One week a year I get on a plane with a bunch of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists and head to Guatemala, where everyone else spends the week providing free surgery for people for whom the almost-free health care provided by the government medical system is still too expensive, and I spend the week interpreting. Don’t get totally lost in Doctors Without Borders fantasies–we stay in a lovely hotel, the surgeries happen in a four-OR operating suite, and on a typical day the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is finding someone to relieve you so that you can get to the cafeteria before the hand-made Guatemalan tortillas (yes, they’re different from the ones that you’re used to) are gone. (On an atypical day, the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting due to forgetfulness about not rinsing your toothbrush in the tap water–but, as I said, that’s atypical.)
When new interpreters join us for the first time, the thing that they’re most worried about is the medical vocabulary. However, that’s actually the least of your problems–medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences (every cardiac catheterization lab that I ever worked in had a different name for the special pump that you use to shoot a bolus of radiopaque dye into the left ventricle), you’ll be just fine. (Modulo is explained in the English notes at the end of the post.)
The real problem is everything but the medical vocabulary. Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon. They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless. The surgeon’s first question: what happened? The answer could be anything.
- I was getting out of my car and three guys attacked me with a machete.
- I fell into the cooking fire.
- I was sitting in a truck and the carburetor exploded.
I didn’t make any of these up, and the cooking fire thing happens tragically often–mostly with children.
I mostly work with a hand surgeon. The basic principle of hand surgery is this: make the person be able to function again at whatever they do. You often have to make choices about trade-offs–a surgery that would let you open your hand again after it’s been scarred into a fist by burns might leave you with a weak grip, and that’s going to be a problem for a farmhand; a surgery that would give you back your full grip strength might make it tough for you to do things that require fine motor control, which is not OK if you’re a seamstress. Consequently, one of the questions that the hand surgeon always asks is: what do you do for a living? …and that could be pretty much anything.
So, yeah: it’s not the technical vocabulary that keeps you on your toes in medical interpreting–it’s the entire remainder of the language, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that the statistical properties of human languages are such that if you’re not a native speaker, you will come across vocabulary items that you don’t know Every. Single. Day. Of. Your. Life.
For today’s vocabulary, here are some words for professions that require quite a bit of use of your hands. Note that almost any profession requires some use of your hands–I’m picking just a few here, focussing on ones that you wouldn’t be surprised to come across in low-income people in Central America. If you have almost no education, and you’re doing any of these for a living, and you lose the use of a hand, your options for feeding your children become quite limited. Hand surgery is about removing those limitations. Want to support this kind of work? Twenty bucks from you would literally pay for more than all of the pain medication that we’ll hand out in one week’s time. You can donate here.
|construction worker||el albañil||ouvrier du bâtiment|
modulo: This is originally a term from mathematics. In casual use, it means something like with the exception of, or besides. I should point out that this word is characteristic of the speech of geeks, and only geeks–but, amongst my people (geeks), it’s quite common.
modulo concerns about mind complexity not following a power law, and other unquestioned assumptions I guess
— ‘() (@allgebrah) June 20, 2017
This example should be incomprehensible to any normal human, but I find it adorable due to exactly that incomprehensibility–“init” refers to a common part of a program, and the writer is saying that she’s left the “init” part out of what she’s showing you:
— inconvergent (@inconvergent) June 20, 2017
How it was used in the post: Medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences, you’ll be just fine.
themself: Here we get into the controversial topic of pronouns in the Pacific Northwest, the part of the United States where I grew up. Many native speakers of American English would balk at this pronoun, as well as theirself, which we also use in the Pacific Northwest. Another vagary of our local use of pronouns is that when you have a subject that consists of two conjoined pronouns, they have to be in the dative: Me and him are going to the store, do you want some Redman? Here’s a nice article on the themself form from the Merriam-Webster web site, which points out that themselves (which every other native speaker thinks us Pacific Northwest natives should be using) didn’t show up in English until the 1400s, with themself being the only possibility up to that point.
When a friend proves themself trustworthy, I hold onto them so hard because friends like that are damn difficult to come by.
— Maayaa (@delmiyaa) June 21, 2017
— Environ Skin Care (@Environ_Global) June 20, 2017
How it got used in the post: Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon. They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless.
There are two French words that could translate the English word “carpenter:” charpentier, and menuisier. Looking them both up on Google Images, it seems to be the case that a charpentier is a carpenter in the sense of someone who builds buildings, while a menuisier is a carpenter in the sense of a woodworker. Native speakers, do you have thoughts about this?
Hits for charpentier from Google Images:
Hits for menuisier from Google Images:
…and, yes, this is how linguists try to figure things out. We’re actually less excited about dictionaries than you might think…