“Speak Spanish?”


Two of my least favorite words. Ninety percent of Latin American guests speak enough English to get along, and Hispanic hotel staff are usually available. Unfortunately, this visit occurred at a small Super 8, and the single employee on duty was American. Under these circumstances, I shake my head apologetically and proceed in English.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I asked.

As usual when someone exotic like an American doctor appears, there was a substantial audience. Usually someone volunteers to interpret. Sure enough, a man stepped forward. He tapped patient’s abdomen and then whirled his finger around his mouth.

“Is she vomiting?” I asked.

Blank looks from everyone, a bad sign. I waited, hoping someone else would contribute, but the man merely repeated his gestures.

I phoned the insurance agency’s 800 number. Its employees are Hispanic and willing to interpret.

“Would you ask what’s bothering her and tell me what she says?” I said after explaining the situation.

I handed over the phone and the lady began a long monologue. When she finally handed back the phone, I listened to the insurance clerk. “She is sick from eating. She give medicine from Argentina, but it does not help. She wants a medicine to help.”

That was too little information. I tried to be specific. “Would you ask what are her symptoms?”

Another long conversation followed by a short, unsatisfactory translation. Eventually I learned enough to thank the clerk, adding that I would examine the patient and then call back for more interpreting.

At the end I gave instructions and medication, and everyone seemed happy. I always leave with the uneasy feeling that the interpreter has left out a great deal. Fortunately the ailments I encounter are usually easy, and the occasional exception is obvious.