Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
Over the coming months, GRAMNet will be publishing excerpts from ‘In Other Words; the interpreters’ story’, an anthology recently published by Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service. We began this series last month, with the excerpt ‘Said and Unsaid’.
As the song goes, ‘Life is a rollercoaster’. And how true that is. One moment you’re up, on top of the world, and the next, totally without warning, you come crashing down.
Sunday evening I had a look in my diary. The week ahead looked fairly good. Some work, some free time, allowing me time to catch up on all those other jobs I had been postponing, either through lack of time or motivation.
As you might have gathered from my ramblings, nothing panned out as expected.
The initial one appointment of possibly one hour in my diary became seven appointments totalling 16 hours of interpreting for the week. And that’s not counting interpreting work over the phone, but we’ll leave that because — that’s another story.
All those extra appointments were booked at the last minute, and some went on for long starving hours; apparently the message had been for the interpreter (me) to come provided with sustenance, only that part never reached me.
I had been called in by the hospital. Social Services were coming in to help a mother and her newborn baby who were homeless. After the elation of having given birth, the mother was going to be faced with some difficult decisions. In order to be allowed to take her baby with her she would have to agree to be moved twenty miles away from all that was familiar to her and stay in a Bed and Breakfast for an indeterminate time. She would have to leave her friends who, so far, had been her only support, and move, on her own, with a newborn, to a strange area. And all of this made harder by the fact that she did not speak English.
Social Services told her this B and B was the only place with a vacancy at such short notice. They had tried everywhere else, starting closer to her friends, and had been told they’d be notified as soon as there was a vacancy. This did not seem to reassure the mother. The thought of being sent away so far from all that was familiar was petrifying her. She just couldn’t take it in.
“What if I refuse to go?” Social Services looked at her and explained that their sole responsibility was to the baby, so the alternative would be foster parents — to take her baby away from her.
“You can’t do this!” was her cry, of utter disbelief. As I interpreted what was being said I had to control my own emotions. This was going all wrong. Was there nothing I could do or say to help?
It was long and hard, especially emotionally. Would they keep them together? Or would they be separated? I felt tossed about like a ping-pong ball — and, as time went by, just as fragile. There was a certain sense of déjà vu about this new situation, and the same feeling of helplessness surrounding me. “Keep one foot definitely in and the other firmly out,” I admonished myself. “You’ll be of no use to anybody if you don’t.”
The ward was hot and stuffy as I sat and waited, in strange contrast to the outside elements as the wind howled and the rain crashed against the window. “Funny,” I thought, “as we sit here in this quiet, warm environment, it’s the outside which represents the drama happening in here.”
For drama it was. At one point I was called out. They wanted my opinion, my ‘take’ on the situation. ‘Take?’
I could feel my insides churning. I wanted to help, but what should I do? It was not fair on their part to play me as they were. I am the interpreter, which is all. They shouldn’t have called me out by myself. As I sat there across from them I made the instant decision solely to repeat Mum’s words. After all, that is all I am supposed to do. I am the instrument through which people can communicate; my opinions, my ‘take’ on a situation, should not be called into the game. I am not there to make assumptions on what other people think or feel.
Somehow I got the feeling that what I was about to tell them would not please them, but I had no choice. “I can only reiterate what Mum has been telling you. She’s absolutely terrified of the thought of being sent so far away from all that is familiar to her.” But I did add, “And the fact that she cannot speak English makes the situation all the more daunting. Also, your pointing out to her that if she does not comply, her baby could be put into Foster Care has jeopardised any trust she might have had in the offer of help and support on your part.”
“Right.” But I could tell that nothing was ‘right’, in fact, it was all going very wrong and I only hoped that they would have a flash of inspiration and would start looking at this situation from Mum’s point of view as opposed to their own. Rather cynically I thought to myself “One lives in hope…”
At that point, maybe sensing that I was not going to say any more, they asked me to go back to the ward and ask Mum to join us.
Making my way back onto the ward I sensed a change in the atmosphere. “Why did they call you, without me?” There was an understandable edge of mistrust in her voice. In a way I was glad that no one else on the ward could understand what was going on. This is one advantage of dealing with a crisis in a foreign language. In a place of little privacy, speaking a different language provided it.
“I only told them what you had told me,” was my shaky answer. I needed to hold on to that fast-disappearing thread of trust.
As an interpreter, it is important to build trust and confidence as the base of your work. If people cannot trust you, you cannot do you job effectively for them.
I added, “It wasn’t my place to comment on the situation. I just repeated what you’d been saying all along.” After all, that is what I am, I thought, a voice — her voice.
She sat there, staring at me; in every fibre of her body I could sense the struggle. Do I trust her? Should I trust her?
I calmed her down. “You need to keep calm, otherwise, you’ll not be able to think clearly, and you need that to be able to make the correct decisions.”
“They would like to talk to you now. I’ll be with you and, remember, you must keep calm.”
As we walked down the corridor, the silence was a marked contrast to the turmoil we were about to face.
The room was in dim light, the darkness outside adding a certain eeriness.
We sat across from each other; her and me on one side, the others on the other.
It felt a bit like a battle ground.“How appropriate,” I thought.“Let the battle commence!”
Words went backwards and forwards, like bullets and with the same devastating effect. Some made time for me to do my job, and others didn’t. On our side I could discreetly lay my hand on her arm to stem the flow, thereby allowing me to voice her fully. I had no control over the other side. But as it was mostly repetition of what had been said before, I could voice it all confidently.
“But why? Why so far away?” tears streaming down her cheeks she was trying to make sense of this impossible situation. “It can’t be happening! It shouldn’t be happening!” — I could imagine these thoughts going through her mind.
After what seemed like hours of emotionally charged discussions, one of the others stood up and with a decisive parting expression said. “Right, you now have the options. I have to go now but my colleague will sort out the rest for you. See you tomorrow.” And left.
Fortunately, there was a reprieve. She could stay here one more night. The day was too far gone to send her anywhere. Maybe tomorrow in the light of a new day, things might not seem so dark, so scary.
Walking back together to the ward, I felt her miles away, her thoughts racing between decisions, options, or lack of them. Her face looked pale and strained. We reached her bed; she sat and looked up disconsolately. “I’m not going! I can’t go!”
All I could do was smile reassuringly and say, “Try not to worry, things will work out. It is important that you rest now.”
The nurse approached and thanked me, a sure sign that I was no longer needed. “I have to go now. Is there anything you’d like me to say for you before I go?”
She shook her head, all the fight gone out of her. “Thank you,” was the barely audible whisper.
“Try not to worry,” were my parting words.
Timesheet signed, I walked out, head pounding.
It was early evening and I had been there since mid morning. Breakfast was a distant memory.
As I reached the car park searching in my pocket for the parking ticket, I heard someone address me through the haze of my thoughts. “Excuse me. Do you happen to have a 10p coin in exchange for these two 5p, please?” I raised my eyes and tried to focus. “Yes, of course,” and rummaged in my purse for the requested coin. I felt as if I were waking from a dream, or nightmare; someone else’s nightmare.
Here I was, on my way home, trying to help someone whose biggest problem was having the right coins for the machine, whilst I had left behind total devastation.
Talk about living in parallel worlds!
Look out for the next extract ‘Multi-care plan’, which explores Zoe’s experience of interpreting for Social Services. This piece will be published in September. A full copy of the Anthology can be requested here.