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.