Each month we get to know one of the interpreters in Boostlingo’s Professional Interpreter Network. For February, meet Mary Kagia, a medical interpreter based in Mombasa, Kenya.
Mary Kagia is a celebrity interpreter to the Swahili speakers she interprets for stateside. Educated as a bilingual speaker in Kenya, Mary became a full-time interpreter in March 2020, just as the global pandemic was reaching its devastating first peak. Since then, Mary has taken 60 hours of medical coursework to become a qualified medical interpreter as well as serving as a community interpreter for the English to Swahili community in the States (mostly Congolese-Swahili speakers).
As part of our ongoing Interpreter Spotlight series, we highlight individual interpreters who make up the Boostlingo Professional Interpreter Network (BPIN). Mary is our featured interpreter for February 2022. She met with us online from her home in Mombasa, Kenya to tell us more about the woman on the other side of those Swahili calls.
How did you get started in interpreting?
I have always loved languages. And my good command of the English language would always get me noticed in the room especially because I live in Mombasa where the primary language of communication is Swahili. I have a friend who runs a tourism agency. And so whenever she had people visiting from the US or the UK, she would request me to accompany them on trips around Mombasa town and the periphery to interpret between them and the locals if need arose. This I’d do mostly over the weekends as I had a full-time job as a banker then and it was the easiest money I ever made!
I’d later resign from my job at the bank to try my hand in business where I failed terribly! Then one day as I was catching up with an old friend from high school, I shared that I was doing badly in business and I was technically broke, she then suggested that I open an account with proz.com, which I did, and she used to send me translation jobs every now and then. Those did pay but it was not enough to sustain my needs.
I was having a difficult time landing clients as most wanted someone with years of experience which I didn’t have at the time. So I wrote to the team at proz.com and expressed my interest to work for them as Interpreter, followed their guidelines and was onboarded in March of 2020 just as Covid lockdown was announced in Kenya. With great service, I would go on to impress clients and got great reviews which earned me the position of local contact for proz.com in East Africa. I am eternally grateful to Enrique and Florencia of proz.com for their contribution in my journey.
The rest as they say is history!
What are some of the things you love about interpreting?
The spontaneity that comes with different calls is what makes it fun. One moment you’re on a medical call, the next you’re with someone who’s in jail, the next moment you could be assisting someone applying for food stamps. The list is endless. It’s given me an insight into what life is like in the US as I’ve never been there. I really wanted to migrate to the US at some point, I thought that it was all milk and honey, but now I have a broader perspective.
I also love that I get to use my voice to assist facilitate smooth communication across the room without the hustle of worrying about geographical borders. That I get to work remotely from my home is a big blessing too because I’m able to bond with my young daughter and I’m not missing any of her milestones. I remember not feeling motivated to work when I was with the bank as I’d go for days without talking to her. I’d get home too late from meetings and getting stuck in traffic and I’d leave very early to be at work on time before she woke up. Now I get to be in the house with her all of the time. I get to enjoy all of the milestones!
What are some of the tougher parts about being an interpreter?
I don’t get to choose which calls to pick, and on some days I get to hear a lot of disappointing things on the other end of the phone! Some calls can be emotionally draining. Informing someone their lab results came back and they’re worrying, hearing people decry being racially profiled, telling someone their food stamp case has been denied for 1 reason or the other, and having them beg me to plead on their behalf else the children starve…The toughest however are therapy calls. Watching people cry is not easy for me. I remember when I begun taking calls, some people would sob heavily when we informed them they had COVID. I used to wonder, “Wow is this going to be my life now?” but you start to learn how to deal with things.
What do you do when it gets tough?
I meditate, something I learned not so long ago. Initially I used to go get my daughter from her bed and sleep with her on mine after logging off because it just felt so comforting, but now I step away from the laptop and watch something interesting to get my mind off of it. Now, it never quite weighs in as heavily as it used to in the beginning.
How has being an interpreter changed the way you see the world?
Being a Swahili interpreter, I get to see most of the same people time and again on our calls [because there are not as many Swahili interpreters in the overall pool]. For example, there was a man in a really desperate situation, and over time I got to see him doing well. While he was in despair, he told me my voice reminded him of home, of Africa and gave him strength to carry on. I got to be a part of the process where he got back on his feet. Sometimes your voice can heal someone in one way or another.
Now I know that being able to communicate is invaluable! I’ve seen that opportunities can actually slip through your fingers just because you couldn’t speak a second language. Interpreters are very important because you’re bridging that gap. You’re making sure that those opportunities are not lost simply because they couldn’t say “My name is so and so” in English. The essence of interpreters in the world of communication cannot be understated!