Translating For My Parents

¡Ay, Ay, Ay!

At times I didn’t want to translate.  It was embarrassing to be the interpreter.  To not understand what that person was saying or how exactly it was my parents wanted me to convey their message.  It was unnerving, uncomfortable, even shameful.  The way people would look at me sometimes.  The tone they’d use.  The frustration in their voices.  In my own parents body language.  We knew the English language and we were supposed to be able to express their emotion and context all of the time!

But in all honesty, it was hard.  It still is.  I’d flutter around in half English words, half made up Spanish vocabulary, trying my best to dialogue in conversations far beyond my comprehension level, not to mention my age.  There was a lack of sophistication in my vocabulary.  I didn’t understand technical terms, industry specific terminology and much less indirectas or habladas.  My mother would finally just end up getting frustrated and either muster up as much of the English language as she could or resort to telling off the cashier at the grocery store in a very fast paced, pissed off Spanish.

This variety was always much harder to understand because it was all emotion, and most of it pure anger and frustration.  We’d storm out of the store, leaving all of the groceries behind, either in the cart as we had collected them, or on the register in bags and on the conveyor belt, my mom going on and on about how the cashier had tried to overcharge us and act like she didn’t know what we were saying.  I can’t tell you how many times we played out this same scenario, in multiple stores, over the years, but to my mother’s credit, it did take a hell of a lot to infuriate her to the point of leaving everything behind.  Especially since she was shopping for the entire household and didn’t have the time to go back through and pick everything out all over again one by one.  Though, to this day, she’s not above cursing someone out in Spanish and walking out on them if she feels she’s being wronged.

You can understand why as soon as I turned into a teenager I tried my hardest to avoid these confrontations.  With much more reason when one of my parents weren’t the ones requesting the interpretation.  If they had an appointment I’d run to the restroom right when they were about to get called in, I’d play dumb, like I didn’t understand what was being said, or I’d just plain refuse to be the official translator.  It’s a little embarrassing to admit now, but I did.  A few times I even allowed us to walk away with our heads bowed down in shame after somebody humiliated us for not being able to communicate “properly” in the English language.

If I felt degraded I can’t imagine what my parents were feeling.

It wasn’t until complete strangers began asking me, more often than not, if I spoke English, that it hit me: to a lot of people, not everyone, we Mexicans were all the same.  It didn’t matter if my parents had come to the United States as adults and I had been born and raised in this country, we were all Mexicans, Latinos, Hispanics… whatever they wanted to call us – a docile people who could be reproached, directed, reprimanded, and insulted, especially if we didn’t know the official language of the nation.  I decided to stop stepping down and stepping back.

Now I’m the first one to tell anybody to stick up for themselves however they can.  In English, Spanish, Spanglish, or whatever other vocabulary they can muster.  I guess being a pelionero runs in the family!

10 thoughts on “Translating For My Parents

  1. Ah, the art of translating – especially for someone who isn’t in a good mood. LOL. This is difficult for me as an adult so I can’t imagine doing it as a child. (My oldest son sometimes does for Suegra and he hates it, too.)

    As for standing up for yourself – it’s very important – even if people don’t understand your words. This is something my husband has dealt with at work over the years. He is usually respected by American-born co-workers because he defends himself when necessary. (Some of his co-workers who don’t speak English well, just hang their heads and walk away when they’re insulted or bossed around, etc.) — Discrimination won’t ever totally go away, but you can lessen it a lot if you speak up and let the person know that you at least realize they’re mistreating you. It makes them more careful in the future, knowing you’re not an easy, quiet target.

    1. Even though it was embarrassing to witness one of my mother’s scoldings to strangers in Spanish, I think it was a really good thing for us as well because it really drove that message home, the one you were talking about also, that no matter what, you stick up for yourself when people are trying to do you wrong.

  2. Oh man! I feel like I wrote this! Same exact experience for me w/ my mom.

    I love your line: “…resort to telling off the cashier at the grocery store in a very fast paced, pissed off Spanish.” That was a common occurance for my mom as well- the madrazos would fly, fast and furious!

    I was a translator kid for a number of family friends as well and had the same emotions and reactions you describes as well. I even did it for my mother a lot when I was in my 40s and she in her 70s with multiple doctor appointments, etc. I got used to her interrupting the doctor, looking at me, wince and ask “que chingados dijo?”

    Then, very much like you, I hit that point where I became confrontational as soon as I began to detect any condescending behavior. I have zero patience for that. However, looking back on decades of being translator kid, I did develop patience. To a certain degree.

    Ever notice how some people raise their voice (not in a mean way but just the volume) when speaking English to someone who they know speaks very little English? I once laughed and told a doctor that my mother was limited in English, not deaf. All 3 of us laughed.

    1. I loved that account with the doctor Joe, lol… A lot of times the volume is just reactionary and not meant to offend, and that’s really cool that you were all 3 able to laugh it off. I’ve got to say, I feel like it’s my responsibility now to interpret/translate for my parents and other family who need it because well it’s just a language barrier… not the end of the world. If I needed a translation, and when I have, it’s been so very awesome to count on someone who could translate for me 🙂

  3. I too could have written this post. I always interpreted for my grandfather who spoke no English whatsoever, and for my grandmother when she’d forget her English due to her Alzheimer’s.

    The “worst” part for me was having to explain very personal medical problems that my grandparents never would have told me about. There were times where I’d be listening to my grandparents and suddenly blurt out, “Ewwww! That’s gross! I really don’t want to hear about this! And there’s no way I’m saying that to the doctor!”

  4. I was just thinking about something similar today, only it was with my abuelita. Made me smile.

    1. Dee and Leslie, Thanks for the comments… you know, anyone who translated for their parents, grandparents, etc., at one point or another would probably agree that it was annoying but something that made them a little extra humble. It did for me 🙂

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  6. I’m happy that you are able to understand me as a person who have gone through the same thing. But at the same time I feel a bit sad to know that you had to go through this too. It’s good to know that I wasn’t the only one

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