Sunday, September 29, 2013


I’m just old enough to know a thing or two about obsolescence. 
My first computer had a DOS prompt and I’ve owned every version of Windows since 2.0.  My first job using a computer required that I learn to use WordPerfect, which has since disappeared  in favor of MS Word.  Fortunately for my career, I was able to move from a technical environment into a legal one, and attorneys held on to WordPerfect longer than other professions.
From my thirties on, changes in technology have zipped along, with kids leading the race, eager for each new gadget, and frugal adults reluctantly following, learning early on that any equipment bought was obsolete as soon as it came out of the sturdy cardboard box in which it was sold.
Perhaps a person’s age and experience paint our world’s planned obsolescence in a bad light.  I spoke up at a recent board meeting, where the discussion of replacing the company fleet of cars was on the table, to tell clients that the hybrids they were contemplating are equipped with a special battery that has an estimated service life of seven years and a replacement cost, after seven years, that would then exceed the resale price of the car.
I’ve often wondered what happened to the bits and pieces of my old cars, beloved machines that carried me where I wanted to go.  A lot of metal, plastic and rubber went into their construction.  Where is it all now?  And I am only one single car owner on this huge, automated planet.  Sometimes I imagine the earth beneath my feet suddenly bursting open with old car bumpers, milk gallons, and 8-track players oozing to the surface from long hidden garbage dumps.
I started writing this while seated in the double-deck car of my commuter train, having left my Buick in the train station parking lot.  Soon I will be getting on a plane to cross the Atlantic into France.  Hundreds of other aircraft will be in the sky simultaneously, and the international space station will float over all of us.  How many times in our lives do we entrust our physical bodies to the inside of a big metal machine, with the objective of moving quickly from Point A to Point B?  I’m sure few people know how many times they have ridden in a car or a bus, and I count myself fortunate to have lost track of how many flights I’ve taken over mountains and oceans.
The trains and cars and aircraft have all gone through lightning evolutions in a short period of time, but here is the constant in all of this Modern Metal Modification Madness:  People are not obsolete.  The machines get faster and more efficient (well, let’s take the Concorde out of this discussion), but their goal is to move human beings.  I can easily transmit my image and my words and thoughts over wireless connections to far reaches of the globe.  And yet people still need to meet up with other people, have face-to-face contact.  The basis of the whole internet and communications revolution is to carry human words and voices faster and further.
As a translator and interpreter, I am acutely aware of the individual, personal nature of a human being’s speech and use of his language.  Human rendering of language is as unique as a fingerprint, with accents and styles, ethnicity and education all shaping our speech and our words.  But just as we entrust our human bodies to a variety of machines so that our presence is not limited to the space in which we live, our words and our speech are more and more entrusted to mechanical devices that will carry them great distances.
We should never forget the human being behind the text message, the document or the Email.  Because behind the flood of electronic communications is thought:  the intangible products of the human brain.  And no two brains are alike.
I recently attended a professional meeting of translators, where a distinguished professor of translation lamented the rapid decline of the individual translator’s income.  While translation as an “industry” is outpacing many others in growth, individual translators are suffering from plummeting rates.  As in many fields, the mechanization that was developed to “make life easier” has made life harder for those humans whose functions it replaces.  Linguists seem to be going the way of travel agents.  Although we are the ones who know all the best places and how to get there, the general public prefers to take its chances with booking over the Internet.
Translation software was developed to enhance the translator’s memory by instantly coughing up a phrase that was translated previously.  As a tool for the translator, what a boon!  But these lovely tools have fallen into the wrong hands:  translation agencies and the clients themselves.  Now the client can say to the purveyor of translation services:  “I’m only going to pay you for NEW text, since my machine has already translated fifty percent of my document.”
If the subject of the translation is an owner’s manual for a machine that is in its FIFTH VERSION, it’s easy to see how automated translation would be fast and efficient.
But how much of human language is so repetitive, so uniform, so black and white and lacking in nuance, that a machine can render its translation?  Machines are made that way, but not human beings.
I just translated a brochure for a client who wanted the product literature to be an elegant reflection of the high-end, unique objects whose commercial value resides in their place of origin and the human craftsmanship that went into them.  The brochure was classy, peppered with descriptive language and the occasional play on words that only someone French-speaking would grasp.  I had some great “Ah Ha” moments coming up with parallel expressions in English.
A machine could not do this. 
On my way to Union Station in Chicago this week, I passed in front of a record store that was selling good old vinyl records.  The store was full of customers at 10:00 o’clock in the morning.  I asked someone about the value of going backward technologically and purchasing vinyl.
“It just SOUNDS better.”
I guess until human ears and brains become obsolete, with all their capacity for detecting nuance, there is still hope for humans who translate and interpret the shades and tones and notes of human language.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The State of my Soul

Interpreting is an adrenaline sport.  The physical demands of the job cannot be ignored.  Most employers at least recognize the need for a glass of water within reach, but I doubt that they have any idea of the importance of preparation materials, time of day, comfortable positioning with visibility of the speaker, or the need for working in manageable amounts of time.  Some of these conditions can be controlled by the interpreter, but for the most part, we are at the mercy of the environment into which we are thrown. .  For the interpreter, our success is a transfer of meaning from one brain to another, a nebulous and intensely personal outcome.
I had a mentor who put me into my first simultaneous assignment.  Many years ago, at a formal dinner in his home, I was seated next to a prominent figure in the French community, who was singing the praises of our host.
“I knew William was a brilliant interpreter from the very first sentence I heard him translate in the booth.  It was:  je n’ai pas d’états d’âme…
I froze.  Even though I grasped the meaning, I couldn’t, at that precise moment, come up with a solid English equivalent of that phrase, translated word for word as “state of the soul”.  As soon as I returned home, I ran to my Robert Collins dictionary.
État d’âme:  mood, frame of mind, to have scruples, to have qualms, to have doubts.
How wonderfully French!  The definition of the undefinable, the expression of turmoil in the soul. 
A week ago, I struggled through a tough assignment, and went home feeling totally defeated.  Among other difficulties I encountered while interpreting was the acronym “GPA”, which does not mean “grade point average” in French.  This morning, my best friend, a Frenchwoman who has lived her whole life near Paris, told me that she had never heard of GPA, which stands for  grossesse pour autrui” or “surrogate motherhood”. 
Acronyms are one of those obstacles that can derail an interpreter’s performance.  They are linguistic shorthand, a sub-language, in a way, some being universally recognized and needing no translation:  CD-ROM, JPEG, even the word RADAR is an acronym.  Some require some scrambling of their letters:  NATO becomes OTAN, AIDS becomes SIDA in French.  BRIC can stand “as is”, but I’ve had Americans throw BYOB and GAAP into their speeches, both requiring expanded definition.  A programmer once informed me before his speech that IBM stands for “I Blame Microsoft”.
During an interpreting assignment, in the heat of battle, sometimes one saving moment of inspiration gives that essential injection of confidence into the bloodstream that makes everything work.  I have vivid memories of the precise words I was able to translate for a colleague interpreter who had the microphone and looked to me for help:  simple things like “checking account” for “compte courant” or “nacre” for “mother of pearl”.  Under less stressful conditions, my partners would have come up with those translations easily.  Being able to instantly fill a gap is like hitting the tennis ball to the complete opposite side of the court where the opponent isn’t.  Lucky shot.
On the second evening of my recent difficult assignment, I needed some inspiration.  On stage behind a microphone, in front of a good sized audience and cameras, I was hoping to redeem myself from the previous night’s performance. 
And then, suddenly, I heard my speaker use the phrase “états d’âme”! 
It was almost as if my mentor was sitting on my shoulder, whispering the translation into my ear.  I knew then that everything was going to be all right.  The expression itself is not so unusual, but like Proust’s madeleine, a whole realm of memories was attached to it, and I was now reliving my mentor’s moment of glory.
The word “inspiration” comes from the ecclesiastical “spiritus”, meaning both breath and spirit.
Thank you, my guardian angels, for your whispered inspiration when I’m interpreting.  Thank you for easing my doubts, my mood, my frame of mind, the qualms in my soul.



Thursday, May 9, 2013

Our Half of the Sky

I thought I knew something about the oppression of women around the world. 

Working as a French-English interpreter, I heard testimony in court about a gang rape in the Congo.  I interpreted the asylum interview for a young West African woman who pleaded to remain in the U.S. to avoid female genital mutilation and a subsequent arranged polygamous marriage to a stranger, twenty years her senior.  I was privileged to interpret Dr. Terarai Trent’s speech to hundreds of Girl Scouts from around the world on how she overcame poverty and exclusion from education in Zimbabwe. 

This week, I read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn*.  The book came out four years ago, but with the instant “click and download” options I have now, there are publications I’m immediately accessing that would have been consigned to a list of “must reads” that end up taking a place in line behind other immediate priorities.

Even my firsthand exposure as an interpreter to individual cases of abuse did not prepare me for the book’s overwhelming statistics on the worldwide oppression of women.  “Every year, at least another 2 million girls worldwide disappear because of gender discrimination.”

We mostly think of discrimination here in the U.S. as unequal pay or unwanted sexual advances.  The country is in shock over the story of three women chained up in a basement in Cleveland for ten years.  As horrible as that story is, it is only a local sample of the daily victimization of women on a worldwide scale: forced prostitution, honor killings, denial of education, the absence of maternity care, lack of protection from HIV and STD’s, rape and beatings as a way of life for the dominance of women by men.

Reading about all these horrors would be unendurable without the book’s central message that when the  quality of life for women improves, it raises the whole country up.  The education of girls seems to be the most powerful solution to elevating communities and eradicating poverty.  The empowerment of women increases productivity, reduces infant mortality, and contributes to improved health and nutrition of the entire community.  I heard a report on my car radio this week, about a study of men and women whose brains were scanned while listening to a baby cry.  As if we needed scientific confirmation that women, and not men, are natural nurturers of human life.

This book touched a harmonic chord within my female soul when I read that it is more effective to give small sums of money to individual women than to throw huge sums at governments.  I may not be able to identify with an African women kept in a mud hut, forbidden to come out without her husband’s permission, but I grin in recognition when I read that if you give that same woman a mere $10 per month, she manages to squirrel enough away to sell a few more crops, buy a couple of goats, and then send her children to school.  Give it to the Male Head of Household, on the other hand, and it gets spent on banana beer and prostitutes.   Women take small resources and nurture them into big results. 

My daughter grew up listening to my personal evaluation of our lot in life as women: “Society is set up to give back to men an advantage over women that they biologically lack.”  We women can reproduce and nurture life.  Half the Sky tells of the violent, repressive social structures put in place to give men control over those reproductive and nurturing capacities we have.  Girls in America who don’t think much about giving away their virginity would face stoning, forced prostitution and death in other places on the Earth.

It makes you wonder if, by extension, questions of global warming and the stewardship of the planet shouldn’t be predominantly handled by women.  Mother Earth has been raped long enough.

We know that gender equality and improving the life of young girls is one of the most effective forces for change on the planet.  It’s Mother’s Day soon.  I’m all for recognizing Mothers, and empowering our girls, our future Mothers.

On Father’s Day, a banana beer should keep them happy.


*Half the Sky (Knopf, 2009)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Crime at the intersection of cultures

This post is republished here with the permission of Anne Copeland, Executive Director of the Interchange Institute.  I had the pleasure of taking Dr. Copeland's cross-cultural training course in Boston.
Consider this:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences. What right does your friend have to expect you to protect him? And what do you think you would do in view of the obligations of a sworn witness and obligation to your friend?

This dilemma was posed to people in 50+ countries around the world by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner* and the results have become part of the canon of intercultural understanding.

My mind jumped to this study this week when I read about the three college friends of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, arrested for allegedly trying to destroy evidence of Tsarnaev’s involvement in the blasts. Let me be clear – I am no apologist for the crime. It happened just two miles from my home and I’m as shaken and dismayed as anyone; the drone of helicopters overhead has only recently stopped its continual reminder of the tragedy.

But can we use our intercultural knowledge to understand these college boys’ actions?  Here’s what Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found: Across the globe, people responded to the driver/pedestrian dilemma very differently. In countries they labeled “universalist” (because they make decisions based on universal standards), people said that the friend had no right to expect protection and/or that the friend might have some right to expect it but even so, they wouldn’t lie under oath to protect him. In countries they labeled “particularist” (because they make decisions based on obligations to particular people they know), people were more likely to say they would testify to the lower figure to protect their friend.

The US, Canada, Australia and virtually all of northern Europe all scored strongly in the universalist direction – 87% or more of the participants from these countries (93% in the US) said they would not lie in court to help their friend. But in other parts of the world, more than 50% of the participants said they would testify to the lower figure. Why? Out of their obligation to a close friend and/or to protect the friend from what they feared would be unfair treatment by the police.

And there’s more: For universalists, the worse the pedestrian injury, the more likely they were to say they would tell the truth in court. But for particularists, the worse the injury, the more likely they were to protect their friend. Everyone’s moral reasoning was deeply shaped by their notion of competing loyalties to relationships vs. abstract principles.

I witnessed this myself one time during a training, when a co-trainer from a particularist culture (who, by the way, was the participants’ minister) virtually led his trainees (from his own culture) to conclude that protecting the close friend by lying in court was the right thing to do. Universalists say, “I wouldn’t trust a particularist – he’ll always help his friend first.” Particularists say, “I wouldn’t trust a universalist – he wouldn’t even help his friend.”

It’s this turn-the-world-upside-down perspective-taking that is the crux of the intercultural training we do.

Back to Boston: Two kids from Kazakhstan and one from the US figure out that their close friend was involved in the bombings and they set out to help him by throwing away incriminating evidence. Under police questioning, the Kazakhs tell the truth (perhaps because they misunderstand how egregious their conduct will be considered in universalist America) but the American compounds his crime by lying to the police about this involvement (perhaps understanding quite accurately how he will be judged).

In our discussion of how to explain the behavior these young men, I hope we can use our cultural understanding as a lens for focusing on some of the roots of this otherwise inexplicable act.


* Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture. McGraw-Hill.

Anne P. Copeland, PhD

Executive Director, The Interchange Institute

Crossing Cultures with Competence  Training of Trainers, Levels One and Two