my parents or translate anything but she kept stressing that it was good for them.
I don’t think my parents understood me or wanted to understand what I was trying to tell them.”
“I Have To Sit There Listening To Someone Scream”
“The company I work for has a Spanish translation team that I use very frequently and know all of them. We basically do customer service. The most awkward conversations is when you have an irate person on the other line that is cussing you out. Our translators are supposed to translate word for word unless vulgar language is used, then they can summarize.
Basically what I hear is about a minute of someone screaming at me, using multiple choice words that I can recognize as curse words, then the translator ‘translating’ essentially ‘they are not happy with your answer.’
It’s awkward for everyone because the translator is basically getting yelled at and has nothing to do with anything other than he picked up that call, and I have to just sit there for minutes at a time listening to someone scream and a short 5 word translation.
The customer usually catches on after the first tirade or two that there is no point and they should just calm down and be a decent human being and talk it out.”
“Any Moron Could’ve Figured Out She Was American”
“I’m not an official translator, but I used to be fairly fluent in French. I went on a trip to Europe in high school, and our group (all French language students) was combined with another high school from South Carolina that had no French speakers.
We were allowed way too much leeway to wander off without the chaperones, which on one occasion led to me going to a smoke shop in Geneva with one of the SC girls who was trying to buy Cubans and smuggle them back to the US.
The clerk didn’t speak much English, but any moron could’ve figured out this girl was American, so she was trying to rip off the little bands on each Cuban that declared their origin. But the high schooler wanted the bands so she could sell the Cubans back home (great kid, clearly).
So the clerk is like, ‘What is she doing? Make her stop!’ I looked up from my book and I literally said to the woman, in French, ‘I’m so sorry, we’re American. What is wrong?’
I got the best compliment in that the clerk said in a surprised tone, ‘You’re with her?’
And I said, ‘Unfortunately. How can I help?'”
Lesson Learned The Hard Way
“When I first became a resident nurse back in the early 90’s, I heard of a case where a housekeeper was translating to a patient going to have surgery. The patient was a non-compliant diabetic that developed a diabetic foot ulcer that would not heal. The medical team tried to treat her wound but would not heal due to the patient’s noncompliance and uncontrolled diabetes.
The patient was going septic and the foot needed to be amputated. The housekeeper was the one that was translating that her foot needs to be amputated, but did not have the heart to tell that to the patient. She would say that they were just going to cut the ulcer off. The housekeeper could not bring it to herself to actually say that your whole foot was coming off even though she understood completely what she was translating.
Patient signs consent and foot is amputated. Patient wakes up and freaks out that her foot was amputated because she was not clued in. This probably happened in the 80’s. Now there are strict guidelines. We can only use global interpreters or hospital interpreters that went to a special class and passed the exam which was hard for naive speakers of that language. No housekeepers, family members or nursing staff can translate for specific surgeries or risky procedures.”
“The Translator Was Shaken To Her Core”
“My grandpa (Gramps) on my dad’s side didn’t speak much English. My grandma (Gran) on my mom’s side had been inserting herself into both of her daughters’ marriages. In the past, she caused one unlucky fellow my aunt (her daughter) married to have a bad run-in with the police. She continued to insert herself into my aunt’s other marriage.
The details of what actually happened are fuzzy now, but said aunt was murdered by her husband. It may have had something to do with something Gran said to initiate it (aunt and her 2nd husband were fighting at their house alone afterwards).
This story takes place when my parents and grandparents (both sides) were at a Children’s Protective Services (CPS) meeting.
So, my parents, my grandparents, the case worker, a translator, and I think another CPS employee were in a room discussing the next steps to help my mom to stop drinking and provide a better home environment for us kids.
Some words were thrown by my mom’s lunatic mother who was hollering about whatever, blaming my dad for this and his parents for that and how she misses her deceased daughter so she is very emotional.
My Gramps turned to the translator and said something in Italian—Gramps’s wife and my dad understand and are surprised. The translator the clearly shaken to her core.
The translator was shocked, face was white, and he insisted he couldn’t repeat what Gramps just said.
Gramps insisted. The translator refused.
Gramps said, ‘Say it, or I’ll get someone else to.’
The translator refused again.
Gramps turned to Gran, pointed a finger and shook it at her, and declared, ‘YOU are the reason your daughter is dead!’
Gran lost it, ranted and raved and hollered to the point where she got kicked out of the meeting.
CPS then told my parents they needed to divorce.”
“He Thought I Needed To Make It Up To Him”
“I used to work as a corporate personal interpreter for visiting executives. What the personal means is that my job didn’t end with the workday. I would go around with these execs from morning to night (and sometimes through the night, depending on their plans…) just interpreting/translating whatever they needed.
This included any leisure activities. And wow, executives visiting Japan sure leap to wanting to find street walkers as soon as they can. They’d make sure I signed an NDA, and off we would head to a red light district.
The most awkward situation I was in was with a trashed exec who wanted to hook up with the hostess of the club we were in. She was not interested and was only humoring him… but I had to sit there for something like an hour as he started sweet talking her and then moved on to outright blatantly physical stuff.
As she was dodging this he was getting more and more angry and belligerent and started directing it at me because she would obviously be falling all over him (a fat sloppy 60-something exec with more of a resemblance to Trump than not) if he had a better interpreter. He thought I should make it up to him by hooking up with him instead.
And then he decided to call up one of the company directors he had met with earlier in the day to yell at them (through me) about how awful an interpreter I was because they promised him I would make sure he didn’t have to worry about any language barriers but now I wouldn’t sleep with him and wouldn’t interpret well enough to get the other girl to.
There were countless times I had to interpret execs talking dirty to girls, it was horrible.”
“The Husband Never Returned”
“I’m not a translator but I work in China and speak passable Mandarin.
I once got a call from a Chinese friend saying that her friend (also Chinese) was on her honeymoon in Hawaii and needed my help translating as she didn’t speak any English.
The husband had gone out for a swim and never returned and the wife was having trouble communicating this to the police.
I communicated the problem and then spent a while looking for local Chinese societies that could possibly help out, but it was past midnight and I couldn’t get hold of anyone. She was totally hysterical so I managed to get a hotel worker to stay with her, even though she didn’t speak any Mandarin.
The worst part came about an hour later when the wife called me and put me on the phone with a police officer who was asking her to go to identify a body which turned out to be her husband’s. I talked her and the officer through the whole process and listened to the whole thing.
Fortunately a member of one of the Chinese societies in the area got in touch in the morning and took over from me, no doubt helping a lot more than I could. My Mandarin, whilst functional, wouldn’t have sounded very sympathetic and no doubt he was much more able to comfort the poor lady.
Despite my Mandarin not being good enough for the situation, we got through it. It was less awkward and more tragic, however.”
There Are Some Things You Just Do NOT Want To Sign
“I’m an interpreter for a school district working mostly with high schoolers. The most uncomfortable conversation I’ve ever had to interpret for was teaching a room full of high school boys body education. I am young and somewhat close to their age which didn’t help at all. Explaining STIs, how to use rubbers, changing body parts, and the whole nine yards to 16 year old boys is definitely not the most fun thing to do.
I find conversations to be awkward when the English speaker completely ignores whoever I am interpreting for and just talks to me and looks at me the whole time. Like I am not the one here who is having the conversation with you! Please treat them like you would any other person you are talking to.”
“He Was Trying To Get Out Of There As Fast As Possible”
“I was called to the lab to help a patient register for, understand, and drop off his reproductive goo analysis following his vasectomy. I am a female. As we were finishing up the interaction, I asked the patient if he needed anything else.
Him: ‘Your number.’
Me: ‘The lab has our number (their interpreter team) and can get us if anything else is needed or to call you for results.’
Him: ‘No, I need your number.’
Me: ‘Um, sorry but I don’t give out my personal number to patients.’ Cue guy putting sunglasses on inside, under the florescent hospital lights and awkwardly trying to get out of there as fast as possible. It still took at least 5 minutes before he was done confirming everything with the lab team.”
This Divorce Trial Got Messy
“I was translating during a divorce trial.
You have to swear that you’re translating to the best of your ability, just like a witness swears that they’re telling the truth. No sweat.
You’re pretty much a machine, you just translate whatever they say so the judge, clerk, attorneys, and husband and wife hear what is being said.
Well, at one point the accusation comes out that he was sleeping around. The husband loses it and starts cursing up a storm, calling her every bad name in the book.
I just translated what he said the best I could. Eyebrows were raised and I just shrugged my shoulders. Just doing my job.
The judge reprimanded him (the wife was testifying at the time) and the guy yells back at me asking what I said.
The judge was cool and winked at me. It was awkward. But he did tell me afterwards that I did a great job.”
“I Was Highly Amused”
“I attended a comedy performance that had a female interpreter on stage with the comedian. For context, the interpreter was provided by the university, and it was the comedian’s first experience being interpreted.
He decided to make jokes about the situation, including (at one point) wondering aloud how the word ‘bra’ would be signed, and watching the interpreter for the answer.
She got to the word ‘bra’ and decided to finger spell it.
I was highly amused, as was everyone in the audience.”
“I Can’t Imagine How That Honeymoon Played Out”
“I was working as a manager on a Tokyo-Sydney flight, and as the only Japanese speaker on the crew, I had to translate for an Australian doctor who came forward to assist, when we found one of our (Japanese) passengers unconscious on the bathroom floor.
It turned into a very weird situation, very quickly. The patient/passenger in question was a newlywed Japanese lady who couldn’t speak for herself since she was unconscious, but her new husband was very concerned that sleeping together the night before might be the problem.
He wanted me to translate to the doctor in very detailed and specific language exactly what his concerns were. His knowledge of her type one (insulin dependent) diabetes was apparently non-existent, he didn’t mention it at all when we asked about pre-existing conditions or medications she might be taking.
He just kept talking about their wild night the night before. How big his hard-on was, how she reacted, whether she liked it (he thought she had, but now he wasn’t sure), whether he should have given her more notice, and a lot more completely inappropriate information.
Weirdest situation ever! Luckily we found her blood glucose testing kit in the seat pocket at her seat and were able to work out what had happened.
Turns out she was having a serious (but easily managed) hypoglycemic episode, she hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours, but still took usual amounts of insulin, hoping to lose weight before her planned photos in bikini at Aussie beaches. She recovered quickly after treatment.
But he still kept insisting that he was sure the hooking up played a part. It was like the dude had some serious fixation on it.
We weren’t sure whether he was bragging or genuinely concerned, he was just so weird about it. Even when she had recovered and was able to communicate for herself that it had NOTHING to do with her current situation. In embarrassment she moved seats to another section of the plane, and wouldn’t let him sit with her… she refused to speak with him at all, and then she bolted from the plane without him after landing.
We later saw him still searching for her at the baggage carousel, she‘d apparently already picked up her bag and left. Can only imagine how the rest of that honeymoon played out.”
This Son Now Sees His Mom In A New Light
“My mom is a sign language interpreter. And she’s the most sweet as pie mom you can imagine. I’ve never seen her under the influence ever—or even drink for that matter—and I’m 30. She doesn’t even cuss.
She told me about one time interpreting on the psych ward at the hospital. The deaf patient was throwing chairs at the doctor and signing every obscenity you can think of and many that don’t even have an actual sign to them. And, as an interpreter should, my American sweet as pie mommy had to aggressively cuss the doctor out word for word.
It was the best thing I could ever picture… I was dying laughing.”
“The Interpreter Refused To Translate”
“My wife was taking a deposition which was being interpreted from Creole to English. At some point, she caught the deponent in a lie and proved her defense of fraud.
The deponent stood up and slammed her fists on the table and started screaming in Creole.
My wife demanded that the interpreter translate every word of what she said.
The interpreter refused to do so as the deponent was apparently placing a voodoo curse on my wife.”