The Interpreter

I teach at a university deep in the interior of the USA.  Most of the residents in the apartment complex where I live are students at that same university.  Several of these neighbors are Iraqis who have come here as part of an exchange program between our university and one in Baghdad. 

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I left my apartment and walked to the bus stop.  Two of my Iraqi neighbors were sitting on the bench, a man named Abdullah and a woman whose name I did not know.  Abdullah greeted me; his friend turned her face shyly and tugged on her headscarf.  Abdullah offered me his hand.  I declined to shake it, explaining that I had a cold and did not want him to catch it.  Abdullah turned to his friend and said a few words in Arabic.  She nodded at him and gave a grateful smile, saying nothing.  As we waited for the bus, Abdullah and I talked about colds and remedies for them.  After each exchange, Abdullah turned to his friend and spoke for moment in Arabic.  Each time he did, she nodded at him and gave the same smile, never saying a word.  It was clear to me that he was interpreting for her. 

I wondered how well Abdullah was doing as an interpreter.  I was talking slowly and making an effort to keep my vocabulary simple, but still I came up against the limits of his English a number of times.  That didn’t stop Abdullah.  Even when he wrinkled his brow and paused for a few seconds, he still turned to his friend and talked, I suppose offering an Arabic version of whatever he had gathered from my words.  His friend seemed quite pleased with Abdullah, impressed with his gallant efforts. 

The bus came into sight.  Distracted to see it, I forgot to keep my English simple.  Thoughtlessly, I gave poor Abdullah a challenge that even professional interpreters can rarely meet successfully: I made a joke.  “Well, there’s a saying,” I told him.  “A cold usually lasts about seven days, unless the patient is under a doctor’s care.  Then it lasts about a week.”  When I said this, Abdullah’s friend immediately burst out laughing.  Abdullah gave a blank stare for a moment.  He wrinkled his brow and leaned forward.  Then he turned to his friend and interpreted.  She nodded at him, smiled gratefully, and said nothing.


  1. Maybe he had problems understanding the joke and not the language :))

  2. acilius

     /  July 19, 2010

    Maybe so. Clearly, though, she understood both the joke and the language perfectly.

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