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”