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.