Thursday, November 8, 2012

More than words

I had dinner last evening with a ninety-two year old gentleman for whom I had done some translation work.  Because we are both volunteers for our local Forest Preserve District, I don’t charge him for my translation work which is related to our volunteer service.  He, in turn, shows his appreciation by treating me to dinner in his favorite restaurant. 

At ninety-two, his only problem is a bit of a hearing loss, electronically corrected, but problematic enough for him to request a corner booth rather than a table in the midst of the dinner traffic.  Dr. DuBose and I exchanged documents over a glass of Malbec, both of us refusing a refill because we each had to get behind the wheels of our cars to drive home later.  This morning, I saw the time stamp on his Email, thanking me, and realized that he had stayed up much later than I had after a sumptuous dinner that had made me overwhelmingly sleepy.

My own father, who is ten years younger than my dinner companion, has long since given up driving his enormous tank of a Buick and never made the leap to cyberspace, Email and the Internet.  He knows how to reset his answering machine and leaves me to pay his bills on-line for him.

Aside from studying the Secret of Youth that my dinner partner embodies, and listening to his acquired wisdom on the subject of the translated documents, I had an additional “cultural” surprise last evening.  The observance of cultural trends is vital to translation and interpreting.  Beyond my daily personal contacts in France, I make a practice of watching the French news on the Internet.  When I started interpreting, there was no “mad cow” disease, “bird flu” or “airbags” in automobiles, and watching the French news keeps me abreast of evolving vocabulary.  Without the Journal de 20 heures, I might not have encountered éthylotest, béguinage, or gaz de schiste.

Dr. DuBose’ blue eyes twinkled across the table when he took a small, battered box out of his coat pocket, and removed the rubber band that held on the cover.  “I wanted to show you this.”  He handed me a medal, his Purple Heart.  While serving in the infantry in France, he had been critically wounded by a German bullet.

I have always considered myself lucky and mysteriously supervised by a Guardian Angel, but this man clearly has had some miraculous chances in life.

The next thing I knew, the party at the booth next to ours had politely interrupted our conversation.  “Did I hear you say ‘Purple Heart’?”  The setting for the conversation was perfect, since Veteran’s Day is just around the corner and the restaurant had lined the walls with a collection of vintage Armed Services posters.

The young father who had spoken to us from the next booth handed his little girl out from behind their table to see the medal, which they all admired, to the complete delight of Dr. DuBose.  Wait staff moved in to eavesdrop on the conversation, and my dinner companion was repeatedly thanked by complete strangers for his service to our country.

After the young family left, our server came up to our table, glowing and clutching the black folder containing our bill.  “Before he left, the gentleman who sat next to you paid your dinner bill.”

Dr. DuBose and I looked at each other in amazement.  His was more an expression of pride, that his youthful brush with death on a battlefield could still be so appreciated this many years later.

In my case, my surprise took me back to an evening only a couple of weeks ago. 

I had been sitting at the table in my sister’s house and listening to my cousin Larry talk about his return from Viet Nam where he had served in the Marine Corps.  He and his fellow Marines, when they stepped off their plane coming back home onto U.S. soil, were met by complete strangers who threw animal excrement at their sparkling uniforms.

I am not (yet) as old as Dr. DuBose, to be able to witness as many sweeping cultural changes as he obviously has.  This change in public opinion of the military has a particularly strong impact on me since my son has just recently entered the Navy.  Coming of age in the Viet Nam era, I had always secretly plotted to move any as-yet-unborn sons to French-speaking Canada to avoid the draft.  I never thought I’d have a son who would voluntarily enlist.  As a mother who has watched her country in and out of a few wars, my heart swims in a dizzying cocktail of fear, pride, confusion and hope.

My thoughts went back to my visit with my father that same afternoon.  I had asked him if he had voted to re-elect President Obama.  Four years earlier, he admitted voting for McCain.  His reasoning at the time was weirdly prescient, if not tinged with racism.  My Dad didn’t have any personal objections to voting for a black President, but he explained that Obama didn’t have what basically amounted to a snowball’s chance in hell to get anything done, precisely because he was black. 

It was for that very same reason that he voted for Obama this time, saying he wasn’t going to vote for a loser.

Culture shifts in just such ways, changing perceptions over time.  The determination of who is a winner and who is a loser sometimes needs to mature, like a good glass of wine, over time.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Between the lines

Translation is so much more than a word-by-word rendering of a text from one language to another.  The translator is often called to be a cross-cultural specialist.  In a world supposedly made “smaller” electronically, there are still so many moments when a cultural difference pops up on the horizon, and the translator becomes a sort of Tour Guide, explaining a foreign terrain dotted with custom and history and politics, like so many impressive buildings on the skyline.

How do you explain to an American Project Manager who takes calls at all hours on a cellphone, for whom the lines between workday and private life are constantly blurred, that the contact in France is either a “juilletiste” or an “aoûtien” and will be on vacation for the entire month of July or August?  The month of May in France this year had no less than four legal holidays, two of which are tied to the Catholic calendar.  Ascension Thursday is a four-day holiday, since “le pont” [making the bridge through Friday to the weekend] is the standard practice.  November 1st is All Saints’ Day, another national 4-day weekend.  My French family will drive out to the country to decorate Papy and Mamy’s graves, one day after Americans raise the dead in the streets trick-or-treating.  Either way, it seems the beginning of autumn is the time to reflect on mortality.

Metrics for evaluation, another cultural stumbling block, are learned at an early age in school.  American clients don’t understand that a Frenchman will be reluctant to rate a product or service a “10” out of ten possible points.  School work in France is graded on a twenty-point scale and absolutely no student ever receives a score of 20 out of 20.  A score of 12/20 is acceptable, yet in the U.S., an equivalent 60% is a failing grade.  Americans aim for “A’s” and can aspire to an A+.  We are cheerleaders, fond of the pat on the back and a declaration of “great job”!  On a French report card, when the teacher adds a comment of “assez bien” or “pretty good”, that is a respectable outcome, even though “assez” can also be translated as the lukewarm “sufficient”.  To add to the student’s stress, the French grade report clearly indicates both the best and the worst score attained by individuals in the class, making the whole process comparative and thereby more competitive.  Imagine the humiliation of having your personal score in Column One of your report card being identical to the “worst in class” in the next column!  And the number of students in the class is also indicated, to further calculate the depth of your disgrace.

One of the most difficult assignments I have had was to interpret a motivational speaker.  I had listened to his kind before: a wannabe stand-up comic, fond of spicing his monologue with regional jargon, liberally dosed with slang intended to wake up the audience, and embellished with sports metaphors for male-bonding with the suits in the audience.  The interpreter doesn’t have the time to explain the intricacies of baseball to a French audience who wants to know what is meant by “pinch hitting” or “it came at me right out of left field.”  My compassionate soul wants to run up to the speaker and explain that some of his audience is not laughing at the right moments because they didn’t understand the reference to an American sitcom.  Yet, at the same time, I’m culturally embarrassed that my French-speaking audience from third world countries has no frame of reference for the fable they are hearing through translation.  The guy at the podium is trying to preach a message of personal responsibility as the key element to success.  Having ordered a subordinate to send a can of caramel popcorn to a client, the penitent businessman realizes he should have handled the task himself.  To an audience that has known the earthquake in Haiti and devastating poverty and famine, how do you explain why in the world anyone would chastise a secretary who neglected to overnight a can of caramel popcorn across the country by FedEx as a gift to someone!  Each concept here is an obstacle.  First:  why popcorn?  And next, popcorn with caramel on it?  In a can (why not a box?) and why by an expensive overnight air service?  Would it spoil?  And what makes a can of mostly air, sugar and some corn an exceptional gift? 

Beyond cultural and linguistic challenges, even small ambiguities in a Source text can lead to a translation that does not reap the desired results.  In an on-line marketing study, the following question was asked:  “Imagine that you are going to employ Product X.  What job would you give him?”  The intended goal was to gather responses that compared the product to a living, breathing person holding a job:  a social worker, a dietician, a traffic cop, a carpenter – in short, a noun, a profession.  The purpose, of course, was to elicit the consumer’s perception of the product through an image.  To the surprise of the researchers, the answers did not match expectations.  They were all adjectives:  soothing, calming, enjoyable, fun  Perhaps a French cognate got in the way:  “employ” means “employment” in English, while “employer” in French can mean “to use.”  If the translator had bypassed the verb, better results would have been achieved with “Imagine Product X is a human being.  What sort of job would he do for a living?  This translation is not word-for-word what the original English says, but it would have produced the desired reaction from the respondents.  So the translator has to be intuitive to scope out the purpose of the original text.

Tour guide, sociologist, mind reader:  these are just some of the skills the translator needs to flesh out the deeper meaning of a communication, to read between the lines.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bonne fête de la Saint Jérôme … Or Happy Translator’s Day

The big maple tree outside my home office window seems to turn to gold every year on the Feast of Saint Jerome, on the other side of the window pane overlooking my computer where I disappear into my world of words. Nature is winding down to the end of another year, and it is a good time for me to take a moment to reflect on just what it is I do as a translator and interpreter.

There are the piles of personal documents I translated, to help individuals get where they wanted to go: to school abroad or here in the States, to get married, to get divorced, to adopt a baby, to become legal residents, to advance their education or to show proof of the one they have. There are even documents that helped families lay a loved one to rest on a distance shore that was once called home.

There are words that are the nuts and bolts of selling trucks and services, drywall tools and floor cleaner. My files hold notes from board meetings where the esoteric technical terms become my passwords into the private directors’ club. It is a strange cultural phenomenon that these meetings always seem to conclude over huge slabs of beef. Why do all board meetings adjourn to a steak house? I order fish, declaring my separateness.

Somewhere in file boxes in law offices are reams of paper with interpreted depositions: the details of someone’s tragedy, from debts to dents to death.

There are Frenchmen who have returned to France with perhaps a new perception of the United States or Chicago, having glimpsed them through the bilingual comments of a native.

I had a cathartic moment this year of discussing religion, politics and the woman’s place in the church and in the world, with a French archbishop from the Vatican, who subsequently gave me his blessing.

I feel fortunate to make a living with words. I have friends and acquaintances who earn much more than I by managing things and people and processes. In a society that doesn’t really “craft” anything anymore, I get a good feeling when I turn out a document that you can hold in your hand, which physically carries an important message to someone. Translation is not like building a piece of furniture or baking bread, yet there are ingredients and skills and an end product.

But the best experience of the past year was the opportunity I had to work as an interpreter for the World Association of Girl Guides and Scouts. 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Girl Scouts, and Chicago was the site of a forum that brought together some nearly 600 Girl Scouts and Guides from around the world. The girls came together to discuss grass roots solutions to the enormous world problems of hunger, gender equality, and poverty. Decades ago, when I was a Girl Scout, we earned badges for housekeeping and childcare and sewing. The girls who gathered in Chicago were tackling issues like education and sanitation, literacy and nutrition, with the same heart and capable hands we applied to domestic arts, with the same attention to the task in front of them. We heard wonderful speakers tell of small hometown miracles, like buying a few goats to provide income and milk, and how whole villages of women became empowered through sharing and learning together. Stories were told of twelve year old girls who were made to marry and have children instead of an education. The girls compared the skin-and-bones poverty of Africa against the obese homeless on the Chicago street corners. And in between the serious discussions, they sang songs together, in a beautiful sisterhood where no one was ostracized for not having the latest athletic shoes, or for wearing glasses or their hair in pigtails. The cruelties of the junior high school yard did not exist here, and this was one place where it was truly “hip to be square”, to express the joy and promise of young womanhood.

Promise was a palpable perfume in the air. During the course of the forum, the planet seemed to right itself on its axis and turn confidently towards a better tomorrow. If the future of the human race were to be determined by the heart and brains, graciousness and grace, determination and clear-eyed hope of the young women I saw at this Forum, we have nothing to fear. The planet will be cleaner, our children will be literate and productive, and the inequalities of society would disappear in the embrace of the future mothers of this Earth. The girls laughed and sang together, and each one went home with a concrete mission to accomplish: a drive to obtain supplies for a school in Africa, a neighborhood recycling project, a plan to conserve water, or promote products that protected orangutans in the rain forests. Their little sparks of light dispersed across the globe to light the way to something better.

Any project that requires more than one set of hands requires language. I love being a part of that verbal bridge.

Here is a link to “The Girl Effect: The Clock is Ticking”

Friday, February 24, 2012

A little respect

I dropped a juice glass in my kitchen one morning. This was sad for me on a couple of levels.

1. The Paris Musées glasses aren’t sold at World Market anymore. I treated myself to a set after my mother died. The heavy glass goblets are molded with the Napoleonic bee, which also happens to be my name (“Deborah” means “little bee” in Hebrew, I’ve been told).

2. I was in my nightgown, and in bare feet, while drinking my orange juice.

After cleaning up, I realized I had embedded a tiny lump of glass in a toe. Even a Yoga Master could not bend enough to reach it.

3. The bill came from my local podiatrist. $500. She had to take a scalpel to my toe, but I didn’t require any numbing drugs. I have a high pain threshold. I did need a bandage for the bleeding, and her office insisted on a follow-up visit to check for infection. This second visit was also billed to me.

I probably could have gone to an emergency room, but I think my bill would have been much higher. In any case, I required some professional help.

Flash forward to a client inquiry about a week ago.

I was asked to provide a quotation for an English translation of a prospectus. A French company seeking American investors needed their executive summary translated into English.

Because it was a high volume assignment (it would take approximately ten working days)… because it was a direct client (not through an agency, which would pay me one-third or optimistically one-half of what they bill…), because this contact was found through my modest networking efforts (I am not a natural born saleswoman…), I quoted a reasonable rate. One that would split the difference between what an agency would pay and what an agency would charge.

The response from this potential client astonished me.

“Could you throw in translation of my PowerPoint presentation for that price?”

Should I have asked my podiatrist to “throw in” the follow-up visit?

What my podiatrist billed for thirty minutes of her time might take me as much as two full working days to earn on this particular translation assignment. The doctor will be paid in part by my insurance. On the other hand, I have no guarantee that this new client would pay me for my efforts.

He is seeking an English translation so that he can reach potential American investors. I do not choose to be his first.

I don’t pretend to practice at the same level as a physician, nor do I think I should earn a doctor’s wages. Nevertheless, a translator’s knowledge of language is a life-long learning endeavor, particularly given the technical complexity of certain assignments. Translators don’t get the respect they deserve.

There are technical and commercial writers who are hired to work a text from English into English, to make it presentable for publication. The translator goes above and beyond that skill to widen the audience to new cultures and linguistic groups.

Well, as it turns out, I acquired other business during the month that filled my time, and shored up my self-respect as well. They also paid better and I had great reviews all around.

Both my toe and my self-esteem are doing better.