Friday, August 17, 2007

The "Right" Answer

As an interpreter trainer, I've been fortunate to share many stories with fellow trainers and interpreters over the years. Recently, I was asked by a colleague for permission to write up a story that I had previously shared with her in person regarding an experience related to medical interpreting and cultural differences, for publication in a newsletter.

This turned out to be perfect timing, because I was just getting ready to publish a sample story to the From Our Lips to Your Ears project website, at the request of many individuals who wanted to see an example of a story that would be in keeping with the project mission. The sample story I will share below is now available on the project website (

Stories can be wonderful teaching tools, and I can already tell from the submissions received so far that the book will be overflowing with rich examples of this nature.

So, here is a story from the archives of my own interpreting experiences, one that I've shared many times with interpreters to demonstrate the role of culture in communication.

The “Right” Answer

As medical interpreters, we often serve as bridges, not just between languages, but between cultures. One experience in particular demonstrated this to me in a way that I will never forget.

I was interpreting during a speech therapy session. The patient was an elderly Spanish-speaking female stroke victim, most likely in her late 70’s or 80’s. Like many stroke victims, she had to put forth her utmost concentration and make a tremendous effort to pronounce each word. Her speech was slow, and many letters were difficult for her to say, but she was clearly committed to doing the very best she could. In spite of the obvious strain, her voice projected a sense of pride in what she was able to accomplish. Her determined attitude was admirable.

One speech exercise required the patient to answer basic questions about different job functions in society. For example, the therapist would ask, “Who drives the bus?” The patient knowingly replied, “The bus driver.” When asked, “Who brings you the food in a restaurant?” The patient proudly responded with the correct answer, “The waiter.” Each time, the therapist would respond with encouraging words, and the patient seemed increasingly confident in her abilities to produce the right answers, albeit with slow and painstaking attention to each syllable.

However, the patient’s steady pattern of providing the correct answers came to a halt when she was asked, "Who do you borrow a cup of sugar from?" Those of us familiar with mainstream US culture know that the answer the therapist expected to hear was, “the neighbor”, but this concept was a source of utter confusion for the patient. Instead of answering the question with the typical one-word answer, she patiently put together a question of her own. With long pauses between each word, she asked, “Why--would--I--want--to--borrow--a--cup--of—sugar…?” There was a hint of frustration in her voice. Her steady string of correct answers had suddenly come to an unexpected stop.

After interpreting the patient’s response, I explained to the provider that, in many cultures, the typical diet might not include recipes that call for a cup of sugar, and that this unit of measure may not be customary either. I also explained that the standard definition of “neighbor” in many cultures might not be likely to include the borrowing of grocery staples.

The therapist said, “Fine, we’ll just skip that question and move on.” After I interpreted this explanation to the patient, the exercise continued as before. Only now, even though she was able to provide the right answers to all of the questions being asked, it seemed to me that she was frustrated or nervous. The excitement and confidence she had experienced by being a “good student” had suddenly diminished slightly. With each question asked by the therapist, I silently hoped for concepts that would be culturally relevant, to facilitate the communication process.

We asked several questions to which the patient provided the expected answers. Then, the therapist asked a seemingly simple and straightforward question, "Who grows the food?" The correct answer, according to U.S. culture, would be, “the farmer”. I interpreted this sentence slowly and clearly, taking special care to choose the verb equivalent for “grow” that would be most closely associated with crops and farming, to eliminate confusion. The patient seemed confident that she knew the right answer to this question. Without skipping a beat, she said, in a somewhat louder voice, “The mother.”

I interpreted her answer into English, prepared to follow the interpretation by explaining to the provider that, in some places, large-scale farming might be less common, and that it might be more common for families to plant their own supply of food in a garden, usually tended to by the mother of the household. I wanted the provider to understand that the patient’s answer was correct, at least, within a different cultural framework.

But before I even had a chance to finish the explanation, the therapist interrupted and rephrased the question, “Who grows the food for a lot of people?” I felt a sense of apprehension, mixed with hope that perhaps these additional words might help the patient come up with the “right” answer to this question.

She seemed to think that this was an easy question. More confidently than ever, the patient immediately answered, “God.” Just as swiftly, I rendered her answer in English.

All three of us just sat there in silence for a few moments, although it seemed like an eternity. The provider seemed to be processing this response and trying to figure out how to proceed. The patient just stayed silent, waiting for the next question. With no words to interpret from either party, I too stayed quiet.

Finally, the provider thanked the patient, told her she had done a good job in the session, and that she looked forward to seeing her the following week.

I will never know how this experience might have impacted the therapist, or what she was thinking during those drawn-out moments of silence. It may be that she continued to use the same questions with every patient, without regard for cultural differences. Or, it may be that this moment served to enlighten her, prompting her to begin a campaign to develop more culturally relevant materials for speech therapists everywhere. I will never know.

But I do believe I know how it impacted the patient. She walked out of the office that day with a firm belief that she was making progress, and that she had ended the session by conquering the final question with what she believed to be the only logical and appropriate answer.

After all, according to her view of the world, it most definitely was the "right" answer.

(c) 2007 Nataly Kelly. All Rights Reserved.

Nataly Kelly is currently collecting anecdotes and stories about interpreting for publication in the book, "From Our Lips to Your Ears: How Interpreters Are Changing the World." To learn more, please visit the project website,

Trainers, educators, interpreters and others - if you would like to use this story for training or educational purposes, feel free to do so. If you are providing it as a handout or in another written format, please just make sure that all of the italicized text is copied in its entirety, including the copyright information and website listed above. If you would like to publish the story for broader distribution in a newsletter or other publication, please send an email to to request permission.


Kim said...

This gave me chills! Excellent story. Cannot wait to read the entire book.

Amparo said...

Dear Nataly -

Thank you for sharing this informative & moving interpreting story. I look for, and enjoy reading, your blog every day!

Nataly said...

Kim and Amparo, thank you both very much! :-)