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.