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[Un]lost in Translation

Updated: Jan 14

Photo from WIX

The evening the pregnant woman stopped me a block away from my apartment in the French Quarter was a typical early pandemic evening. There were only a few people walking or running around, some cycling. The sun was setting, painting the sky with a purplish-orange hue, and the liveliness of the French Quarter as we knew it before the pandemic remained absent, the way the restaurants, coffee shops, and local businesses were for the past two months. It is almost surreal to recall now, but this was also the time during the pandemic when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not yet recommended the public to mask up. This was the time of “wash your hands and stay apart.”

The pregnant woman, who was holding the hand of a little girl, and I stood across from each other, maskless. She began asking a question in Spanish, and realizing I did not speak the language, she handed me some papers and pointed to an address that was circled. She continued explaining.

“You want to get here?” I asked, trying to make sense of the context clues.

“Si, si,” she replied.

“Do you need help getting there?” I started gesturing with my hands. You. Help. There.

The woman took out her smartphone, without a hint of frustration, and clicked on the Translate app and started typing. As I waited, I glanced at the papers still in my hands. They were from a health clinic’s office and in the right bottom corner, someone had written, “child with COVID-like symptoms. Needs test.”

My heart sank. This was also a time during the pandemic where scientists, and consequently, the public, did not know as much as they do now about the virus. I smiled at the little girl holding on to her mother’s hand. She seemed well. I looked at her mother who was still typing. She didn’t seem panicked, and I wonder if it was because she didn’t want to alarm her child, because she had more grace than I would have had with such news, or because no one translated the information to her.

I need to get to this address, her smartphone screen read.

“Okay, I will look up the address,” I replied, gesturing to my own phone.

Their destination was five blocks from where we were standing. She gives me her phone to type in the application. Hand sanitizer, I think. This was also the time during the pandemic when I was taking precautions for others and not necessarily myself.

“I’ll walk with you,” I type and watch the application translate into the mother’s language. She nods, and we start walking. Once we got halfway, she turned to thank me, whilst I confirmed if she knew where to go. “Straight ahead,” I gestured. She nodded that she knew.

I went home and looked up the address. It was a women’s shelter with a COVID-19 testing site. I clicked on the telephone icon and called. Someone at the front desk answered, and I described the mother and child to him and asked if they arrived. They arrived an hour ago.

It only occurred to me after the fact that I could have called my friend who is fluent in Spanish to translate. Our smartphones gave us the ability to do real-time connecting, not just in the form of seeing someone face-to-face or hearing their voice or through social media, but through the deciphering of languages we don’t know, even more so in the time of social distancing, body language and facial expressions.

We are masked up in public, as we should be, but there’s a level of grief we see in each other through these technological advancements. The witness to collective compassion and empathy. I wonder if the woman stopped anyone else. I wonder if she was comfortable stopping me, because as a woman of Arab heritage, I have features that resemble what features her Latino daughter would have in her twenties, thinking that through these features, I may offer compassion and empathy and comfort in this strangeness through a shared language, through words, if not words then through shared features, through womanhood.

I often think of those who we don’t capture in our public health data, in our health education campaigns, and consequently, who are lost in translation because we haven’t done our due diligence to translate the information and efforts, so to speak. There was nothing on the doctor’s paper in Spanish, for example. I wondered how many people were walking around not knowing. Who are the populations we did not see in the pandemic? Who are we not seeing during the vaccination efforts? That we’re refusing to see? The populations we ignore or don’t know of? There are those who are witnessing this time with us but in different languages. This begs me to wonder how sustainable any effort is if those leading them don’t consider this, or consider it as an afterthought.

A few weeks ago as I was updating my phone, I saw that I had the Translation app the mother used to communicate with me. I often wonder where she is, what led her here to begin with, if her child is okay, if she welcomed her newborn, if she is not lost in translation.

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