The first day of a Surgicorps visit to Guatemala is taken up with screening all of the people who show up hoping for surgery for their children or themselves. The surgeons and anesthesiologists are quite heroic, and will see everyone who shows up. (People also trickle in through the back door all week—I haven’t seen the surgeons refuse to examine anyone, regardless of whether or not they come on the mass screening day.) Some people are there from early in the morning until deep into the evening, waiting in line with their little children, or elderly mother, or just themselves, undoubtedly hungry and anxious about the outcome of the screening. Similarly, the physicians mostly skip lunch and work until everyone has been seen. It all makes for an intense day, and for the interpreters, it’s the busiest day by far, as well as the most unpredictable one in terms of what you’ll need to interpret about.
I prepped for this trip by focusing on the vocabulary of hand anatomy and hand surgery, and had the good luck to end up working with the hand surgeon on intake day. I enjoyed working with him last year, in part because he’s as kind, patient, and sweet as you can imagine a person being, and in part because after a patient described what he was there for, the hand surgeon would almost always begin his response with “We can make this better,” and I LOVED translating that—every time I translated it, I felt less crushed by the weight of all of the pain and deformity around us and more buoyed by the possibility that people’s lives would be improved by our visit to Guatemala. Despite my preparation, I had to learn to translate nine English words into Spanish, and one Spanish word into English, plus two more Spanish words or expressions into English when I got finished with the hand screening and moved into the anesthesia screening room. These words are notable in that the list contains not just one, but two, counterexamples to the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis, which claims that ambiguous words are not ambiguous if you can establish the context in which they are being used:
- rotate: hacer girar.
- espina: thorn. This came up in the context of a patient explaining that he had embedded a thorn deep into his hand. It also turns out to mean “spine,” in the anatomical sense. So much for the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis.
- stabilize: estabilizar. This was a tough one—it’s not even in my dictionary, and I had to go home and check WordReference.com to find it. Related word: estable “stable.”
- claw: so, this is a really tough one. There are four (four) nouns that translate the English noun claw, and three of them have come up so far this week.
- Pinza is a claw like a crab or lobster claw. This one came up in the context of “claw deformity”—we saw a couple of patients with claw deformities of the hand (see photo, from Tumblr).
- Garra is a claw like an eagle’s claw or a lion’s claw. This one came up in the context of giving instructions for a hand therapy exercise.
- Uña is the nail itself—this one came up in the context of a woman who wanted her toenails removed. (Long story—they did need it.)
- Finally, there’s another word, zarpa, that I haven’t figured out how to use yet.
So much for the “one context, one meaning” hypothesis, once again! Note that the previous example was ambiguous in the direction of Spanish to English, while this one is ambiguous in the direction of English to Spanish.
- deformity: la deformidad.
- ayuno: fasting. Related expressions, which did come up later, over the course of the week: en ayunas or en ayuno (yes, the gender is different): “fasting,” or “before breakfast.”
- trompa: in the context of anatomy, a duct or tube. Trompa de Falopio: Fallopian tube.
- hormigoso: ant-like; full of ants; ant-eaten; or, in this context, itchy.
- cosquilloso: ticklish.
- buzz: zumbar.
- dissolve: disolver.
If you’ve read this far: how about a donation to Surgicorps? It’s a wonderful group that does great work.