Margarita Bekker
Margarita Bekker

Q&A: An interpreter who had a childhood run-in with the KGB

Margarita Bekker, 48, of Redwood City is a certified health care interpreter and lead interpreter of education and training at Stanford Health Care, where she has worked for 16 years. She immigrated to New York from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1989, when she was 19, and settled in the Bay Area the following year.

J.: You arrived in the U.S. with some nursing background. How, at just 19 years old?

MB: In the Soviet Union you could go to nursing school after eighth grade, and in three years you’d finish nursing studies and all of your high school requirements. I was in a grade school that had very anti-Semitic teachers, especially my math teacher, who called me “idiot” in front of the entire class. I didn’t have the strength to keep putting up with that, so I applied to nursing school.

How did you come to your present line of work?

MB: I’ve always loved medicine and I’ve always loved languages, and when I saw the job opening at Stanford for a Russian health care interpreter, I realized that was the perfect job for me. Real stuff happens in hospitals and clinics. You’re constantly brought to that existential reality of death and illness and suffering and recovery and healing.

What does it mean to be certified?

MB: I’m chair of the Commission for Certification of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). Health care interpreters should be certified just like every other professional in the United States. We present at conferences nationally and internationally, and we spread the word among language students. So far we’ve certified 3,700 interpreters.

What do interpreters do? How are they different from translators?

MB: Translators work with documents, interpreters work with people. There are very serious clinical consequences when interpreters aren’t provided. When people don’t understand discharge instructions in the ER, they’re more likely to come back to the hospital. That’s pain and suffering but also money. When patients have a complex procedure like a transplant or heart surgery and can’t understand how to care for themselves, they’re more likely to come back to the hospital, or even die. When no interpreters are provided, more tests are run, because the patient can’t explain anything to the doctor. We all deserve to be understood and to understand what our doctor is telling us. For years, many medical institutions would use relatives or staff members as interpreters. But interpreting is an actual profession. It’s a skill. It’s not simply knowing two languages. We have a code of ethics, we don’t take sides, we don’t pass judgment. Interpreters are a neutral party. We speak in first person, and whatever somebody says, we interpret everything without changes, additions or omissions.

That must be hard.

MB: Interpreters learn how to behave professionally, how not to cry during encounters and how to deal with vicarious trauma afterward. But emotionally it’s a very rewarding job. We can’t heal anybody, but we facilitate communication so doctors and nurses can do the incredible work they do every day.

How do you deal with the stress?

MB: I practice Zen Buddhist meditation and find it very helpful. I sit with a group of people and just do nothing for 45 minutes and it’s kind of magical.

Do cultural differences ever get in the way?

MB: Interpreters act as cultural brokers. We’re always transparent about it. There are words that exist in both languages, but the concepts don’t necessarily exist in the same way, like hospice, advance directive or living will. My colleagues have encountered patients terrified by a simple surgery because they come from a country where that surgery has a high mortality rate.

What were you doing for your first 10 years in the U.S.?

MB: I worked with an attorney, interpreting for refugees who were applying for asylum from countries of the former Soviet Union, from Azerbijan or Armenia or Chechnya, escaping conflicts and civil wars. Then I entered City College of San Francisco. It was an amazing institution if you were a young immigrant and needed academic support and guidance. I took many more credits than I needed to transfer to UC Berkeley. I’m very grateful to City College. It shaped me as a person. Many years later I came back as a language coach in the health care interpreting program.

At Berkeley I studied Slavic languages and literature. Reading Russian literature without the lens of communist propaganda was so different. It was actual literary criticism, discussing plots, what the author’s intent was, answering existential questions. We were encouraged to voice our opinions, not regurgitate whatever the government told us.

Were literature and language always an important part of your life?

MB: When I grew up, literature was my escape. As a child I would read up to seven books a week — in the bathtub, while eating breakfast, on the bus, in the food line. My mom was part of samizdat, a loose connection of people who were underground publishers of banned books. Around age 11, I started helping sort pages my mom typed and I would read them: yoga, sex ed, Carlos Castaneda, Buddhist texts, [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, “The Master and Margarita” [by Mikhail Bulgakov].

Your mom was doing risky work.

MB: It was very dangerous. Our phones were tapped. A friend let us know the KGB was coming. I was terrified. She started burning some of the books, but she had such a big collection. It was like something from a movie: They looked under the mattress, they searched everywhere but couldn’t find anything and left, quite mad, kicking the door. I asked my mom where the other books were; she had put them in a bag and suspended it on a rope inside the garbage chute in our apartment building. She told us not to talk outside about what we read at home. She asked us to be good Young Pioneers [communist youth group], and said if you say anything in school or attract attention, that can put all of us in danger. That’s an extremely stressful way to live. I always felt like I had two identities.

Are the books still banned in Russia?

MB: Those books are available there. Russia is a freer society than it used to be thanks to the internet, but I think some of those freedoms are illusionary. It’s very much a totalitarian government without any democratic protections.

Your father and his side of the family moved to the U.S. as Soviet Jewish refugees when you were 8, and you and your younger brother joined him more than 10 years later. How did you decide to leave?

MB: Around age 12, my mother started discussing my moving to America. She said this (the USSR) is a godforsaken place and there is no future here. When I turned 18, I asked my dad to apply for family reunification and a green card. I always felt I was born in the wrong country. That happens when you read banned books and look through Sears catalogs — they were like consumer porn in the Soviet Union. People would actually sell them for a few rubles. You’d derive great pleasure from looking at all the clothes, the toys. Yeah, I think Sears catalogs brought down the fall of the Soviet Union as much as the Cold War (laughs).

What do you do for fun?

MB: One of my favorite things is going with my husband to the beach with books and a picnic basket, and we sit for hours and read and talk. I love swimming. I love bicycling. I love hosting dinner parties just like my mom did. I love posting pictures of my cakes on Facebook. I love cats, I watch lots of cat videos. I just find them very fascinating animals.

What do you like to make? Any specialties?
I cook Russian California fusion cuisine (laughs). I have a Victorian sponge cake recipe but I Russify it: I soak the sponge cake in various alcohols and then I’ll use jams from Russian stores, like blackcurrant jam. There’s a Georgian recipe for pressed chicken: You butterfly it and beat it with a hammer and then put it in the frying pan with bricks on top. I don’t know why, but my American friends are just fascinated by flat chicken. My husband has embraced all Russian foods except beef aspic, which I love. It’s essentially beef Jell-O. You kind of have to grow up with that.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at [email protected].