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.