Life isn’t cheap here, but sometimes things go to sh…: consecutive and simultaneous interpretation

Writing from Guatemala in the 1980s, Jonathan Maslow said that it is not true, as is often said, that life is cheap in Central America, but it is true that life is briefer there, and so takes place faster. I thought about this yesterday when a conversation went completely to shit. (I was talking about this with one of the anesthesiologists today. “It went completely to pieces,” I said. “Kevin, you can say it went to shit,” she said. This and other obscure English expressions discussed at the end of the post.)

There are two basic kinds of interpretation, known as consecutive interpretation and simultaneous interpretation. In consecutive interpretation, the person for whom you are interpreting says something, and when they stop, you repeat it.   In simultaneous interpretation, the person for whom you are interpreting speaks without any pause other than their normal ones, and you repeat what they said immediately, essentially phrase by phrase.

Each form of interpretation has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ll summarize them:

  Consecutive interpretation Simultaneous interpretation
Plusses ·      Much easier with some language pairs

·      Easier for bilinguals to listen to

·      Obligatory in “double interpretation” situations (see below)

·      Greater accuracy

·      Required in legal situations, where both languages are recorded

·      Faster—as little as half the time of consecutive

·      Better provider/patient contact

·      Obligatory in certain situations: multilingual (more than two languages), speeches, conferences, and live media

Minusses ·      Slower (see below for how you can make it less slow) ·      Sometimes harder for bilinguals

·      More difficult—special training required

·      Interpreter can’t clarify without interrupting

·      In many situations, requires two interpreters

A number of these are relevant to interpreting for Surgicorps, the group with which I’ve come to Guatemala. Here are some specifics:

  • “Double interpretation” refers to a situation where the interpreter and the person who speaks the “target language” don’t share a language. This happens on occasion here, and the solution is “double interpretation:” the health care provider speaks in English, the interpreter speaks in Spanish to a second person who speaks Spanish and one of the many indigenous languages, and then that person speaks to the patient in the language that they share—then it goes back in the other direction. This kind of situation has to be handled with consecutive interpretation. (I had a double interpretation situation on screening day. The gentleman who was doing the Spanish <-> indigenous language interpretation had no teeth, and it was a challenge to understand him, even for me.)
  • How you can help with the relative slowness of consecutive interpretation if you’re a health care provider: use shorter sentences. If you use long sentences, professional interpreters will often write down notes while you speak. The shorter your sentences, the less need there is for note-taking on the part of the interpreter.

How this all became relevant yesterday: I was interpreting between one of the Surgicorps people and one of the Guatemalan staff. The Surgicorps person was anticipating the end of the local nurse’s sentences while I was still repeating them, and responding in English. So, now I’m speaking a sentence that I’m having to remember in Spanish so that I can interpret it in the Spanish -> English direction, while someone is speaking to me in English. This is the kind of context in which you need two interpreters because you’re basically doing simultaneous interpretation instead of consecutive interpretation: this is the kind of situation where everything immediately goes to shit.

…and that’s when I thought about Maslow on Central America: life is briefer there, and so takes place faster. No problem: the other thing about Central America is that people here know how to make things work in suboptimal conditions. Ask everyone to stop, tell them that you’re having trouble and why, and people will do their best to accommodate—the Americans, as well as the Guatemalans. As is almost always the case: communicate what you need, because the only way to guarantee that you won’t get it is to not tell people what it is.

How about helping our work in Guatemala?  Surgicorps provides free surgical care to people who cannot afford it.  We pay for all of our patients’ costs through the generous donations of the kind of person who would read a blog like this.  Click here to donate–I’m the funny-looking bald guy. 

English notes here—French and Spanish vocabulary below:

  • Life is cheap: a delightfully ambiguous expression. The most common interpretation: it’s a way of saying that life is not valued. That’s not to say that people don’t value their own lives, but more that the society doesn’t, in general, value people’s lives. That’s the sense in which it is used in the Maslow quote: it is not true, as is often said, that life is cheap in Central America, but it is true that life is briefer there, and so takes place faster. The other possible interpretation is the more obvious, but the much less common one: it is inexpensive to live. For example: life is cheap in Benin—I think a nice apartment is maybe $50 a month. From the context, it will probably be clear which is which; in case of doubt, the default interpretation is the “life is not valued” one.
  • to go to pieces or to go to shit: for a situation to suddenly start going very badly, for things to stop working. To go to pieces is acceptable in pretty much any social context, but to go to shit is very casual and mildly obscene, and you should only use it with peers with whom you are very comfortable. Now: if you’re talking about a person, then to go to pieces (but not to go to shit) has a different meaning. It means something like to stop functioning, perhaps to start crying if you’re talking about an incident; or, if you’re talking about a chronic situation, not to cry, but to stop functioning normally in life. An example of the isolated incident version: I dropped her cell phone and the screen broke, and she completely went to pieces—locked herself in the bathroom and cried for maybe 15 minutes. The chronic one: After his wife died, he completely went to pieces—stopped showering, then stopped showing up for work, got fired, and ended up living with his daughter.

French notes:

  • merder: to go to shit, to get complicated.

Spanish notes:

  • embolismo: this word does not mean what it looks like—a false cognate. In Spanish it is basically a situation that has gone to shit. The word for “embolism” is embolia, e.g. una embolia cerebral, a cerebral embolism (a kind of stroke).  (The other kind of stroke is a derrame.)

Open domain, closed domain: what makes medical interpreting hard

What makes medical interpreting hard: it’s not what you think. Plus, the Uber driver from Hell.

guatemala camioneta tumblr_lywjcqtcme1r1ymoao1_5001
A camioneta in Guatemala. People routinely ride these things for 15 hours to bring us their kids for surgery. Picture credit: Fotografía obtenida de Así es mi Guatemala: Picture source:

At 4 AM today I threw a suitcase full of clothes that will work for both hot, sweaty tropical evenings and freezing-cold operating rooms into the trunk of an Uber car and climbed into the passenger seat.  As we pulled away from the house toward the airport and a plane to Guatemala, the driver made a sudden discovery: Oh, shoot!  I’m out of gas!  (Explanations of oh, shoot! and other obscure English expressions at the end of the post.)  She was, too–a big ol’ red light was shining on the dash, and there was a big, glowing E (for Empty) showing on the gas gauge.

This was a problem: because of the balancing act that these ridiculously early morning flights require between not showing up before the airport opens but also not showing up late and missing your flight, I needed this ride to go as smoothly as Uber rides usually do–and I needed my driver to take me straight to the airport.  What to do?  Pull over and fill up the tank, and we risk missing my flight.  But, if we run out of gas between the freeway and the airport, I am definitely missing my flight.

I stopped worrying about this and started worrying about other things pretty quickly, because she more or less immediately blew through a stop sign while checking her text messages.  OK, down side: I may die on the way to the airport tonight.  But, upside: I am super-heavily insured at the moment, and my loved ones will be nicely taken care of.  Just a little bit more reflection, and I concluded that risking missing my flight was a better option than definitely missing my flight, so I encouraged my Uber driver to pull over and get some gas.

She was happy to do so, and drove straight to a station that she knew about.  Only problem: at 4 in the morning, it was locked up tight.  Hmmmm….  Back on the freeway, the big red light on the dash looking even brighter, deeper red, more ominous.

An aside: if I think I might be late for something important, I ask myself a question: can I move any faster than I’m moving?  If the answer is yes: I speed up.  If the answer is no: I figure that worrying about what will happen if I’m late is pointless, and instead I focus on whatever needs to be focussed on to get me to my destination in one piece.  In this case, it was the nice Uber lady driving, not me, so there wasn’t really anything that I could do to affect the situation.  Can’t affect the situation?  Then it’s not efficient to worry about it.  I like music, and hers was blasting, so why not pay attention?  Turns out the lyrics went something like this:  I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna get high, I’m gonna get drunk and high.   (You probably think that I’m making this shit up, don’t you?  Well: I’m not.)  I thought my happy thoughts about how heavily insured I am again, and threw in some reflection of the fact that I’ve had a great life and I could totally die in a violent car crash with no regrets about untasted cheeses, undrunk pinot noirs, and so on.  I kept thinking those thoughts as we pulled off the freeway and got some gas while the nice Uber lady told me stories about her childhood that made me doubt the existence of a future of any kind for America.  I kept thinking those thoughts as we pulled back onto the freeway to the sounds of I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna get high, I’m gonna get drunk and high.  I kept thinking them some more as we immediately pulled off of the freeway again and headed down some frontage road that I was pretty sure was going to take us to the UPS/FedEx terminal, not the airport for humans.  (Back in the days when grant proposals got mailed to the National Institutes of Health in a big box, usually at the last minute, the prudent researcher learnt every possible way to drive to the UPS/FedEx terminal.)  There was an erratic jag to the north.  (Definitely happened–Uber showed me the route that we had followed when it was all over.  This isn’t going to get us to the airport, I said.  The normally loquacious nice Uber lady fell silent, for the first and only time of the night.  Or morning.  Whatever–it was really dark out.)

And then it was over–I saw the United doors appearing in the distance, and then I was thanking the nice Uber lady, dragging my suitcase up to the ticket counter, and pulling out my passport.  The lady at the ticket counter was being nice to me in that way that the ticket counter agents are nice to you when you fly 100,000 miles a year, or at least they were treating me somewhat like a human being in that way that they do when you fly 100,000 miles a year.  I drifted off, and soon we were landing in Houston, and then we were in the air towards Guatemala, and then in the van that takes us all from the airport to Antigua (and that was the reason that I really needed to not miss my flight–we all travel together from Guatemala City to the highlands).  Traffic was beyond belief, and exhaust fumes were pouring in through the open windows, and the camioneta (colorful bus, usually packed with people and assorted livestock, roof covered with luggage) next to us was clearly going to sideswipe us–and I didn’t even care, because when the radio is not blasting I’m gonna get drunk, I’m gonna get high, I’m gonna get drunk and high, I figure: no problem!

…and now I’m sitting in my hotel room, getting ready for what will be the hardest day of the next week.  I’m here in Guatemala with a group called Surgicorps.  Our raison d’être (yes, we say that in English, too) is providing free surgical care to people who couldn’t afford it otherwise.  Burn scars that leave men unable to use their hands–the only things that let them earn a living.  Disfiguring acid burns on a woman’s face and chest, courtesy of…I don’t have a good word to describe the guy that did it to her.  Kids with congenital malformations of pretty much anything that can be congenitally malformed.  Women who can’t go to the market to sell their corn because they’re incontinent and they can’t ride the bus.  The Surgicorps surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, techs, and therapists take care of pretty much anyone, and I interpret for them.

We just got into Antigua tonight–Saturday.  Sunday is the most intense day of the week: screening day.  The surgeons will spend the entire day seeing everyone who walks in the door wanting surgery for their kid, or themself, or their mother, or whoever.  They’ll be able to help a lot of them, and those folks will go off to be seen by one of our anesthesiologists.  If the anesthesia folks clear them for surgery, then other people will start the process of getting their lab work, find a place for their family to stay while they wait, and so on.  Eventually we’ll end up with a bit over 90 or so people who will get operated on in the week to come.

A couple of our surgeons speak Spanish, but most of those people will run into an interpreter multiple times.  For us interpreters, it’s a long day of constant, constant bouncing back and forth between the two languages, in both directions—English to Spanish to repeat the doctors’ questions and instructions, and Spanish to English to repeat the patients’ answers.   The long day is tiring, but it’s the difficulty of the interpreting itself that wears me out.

I get pretty similar remarks from people when I tell them about my annual Surgicorps trip: it must be hard, learning all of that medical vocabulary.  Actually, that’s not the hard part at all.  Here’s the thing about medical vocabulary: it’s finite.  It is related to what we call in computational linguistics a closed domain: there are only so many things that can be talked about in it.  If you had a big enough book, you could learn all of the medical terminology in Spanish (or whatever language you deal with), and then you’d be done.

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The sign marking the hand surgery screening area last year.  Picture source: me.

I usually spend screening day with a hand surgeon.  I learn more hand vocabulary every year–this year I’ve been focussing on parts of the finger.  I don’t worry about that stuff–the chances of me being called upon to use words that differentiate between the body of the fingernail and the end of the fingernail are pretty slim.

Here’s the thing, though.  Take a seat in front of our hand surgeon, show him the scars that are keeping you from opening your fist, or the finger sticking out at an angle, or whatever, and the first thing that he’s going to ask is: how did that happen?  The answer to that question doesn’t come out of the closed domain of medicine–it comes out of the open domain of life.  Here are some possible answers:

  • I cut it while I was cutting up a chunk of frozen spinach to cook for my son.
  • I jammed a thorn into my hand.
  • I was sitting in my friend’s car and the fuel pump blew up.
  • I fell into the cooking fire.
  • A snake bit me.

(Can you guess which one of those was me when I paid my visit to the hand surgeon to get a joint capsule repaired?)  So: the closed domain of hand anatomy has a finite vocabulary, and it’s not actually that big–no problem memorizing it all.  The open domain of the world at large has an enormous vocabulary, and you know what Zipf’s Law tells us about the nature of that vocabulary: most of the words in it are going to occur at the statistical equivalent of never–but, they do occur.  And as a non-native speaker, they’re going to bite you.

And that’s it: what makes doing medical interpretation hard.  It’s not the medical vocabulary–it’s the entire rest of the world.  It’s all of the stuff that led to what happened to your hand, which led to you sitting in front of our hand surgeon, which led to me talking to you after an exciting trip through the wilds of the Denver night and the Guatemala City traffic.  And that’s why I’m going to bed a little nervous tonight–it’s screening day tomorrow.

Want to support Surgicorps’s work?  You really should–if you don’t feel better about life after you make a donation, I’ll give you your money back!  I’m not asking you to support my participation–like all Surgicorps volunteers, I pay for my own plane ticket, lodging, etc.  Your donation goes to the costs of surgery for someone’s kid, or mother, or wife, or…  They’re human.  That’s all.  Click here to donate.

English notes:

  • Oh, shoot!  This is a very mild way of expressing surprise, disappointment, and similar emotions occurring together.  It’s a bowdlerized form of oh, shit!  …but, truly, it’s so mild that your grandmother could use it.  Not my grandmother–she preferred oh, sugar!  …but, one’s grandmother could.  How it showed up in the post: As we pulled away from the house toward the airport and a plane to Guatemala, the driver made a sudden discovery: Oh, shoot!  I’m out of gas!
  • Big ol’: On some level, this is a contracted form of big old.  Syntactically, it functions as an adjectival expression, although a somewhat strange one.  Semantically, it describes size–but, not age.  Big ol’ means big.  It does not mean old.  Sociolinguistically, it’s stigmatized–the associations are with being rural, uneducated, probably Southern.  (I’m not asserting that Southerners are all rural and uneducated–they certainly are not.  I’m asserting that these are the associations that native speakers are likely to have with the expression.)  Used by someone like me–that is to say, an extremely urban Northerner with a graduate degree–the effect is to add an air of humor and casualness to the story.  How it showed up in the post: She was, too–a big ol’ red light was shining on the dash, and there was a big, glowing E (for Empty) showing on the gas gauge.
  • Pretty + adjective/adverb: “Pretty” is an intensifier here, meaning something like “very, or at least more than a normal amount, but not necessarily as much as possible.”  I’d be pretty careful about doing that, if I were you.  It’s pretty late–I’m going to bed.  That’s a pretty big mess you’ve made there.  How it showed up in the post: I quickly stopped worrying about this and started worrying about other things pretty quickly, because she more or less immediately blew through a stop sign while checking her text messages.

French and Spanish vocabulary:

English French Spanish
open domain le domaine ouvert el ámbito abierto
closed domain le domaine fermé el ámbito cerrado

Want to know more about hand surgery?  Here are some posts from the past.  Sorry, no French–the vocabulary under discussion is all Spanish.



Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand: Amniotic band syndrome

Amniotic band syndrome. Picture source: By Moscowmom – Own work, Public Domain,

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake

This is what your hand looks like if you’re born with amniotic band syndrome.  The thought is that it happens when there’s a partial rupture of the amniotic sack and the hand gets caught up in it.  It’s supposed to be purely mechanical.  But: amniotic band syndrome often co-occurs with other congenital anomalies that aren’t even possibly remotely mechanically related, such as cleft lip and cleft palate.  This leads to another theory about where amniotic band syndrome comes from, which is that it’s related to some kind of circulatory disorder that can affect both the digits and the developing palate.

In a region where people don’t typically get very much education and the most common way of supporting yourself is manual labor, a person who isn’t treated for this congenital defect can pretty easily find themselves in a life of poverty without an obvious way out.  That means a childhood of poverty for their kids, too.  That’s a lot of suffering.

You might be thinking: having amniotic band syndrome would suck, but there’s nothing that I can do about all of those little kids who are born with it.  I’m happy to tell you: that’s not true!

There’s a group called Surgicorps that goes to various and sundry places around the world to do free surgeries for the most destitute of the destitute.  There are lots of groups like that, but there’s something special about Surgicorps: they have a hand surgeon.  The goal of surgery for something like amniotic band syndrome is to restore function to the hand.  Doing this is difficult, and requires a lot of very specialized training–the Surgicorps hand surgeon did fellowships in both plastic surgery and orthopedics.  (For doctors, a fellowship is advanced training that you do after your residency if you want to develop very specialized skills.  A fellowship can easily be five years long, and that’s on top of four years of college, four years of medical, and a three-year residency.)

Where you fit into this: Surgicorps does its work entirely on the basis of donations.  The surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians, interpreters (I’m one of them), and others all donate their time, pay for their own travel expenses, and pay for their lodging.  Surgicorps pays for all aspects of the patients’ treatment–the surgical equipment and supplies, housing for the parents while the kid is hospitalized afterwards, the anesthesia, medications–everything.  That money comes from charitable donations.

That’s where you come in!  In the days to come, I’m going to hit you up for a donation.  I’ll tell you more about what Surgicorps does, tell you about some of the people we treat (within the bounds of privacy), and try to give you a bit of the feel of what it’s like to be in Guatemala.

Language stuff: I work closely with our hand surgeon, which means that I need to know a lot of terms related to the kinds of feelings that you might have in your hands and fingers.  Here are some of those words, in English, Spanish, and of course French.  Scroll down past them for notes on the English in this post.  Spoiler alert: in the English section, I’ll be talking about the verb to cleave, the noun digit, and the idiom to come in.

English Spanish French
numb entumido, entumecido engourdi, insensible
sleepy/numb adormecido
itchy hormigoso qui démange, qui gratte
tingly corrientazo qui picote
  • cleft: this is the past participle of the super-interesting verb to cleave.  What’s cool about to cleave: it is its own opposite.  That is to say: it has two meanings, and they are each other’s opposites.  (Quotes from,,, Jewish Publication Society, and
    • One meaning of to cleave is to forcefully split something, or (intransitively) to split, especially along a natural line.  This is the origin of the name of the kind of heavy knife called a cleaver
      • One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.  Aldo Leopold.
      • Hamlet thou has’t cleft my heart in twain.  Shakespeare, Hamlet.
      • I tend to foster drama via bleakness. If I want the reader to feel sympathy for a character, I cleave the character in half, on his birthday. And then it starts raining. And he’s made of sugar.  George Saunders. 
      • When I was at Babbo, I was covered in scars and scabs and burned bits – melted hair, ribbed burns I got reaching across the top of a hot skillet… I sliced off the tip of my finger. I cleaved my forehead – a deep, ugly wound. Luckily, it regenerated.  Bill Buford
      • Like Honeycrisp, SweeTango has much larger cells than other apples, and when you bite into it, the cells shatter rather than cleaving along the cell walls, as is the case with most popular apples. The bursting of the cells fills your mouth with juice. Chunks of SweeTango snap off in your mouth with a loud cracking sound.  John Seabrook.  (This is the intransitive use.)
        Cupid’s arrow, Hafiz’s heart tore and cleaved
        I see his verses, with their wet ink, bleed. 
        Khajeh Shamseddin Mohammad Hafiz Shirazi
    • The other meaning of to cleave is to stick to something.
      • Cleave to no faith when faith brings blood.  Arthur Miller, The crucible. 
      • She counted to ten as she had been taught when about to deliver a big speech, but when she tried to force some words of outrage from between her teeth her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and the most she could do was make a small cry of protest deep in her throat. (British National Corpus.  Like that past tense?  J’adore!)
      • We all are originally sinners as Adam and in Adam, his leprosy cleaving faster to us than Naaman’s did to Gahazai, so that even the infant, before it has seen the light of the world, has this blemish inherent in its unborn members.  John Wycliffe.  (A little language/interpretation connection: Wycliffe Bible Translators, the biggest Bible-translating group in the world, is named after John Wycliffe.)
      • Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.  God, Genesis 2:24.
         תִּדְבַּק-לְשׁוֹנִי, לְחִכִּי–    אִם-לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי: Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not.  Psalms 137:6.
    • I ran into this example in the British National Corpus, and I have no idea whatsoever what it means: The horse shied a little and the butt cleaved into the side of my head, almost taking my ear off.
  • digit: you know that this can mean a number, but it can also mean a finger or toe.  From the post: This leads to another theory about where amniotic band syndrome comes from, which is that it’s related to some kind of circulatory disorder that can affect both the digits and the developing palate.
    • Painful, rapidly growing tumor in the subungual area of the first digit of the right hand.  Perelló-Alzamora et al.
    • Surgical amputation of the digit: an investigation into the technical variations among hand surgeons.  Li et al.
  • to come in: this idiom has a few meanings.  Here’s the definition for the way that I used it, from Merriam-Webster: to assume a role or function <that’s where you come in> From the post: That’s where you come in!  In the days to come, I’m going to hit you up for a donation.


Dictionaries and sexism

One day a friend and his wife dropped by my office to share the good news that they’d just seen an ultrasound of their baby-to-be.  They didn’t speak English, so we spoke Spanish.  Is the baby a macho or a hembra?, I asked-a boy, or a girl?  My friend and his wife cracked up (American English for “started laughing hard,” although it can also mean “to go crazy”–be careful).  It turns out that macho and hembra are used only in what you might think of as a biological sense–that is, to refer to male or female animals.  A baby boy or baby girl human is a niño or niña.  There’s a similar set of words in French for describing biological sex, as distinct from gender, and that set of words can come in handy. We’ll see more on this below, but first some big-picture issues.

Most dictionaries today are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, meaning that their goal is to describe how language is used, rather than to try to prescribe the way that the editors think that it should be used.  With that goal in mind, what should the editorial stance be towards the ways that language reflects society, and in particular, shitty things in a society–say, sexism in America and the United Kingdom?  Here’s an article on the subject from the New Yorker, and if you like it, be sure to follow the link in it to Deborah Cameron’s article–she is an amazing linguist.  (Full disclosure: I took sociolinguistics from her as an undergrad.  Favorite quote: “Well, that rather fucks the theory up, now, doesn’t it, Kevin?”)

Relevant French vocabulary, with a quote from the French Wikipedia page on sexism:

Le sexisme est une attitude discriminatoire adoptée en raison du sexe.

La critique du sexisme dénonce l’idée selon laquelle les caractéristiques différentes des deux genres masculin et féminin impliqueraient l’attribution de rôles, droits et devoirs distincts dans la société. Elle dénonce cette construction de la société qui attribue un caractère, un rôle, des prédispositions physiques et affectives selon le sexe. La notion de sexe n’est alors plus une notion de sexe biologique (mâle et femelle) mais une construction sociale du genre féminin et du genre masculin limitant par là même le développement de l’individu sur les plans personnel, affectif, professionnel et social.

  • dénoncer: to denounce or condemn; to back out of, to renege on.
  • le devoir: duty, obligation; homework, assignment.
  • affectif: emotional.
  • le mâle: male, in a biological sense.  Slang: studmuffin.
  • la femelle: female, in a biological sense.  Slang: bitch.

None of this stuff is simple or straightforward. As a sociolinguist once said to me: if a language reflects sexism, homophobia, or whatever other nastiness, that’s data. The claim of some of the people interviewed in the article is that when a lexicographer includes sexist language in a dictionary, they’re not just describing it, even if they think that that’s what they’re doing–they’re endorsing it. A good descriptive lexicographer would protest against that claim–see this recent post. How does the person on the street see it? Is the interviewee right in asserting that people perceive the dictionary as an authoritative stamp of approval on the language, rather than seeing it as descriptive of the language, like the lexicographer does? That’s an empirical question, and I don’t know the answer. If you go out and do a survey on this, please let the rest of us know the result…

It’s tough to be dispositive about dispositif

In which a French word means nothing like the English word that it looks like, and I remain puzzled even after looking it up.

dispositif?” Read this post and you’ll see why it strikes me as funny. Picture source: cover of the book by Giorgio Agamben.” The title of the book means “what is a dispositif?” Read this post and you’ll see why it strikes me as funny. Picture source: cover of the book by Giorgio Agamben.

In France, I often ran across the word dispositif, but somehow never got around to looking it up.  I see now why I had trouble even guessing at its meaning–besides looking like an English word that it has nothing in common with semantically, it has a number of quite different meanings.  Here’s how it showed up in an email at work one day:

Nous avons commencé une expérience sur la collaboration et cohabitation des deux utilisateurs dans un même dispositif immersif (EVE) et on cherche toujours des participants.

In the context of where I work, it’s likely that the intended meaning is a “device, machine, apparatus,” as in this example from C’est un dispositif de chauffage très perfectionné “It’s a very sophisticated heating device.”

If you’re talking about the police or the military, it would translate as “presence,” as in this example from L’Etat a prévu un gros dispositif policier pour le prochain G20 “The government has organized a significant police presence for the next G20.”

It can also mean “plan.”  Here’s an example sentence, again from Le dispositif de défense aérienne est revu tous les ans “The air defense plan is reviewed every year.”

The meanings can be more diverse than that, though, including things like “measures,” “system,” and others.  Here are some examples from

  • Pour les véhicules équipés d’un dispositif antiblocage…  For vehicles with anti-lock systems… (Source:
  • Le Fonds monétaire international (FMI) participera au dispositif de financement et devrait fournir un montant correspondant à la moitié au moins de la contribution de l’UE.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) will participate in financing arrangements and is expected to provide at least half as much as the EU contribution. (Source:
  • Ce sera probablement la mise en place d’un véritable dispositif de financement This will probably entail setting up a real funding scheme.  (Source:

So, what’s the English word that I was confusing this with?  Dispositive.  Something is “dispositive” if it brings something to a resolution–it “disposes” of the issue, in essence.  Here are some examples from the enTenTen corpus (19.7 billion words of English):

  • The dispositive issue in these cases, simply put, is whether, for purposes of allocating its finite resources, a state has a legitimate reason to differentiate between persons who are lawfully within the state and those who are unlawfully there.
  • First, particularly in a highly hierarchical employment setting such as law enforcement, whether or not the employee confined his communications to his chain of command is a relevant, if not necessarily dispositive, factor in determining whether he spoke pursuant to his official duties.
  • To the recently admitted student: embrace your cultural heritage, and know that test scores and GPA were not dispositive factors in your acceptance.
  • One data point is not dispositive.
  • The Court found it dispositive, for instance, that 1-40-121 did not regulate candidate elections, and that the risk of corruption so prevalent in such elections was minimal in the initiative context.

Zipf’s Law as applied to the vocabulary of pizza

When people visit me in Paris, they’re always surprised to see a wide variety of non-French restaurants—Chinese take-out abounds, as does Thai and Indian food.  The same is true here in Guatemala—the restaurants include a Mediterranean place, a Mexican place, a Korean tea house, and some really amazing bakeries.  My first meal in Guatemala this time was at a pizza joint that some of my coworkers like.  Zipf’s Law affects the vocabulary of pizza as much as the vocabulary of anything else.  Here are the words that I had to look up in order to understand the very first, most basic pizza on the list:

  • rodaja: a round slice; also a disk or a caster.
  • albahaca: basil.

There’s an excellent Guatemalan restaurant in town called Tres Tiempos.  I spent an evening there eating tamalitos and a sort of Guatemalan hotdog and looking up the words on the menu.  How could repollo possibly not mean “chicken”??

  • repollo: cabbage.  You probably learned the word col—so did I.  Don’t know where this one comes from.
  • rebozado: battered.

Incidentally, if you’re into language and you’re into food, you will want to check out Dan Jurafsky’s latest book, The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu.  Dan received a MacArthur Genius Grant for his fascinating work in natural language processing, and his talk on ketchup at a NAACL meeting is probably most people’s favorite keynote speech ever.  If you start out at, you can donate part of the purchase price to Surgicorps.

The hand surgery screening interview in Spanish

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 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).tumblr_lymznxfkf11r8vrhxo1_500
    • 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.