Awkwardness is definitely a universal language.
No matter where one comes from or what languages one speaks, there are certain conversations and situations that it is never a fun time to be involved in. For professional interpreters or translators, or for anybody who is ever relied upon for language comprehension, being put in these kinds of situations is often inevitable. But as unpleasant and uncomfortable as they are in the moment, they make for some incredible stories afterward!
Here are 42 wild stories about the most awkward conversations people have had to translate on someone else’s behalf.
42. Teachers Getting Schooled
I once had to do sign language interpreting for teachers’ sex education curriculum training. I was in heaven because it’s not often I get to use all the sex-related signs, but it was also unbelievably awkward to see so many adults who were so embarrassed and uncomfortable with the conversation.
41. Elementary, My Dear
I was interpreting for an elementary age deaf girl. She was having trouble understanding an issue at school and some of the other students started mocking her. I had to interpret their insults to her. I felt absolutely torn apart by that.
40. Put in an Awkward Position
My parents don’t speak English and I used to go with them to doctor appointments to translate. I was around 14 and my mom was pregnant. The nurse told me to ask them when the last time they had sex was and then proceeded to have me translate a list of sexual positions they could partake in while my mom was pregnant. I didn’t want to do so but she kept stressing that it was good for them. I don’t think my parents understood me or even wanted to understand what I was trying to tell them.
39. Don’t Shoot the Translator
I was the main translator between our Hispanic workforce and management, who were all older guys. Whenever someone needed to be reprimanded, I would get yelled at on their behalf. I constantly had to remind the bosses that I was just translating, and that they should not get carried away…
38. Dysfunctional Family
My parents are divorced and my dad is deaf. I often interpret things for him in sign language. Dad had a new girlfriend, and I had the utter joy of interpreting my father’s struggles with erectile dysfunction for him. His new girlfriend, who was ten years younger, was looking for more frequent performances than dad could muster. So, his doctor and I went in depth about how frequently was appropriate for a man in his late 50s and then had to discuss the risks of Viagra. I never did figure out the correct sign for erection, though.
37. Skating On Thin Ice
I live in Latvia, Eastern Europe. I was a guide/interpreter for a hockey team from Canada and the US. Now, one of the guys decides that he needs his skates sharpened, so we look around the arena and find the sharpening station—a small room with an old Russian grandad in it.
So he hands over the skates and the old guy gets to work. When he gets them back, he looks them over and goes “What on earth did the guy do to these?” He now insists on using the station himself. This hurts the old man’s feelings and he refuses. The player then decides to offer him a huge bribe. Now, here comes the problem for me as an interpreter.
I had to basically negotiate a bribe between this angry old man and an incensed young athlete, which involved a lot of back and forth and personal insults before a deal was finally struck.
36. Don’t Get Personal
I work tech support and often have to communicate with people who speak complex languages, where the letters and words can easily be mixed up or lost in translation due to different keyboards. There has been more than one time when messages I’ve received have appeared to be personal insults, and I’ve had to get an intermediary to come and decipher what they actually meant to say. Always a fun time!
35. A Federal Case
As an interpreter, I had to stop the proceedings of a federal administrative interview to put the definition of “yada yada” on the record.
34. Medical Questions
My cousin is a sign language interpreter. The most awkward thing that he has ever faced was when a doctor began trying to have a conversation with him rather than the patient he was there to help. He spent ages asking my cousin where he learned signed language while the Deaf client just wanted to get their medical issue looked at. It’s against policy for my cousin to hold his own conversation with the doctor while working, as he’s only there to help the client understand what people are saying.
33. Not What Anyone Was Expecting
I followed a nurse into a room where the patient was waiting. Now, I know nothing about the patient—I’m only there to translate what the nurse says, so when the nurse says “You’re pregnant!”, I gave a huge smile and went “estas embarazada!!!!” in as exciting a manner as you can imagine.
The patient stares in shock for a second, then bursts into tears. The nurse stammers a bit, and then goes “no bueno?”…
The news we had to give was bad enough, but the fact that I thought it was supposed to be a happy announcement made it ten times more cringeworthy!
I had to work with an interpreter as part of a customer service job.
I used to do customer service for a credit card processing company. We had a policy that if a business sold certain items, we wouldn’t do business with them. Among these forbidden items were guns, alcohol, sexually explicit material, and drugs.
Well, I got a call from a lady who didn’t speak any English. She wanted to know why we had frozen her account and why we were issuing refunds to her clients.
I got the translator on the line, and got to looking at the case notes. In said notes were the link to the customer’s nonprofit organization.
When she applied, she didn’t specify what her nonprofit was. Turns out when our underwriters were looking into it, they discovered that it was no non-profit at all—it was a sex toy shop.
It was damn easy to tell that the translator was flustered by all of this—especially when I had to outline exactly which products and services were in violation of our terms.
31. No Goal
I am an interpreter and was asked by a young woman to call a professional soccer coach in the Netherlands on her behalf to ask if he had received her husband’s resume, since they hadn’t heard back. I called up, with the woman relaying her questions and comments to me for translation, and the coach said he received the resume but was not interested in having her husband on the team. The woman goes nuts and refuses to accept that any team wouldn’t want her husband, and I have to start relaying her angry rant and harassing this professional football coach over the phone. It sucked.
30. What a Tool
I’ve been on multiple medical trips to Mexico with my urologist father. Bringing translators that have little to no medical experience is incredibly difficult and what often happens is that in the Operating Room, no one knows the names of the various instruments being discussed and used. As you can imagine, this makes getting anything done a very difficult task.
29. Lesson Learned
I’m an interpreter for a school district working mostly with high schoolers. The most uncomfortable conversation I’ve ever had to interpret for was teaching a room full of high school boys sex ed. I am young and somewhat close to their age, which didn’t help at all. Explaining STIs, how to use condoms, body parts, and everything else involved to 16-year-old boys is definitely not the most fun thing to do.
I wasn’t a translator, but I worked at a place that captioned telephone calls for customers who were hard of hearing. We only heard one side of the phone call, then repeated what we heard into our voice recognition software. Most of the conversations were boring as hell, but every so often you’d get a good one. I cannot tell you what it feels like to spend fifteen straight minutes describing first-person elaborate and depraved sexual plans to a voice recognition machine in front of complete strangers. It got so extreme that the machine didn’t even know some of the words by the end…
27. No More Mr. Nice Guy
The funniest for me is when the person is actually trying to swear or be rude to whoever they’re talking to, and I as an interpreter have to awkwardly get an insult across to someone I have no problem with. It’s always fun saying things like “he is calling you the equivalent of the F word in our language.”
26. Athlete’s Foot in Mouth
I was a conversation teacher for adults in Japan who wanted to practice more natural English. One student was an 80-year-old man the others called “Mr. Dictionary” because his vocab was seriously exhaustive. There were very few words that could stump him, and they would usually have to be some type of slang. On the rare occasion, he brought a print-out to ask about a new word, I would get both excited and nervous to see what it was.
One day, he pulls out a paper and says “I heard a news story about a scandal with an American radio host insulting some athletes. Please tell me, what does this mean?”
And with all eyes in the class waiting for my wise translation, he loudly and carefully read out a curse-filled angry tirade word for word.
25. Calling Card
My cousin was interpreting for a client who signed a document at his Indian doctor’s office “where’s my curry?” in his language. That was pretty damn awkward for me, especially when the doctor then asked what the sign meant.
24. No Comment
I’m a translator and only work with the written word—not normally anything particularly juicy.
However, I once had to deal with a landlord writing to Facebook, trying to get them to take down derogatory comments left by his tenants. Basically, the landlord was accused of only giving apartments to people who would sleep with him. I had to translate a whole bunch of comments calling him promiscuous and saying that the whole neighborhood had slept with him—some of which were written in very colorful language, to say the least.
23. The Countdown Begins
My worst was when I was interpreting for a couple that was trying to conceive. They had to test the husband’s sperm count, so he had to ejaculate into a cup. He’d never done this procedure before, so the nurse had to explain step by step what he had to do. Trying my best not to blush was the hardest part of this job. I just maintained as neutral a face as possible and did this job as professionally as I could—but when I walked out of that room I knew what he was doing behind the door. Then I had to wait with him in the lobby until they analyzed the count. Then there was more after this to explain the results. It was very detailed and the whole thing was a very interesting experience for me, to put it mildly.
22. Punny Story
I once worked for an American teacher in Taiwan who expected his interpreters to be able to translate puns into another language. He did not or would not understand that a pun in English just isn’t a pun in Chinese.
21. Money Talks
My parents spoke poor English when I was younger. When I was 12, they filed for bankruptcy and took me to the lawyer’s office to translate for them. Having them go through and tell me everything they blew money on was extremely uncomfortable. Now as an adult, they get offended when I don’t want to take financial advice from them.
20. Last Words
By far my most awkward and difficult situation was when I was called to interpret for a young patient who was about to die, while trying to calm down their frantic parents so that the conversation could continue.
19. People Are People, People!
In my experience, the awkward part isn’t anything the clients say but the way that people act when trying to communicate with them. Many times, I’ve seen people act in an over the top manner or talk extremely slowly as though there was something wrong with the person who spoke another language. Seeing this would always frustrate me. It’s pretty disrespectful to act like that around someone just because their answers may take a little longer to get.
If you’re talking to someone that is learning the language or needs an interpreter, just speak to them as you would to any other human being. Don’t act like they’re the extra person in the room, making them feel bad since they have a tougher time understanding you.
18. French Embargo
I’m not an official translator, but I used to be fairly fluent in French. I went on a trip to Europe in high school, and our group (all French language students) was combined with another high school from South Carolina that had no French speakers.
We were allowed way too much leeway to wander off without the chaperones, which on one occasion led me into to a cigar shop in Geneva with one of the SC girls who was trying to buy Cuban cigars and smuggle them back to the US.
The clerk didn’t speak much English, but any moron could’ve figured out that this girl was American. Therefore, she began trying to rip off the little cigar bands that declared their origin. But the high schooler wanted the bands so she could sell the cigars back home. So, she starts loudly screaming out, “What are you doing? You must stop that!” and the clerk had no idea what was going on. I stepped in to try and mediate between them. I looked up from my book and said to the woman, in French, “I’m so sorry, we’re American. What is wrong?” I got the best compliment in that the clerk said in a surprised tone, “You’re with her?” And I said, “Unfortunately. How can I help?” and proceeded to explain my friend’s awkward predicament.
17. An Unpleasant Situation
I am a doctor and I often use an interpreter to explain things to patients and families who don’t speak English. The worst was telling a family that their loved one just died and then having to wait like ten seconds for the interpreter to say it. Then the family is distraught and crying and asking questions, and you have to slowly interpret everything back and forth.
16. This Means War
My most uncomfortably awkward moment by far was when I had to interpret for an Iraqi national who was briefly detained by the British Army. The poor guy had not been doing anything wrong, but was rounded up with a bunch of friends and coworkers, beaten senselessly, and assaulted more than once. He now wanted to be compensated for his troubles. That was a rather painful conversation.
15. It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
One of the worst was definitely having to relay a cancer diagnosis, especially since the doctor was extremely blunt and hurried. As an interpreter, you cringe and wish you could change even just the tone or the insensitive wording to make it sound more humane, but you really can’t because your job is to relay the info as closely as possible.
14. Chain of Command
I know a doctor who does surgeries in small towns and remote areas of Mexico. Often times, people in certain villages will only speak Mayan and my dad only speaks English, so there has to be an English to Spanish translator, and then another Spanish to Mayan translator. This means that each sentence takes at least three tries before the person it’s meant for understands it—and six tries minimum from question to answer.
13. Studying Hard or Hardly Studying?
I went on a study tour with some classmates and some folks from a Japanese university. When we were all chilling in someone’s hotel room one night, someone had the bright idea to play truth or dare. As the only one who spoke both English and Japanese, it was my job to translate the questions and dares between the languages, and all the Japanese guys wanted to ask the girls were things like “What color are your underwear?” or “Do you shave your private parts?”
Needless to say, this made things super awkward for both me and my peers.
12. What’s Your Sign?
My mom was a dispatcher for a translation agency for a while. Her most awkward incident was when she had to explain to a woman why she couldn’t get them a sign language translator over the phone…
11. Testing Your Boundaries
For me, the worst was the time when I had to translate to a patient that she had a vaginal infection. First, I had to stand next to her and help her through the tests while she was fully naked. Then I had to deliver the bad news when the results came in. I’ve definitely had better days.
10. So…What Do I Do Now?
My most uncomfortable translating moment was when I was in the middle of interpreting at a mental health facility and the patient I was dealing for just walked over to the payphone in the middle of the conversation, sat down, grabbed the phone and wrapped it around his neck before pushing his chair out from under himself in front of a whole crowd of doctors. You try and know how to react while something like that is going down!
9. Too Much Information
As the son of a doctor, I’ve sat in on multiple medical appointments and surgeries with a very religious translator. By far the worst was when my dad had to make him talk in detail about a client’s sexual health.
8. Hate Thy Officer
My most awkward moment in 11 years as a professional interpreter was when I was interpreting for a client and his mom, both of whom were deaf. The son was on probation but had done something to get called into his Probation Officer’s office. He was cussing out both his mom and the PO. I’m sure that this was just a normal situation for them both, but to force myself to say the vulgar words and phrases he was using was painful for me. Don’t get me wrong, I can cuss like a sailor, but I know my place when I’m in the company of someone with authority or my own family, so I would never say such things in front of people like them. But I did because that’s what he was trying to convey and he has that right.
7. A Vocal Advocate
I’m a trained interpreter and translator, but I’m better at the former—i.e. dealing with speaking rather than writing. I recently had to translate a document for immigration that were text messages from a married couple who frequently used emojis. It makes sense, they’re two people still learning each other’s language, so they would naturally use the emojis to completely replace the words in the text (e.g. I love your ????). I had to send out a huge email blast to my colleagues on how to translate emojis, and it was a very bizarre moment for me. I think I’ll stick to the spoken form.
I’m an American Sign Language interpreter at a video relay call center and I have had to interpret plenty of uncomfortable conversations over the years, but most recently I had to take part in my first ever phone sex call. I’m gonna spare you all by not giving any more graphic details, but suffice it to say it was very awkward for me!
5. Fancy Seeing You Here
One of my most awkward situations of all time was when I was called into an ER as an interpreter, only to find out that the person I was going to be helping was someone I actually knew from outside of work. Normally, we would have to find a replacement who didn’t know the client in a situation like that, but because of the emergency circumstances, I had no choice but to do the job. Can’t say I didn’t spend every second wishing it was over though!
My elderly parents spoke English very poorly and I often translated for them. After my father passed away, I took my mother to the Social Security office to take care of some paperwork. One of the questions they asked was whether there were any other potential beneficiaries of my father’s benefits, such as other children or ex-wives. Being an only child, I immediately answered “no.” My mother asked me what the question was. She looked at me sheepishly and answered, “that’s not exactly correct.”
It was then, at the age of 50, in the Social Security office, that I learned that my father had previously been married and had another child. Mother and baby both died during childbirth.
3. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
I was interpreting for a high school teacher at a program designed to bring dropouts back into the classrooms. We received a list of addresses that we had to go to and try to persuade. We go to this one house and ring the bell. The mother answers. I start translating what the teacher is saying and we go back and forth with the mother. My client asked if we could see her daughter, Maria, who was the dropout in question. The mom kept insisting that we couldn’t talk to Maria. About ten mins into the conversation, the frustrated teacher wants me to ask the mother why on earth we couldn’t talk to Maria. I ask and the mother breaks down crying, explaining that Maria had died a week earlier from a long illness, and that that’s why she had dropped out to begin with. Thus began the worst and most awkward five minutes of our lives, between the apologies and condolences. Needless to say, we didn’t go to any other houses that day.
2. There’s No Business Like Show Business
I attended a comedy performance that had a female ASL interpreter on stage with the comedian. For context, the interpreter was provided by the university, and it was the comedian’s first experience being interpreted.
He decided to make jokes about the situation, including at one point wondering aloud how the word “bra” would be signed, and watching the interpreter for the answer.
Then he started asking about various swear words, which the blushing interpreter awkwardly fingerspelled. It was very obvious that signing swear words in front of an audience was not what she had in mind when she left the house that morning.
1. Can’t Get Much Worse Than This…
I was called in as an interpreter for an important meeting between a governor, several diplomats and officials, and the leaders of a Chinese company. I’m not sure what happened but the words started mixing up in my mind and I went full blank mode about ten minutes into the meeting. I started stuttering and then just stood there for a while not knowing what to say or do, while everyone in the room was just staring blankly right at me. Somehow, I managed to pull it together and work it out. But this was hands down the most awkward moment of my career by far.