Communication can be tough, especially when the people you are trying to interact with speak an entirely different language. Fortunately, we have professional translators who can help make those conversations go significantly smoother. However, as with any job, being a translator comes with its downsides, among the worst of those being the potentially awkward and uncomfortable content of the conversation that translators are responsible for relaying.
Just take it from the following translators who recently opened up and shared the most uncomfortable conversations they ever had to convey.
45. Work Arrangements
I was my mom’s translator when she was trying to sue her ex-boss for sexual harassment. The lawyer wanted to know exactly what kind of sexual encounters they had had, when, where, how, all the specifics. Yeah, I asked the lawyer to bring in an actual translator after that.
44. Fighting Over Finances
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 had blown money on was extremely uncomfortable. Now as an adult they get offended when I don’t want to take financial advice from them.
43. Cruel Cruise
It was a while ago so I don’t remember the full details. But I once translated a message from a new husband to his wife. He was threatening her with divorce if she didn’t go on a cruise with him to have, er, ‘special relations’ with a masseuse he hired for the occasion, saying he’d interpret it as a “betrayal” of his love for her.
Yeah, I really hope she found her way out of that one. Sounded like he had a lot of money and was holding it over her head.
42. Heartbreak In The Hospital
One of the worst scenarios being an interpreter in the hospital is having to relay bad news, like cancer diagnosis, especially when the doctor is extremely blunt or hurried. As an interpreter, you cringe and wish you could change even just the tone or the insensitive wording to make it sound more humane, but you really shouldn’t because as an interpreter your job is to relay the info as closely as possible.
Another difficult situation is when you’re called to a patient that is coding (this was especially difficult when I worked with pediatric patients at the children’s hospital and trying to calm down the frantic parents). Another one is being called to the ER and then upon arrival, finding out it’s a person I know outside of work, like a family friend. In that situation, I would try to get someone else to interpret because of ethics, but it’s still a tough situation, because you want to help as much as you can while you wait on someone else to take over.
I honestly could go on and on, but these are usually the exceptions, as I love my job. There are just some days that are more difficult than others.
41. Sketchy Landlord
I’m a translator, which means I only work with the written word. Not normally anything particularly juicy.
However, I once had to deal with a landlord writing to Facebook to try and get Facebook to take down derogatory comments from his tenants. Basically, the landlord was accused of giving apartments to people who would sleep with him, so I had to translate a whole bunch of comments calling him a horndog, saying the whole tower block had been under his desk, etc. Someone called him a version of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which I thought was pretty hilarious.
40. Not Punny
This may not be awkward/uncomfortable per se, but I once worked for an American teacher in Taiwan who expected his interpreters to be able to translate puns into another language. He did not or would not understand that a pun in English isn’t a pun in Chinese.
39. No Big Deal
A long time ago, I did a pro bono interpreting gig for a community health care clinic. The doctor asked me to help call a woman who had come in for a pap smear to tell her she had an STD. She insisted it was “only a cancer test” and hung up on us. We had to call her back. She didn’t answer the phone.
38. Personal Matters
I work tech support and often have to use a language line. My favorites are Asian languages and when people get really mad. The interpreters, bless their hearts, will faithfully translate, but every so often will say, “They are saying unkind things about you, personally.”
37. What A Ride
I was in Spain, on a rollercoaster, and the kid behind me says to her mom in Icelandic: “I’m going to throw up on the people in front of us,” because I guess she was feeling queasy. However, when I turned around and told her to throw up on the people behind her the mother started crying from laughter and the girl just stared at me.
36. Incorrect Conversations
My cousin is a sign language interpreter and he says a big problem he and his clients have is that people talk to him rather than the client. Even at really important meetings like doctor appointments, the doctor will spend ages asking my cousin where he learned BSL while the deaf client just wants to get their medical issue looked at. It’s against policy for my cousin to hold their own conversation with the doctor when he’s working, as he’s only there to help the client understand what people are saying.
He and his clients find it really frustrating and rude, so basically if you see someone with a sign language interpreter you can literally just ignore the interpreter and everyone will prefer it that way, as they can just get on with their job!
35. Surgeries And Sexual Health
I’ve been on multiple medical trips to Mexico with my urologist father. Bringing translators who have little to no medical experience is incredibly difficult, and in the OR, no one knows the different names for instruments (differs between states/ countries).
I’ve sat in on multiple appointments and surgeries with translators, and by far the worst is when my dad makes the (usually very religious) translators talk about sexual health.
In addition, oftentimes people only speak Mayan in this particular village, so there has to be an English to Spanish translator, and a Spanish to Mayan translator.
34. Dysfunctional Family
So 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 after 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. I figured I could just interpret.
Dad had a new girlfriend, 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 dad could muster. So we got in-depth about how frequently was appropriate for man in his late 50s, and then had to discuss the risks of erections going on too long with Viagra.
Yeah… I always book an interpreter now, and no, I never did figure out the correct sign for ‘erection.’
33. Quite The Mission
I was a missionary for my church. I spoke Spanish in Kentucky and we often translated for people, mainly in hospitals and clinics. Once we had a lady ask us to come to a doctor’s appointment to translate. It was not just a check up. It was to get a hemorrhoid removed. They put a sheet up and we stood on one side while they removed the hemorrhoid. It was so awkward.
32. Awkward Position
My parents don’t speak English and I used to go with them to doctor appointments to translate. I was around 14 and my mom was pregnant. The NP told me to ask them when was the last time they had sex and then proceeded to tell me to translate sexual 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.
31. A Devastating Delay
Not a translator, but I use their assistance all the time at the hospital. The worst was telling a family their loved one just died then having to wait like 10 seconds for the interpreter to say it. Then the family is distraught and crying and asking questions and we had to slowly interpret everything back and forth.
30. On Deaf Ears
I was interpreting for an elementary-age deaf girl. She was having trouble understanding an issue at school and some of the other students started mocking her. I had to interpret their insults to her. I felt absolutely torn apart by that.
29. Banking On It
I translated at a bank as an intern for a bit, which in itself was illegal for me to do, but they had me do it anyway. One time I had to explain to one of my managers that the customer was trying to launder money, and then had to explain back to the person how to go about doing this so they didn’t get caught. It was uncomfortable for me to do, since I knew it was wrong, but no one else in the bank knew this language, and I was young and didn’t know what to do.
28. Truth Or Dare
I went on a study tour with a group of people from my university together with folks from a Japanese school. When we were all chilling in someone’s hotel room one night, someone had the bright idea to play truth or dare. As the only one who spoke both English and Japanese, it was my job to translate the questions/dares between the languages.
All the Japanese guys wanted to ask the girls were things like, “What colour are your underwear?” or, “Do you shave down there?” It made things super awkward us, as it shattered our image of the perfect, polite Japanese guy.
27. Sex Ed Shame
The most uncomfortable for other people in the audience was interpreting a sex education curriculum training for teachers. I was in heaven because it’s not often I get to use all the sex-related signs, but it was funny to see so many adults who were so embarrassed by talking about sex. Also sad that they would be taking that shame/embarrassment back to the classroom.
26. Sparring Over Spelling
I’m a bilingual rep for a company, so for the most part I have to deal with whatever crap the customer dishes out myself. For example, I had one customer who told me that he was sincerely disappointed (as in furious) with my customer service because the other girl who supports the language and I were non-native speakers and he wanted a real native to support him. Basically, it was a case of, “sorry, bro.”
However, the most awkward moment so far happened today, and it was between a French customer and my translator. I know enough French to be dangerous, so I could understand enough of the conversation between them — which basically boiled down to them calling each other idiots because the customer thought that the translator told me the wrong spelling of his name. They were actually fighting while I’m sitting there as the third party thinking to myself, “Should I break it up?”
I decided the best course of action was to not employ my rusty French (could have made things worse) and browse other open cases while they worked it out.
25. My Very Goodness
I worked phone support for a cell company for some years, and for customers who don’t speak English we have an interpreter service. We basically conference the interpreter into the call and take turns speaking. Makes the call longer but it gets the job done.
One memorable call had my interpreter flustered as I had to explain to an Arabic man that he did not have insurance on his last phone and would need to pay full price for a replacement. I remember the interpreter’s anxiousness at translating the rudeness very well.
Interpreter: “The customer say that he…oh…oh he, um…he say that…oh my very goodness. He say, that…he say you a very rude man.”
When I get really beside myself I’ll mutter, “Oh my very goodness.”
24. Wrong Number
I was called to the lab to help a patient register for, understand, and drop off his semen analysis following his vasectomy. I am a female. As we were finishing up the interaction, I asked the patient if he needed anything else.
“The lab has our number (their interpreter team) and can get us if anything else is needed or to call you for results.”
“No, I need your number.”
“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.
23. Traumatic News
I was probably 15 or 16 and I went to the doctor with a young girl and her husband to translate for them; she was pregnant and they were so happy to have a baby. The doctor told me the baby was dead inside her and that she would have to give birth to it, it would just be dead. I remember I stood there trying to hold tears back because I was going to tell them the worst news of their lives. It took me a while to get over doing that. Her face when I told her still haunts me to this day.
22. Domestic Disputes
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 all kinds of awful names. 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 did I say? The judge was cool and winked at me. It was awkward. But he did tell me afterwards that I did a great job.
21. Mother’s Manners
My mom is a sign language interpreter. And she’s the most sweet as pie mom you can imagine. I’ve never seen her take a single sip of alcohol (I’m 30), and she says things like “oh durn” and “son of a gun.”
She told me about one time when she was interpreting on the psych ward at the hospital. A deaf patient was throwing chairs at the doctor and signing every obscenity you can think of as well as 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.
20. Mimicking The Movie
My husband is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults). He used to go to the movies with his parents and sit in between them and sign for them. Yeah, the steamy car scene in Titanic is always awkward for a young child to explain to his parents.
19. Lucky Librarian
I’m not an interpreter but a public librarian. I have a gentleman from Poland who comes in and asks questions related to English. He does crossword puzzles or watches subtitled movies and writes down words he doesn’t understand and then comes in and we explain them. The other day he asked what a “dong” was and that was a bit awkward.
18. Long-Distance Love
There is a service called TTY, which is used to help people who are hearing impaired have phone conversations with hearing people. It’s not used as much these days because people mostly just text each other, but it’s still used if a company or service doesn’t have an online chat option.
Anyway, I used to work for a call centre that provided the TTY services for my province. There used to be a couple who would call in and have phone sex every Thursday night at a certain time. It was awesome.
As a rite of passage, we used to keep it a secret and put the newbies on TTY Thursday nights when we knew the couple would be calling in. A bit of a hazing ritual, if you will. We had fun.
17. Signs It’s Over
I once had to help my friend who is deaf break up with her boyfriend of a couple months. He didn’t know sign language that well (which was a reason she wanted to break up with him). He cried and I felt so bad saying those words, even if I wasn’t the once doing the actions.
16. Failed And Fired
The most uncomfortable conversation I’ve had to interpret was a worker getting fired for failing her drug test and being told she was getting sent back home (it was an overseas project) and would lose her job. She was in tears and trying to justify it by telling the doctor all her family issues, but she worked in a field with zero drug tolerance and was sent back the next day.
15. Brochure Bull
I briefly worked remotely as a proofreader for a Korean newspaper that was working on a big tourism promotion project. Basically bilingual Koreans would translate some spiel about “Come visit Korea,” their crappy English draft got sent off to me, I fixed it up and sent it back.
These articles always had wild claims like, “Seoul is the only city in the world where the majority of the population lives in high-rise apartments.” Or, “Korea is the only country with four distinct seasons.” This is South Korea… you would think this kind of ethnocentric bullpoop would be a product unique to the North, but apparently not.
Proofreading these was so awkward for me because I wanted to straight up say, “No it absolutely isn’t,” but I kept my mouth shut because it was good money as a university student.
14. Right On Cue
A coworker was trying to be relatable and tell an anecdote to a Russian client that, in Russian, would make no sense. So in Russian I conveyed this, and as I felt the anecdote wrapping up, I matched it up with: “He’s almost finished, so when I tell you to laugh, do so. Ok, laugh now!”
13. Cursed In Court
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.
12. Apathetic Priest
Many years ago, an American participant in an international program that I was running in a Hispanic country died suddenly of a heart attack. His wife happened to be on the program too and was present when it happened.
While we were waiting for the coroner’s van, which was coming from a larger town, I thought of calling the local priest since I knew both the deceased and his wife were Catholics. When the priest showed up he turned out to be the most inappropriate, awkward, and unconcerned person I have ever seen in such a situation. He was talking to the wife with total lack of empathy or interest about her feelings.
I was translating for him and I had to make up the whole translation because I was so ashamed of the words of the priest. He would say things like: “I was in the middle of my lunch when you called me!” And I would translate: “I could not wait to come comfort you when I heard of this tragedy!” The whole thing was so sad. The wife was very appreciative that I had called the priest, but all the comfort words were mine.
11. Confusing Adoption
I used to translate in college for extra money. One couple who hired me were trying to complete an adoption application. They kept asking me how I would answer the questions. Questions about how they would raise the child, thoughts on school activities, amounts of TV allowed, etc. Things I had no idea how to answer.
I ended up translating all the questions in writing and telling them to give me a call if they needed more help. I didn’t hear from them again.
If I remember it was grandparents trying to adopt their daughter’s child.
10. A Moving Moment
I’m not an interpreter but my sister is deaf. We often hire her interpreters for events when my mother (who is fluent, more so than I) won’t have the time to go.
My grandfather passed away, and we scheduled an interpreter for the funeral so my mom didn’t have to worry. I could tell the interpreter was a little uncomfortable but that she wanted to properly translate what was being said. Sometime during the service, the interpreter shed a few tears and made eye contact with a few family members so I was ready for her to leave quickly when it was all over. But she stayed and kept interpreting.
My grandmother ended up telling the interpreter that the only reason she was able to sit through the whole funeral was because she was watching her and found her signing comforting. Probably an awkward and uncomfortable experience for her, but it meant the world to my family.
9. Sugar On Top
When I studied abroad, my roommate (another American) didn’t speak Spanish very well and our host mom only knew a handful of words in English. I tended to be the dinner-table interpreter.
One day, our host mom was listing off the words she knew in English. One of them was “sugar.” Being an elderly woman who has never really spoken anything but Spanish, her pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but understandable. My roommate started laughing and told me it sounds like she’s saying “sewer.”
My host mom asked me what she said. I had to translate that and see the look of sadness on my host mom’s face. She was so proud of her English words and that roommate made her feel insecure. It still makes me angry thinking about it.
8. Major Oversight
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. Anyway, the school gave us a list with addresses that we had to go to to try and persuade the kids/parents.
We go to this one house and ring the bell, and the mother answers. I start translating what the teacher is saying and we go back and forth with the mother, asking her to see the kid — let’s call her Maria. The mom kept insisting we couldn’t talk to Maria and the teacher kept giving the whole spiel about dropping out thinking of the future, etc.
About 10 minutes into the conversation, the frustrated teacher wants me to ask the mother why on Earth couldn’t we talk to Maria, to which the mother breaks down crying and says that she died a week before from a long illness, and that’s why she had dropped out.
What ensues is the worst and most awkward 5 minutes of our lives, between apologies and condolences. Needless to say, we didn’t go to any other houses that day.
7. Time To Go
Not so much a professional translator but a lot of my close friends (including myself) are first generation Americans so I’ve had a few translating experiences with their parents and my own.
There was one particular incident that left me very uncomfortable. My friend’s dad asked me to translate a letter that arrived in the mail. It was an eviction notice.
6. Spoiler Alert
I used to do transcribing for the hearing impaired on the phone. Any conversation you can imagine, I had to do it. Luckily I didn’t have to interact with either side, but I did have to listen as a third party. It was rough.
It also sucked if you didn’t see a movie right away as you’d have to transcribe people going over the entire plots of movies. Ruined The Dark Knight before I could see it.
5. Distraught About Diagnosis
I have worked for the Illinois Department of Early Intervention for the past 15 years. From time to time I get assigned to go for medical evaluations for certain cases, and the most uncomfortable one for me had to be about 3 years ago.
The child was diagnosed with autism but the the mother refused to listen to the therapists and pediatric doctor. She cried and kept saying her son didn’t have it. This went on for about 10-15 minutes until they explained to her and her husband the future of the child and the good thing about being diagnosed early on in his life.
4. Secret Beneficiaries
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 so I repeated. 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 had a child. Mother and baby died during childbirth.
3. A Pregnant Pause
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 went, “Estas embarazada!”
The patient stares at me 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 10 times more cringe-y!
2. Foot Loose
When I first became a registered nurse back in the early 90s, I heard of a case where a housekeeper was translating to a patient who was going to have surgery. The patient was a non-compliant diabetic who had developed a diabetic foot ulcer that would not heal. The medical team tried to treat her wound but it 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 herself to actually say that the whole foot was coming off, even though she understood completely what she was translating.
The patient signed a consent form and they amputated her foot. When the patient wakes up, she freaks out that her foot is gone.
This probably happened in the 80s. 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.
1. Lost On Legal Speak
Sign language interpreter here. I’m nationally certified and also have a state legal license. So I do legal interpreting from time to time.
I was interpreting for a deposition. Keep in mind there have been MANY meetings between this deaf client and her attorneys with several different interpreters over the course of months to reach the point of a deposition.
After three hours of getting nowhere, the questioning attorney asks why the deaf person even filed this lawsuit. The deaf client responds “What’s a lawsuit?”
Her attorney almost fell out of his chair. I thought my head was going to explode.