Loss in Translation, by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

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From “Unspeakable Pain,” which was published in the Spring 2022 issue of The Yale Review.

“I am Dr. Smith,” I say. “I am Dr. Jones.” For five hours a day, once, sometimes twice a week. “I am Dr. Santos. Dr. Evans. Dr. Reddy,” I say, trying to become the words as I say them.

“What brings you in today?” I ask a man sitting on the edge of a table, a woman lying down on a stretch of brown paper. “How’ve you been since the last time I saw you?” I say to a man holding his head between his knees, a woman cradling her shoes like a newborn. I stand in the corner and say, “Where does it hurt?”

Outside the exam room in a free clinic in Chicago, I sit in an orange chair, in a row of orange chairs, beside a half dozen other volunteer translators. On our designated days, we sit here waiting for a resident to speed past us, mumbling the words, Spanish, or Polish, or translator, come with me. Then I stand in a disinfected corner speaking in my disinfected accent to immigrants just like and nothing like me.

“I prefer to avoid eye contact,” the trainer once told me. “Remember, for the hour, you are not really you.” I am not the name my mother chose for me, nor the Anglicized version that English speakers mumble. I am Sara, Juan, Jose, Ortensia, and it hurts right here, and it’s been hurting for a while.

“Good morning,” I say, “I’m Dr. Smith. How are you feeling today?”

“Things are better,” I say. “Only the sadness thing.”

Then, “Do you need any refills?”

“I think I do need a refill,” I say.

The doctor’s eyes are trained on the screen. “What are your current dosages? I’m having trouble finding them here.”

“I don’t know,” I say. Because I don’t, because we don’t. I wish we did, to make the doctor stop their sighing, stop their tugging at their white collar and clicking loudly on the keyboard. But I don’t, and it’s not my job to know. It’s my job to say, “I don’t know.” To say it as many times as I hear it. No se, no se, no se.

“Would,” I say suddenly, “the jars know?”

A distracted doctor snaps back into the conversation: “The what?”

“I’m sorry, doctor. Not jars.” Tarros. Frascos. Botellas. Bottles. “I meant bottles, doctor. Would the bottles know?”

The doctor’s eyes narrow. We watch them reach for the bottles to inspect the labels.

“So I guess I just need the refills then, since the bottles got emptied, since the attempt.”

“What you need to tell me now is why you stopped taking them, because you really shouldn’t have stopped.”

The patient says nothing. The doctor says nothing. So I say nothing either. The bottles are empty, no one knows the exact dosages. Nothing has been said, so I should not hear my own voice speaking, and yet there it is. “¿Perdóneme, pero a que intento se refiere?”

I watch the patient’s eyes move up, then down, as something like shame dashes across their face. “El mio.”

“Translator, what are they saying?”

“I’m sorry,” I say to the patient. “An attempt to do what?”

“An attempt against myself, señorita.”

For a moment I say nothing.

“I need to know what the patient said.”

I imagine pills being poured out on a kitchen table, aspirin-white and jaundice-yellow. Pills like puzzle pieces, like gunmetal parts. In another hour I will stand in a different room and say to a different patient, “I am Dr. Jones. Dr. Savage. Dr. Klein.” I will tell them to take off their shirt, their pants, their socks, to lay their body down under fluorescent lights. But before that, I will insist on existing for a few minutes more, because—“Doctor, the patient means to say ‘suicide.’ The bottles are empty because the attempt was on their own life.”

“That’s not in the notes.”

And I will hear the patient repeat, “But things are better now, I don’t even need the headphones anymore.”

“Okay, okay, let me go get my attending then,” I say, while I picture hands that are not my own clutching plastic bags and plastic bottles. I imagine walking through deserts to get here—days, and weeks, and months, and years, alongside many, then several, then few, then none. Holding an empty water bottle, a purse, a diagnosis. And later, I will ask a patient in a small waiting room in a free clinic in Chicago, “So, what were the headphones for then?”

And I will answer, “To drown out the voices.”


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