The Super-translator.

Didn’t get a chance to catch Survivor on Thursday, so it’s Peemeister today and Survivor tomorrow. Enjoy!

From 2005 to 2008 I maintained a blog about my experiences working in the drug test industry. Every Sunday I revive one of those experiences here. The following was originally posted May 27, 2008.

The Super-translator.

I met a real live superhero last week, no foolin’. This guy’s super power was to brag about his job as a translator.

I’ve worked with a lot of translators since I started peemeistering, for just about any language you could name (and probably a few you couldn’t). Foreign language collections basically fall into one of two categories: Spanish and Everything Else.

Everything Else is actually the easier of the two. These are the people who have recently immigrated here but haven’t picked up the language yet. They cart around professional translators (which, except for Super-translator, are awesome) or at the very least family members who know what the score is. These collections are usually pretty easy because they don’t harbor any illusions of knowing English and are used to talking through a third party pretty much all the time.

Spanish is much trickier because, in this part of Florida, it’s totally possible to live your entire life in Spanish without ever learning word one of English. There’s almost always a Spanish-speaker present anywhere you could think to go (two in our office) so many of them learn to just fake their way through whatever transactions they can and get really angry at the ones they can’t. What’s worse, when they actually do bring a translator along it’s usually just a friend or family member who either doesn’t know any more English than they do, or for some reason doesn’t think the transaction is important enough to translate in full.

Many have been the times when I’ve asked the “translator” to translate two lines of English text into Spanish for the benefit of the Spanish-only donor, only to have them say two or three words. I don’t know a lot of Spanish myself, but I do know that firma aqui does not mean “I certify that I have provided my urine specimen to the collector…”

Thankfully, ever since I’ve been working in this office, I can hand the Spanish collections over to one of the Spanish-speaking up-front girls. I still deal with the translators when it’s practical though, which brings us (finally) to Super-translator.

First off, the donor did not speak any English. She didn’t speak “a little” English, or even “un poquito” English. She flat out did not understand the language. Going out on a limb here, this might be why she came in with a translator. Not only was Super-translator a translator, but he was, well, a super translator. He said so himself!

Now, the translation process is pretty simple: I say something in English, you repeat it in Spanish. That’s it. I usually make it clear that the translator needs to repeat everything I say, even if it doesn’t sound very important, because usually I’m talking to the donor’s friend or co-worker who (as previously mentioned) doesn’t think the whole thing is a big deal. But since Super-translator was a super translator I assumed he knew what the score was and didn’t bother going through the whole “repeat after me” rigamarole. Imagine my surprise when I open up with an instruction and Super-translator stays silent.

Getting him to actually repeat anything I said was a battle. He reprimanded me because I was “supposed to direct my instructions to her, not to him”, and claimed he wasn’t translating word-for-word because he was also trying to help her learn English. His Spanish was broken and mangled at best. He either didn’t know how (or refused) to say “Don’t flush the toilet!” so he resorted to pantomime for that part.

By the time we go the poor donor into the bathroom she looked as confused as I’ve ever seen anyone in my entire life.

The entire time I was trying to fill out paperwork Super-translator kept trying to strike up conversation. Did I know how much money he made? Did I know that if I wanted to make real money all I had to do was learn another language? Did I know that people from the northern US talk different than people in the south and isn’t that interesting? Did I know that I could learn to speak English better myself if I learned how to speak Spanish first? Did I know that Florida had a lot of Spanish-speaking citzens and wasn’t it interesting how many there are?

Did I know it was such a shame that I only spoke one language?

Eventually we stumbled our way to the end of the collection, where the donor has to sign the part of the form saying it’s actually her urine and so on. I can’t let her sign it without being sure she knows what she’s signing (this is one of those legal loopholes that can come back and bite me later). I made it clear that he would have to read the form to her in Spanish before I could let her sign it. He read it to her in English — poorly, I might add! — and looked at me for approval.

I’ve dealt with cheaters, liars, bastards and primadonas in this job, but I think this is the first time I actually wanted to reach forward and wring someone’s neck.

I let the donor sign the form, but kept her boss’s copy of it. As I waved them back out to the lobby Super-translator had the audacity to more or less tell me to congratulate him on a job well done. All he got out of me was a “Just have a seat in the lobby, please.”

I left one of our own Spanish-speakers with instructions to please call the lady back up and read the form to her before they were allowed to leave. It must have been a slap in the face to see someone who isn’t even a translator by trade do his job for him, and do it better than he ever could hope to do. Alas, I was busy with the next customer at that point and never got to see the self-righteous look on his face.

The entire time we were fumbling our way through this hapless collection, Super-translator was gently bopping his head along to whatever song was playing on his iPod. This was my first indicator that maybe he was going to do a terrible job. I should have followed my gut on this one.

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