The Perks of Being a Self-proclaimed Bilingual

How many of you, as interpreters, have encountered Spanish heritage speakers whose dominant language is English? I do almost every day. I even find them when I teach at the university, and undoubtedly during assignments as interpreters, whether in court or out of court proceedings. All those of you professional, qualified interpreters know how difficult is to stay abreast of changes in evolving languages, such as Spanish, but we also agree that there is only one way to speak correctly: using natural, idiomatic expressions that are not a calque of the English (or source language).

Many times one can hear on the street expressions like “Te llamo pa’ trás” (I’ll call you back) or “Tú sabes cómo hablar inglés” (You know how to speak English) expressed by regular folks and which, at some point, become very normal due to the contact that Spanish has with English in the U.S.  These type of loan translations are found even more frequently now and are usually called Anglicisms.  It would surprise anyone, however, that an attorney whose native language was Spanish tried to communicate in Spanish with expressions that calque the syntax of the English expression.

Not too long ago, I was the interpreter for a Colombian deponent in a deposition for a civil case here in Las Vegas, and I tried to use the standard variety of Spanish as much as possible (i.e., not using regionalisms or expressions that would be confusing). The attorney of the opposing party was asking a series of questions regarding the injuries the deponent had sustained in a car accident, and he got to the question of “Did you fill the prescription the doctor gave you?” I tried to think fast of all the options at hand to interpret this question into Spanish, but the only that came out faster was the one I would usually use for any deponent, no matter his nationality:  “¿Surtió usted la receta que le dio el médico?” Surprisingly, the deponent did not understand what I asked, and requested to repeat the question. I continued using the same verb “surtir” (supply, provide, stock) to no avail. My mind probably shut down because I couldn’t think of any other other alternative. I gave up and said for the record that the deponent didn’t understand the question the way the interpreter was rendering it in Spanish, and asked the attorney to repeat the question using different words  (i.e., Did you buy the medication the doctor prescribed?). The attorney, a self-proclaimed bilingual, replied “Let me try” and asked the deponent in Spanish “¿Llenaste la receta del médico?” (Did you fill the doctor’s prescription?) I immediately thought he would make things worse, but to my ever-lasting surprise that day, the deponent did understand this time. He said that he had been studying ESL in the U.S. for the last four years, which lead me to think that he had been in contact with the Anglicized Spanish many people speak in the U.S. I guess that being a heritage speaker of Spanish and using calques of the English pays well in a community where Anglicisms are becoming commonplace.

Later that day I thought of some alternatives, which I’m sharing with colleagues should you encounter any difficulty like this:

  • ¿Compró usted la medicina que le recetaron?
  • ¿Le entregaron el medicamento que le recetaron?
  • ¿Compró lo que el médico le recetó?


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