Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Lost In Translation

“Bom dia” said the woman who opened the door.

“Bom dia,” I responded. That’s the limit of my conversational Portuguese. My heart sank as I looked around the room which contained a toddler but no adult male. Among foreign couples, the husband is much more likely to speak English.

The mother pointed at her child, made coughing noises, tapped his chest, and produced a thermometer which she waved significantly. Once she understood that I needed more information, she took up her cell phone. 

After some effort because her husband was apparently in a meeting she delivered a long recitation before handing me the phone.

“He have cough. He have the flu. He need something. She wants you to examine him.”

In response to my question, the father insisted that this was everything she had said, but I knew he was summarizing. This is a chronic problem with amateur interpreters. I asked more questions and received short versions of her long answers. The child looked happy and not at all sick, and my examination was normal. He had a cold. He’d coughed for four days and might cough for a few more, I explained. She was already giving him Tylenol, and no other medicine is safe for a two year-old. Luckily, he didn’t need medicine or bed rest or a special diet. It wasn’t even necessary to stay in the room.

If I had handed over medicine, every mother from Fiji to Mongolia to Nigeria would understand that I was behaving like a doctor. But I wasn’t. What was going on?

I’ve encountered this hundreds of times, so I work very, very hard to communicate that the child has a minor illness (husband’s translation: “Doctor says child is OK…”), that no treatment will help (husband’s translation: “Doctor does not want to give medicine…”) and that being stuck in a hotel room is boring, so she should try to enjoy herself (husband’s translation: “Doctor says go out; child is OK…”).

Tap, tap, tap…. The mother beat a tattoo on he child’s chest in a wordless appeal. Everyone knows that a sick child must be confined and given medicine. Why was I implying that he wasn’t sick?

I knew what she was thinking. I repeated my reassurance, and the husband translated. When, at the end, I asked if she understood she knew the correct answer: yes. She remembered her manners as I left and thanked me effusively.

I left feeling as discouraged as the woman. She was in a strange country, trapped in a hotel room with a sick child. Despite her best efforts, the foreign doctor didn’t understand that her son was sick.


  1. A very well-written post that vividly describes a very real challenge. Bravo!