Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Please give my your Divided Attention

I spent a weekend in an intensive workshop for court interpreters.  My work flow has been such lately that I have been looking forward to Brain Down Time on the weekends:  slouched in a chair flipping channels between a great old Katherine Hepburn film, a quick look at the Weather Channel to convince me that my three-mile power walk has to wait until the threat of rain subsides, and back to CNN to see if they are still hashing over the same terror threat.

So it took sincere Dedication to my profession to get dressed and drive into the city to commune with fellow interpreters. 

Happily, the weekend provided more than a couple of real highlights, beyond the instruction (which was excellent).

I’ve been thinking that, as I am getting older, I am not as polite and deferential as I used to be.  Impatience seems to be taking over some of my kinder impulses at times.  Maybe that is the result of being better at foreseeing outcomes.  Such as:  Taxes are due.  My computer will have a major crash once every two years.  All materials in the universe get dirty, need cleaning and eventually deteriorate.  Seasons change and come back again.  Those realizations have led me to planting more perennials in the yard than annuals, buying better paint, and upgrading my technical support options.
But where I really notice a change in me over the years is in conversation.  Even when engaged in casual banter with a friend or a relative, I find I am possessed by some inner demon who, while trying to listen to the person in front of me, is wildly tapping his foot, arms crossed tightly in front of his chest, and who wants to shout “get to the point already!”

In addition to that, if my gentle interlocutor has launched into a topic that does not rivet my attention, I’m suddenly thinking of when I have to do my bookkeeping… maybe I’ll make some saumon en croute for dinner, but damn… I didn’t defrost any puff pastry…  what time is the next train? … and (slipping back into the conversation at hand) when did I hear this same conversation before?
Something is obviously wrong with me.  Despite my impulses to connect with the person who is speaking to me, an inherent rudeness is taking over.

My problem could very possibly be a cultural overlap issue.  I’m thinking of the old Bible on French-American cultural differences, written by Raymonde Carroll[1]  that confirmed to me what I had learned about French conversation styles.

“… it is the ‘continual interruptions’ in French conversation that baffle Americans… what an American takes for an interruption is not really an interruption but plays a completely different role in French conversation.  Seen from the exterior, French people engaged in conversation do indeed seem to spend their time interrupting one another.”

However, hanging out with other simultaneous interpreters, I discovered that we all seem to share some similar habits.  Finishing someone else’s sentences, for instance.  Talking over each other.  Occupational hazards.

Something else I reproach in my conversations is a quality that scarily reminds me of Attention Deficit.  While capable of concentration when it is called for, my brain, when unleashed, can go off on various tangents, pulling my interest with it.  One remedy is to remain comically active in the act of conversation.  Pulling a juicy play on words out of the air.  Throwing in an infrequently used adjective.  Making a joke (if appropriate, of course).  But then, to do that, I almost invariably have to interrupt the speaker.

The one entertainer I admired above all other for his flow of speech was Robin Williams.  His brain was a light-speed pinball machine, with genius ricocheting off of any available word.  
He might have made a really great simultaneous interpreter.

Maybe I’m going to be too kind to myself here, but I’m going to congratulate myself that I have a talent for Divided Attention.  It is the curious split in thinking that allows a simultaneous interpreter to hear someone speaking and interpret that person at the very same time.   It is the ability to process an audio message while producing another one in another language.  Not just “listening and speaking” at the same time, but processing two messages simultaneously:  one that is incoming and one that is being created to be sent out in the next second.

I went home from the workshop on the train with another interpreter.  The only language we share is English.  Our conversation was not a ping-pong match of “my turn, your turn”.  It was a spiral of speech, where the ideas floated between us and we snatched half sentences out of the air to chart the course of our conversation.  Anyone listening to us would have thought us the rudest women on the planet.

But then, we did have moments of complete harmony…. when we laughed.

[1] Cultural Misunderstandings:  The French-American experience;  translated by Carol Volk, 1988 University of Chicago Press.

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