Monday, November 8, 2010

Pardon my French...

Hardball’s Chris Matthews on MSNBC and the French have something in common. Besides left-leaning politics, they share a dialogue style that is unacceptable in American conversation.

Listening to the shrill crescendo of Eleanor Clift and Monica Crowley launching “Excuse Me’s” across their political divide on the McLaughlin Group, I long for John McLaughlin’s programmed dominance of the conversation which allows him to quiet everyone so that one person can be heard. His intervention always reminds me, through my long association with the French and my eager participation in the French sport of “Conversation”, that Americans, unless they are fighting about politics in the media, expect to be heard ONE AT A TIME.

In Raymonde Carroll’s classic “Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience”*, I learned early on about the French conversational style that I had unconsciously adopted in my years among the French.

“Americans often expressed surprise in my presence at the fact that French people, ‘who claim to be very big on manners,’ are themselves so ‘rude’: ‘they interrupt you all the time in conversation,’ ‘they finish your sentences for you, ‘ they ask you questions and never listen to the answer,’ and so on.”

Spontaneity and “fueling” of a conversation are key to understanding and participating in any discussion with the French. Interruptions are not so much considered “rude” as evidence of emotional engagement, of being hooked on the speaker’s message, to the point that an immediate reaction is complimentary and proof of active involvement in the conversation.

The previously cited work by Ms. Carroll was originally published in French under the title “Evidences Invisibles”, a wonderful paradoxical title that perfectly describes so many subtle nuances of cultural differences. Her work was the standard among French teachers and students more than twenty years ago, long before Peter Mayles and Polly Platt brought their foreigners’ views of the French into popular literature. Aside from her analysis of the Frenchman’s relationship with the telephone, which has been turned completely upside down with the advent of the “portable” or cell phone, Ms. Carroll’s observations remain pertinent to this day.

While most Americans visit France for the scenery, and perhaps the cuisine, a trip to France for me, not surprisingly, is a linguistic adventure. Although I never miss the opportunity to visit an unknown church, castle or museum, the real highlight for me is dinner conversation long into the night, around a table where plates can be cleared away, but the stemware lingers as long as our verbal exchanges continue, warm and raucous. I teach Gallicismes in my French classes, because they are the Passwords for an American to dive in to the conversation and be accepted. French conversation is a sport, in its own way, with challenges and jousts, a kind of seduction to which one must alternately succumb or wield. The subjects of politics, religion, and sex are all fair game. But, unlike Americans, the French do not discuss money. Not how much they make or have, or how much they have spent. Money, as a topic of conversation in France, is as “dirty” and untouchable as sexuality is in the United States.

I have an old video of an evening spent with my French family, all of us squashed into a tiny apartment in the Hauts-de-Seine and gaily talking together long into the night about food, about culture, about family vacations, telling jokes. The host that evening had just acquired a new video camera and was trying out all its features while the conversation rolled on. When I’m homesick for France, I pop the tape into my old VCR. Some people look at photo albums… My vacation memories need a sound track.

The verbal sparring, the play on words, the chorus of voices rising and falling together on my tape, all remind me that the art of conversation is practiced entirely differently in France. How often do Americans just sit together and talk? Without the background noise of the television ?

Living among Americans, with my French soul, I have to make a conscious effort to keep from interrupting someone with whom I am engaged in conversation. I wait anxiously for the end of a sentence. And even then, I often find that I did not respect the essential interval before launching my rejoinder. Sometimes waiting for the other person to take a breath does not suffice. I have to wait for other clues that the person’s train of thought has pulled into a station and has opened its doors for the new passengers of my thoughts to climb aboard.

So, in the sincere hope that this explantion will allow me to be culturally understood for my linguistic rudeness, I ask my American friends, colleagues and family to forgive me for past conversational transgressions.

dis seulement une parole et je serai guérie… Amen.

*Raymonde Carroll, Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience, Translated by Carol Volk, University of Chicago Press, 1988; page 23.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Asylum Interview

There are few linguistic assignments that are as emotionally charged as interpreting in the asylum office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. During the dozens of asylum interviews I have interpreted, I felt myself each time a witness to life-altering events, transported from the modern luxuries of Chicago to places in Africa where political affiliations can be death sentences, and ancestry determines fate.

The Chicago asylum office just recently moved to new digs. The waiting area is more spacious but more sterile. Gone are the pink painted walls, the plastic potted palm and the box of toys in the corner to keep the kids entertained. The security measures are more sophisticated as well, with an airport-style conveyor belt for scanning bags and a walk-through body scanner. They are manned by the same security guard who, previously stationed in the hallway outside the old offices, would pass the hand-held detector under our raised arms and down into ladies’ handbags.

First, the asylum applicant must show the mailed invitation form, then have fingerprints recorded and a picture taken at a reception desk. Right from the get-go, I see my client’s anxiety level rising. Many of my applicants must have endured a similar processing with imprisonment, and this administrative formality seems to trigger an innate fear of Government, even when it is not their own.

Next, when our number is called – anonymously, like at the Customer Service desk at Wal-Mart - we are escorted into the office where the “non adversarial” interview is to take place. Our identification papers (the applicant’s passport, my Illinois driver’s license) are taken for photocopying. We are asked to stand and swear an oath as to the truthfulness of our statements and the accuracy of my translation.

The asylum applicant and I sit side by side before the large desk of the interviewing officer. The desks are all the same: cherry wood – as if George Washington’s cherry tree is to be commemorated in all administrative furnishings. The polished desktop is nearly bare, except for the applicant’s file, a computer screen and keyboard. The interviewing offices seem intentionally denuded of any personal touch, as if by Official Memo: no photos, no knick-knacks. There is an intentional anonymity to the whole scenario, despite the intensely personal event about to take place. Some asylum officers even forego the computer and take all their notes in longhand, which seems to add to the tense drama of the moment.

The applicant is told that the interview will remain completely confidential and that no information can be communicated back to the home country. This declaration is universally met with some emotion: either a sigh of relief or a look of suspicion.

The applicant’s past and fears are examined here, in detail. Some interviews last more than three hours. One applicant I assisted was done in fifteen minutes, having neglected to file for asylum within the twelve month deadline following her arrival in the U.S. Working as a French-English interpreter, my asylum applicants are all African. For a while, my business card was making regular rounds in Ohio, of all places, among refugees from Niger. I eventually assisted enough interviewees to recognize differences between Hausa, Zarma and Tuareg tribal members. I was surprised the day I saw the name “Touareg” in gleaming metal on the rear end of a new Volkswagen crossover. Did the suburban Mom at the wheel, with her tribe of children strapped into the car seats in the back, realize that her vehicle bears the name of a once-wandering matriarchal people whose lives are forever changed by drought, violence and mining in the desert?

Few asylum applicants have the means to engage an attorney. Just filling out Form I-589 (Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal) is a challenge that many applicants often take on with the shaky help of a local countryman, perhaps someone they met in their neighborhood, possessing uncertain mastery of English. The first part of the asylum interview is devoted to reviewing the responses on the I-589. Like a school teacher, the officer breaks out a red pen and begins correcting the responses on the form. I have told my client before the interview that this is normal, that no one gets it right on the first attempt, and any changes made do not impact the decision of the office. I don’t think, however, that I always convince them.

All interviews almost always begin with confusion about even the most basic question of “what is your name?” Only in the States do we give our first name when asked that question. The rest of the world responds with a surname, and then offers a given name as a second option. I have never heard an officer ask directly “What is your family name?” which would resolve the problem.

Although I never meet my asylum client until as little as a half-hour before the interview, I try to provide some simple coaching in that time.

I emphasize strongly to the applicant to “ONLY answer the question you are asked!” The interviewer has a sequence of events to explore and verify and it is unproductive to unwittingly wander off of the subject. Despite my counseling, the applicant invariably will take off on a tangent that subsequently inspires a whole new line of questioning. This is often the result of heavy emotion and/or lack of education. I try to make it simple by using this example:

“If the officer asks you: do you own a dog? You can answer: yes. If you answer: yes, I have a poodle – you are still OK. But if you answer : yes, I own a dog and a cat and I have a giraffe in my back yard and the neighbors complain that he eats all the leaves off of their lilac bushes… Then you have opened up a whole new set of issues that you are going to have to explain.”

So many times during interviews, I have had the urge to fake a cough or a sneeze that sounds like “geerrraffffe” to bring the applicant back to respecting the line of questioning of the officer.

Another huge problem is the correct recollection of dates. Applicants frequently get all sorts of important dates wrong: the date of their wedding, the date of hospitalization for torture injuries, the dates of their arrival in the U.S., the dates of the birth of their children, the dates they enrolled in school… all seemingly critical to proving the credibility of their case. And yet, I think the human mind intentionally obscures memories under duress. I never seem to remember the date my divorce was finalized. Furthermore, many cultures don’t live fixated to a clock and a calendar with the intensity we do. I get the impression that not knowing the date of your marriage somehow trivializes the union. But in many places in Africa, the date is debatable because marriage is often celebrated by custom first and by civil ceremony later.

I have worked with asylum seekers who had been taken from their homes in the night, beaten and tortured for political opposition to the government in power. I have heard of gang rapes and horrendous prison conditions. I interpreted for a soldier who would not follow orders to participate in a genocide operation. He was tortured by being hung by his feet in his cell. I have translated the tearful trembling voices of women escaping female excision at the hands of their own family members. And universally, religion seems to be a reason to maim and to kill, to seize property and liberty. If I did nothing but asylum cases, I would surely develop a bitter, pessimistic view of the human race. Mankind remains medievally stupid in a scientific, technological age.

Enough asylum applicants opt to employ “my brother’s friend Hassan” as an interpreter so that, for the past couple of years, the asylum office has needed to remedy the situation by dialing up an on-line language service to listen to the interpretation being performed, as a check for accuracy. I’m extremely proud to say that I have not been corrected to date, and have even been congratulated by one asylum officer, who must have had to break up more than one linguistic battle between interpreters. It is additionally stressful to be professionally monitored in the rendering of the translation of a victim’s torture and persecution. Such a situation is not for the linguistically faint of heart or vocabulary.

I have met many fascinating, brave, heartbreaking and inspiring personalities during my work on asylum cases. I was present when one young woman was given the news that she had been granted asylum. She ran a dozen laps of the reception area, non-stop, her arms over her head. I took her to breakfast after that, to celebrate over French toast, and to possibly keep her from fainting.

My North African soldier who went AWOL during the genocide mission was quite memorable as well. Small in stature with elegant, handsome features, he looked as if he should be in a movie charging across the desert on an Arabian horse, brandishing a sword. He chatted blithely with me in the waiting room, clearly happy to be speaking French with someone. After fifteen minutes of our exchange, a corpulent black woman who had been sitting across from us, easily twice his size, stuffed into bright pink sweats and men’s athletic shoes, suddenly pryed herself loose from her chair, spewing profanities, swinging her weighty handbag in a deadly arc near our heads as she strode towards the exit. To my surprise, the little soldier chased after her, pleading “Chérie, come back…!” I had no idea she was his Significant Other. We had not been introducted. A more unlikely physical pair could not be imagined. Apparently I had, in speaking a foreign language, made her jealous!

I have had clients for whom I was fairly sure the outcome would be denial of asylum. Their stories sounded concocted, or they brought piles of press clippings to emphasize how bad conditions are back home. I always tell them that this interview is about their own personal situation, that the U.S. cannot take in whole populations because they are not represented, or persecuted. The applicant has to make his own case. I tell them that a critical question will be “if your mother and sister and brother are still living back in your country, without fear, why can you not go back?”

Many times, as a freelancer, I hear the comment, from family and friends, that maybe a real job will come along for me some day, with the corporate desk, hours and benefits. I don’t do asylum interviews because they are lucrative. However, I do have a teak elephant on my desk, an ever-present reminder from a grateful new American citizen. I have also been “unofficially” declared Togolese by a group in Chicago for whom I did some pro bono work. I have had my hand kissed by an attorney and have received blessings on “my children and my children’s children”, and even the odd, offhand proposal of marriage in the elevator. Mostly, asylum work makes me grateful for what I have and reminds me why it’s important to be bilingual.

I do love my job.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Holy Moses! It's International Translator's Day!

With my apologies to any Biblical scholars out there, I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to St. Jerome, the Patron Saint of translators, on this, his Feast Day.

(I believe the “feast” here means that it’s his holiday… not necessarily an occasion to break out the pots and pans and cook something special… What does one eat to celebrate the Patron Saint of translators? We were not put on this earth to “eat our words…”)

As I understand it, Jerome was a rich kid from Rome, with records showing that he was baptized there in 365 A.D. Contrary to the tradition of when I was baptized as an unwitting babe in arms, Jerome must have been older when he was splashed with the holy water, because less than ten years later, in 373, he had a major falling out with his wealthy parents and took off to live as a hermit in the desert in Syria. Somewhere along the line, he learned Hebrew and became ordained as a priest.

After hanging out in the desert for almost ten years, Jerome apparently had enough of sand and isolation and came back home to Rome where Pope Damascus took him on as his personal secretary and asked him for the simple task of producing the Official Latin Translation of the Bible.

Jerome seems to have been, for a priest, somewhat of a non-conformist, because he didn’t hang around the Pope too long, and took off for Palestine. Unlike Interpreters, who are typically a gregarious lot, Translators tend to be a bit introverted. I could easily imagine St. Jerome in current times, hunched over a keyboard in his pajamas late into the day, not answering the phone, hunting for the perfect word…

Jerome seems to have had a violent nature, being uncompromising and inflexible. There’s a great story about how he befriended a lion in the desert, removing a thorn from the lion’s paw. The happy cat followed Jerome around like a puppy thereafter. Nevertheless, when the monastery’s donkey went missing (actually donkey-napped by a wandering bunch of Bedouins), Jerome accused his leonine friend of making lunch out of the poor beast of burden. When the donkey turned up later, the lion apparently died of grief for having fallen from the good graces of his master. So much for saintly compassion…

Anyway, the quality that makes the Saints so attractive is their very human nature and how they overcome it. St. Jerome spent the last thirty years of his life in a monastery wrestling with translating Hebrew into Latin. His translation got major recognition by the Council of Trent in the mid 1500’s. How cool to be outlived by a translation!

But for me, the real appeal of St. Jerome is again that marvelously human flaw. St. Jerome, our Patron Saint, gave us one of the best translation errors in history.

Take a look at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The man has horns! Thanks to St. Jerome.

This image comes from a mistranslation by St. Jerome of the Hebrew word “qaran” in Exodus. As translators know full well, one word can have several, often conflicting, meanings. “Qaran” is derived from a noun meaning “horn”. Our buddy Jerome took the basic meaning of the word and neglected its derived meaning of “to emit rays”. Moses’ head was supposed to be shining.

As a result of Jerome’s translation, there are images all over Europe, in stained glass church windows and drawings, of a goat-like Moses.

So today, we translators celebrate a great man, St. Jerome, who devoted his life to translating the major text of his time. He was canonized for his work. His motto was “Non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensum” which means “to express not word by word, but meaning by meaning.”

As we translators live with the gentle clicking of our keyboards in the quiet isolation of our offices, let’s pay homage to our Patron Saint who was not perfect in his work, but who gave it everything he had.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Let them eat cake...

All stretch limos have a passenger bay like a cheap scaled-down version of a Hugh Hefner Sixties’ apartment, with strips of changing colored lights in the ceiling, sculpted undulating black leather seating and a wet bar shrine of chrome and fake mahogany. Outside the smoked glass windows, cornfields extended over the flat Midwestern horizon like an evenly mowed suburban lawn, guarded by huge stork-like wind turbines whose skinny blades turned lazily facing west where we were headed.

I was travelling with my French clients from one board meeting to the next. They had dressed “décontracté” for the road trip, meaning “minus the tie”. The jackets and dress shirts had not gone away in favor of the American staple of jeans. Still recovering from the previous night’s steakhouse dinner, everyone was quietly digesting corn-fed beef and their private thoughts.

When René put down his Wall Street Journal, I asked him how he was adapting to life in the States. He is now stationed in Chicago.

Through my work, I meet many French citizens who have permanently moved to the Midwest, and I am forever seeking comparative opinions on life on both sides of the Atlantic. The responses I receive always remind me of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The description of the beast is dependent upon the piece of trunk, tail, ear or hide in the speaker’s grasp. Ask a company director and economics will be the focus.

“Ah, you see, Déborah, in France we have an enormous middle class that we support.”

The use of the first person plural “we” caught my immediate attention. I know he didn’t mean “me.” We’re not looking at the elephant’s toe nails here. From this man’s vantage point, we are sitting squarely upon the elephant’s back, high above the rest.

Americans drool enviously over the six weeks of State mandated vacation in France, 13th month of salary and 35-hour work week. Most of my French interlocutors, however, are management who work many more hours than 35 per week, and who know what costs a single hiring brings to their business, with nearly impossible recourse to separation once the employment contract is signed.

I concurred that salaries are typically much lower in France, but health and retirement issues are covered by social benefits and don’t require major financial planning as in the States.

“Yes, but life is much more expensive in France as well. Everything is so much more expensive.”

Our conversation attracted the attention of the French CFO, who had just finished a call on his cell phone.

C’est vrai… it’s true. To live “correctement” in France, mettons, you need to earn 20,000 Euros per month.”

Not sure if I had misheard the figure in the hum of the engine and the tires on the road, I repeated it. “Twenty thousand Euros?”

“Well, let’s say fifteen to twenty thousand.”

At the current exchange rate, that’s $250,000 per year.

I would translate “correctement” as “decently, reasonably well.” One needs$250,000 a year to live reasonably well in France.

My client once again modified his position. “I mean, that is the salary you need not to have any worries.”

I felt even more excluded from the “we” that is not the middle class.

We pulled into a roadside stop to allow the French their required smokes and I wandered off alone a bit to feel the gentle June breezes on my face and playing with the hem of my skirt. The view from the back of the elephant had made me dizzy.

I had never heard such an attack on the middle class before. The “house, two cars and a chick in a pot” American Dream. Isn’t the middle class the buffer between rich and poor? Doesn’t a well populated middle class ensure the balance that keeps revolution at bay and the guillotine in the closet?

We piled back into the limo and rolled on to Chicago, past the tiny peeling painted wooden houses of Gary, Indiana and towards the mirrored towers glistening in the sun on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Silent Partners

They wait until called upon, shoulder to shoulder, in a cold military stance. Their jackets are discolored at the well-worn seams.

Last week, I took Henri Goursau (and his twin brother) with me to a factory where I was hired as an interpreter. Fat and compact, they fit into my big purse, even when my laptop is riding along. I always picture them in bib overalls, with a mechanical pencil behind one ear, sometimes wearing a tool belt.

I’ve had the Goursau brothers with me for years. I picked them up at my special little place near Montparnasse, down one of those storefront alleys that lead to a hair salon, a movie theater, a shoe repair place, and an Asian noodle vendor. Turning off of the Boulevard Montparnasse, I follow the little corridor down to my destination. I never go to Paris without coming here… alone, in private, enjoying the personal curious thrill of the hunt, knowing that this place exists for strange treasure seekers like me. Once inside, my eyes will glaze over and I will hand over my credit card, not caring about the total, clutching my new found partners. My only concern is calculating how to get them all on the plane bound for home.

The Maison du Dictionnaire (98, boulevard du Montparnasse) is quieter than a church, and its glass door was once guarded by a big throw-rug of a German shepherd, always sleeping near the entrance.

I picked up two of my legal partners in that same little market. Their modest thin jackets bear little decoration, just the words “principalement juridique”. One English and one French, of course. And, as seasoned French-English translators know, the English side is fatter. We have 30% more words in English than in French, so it takes 30% more French words to say the same things. French is thick with context. My Rodale English Synonym Finder has almost twice the girth of Robert’s French version which has to flesh out Synonymes by adding Contrariétés.

I could take a two week vacation with Girodet and his “Pièges et difficultés de la langue française”. He spends nine pages on how and when to use capital letters, and typically French, only a page and a half on commas. Little pauses, breathers, are secondary to Emphasis and Hierarchy.

Dahl’s Law Dictionary is highbrow reading. I see him in a magistrate’s robes, austere. René Meertens Guide anglais français de la traduction is the most fun you can have with a dictionary, translating into French all the Anglicisms that make simultaneous interpreters choke in the booth. Meertens is a spy in a trench coat, gathering up seemingly untranslatable bits of English and decoding them for French speakers.

I have the original Old Master of picture dictionaries, Oxford-Duden, clad in a heavy plastic cover like a Buick’s owner’s manual. He sits on the shelf next to Le Visuel from Québec, bought on a whim for the gorgeous colors of his illustrations. Next to him is a gift from a client: my Pierre Perret, who sings trade slang to me, from the Plumber (je suis l’plom-bi ééééé, c’est un beau métier) to prostitutes and pimps, bus drivers, priests, dentists and meteorologists. I’m not surprised that thirty whole pages are dedicated to the jargon of café owners and barmen, given French creativity in quenching appetites and thirsts.

I have dozens of little soldiers in my ranks of dictionaries: insurance glossaries, market terminology, French administrative acronyms, architecture, security, social services, wine. My medical dictionaries pout on the end of the shelf for being less frequented. Despite all my reading on the subject, I cannot consider myself qualified to translate medical documents. Nevertheless, these tomes provide the name of a little known disease, or body part. They earned their keep when I translated some autopsies (no risk there…).

All of my beloved partners are there, on my bookshelves, to complement and supplement my bilingual memory. Even as they are gradually supplanted by electronic versions in cyberspace, I still love the weight of them in my hands, the silky smoothness of their pages beneath my fingers, and all the marvelous little annexes that know how to solve the rare grammatical problem, the use of the proper preposition, or a tricky spelling of the imperfect subjunctive.

One night when a raging Chicago thunderstorm took out the power to my home and office, in a yellow puddle of candlelight, I took my first Robert & Collins down from the shelf. His every single page shows signs of having been visited. I had spent hours there, snatching up words as a squirrel gathering nuts for winter. “I will use this one in the future, I will need this one some day.” Let me nibble on it a bit, to get its taste and smell. Just how many meanings does the verb “sentir” have?

I covered my Robert & Collins in a heavy sheet of upholstery plastic to survive the years, and he is the Grand Old Master on my shelf. I own his electronic offspring, always lighting up under my fingertips on my keyboard, but I still love visiting Grand Daddy’s pages. He was my first junkie indulgence. Twenty-five dollars back then was a lot of money to pay for one book! But, just as in my opium den of dictionaries in Paris, the price is not important.

While I am conscious of their gradual obsolescence, nothing electronic can replace them. These books are the map of my memories, the diaries of my linguistic journeys.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Need a "certified" translator?

In the U.S., we license doctors and lawyers, plumbers and electricians. The idea is to protect the general public from uninformed practices of others.

Many countries in Europe and South America have certification procedures in place, to give translators and interpreters a government stamp of approval. The status of “sworn translator” does not exist in the United States. So how does a company find the appropriate translator or interpreter to meet their particular need? In the United States, very often it is the written translation itself that bears a “certification” of accuracy. Translation agencies routinely provide these to their clients, but the end-user of the translation never knows who actually translated their document and what that translator’s qualifications and experiences are. And with Google ramping up its machine translation capabilities, providing “gist” translations that are almost certainly flawed stylistically with subsequent risks to substance, how does the seeker of translation services know what he/she is buying? After all, the reason someone seeks a translation in the first place is that they cannot READ material in the foreign language. The issue of trust here is enormous.

Does “certification” guarantee that a better translation cannot be obtained from a hard-working freelance practitioner in the trenches? In the U.S., we highly value the self-made man, the freelancer being one admirable expression, working without a boss, a cubicle, a break room and a corporate dress code. While a freelancer may enjoy the freedom of working in his own basement in his bathrobe during the hours of his own choosing, he also works without a health plan, retirement benefits and paid vacation. Such dedication to a trade is worthy of recognition, for the sheer audacity of working without a net.

There are various bodies that will "Certify" a translator in the U.S. The American Translators Association brags of its certification exam, telling its members up front that the success rate is less than 20%. This process is comprised of translators evaluating translators, and, as all writing goes, is subjective. How much more valuable than a Certification is word-of-mouth from a satisfied customer: the third party that hires the translator as a subcontractor and continues to do so?

NAJIT, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, certifies interpreters for courtrooms. But, strangely enough, the only languages for which NAJIT certifies are Spanish, Haitian Creole and (hold on…) Navajo. What do you do if you have a patent infringement case involving a French company?

We sorely lack a reliable means of locating good linguists, and ways to identify the best ones. Yet, if you break your arm, the law or your marriage, you would have to shop around for a lawyer or an orthopedist on the strength of word-of-mouth, and hope that you have chosen the right individual to repair your situation. Likewise for a translator or interpreter.

References, above certification processes, are golden.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Listening too hard

Homo sapiens, living in a highly sophisticated and artificial environment, no longer need an accute auditory sense to survive. We no longer need a keen sense of hearing to detect the brush rustling under the feet of an approaching predator. Our ears don’t rotate like those of a dog or a horse, who can turn their ears in the opposite direction of their eyes, for a nice protective 360˚ scope of the surroundings. We have become much better at tuning out sounds, and even progressively destroying our hearing with repeated assaults by noise that our heads deem pleasant but our eardrums sense as wounding. We gleefully submit ourselves to the rock concert effect of damaging decibels. Listening has been relegated to a destructive recreational activity.

That is, of course, unless you are an interpreter.

In the heat of an interpreting assignment, where I may have to suddenly produce a foreign word I haven’t heard or used in a decade or so, I often find myself becoming so concentrated on listening that I no longer really see what’s going on around me. I’ve discovered that I’m a lip reader. My vision phases out all visual input except the lip movements of the speaker, along with the facial expressions and gestures that add so much unspoken content to French speech.

But there is a particular bump in the road that I have experienced and that I dread, a special disconnect that comes from listening “too hard”.

The first time it happened, I was a student in Europe, invited to the family home of some Parisian friend. I was treated to the classic Sunday dinner, starting at 2:00 in the afternoon and lasting until 10:00 at night. Eight hours at the table. If you are an American reading this, or unfamiliar with the delights of the French table in someone’s home, eight hours would seem either gluttonous or boring, but between the French food, spirits and conversation, it is neither. Contrary to American gatherings around food and alcohol, I have never emerged drunk from being entertained all day at a French table. The meal traditionally starts with an apéritif which, for me and my French girlfriend, is usually a Martini… Not to be confused with the “shaken not stirred” variety from across the channel or the Atlantic. If you order a Martini in France, you will get sweet vermouth on the rocks. An hour later, when we actually move to the table where we will be sitting for the next several hours, the first course emerges from the kitchen. My interpreting assignments frequently finish at a table, where the lip reading becomes complicated with chewing, and I have to explain that the entrée is the first course in French, while it is the main course in the States.

Between lingering over the food and conversation, the five courses of a French meal, like the five acts of a play, are each accompanied with the appropriate wine: the salad following the main course, the cheese being served with the pop of another cork, dessert, coffee and – if the day has been really long – the glass of orange juice just before all the cheek kissing at the door, like a head start on the next day’s breakfast, and the blissful satiated trip back to our homes or hotels and our beds. The food is consumed slowly, lovingly, tenderly irrigated with fruits of the vine.

Equal for me to the gastronomic delights is the conversation. Engaging in this ancient French art as an American is on a par with participating in Olympic games on a foreign shore. I bring my foreigness to the table to engage in the local sport. The jokes and the slang fly. Word games, play on words, and politics make their way into every conversation.

And then, suddenly a disconnect… On that warm spring evening around the table in the little house in Villejuif, I couldn’t translate something. I listened harder and harder.

Papy (the grandfather) was intrigued to have an American at his table, and was anxious to show his knowledge of my culture.

“My favorite actor is an American… What an amazing screen presence, a real man!”

I stare blankly at Papy. “I’m sorry… who?”

Om fray beau ger…

“Surely you know him? Mamie, what was the name of that film, where he plays a detective?”

Papy would come back periodically all evening to the subject of this unknown actor, totally perplexed that a Real American Woman would not know him!

In the course of the evening, we had covered all politics from WWII to the present, Johnny Halliday’s love life and why don’t the French sell records outside of France…? The right time of year to eat oysters, to hunt for mushrooms in all their varieties, family history of past vacations, Robespierre and the French revolution, and my impressions of my solo wanderings through Paris as a college student.

The orange juice had been poured and consumed and my girlfriend Denise and her husband Pierre, who had to go to work the next day, suggested it was time to drive me back to my hotel.

The warmth of the hugs and kisses at the door were cooled by the night air as we crossed through the walled garden towards the street.

Half way towards the gate, in the moonlight on the path between the vegetable garden and the old outhouse, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks, turned on my heels and threw my arms in the air, exclaiming, to the surprise of Denise and Pierre and his parents who were still on the doorstep outside the kitchen:

“Oh, you mean Humphrey Bogart!!!”

Finally, after hearing “Om fray beau ger” throughout the evening, I finally heard it without the French accent… Humphrey Bogart!

To this day, the family tells the story about how the American shouted “Humphrey Bogart” in the garden at 10:00 at night, and how hard we laughed afterwards. I realized then that my listening is programmable. If I am expecting to hear French, I cannot detect anything English spoken with a French accent. My second language insecurity has me stuck on the wrong side of my internal French-English dictionary.

And so we tell our ears what we will hear, what we expect to hear.

“We’ll always have Paris,” Bogie told Ingrid Berman in Casablanca. And I will always have Paris to remind me to listen with my heart, and thus really hear. As the Fox told Exupéry’s Little Prince: On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. An open heart is essential to hearing and good interpreting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hero for Hire

Koffi is his name. It means “born on a Friday.”

In the classic English poem, Friday’s child is “loving and giving”, and so Koffi is indeed a Friday’s child.

He was a nationally recognized athlete in his tiny West African country of Togo, an impoverished sliver of land wedged shoulder to shoulder between Ghana and Benin and clinging to its toehold piece of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea. The beach near Lomé is where Koffi would organize youth sports on the weekend. His story begins there, among the young Togolese who, Koffi tells me, had poor educational opportunities and even poorer job prospects.

After the games on the beach, Koffi would talk with the kids and their parents. They formed a support group to provide the young people with the positive activity of an organized sport, as well as assistance in seeking employment. The organization naturally took an interest in politics. Togo has been under military rule since 1967, under a dictatorship handed down from father to son.

In 1993, Koffi attended a rally in support of a candidate opposing the Eyadema regime. Before the rally could even begin, it was disbanded through military force, resulting in a massacre of hundreds of people. Koffi survived by lying still among the dead bodies until he could return home.

Many Togolese fled to neighboring Benin and Ghana following the bloody outcome of the rally, and yet Koffi remained, faithful to his country, his family and to his belief in democracy. He and his athletic club became more deeply involved in supporting opposition to the military rule of Eyadema. Koffi was arrested on three separate occasions, with others from his political party, imprisoned under unimaginable conditions and subjected to various uses of force and torture before being released. He bears the physical scars of these episodes of political intimidation, but his spirit didn’t crumble. During his final imprisonment, he risked a perilous escape by feigning illness so that he could be transported to a hospital, where security was not as tight.

Koffi knew that he had to flee the country, not only for his own sake, but for the safety of his wife and three children. He crossed the river into Benin at night in a canoe. While he was in Benin, healing from his torture, soldiers broke down the door of his home back in Lomé looking for him. They beat his wife and broke her arm when she would not cooperate, and threatened that her husband was a “dead man.” Over the next weeks, she put her own safety at risk again in arranging a way for Koffi to leave Africa and go to Chicago where her sister lived.

Once in Chicago, Koffi filed for asylum and, at first, had his application denied because his interview was unsuccessful. He didn’t speak English, of course, and came with a precariously bilingual acquaintance as his interpreter. Two Chicago attorneys provided the pro bono assistance to have Koffi’s case heard in Immigration Court, successfully this time.

While Koffi was going through the tedious months of having his asylum status approved, he worked long hours to support himself. Not speaking English at all at first, he would take any work available, such as standing outside of a car wash on the South Side of Chicago, drying off cars for tips. Later, he worked in the kitchen of a restaurant and bussing tables. His goal was to be reunited with his family.

When Koffi's wife and daughter arrived from Africa, I was at O'Hare with a bouquet of flowers and my camera. One of Koffi’s Togolese friends who was present made a speech to recognize my contribution as interpreter. Far greater were the contributions of the law firm who took Koffi’s case, the attorneys who meticulously studied his asylum petition, and the support of Koffi’s friends and family here and abroad. After many months, when the entry visas were obtained, Koffi’s wife sold everything the family possessed in Togo to purchase airline tickets. Koffi’s two sons were able to fly to Chicago through the donations of the attorney who had attained his refugee status. Finally, after many years, the family is together.

Koffi is now 17 years older than when he first organized his youth sports on the beach near Lomé. He is in his fifties now, and if he hadn’t been an athlete, he may not have been able to withstand the tortures, imprisonments and hardships the way he has.

My life is enriched by my friendship with Koffi. His laugh is large and warm, as is his courage and his outlook on life. More than that, there is a Dickensian lesson in extremes here. Koffi’s faith in life and God are more valid to me than anyone’s, because blessings and good fortune are only truly appreciated in contrast with their absence. He is now faced with the same unemployment as many of his fellow American citizens, having been included in a general layoff just before his family arrived. On the surface, he may seem unemployable as well, given his age, his race, and his education. I have written him the strongest letters of recommendation I could, hopefully to open the eyes of a potential employer to see the devoted, hard-working man that Koffi is. And Koffi continues to tell me that all will be well, that he will overcome this setback. I believe him. Through my interpreting work, I have seen many Koffis who have beaten amazing odds to find a better life in America. I’ve come to think that anti-immigrant sentiment is sometimes unconsciously born of resentment that a foreigner can enter the country with limited means and yet maneuver through the system to succeed where native-born Americans have not. If one could put Heart and Determination on a job application, as real tangible assets, Koffi is superiorly qualified.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Come together..."

Recently, I did some pro bono translation work for a friend of mine, a transplanted Parisian in her eighties, faced with the complexities of the American legal system.

She sent me an Email last week to thank me, worded in a way which has been haunting me:

Je ne peux pas croire que tu es Américaine!” [I can’t believe you’re an American!]

As a translator and interpreter, I intentionally attempt to blur my cultural identity. I know a job is going well when my French clients ask me if I am French. My friend’s remark in her Email simultaneously binds me to her “Frenchness” psychologically, and separates me from her, by the reality of my place of birth.

I am a fan of Chris Matthews on MSNBC, even though it took my ears a long time to get past his strident, irritating voice which he uses like a tenacious bulldog to push his political opponent into a corner, waiting for that one golden sound bite to emerge. Mr. Matthews is in the spotlight just now for having declared that, while listening to the President’s State of the Union address, he “forgot that Obama was black.” Just like my French friend’s comment, forgetting someone’s origin is one thing. Pointing it out is another.

“Political correctness” is the modern etiquette for the prevention of culturally and ethnically driven conflicts. And etiquettes are conventions developed to “correct” human behavior. In some places, it is impolite to burp after a meal. In others, burping is a compliment to the cook. But the bottom line is that, as human animals, we all have gas.

This week, PBS will begin airing a four-part series called “Faces of America”, about family roots, by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Mr. Gates is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he was the gentleman “of color” who was handcuffed for breaking into his own house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, leading to his controversial arrest and subsequent invitation to the White House to discuss race relations over a glass of beer. Mr. Gates’ program on PBS proposes to look into the geneology of some beloved celebrities: Meryl Streep, Yoyo Ma, Stephen Colbert.

Perhaps if we trace geneology back far enough, we humans run out of ammunition to defend our cultural differences, discovering the complex mixture of our ancestry and our bottom line common humanity. But we seem to be ever growing apart, as a species, instead of coming together. Wouldn’t the intricate linguistic and cultural habits that are “tribal identifiers” slowly become blurred in the Internet age that is shrinking the planet? Or are we clinging ever tighter to our language and customs from a deeply biological need within us to find comfort and security among similar human beings? Will we ever get to a place in time where humans do not feel the need to defend religions, vernaculars, dress codes and traditions? Will we ever “come together” as John Lennon sang?

Translators and interpreters have been “post racial” and “global” long before those became buzz words. The best practitioners in our field bring together non-communicating parties, with equal respect for each, and deep knowledge of the message of both, to unite them into a common understanding. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries…” and he could have been the patron saint of translators, if St. Jerome hadn’t beaten him to it (and his lyrics had been grammatically correct…). “All you need is love,” was the sixties’ simplistic idealism that would blur all the divisions of race and religion. Translation, for me, is an act of love. More than words on a page, it is a bridge between two shores, a unifying force in a world with many divisive factors at work.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Legislating Lingo

My sister opened her mail today and found a Public Opinion Survey entitled: Foreign Language Usage in Illinois. The letter was personalized, in her name. Not “Occupant” or “Taxpayer” or “Concerned citizen.” Whoever composed the form letter actually took pains to find places within the text to insert my sister’s name again, in an attempt perhaps to give the message some conversational warmth.

Nevetheless, the bold characters in the first paragraph screamed xenophobia at me:

“You have been selected to participate in the enclosed Public Opinion Survey regarding the (here it comes…) increasing use of Spanish and other foreign languages in Illinois.”

The authors didn’t mask their game. They called the statistics “disturbing”:

  • 33 million foreign-born now living in the U.S.
  •  illegal immigration out of control
  •  America becoming rapidly bilingual
  • The Department of Justice requires the printing of ballots, registration forms and brochures in foreign languages at over 1,000 polling locations (and look out! this part is underlined) costing taxpayers $27 million each year.
 I smiled when I read: “some so-called ‘immigrant rights’ groups are encouraging the use of foreign languages in Illinois schools…”

My reason for getting up in the morning and going to high school was to attend my French class. Granted, I was a rare one who lived for French class, but there were nevertheless many students who took foreign language classes voluntarily for the whole four years.

At the end of the survey, under “Survey Registration”, a donation is solicited, from $15 up to $500 or “other______”. Or the optional $7.00 to “defray the cost of my survey.” The fine print warns that U.S.English (a cute little play on words, spelling out the command USE English) is a lobbying organization, and so the solicited donation is not tax deductible.

I’m sure I’ve helped line many a lobbyist’s pocket unwittingly, by selecting a product off a merchant’s shelf and putting it in my cart. At least this letter is honest enough not to hide its motive.

Language is so strongly tied to culture; they are wrapped together like pairs of chromosomes. To legislate the language we speak is to court disaster.

In France, a law was passed forbidding Muslim girls to wear their head scarves to school. In France, you are French or you’re not. It is the esoteric Culture Club in which I’ve been masquerading for years, with varying degrees of success. There is a Secret Handshake in France, and it is their language. They have an Academy to guard the integrity of the language and even once had a Minister of the government, with the interesting name of Toubon (pronounced like “tout bon” or All Good) who attempted to outlaw English imports into French by finding charming French equivalents for things like Email (courriel) and DVD (the cumbersome disque numérique polyvalent !).

But more than 15 years later, the French say “email” and “DVD” (although pronounced day-vay-day as it should be to anyone familiar with the French alphabet). And the head scarf ban has not helped to integrate Muslim populations with les Français de souche. The classic holiday ritual for young “dis-en-franch-ised” persons of foreign origin in France is to set cars on fire. Let’s burn the symbols of our economic inequalities.

The interesting thing about language is that children can usually become bilingual very easily, speaking one language at home and another at school. And bilingualism is a definite asset on an ever-shrinking planet. Furthermore, in one of my translator’s groups, someone talked about medical studies of brain activity, where it was discovered that the activity that fired the most electrical charges in the brain was the act of TRANSLATING from one language to another. Better than Sudoku for keeping senility at bay…

Those who wish to restrict “foreign” languages in the U.S. probably don’t speak one. Granted, the survey letter my sister received is signed by a guy named Mauro E. Mujica, who immigrated here from Chile and on his website, he professes to have “firsthand understanding of the obstacles facing non-English speakers upon their arrival in this country.” Of course, he holds a Master’s in Architecture and is fluent in Spanish, English and French, with a working knowledge of German and Italian and is currently studying Russian. He doesn’t sound like a xenophobe to me.

In fact, I would imagine that he can attribute a certain significant measure of his success in life to his advanced linguistic abilities.

How much greater world citizens we Americans would be if everyone here spoke a second language.

The debate reminds me of how I became a translator and interpreter in the first place.

My mother spoke only Polish when she began her schooling in Chicago and apparently it was a difficult enough beginning for her that she forbade Polish to be spoken to me as a child, her firstborn. My mother passed away last year, and I found her grammar school report cards stashed away among her things. Indeed, her grades were mediocre the first year and into the next one, but after that, she became a straight-A student, and went on to get a full scholarship to the University of Illinois where she became a pharmacist. Later on, she went back to school and became a certified teacher with the State of Illinois. Her early bilingualism did her no harm.

For me, on the other hand, I was raised by my Polish grandparents while Mom was off to work, and so I continued to hear Polish as a small child. My grandparents were aware of my Mom’s linguistic restriction on me, and so my grandfather would take me down to his basement that was his special realm. His workbench was down there, and an old clock with which he taught me to tell time. Using a deck of worn playing cards, he secretly taught me to count in Polish, to say a few phrases and we kept the language lessons secret, just like the bottles of warm Old Style beer that he kept under the porch. He would smile and be thrilled with me when I could repeat words back at him in Polish. Of course, I blew his cover when he taught me a few Polish drinking songs and I casually traipsed one or two of them out at a family gathering. But I had a captive audience who thought I was the best thing since Shirley Temple.

I think I have been searching ever since for that warm welcoming linguistic secret homeland. When I travel to France to see my adoptive family, I become my French self, dressing a bit differently, eating and thinking and gesturing differently, all as a part of the language and culture, ultimately belonging to a club where I learned the secret password.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finding Voices

Translating Voices of the Holocaust: an archive of interviews from 1946

The effects of unemployment on the individual are not purely financial. As a self-employed translator and interpreter, I suffer regular bouts of angst brought on by periodic telephone silence and an inactive Inbox: the erosion of self-esteem, self-doubt that wakes me up in the night, not knowing my next source of income. Freelancing is not for the faint of heart. From the beginning of one assignment to its completion and the search for the next one, the freelancer must constantly reinvent herself. “I should have gone into teaching…” My parents were lifetime educators and retired with wonderful pensions and medical benefits. Of course, they hated their jobs. And when I initially sought professional applications for my linguistic passion, it seemed pointless to learn French as an American to teach it to other Americans. Such a closed loop physically and emotionally excluded connection with the very language and culture that seduced me. I wanted to become French and use my language skills out there in the world.

Just when desperation leads me to start filling out an application to stand behind a cash register at Trader Joe’s, my Guardian Angel (more about him in future posts) steps up and sends me a translation or interpreting job that reaffirms my place in the world. I am intended to be a communication tool.

I had a call from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Somewhere in a library basement, a box of spools of wire was found and identified as voice recordings predating taped recording devices. IIT had developed a portable recording machine for Dr. David Boder, psychologist, whose goal was to travel across Europe immediately following WWII and interview survivors of the holocaust. The interviews were conducted in the various languages of the survivors and so some existed in native French.

I experience anguish over the translation quotation process, putting a price on my work. Besides the idea of assigning a dollar value to my individual skill, I also realize that most people I bump into in the supermarket or who live on my block will never require the use of a translator and would be shocked at what we charge. A translator or interpreter is a specialist called in to repair a situation. But are we like lawyers and orthopedists, called upon for the once-in-a-lifetime break of a law or a limb or a marriage, or the woman behind the counter in my local post office who transitions seamlessly from English to Spanish? I am humbled by easy neighborhood bilingualism. Then again, when I read the laughable instructions on the back of a box of detergent destined for French-speaking Canada, I realize that not everyone can render perfect prose in two languages. And so pricing my services is a battle between the extremes of hubris and humility.

And then there are rewards that go beyond all material gain.

Sitting in my basement office, in the isolation of my headset, I must first transcribe the audio files sent to me by IIT. Dr. Boder’s voice is kindly, professorial, with a marvelous Eastern European accent. I cannot “see” the interview, but in my mind, a slender dark-haired boy with polite manners sits across from the good Doctor. The boy’s voice has not yet changed, and as the interview takes place in the South of France, he is probably wearing shorts, and sits on this sofa with his ankles crossed and his mother at his side. “That’s a very nice English,” Dr. Boder encourages him. But the interview quickly slips into French and the sweet angelic voice of the boy reaches into my maternal heart.

He pronounces his name: Jean Kahn. Only after hearing all the audio files entrusted to me do I piece together the importance of this boy’s family. His father is Admiral Kahn, of the French navy. His mother is Marcelle Kahn, but introduces herself as Marcelle Schrameck, using her maiden name which identifies her as the daughter of Abraham Schrameck. Her husband is no less important, but Marcelle claims this link to her father, who was head of the Paris prefecture of police, then governor of Madagascar, French Senator, and finally Minister of the Interior, all during the most difficult time to be a Jewish political figure in France.

The mother is erroneously identified as Marcelle Chimay on the MP3 file entrusted to me, and I’m gratified that other ears had the same difficulties as my own in initially deciphering the voices. Her father is not identified at all, and I realized that I’m perhaps the first person since 1946 to understand the voice of a famous figure, a man who devoted fifty years of his life to government service in France, in high office, and whose family had to go into hiding and exile. Young Jean Kahn, his grandson, tells how he, his mother and his older brother fled from Marseille and eventually crossed through the Pyrenees on foot into Spain in the rain and cold, were arrested by the Spanish police, interrogated and imprisoned, and how they eventually made it to Morocco to be reunited with father and husband, Admiral Louis Kahn.

On a separate recording, Abraham Schrameck, who was placed under house arrest during the war and who received death threats from the Extreme Right in France, reveals in his interview how ordinary French citizens were duped into helping their German occupiers. Mr. Schrameck’s interview is preceded by one with his chauffeur, a Resistance fighter from central France who was twice captured by the Germans and escaped to fight at Thiers, where150 French freedom fighters prevailed against “two or three hundred” Germans. My body trembled as I listened to this unsung French hero tell very simply, in a matter-of-fact voice, how he and his unit singled out from their German prisoners those who had personally killed French comrades in arms, and shot them.

The quality of the audio files was reasonably good, yet presented tremendous challenges. The boy Jean Kahn talks about a small town on the Spanish border, and I phonetically transcribed the name of the town as I heard it and spent an hour scouring maps in the various atlas on my bookshelf until I locate, with a triumphant shout, the speck on the map labeled Osseja. I can see the boys in the rain-drenched forest, bent over the compass they procured with difficulty to guide their flight. I Google to confirm the names of places that I’m hearing and the correct appellations of organizations like the Francs-tireurs et Partisans Français (the Resistance Riflemen of France). I am listening to the very voices of history, and neither Dr. Boder, who sat in the Kahn’s living room and recorded them, nor the staff of IIT’s library in 2009, know what I am hearing. Because I am the first person to TRANSLATE what is being said.

At the end of Dr. Boder’s interview with young Jean Kahn, the two speakers once again lapse into English. Jean’s family had moved to London, and Jean studied in British schools, so his English is quite good. It is the Spring of 2009 as I listen to Dr. Boder wind up this interview of August 1946:

“Well, John, you are an awfully good boy, and it was really a pleasure to have met you. And I think you told us a good story. And I think the children there, if we translate it, will have a lot of fun in listening to your story. We will translate it into English and have another little boy read it for us, make a record.”

Ten years before I even drew breath on this planet, a psychologist sitting in a living room in Marseille, with French holocaust survivors, was thinking of me, was looking forward to having the words he just gathered translated so that the stories would not be lost.

I probably worked twice as many hours as I billed for this job. After a while, entranced by this audio treasure hunt, I stopped keeping track of the time. The assignment would keep me in private practice until the next assignment came along. But the experience of doing it was greater than any remuneration I could receive. I was meant to be here, in my place in the world, as a translator between two languages and cultures.

To hear Dr. Boder’s interviews, read the transcriptions and translations of the texts, please visit

Deborah Joyce

Friday, January 15, 2010

Review of the English Translation of L'Excisée

A Review of The Excised
Reviewed by Deborah Joyce
A novel in French by Evelyne Accad
English translation by Cynthia Hahn

I was already a fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel (Simon & Shuster, 2007), the stunning memoir of the Somali woman who is now an international political figure as a freedom fighter for the rights of Muslim women. The story of Hirsi Ali’s flight and transformation, from the dutiful daughter who was a devout follower of her faith, escaping from her homeland and a forced marriage, to a new life in the Netherlands, is a real life accounting of one woman’s confrontation with her faith and her personal choices of freedom. Perhaps that book only makes me appreciate Evelyne Accad’s novel even more. Ms. Accad published her novel in 1982, ten years before Hirsi Ali even sought political asylum in the Netherlands, long before the events that pushed the Somali woman into the international spotlight as a prominent feminist critic of Islam. And, while I was captivated with Infidel, I am all the more in awe of The Excised, its literary forerunner, a story born of the same feminist plight, yet told with all of the poetry and art that a work of fiction can bring to the same message.

Ms. Accad’s novel is nearly thirty years old and yet her message is as pertinent as if written today. Set in Lebanon, the conflicts between the traditional and the modern are the same as those that are the source of our daily international headlines.

“I don’t believe in religions. They only serve to distance people from one another.” (The Excised, page 64). So proclaims the love interest of the female protagonist. “The Muslim religion is a kind of necessary nationalist consciousness.” E., the nameless woman of the novel, who is all women, Eve, is a Christian, drawn to a Muslim man, physically at first, but primarily on the basis of his idealism. “Together we will rebuild the world... we will cross the trenches dug by our two cultures and we will find a compromise...” he tells her. She risks everything for this cross cultural hope. But the forces of tradition are too much for her. She suffers the punishment of isolation, first by her own family, and later by the Muslim family into which she marries.

The novel suggests perhaps that women, and especially the solidarity of women, bears the seed of the answer to these seemingly unsolvable cultural conflicts which, from a feminist viewpoint, are the product of male dominant thinking. Ms. Accad’s novel is a cry for “Femi-humanism” in a world of cultural divisions.

When Evelyne Accad learned about female excision, while doing her doctoral thesis, she was told not to write about it. “Ça n’a rien à voir avec la littérature,” she was told. (“That has nothing to do with literature.”) But her powerful novel has proven that advice to be wrong. Ms. Accad has given a poetic voice to her feminism. She uses a traditional Arabic form called “zajal” which intersperses verse into the prose, poetic interludes like a musical sound track to the narrative. The poetic verses break with the progress of the scene, like dream sequences in a film, to emphasize and highlight the driving emotion of the moment, to let us see into the hearts of the characters or the narrator, and to bind us all, audience and players, in chorus and into the drama.

Ms. Accad tries to make sense of why females submit to, and perform on each other, the horrifying mutilation of excision. She says in her preface that she was astounded when Muslim women sided with their men in protest of her criticism. “They told me the reason they sided with the men... was because they had to be loyal to them. In front of the West, loyalty was more important than truth.”

And so it is loyalty to tradition, a fear of cultural annihilation, that can inspire its members to self-inflicted suffering, from women performing genital mutilation on the young girls in their own families, perhaps even to suicide bombing. In The Excised, it is finally one woman observing the pain of another, the solidarity of a “sisterhood”, which opens her eyes to a different way of being. But, just as in Infidel, the weight of cultural tradition is too great and escape to another shore seems to be the only way out. Evelyne Accad’s novel uses images of water to symbolize freedom and liberation.

Dr. Cynthia Hahn gives a faithful and elegant translation of Dr. Accad’s work. It is the most courageous translation, in that the English and original French are juxtaposed page by page, thereby lending itself to word-for-word scrutiny. The temptation for the translator is to create his/her own work of art from the original material, with tones of his/her own voice coming across. In this case, Cynthia Hahn shows great loyalty to Evelyne Accad’s inspiration. Her translation makes this wonderful, important work accessible to a whole new audience of English readers with this new edition. Compelling and beautiful, this novel will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

To order a copy of The Excised, contact Dr. Cynthia Hahn at Lake Forest College ( or the publisher: L’Harmattan, Edition-Diffusion; 5-7 rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique, 75005 Paris;

Deborah Joyce is a freelance French<>English translator-interpreter in the Chicago area.