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