Wednesday, October 25, 2017

I'm on Facebook, therefore I am

Before personal computers, the Internet, and cellphones, we had our own version of Facebook in grammar school.  Called “Slam Books”, it was one of those adolescent fads before electronics.  Each student had their own spiral notebook that they passed around, with the invitation “please sign my Slam Book”.  The owner of the Slam Book wrote her (predominantly “her”) name on the first page, and then penciled in a question on the header of each subsequent page.  “What is your favorite color?”  “Your favorite food?”  Innocuous questions at first, but deeper into the book, the questions became more defining.  “Favorite band?”  “Favorite radio station?”  “Favorite movie?” “Cutest boy in the class?”  The books were passed around and each person that “subscribed” wrote their name on the first page next to a number.  All the answer lines on each question page were numbered, to identify the respondent with the response.

We only had two rock and roll radio stations in our area, so picking one over the other placed no taboo on the respondent.  But once you progressed to a choice of rock band, or singling out the class heart throb, you were pigeonholed.  The crucial question came in around page 10:  “Who is the most popular girl in school?” 

I succumbed to the trend and probably scribbled in a lot of pat answers in bad faith, for fear of being ostracized.  But I eventually made friends with a girl who chose an “adult” news radio over the stations playing the “Top Ten”.  I admired her courage.  She also admitted to liking Andy Williams.  This, in the early days of the Beatles.

Back home, I kept my own private notebook, and had started writing a treatise I entitled “The Anatomy of the Popular Person.”  My mother pitched my notebook out one day in her whirlwind housecleaning, which is a great loss.  I would love to read that now.  I remember being enraged that certain kids in the class were dictating how we should dress, how we should think.  If you didn’t conform, you were an outcast.  As children in school, we are overwhelmed with a need to belong.  I would never have revealed to my classmates that I was writing romance novels when I was ten, or that I would put my mom’s classical music on the stereo and practice ballet in the living room.  It was bad enough to be very tall with a huge overbite and glasses.  I eventually had my teeth straightened and wore contact lenses, but the damage was done at a very early age.  I was not one of the Popular Girls.  I finally embraced that stigma when two of my grown children, with advanced degrees in mathematics, gave me the proud title of “Outlier”.  I was and am an Outlier.

During his October 20th broadcast, Bill Maher qualified Facebook as “the place where thinking went to die”, bringing back memories of those adolescent Slam Books.  I left Facebook after the Trump-Clinton presidential election because I got slammed by “friends” for my political postings.  I admit that I still log on occasionally, because I have true friends here and abroad who post personal news and photos.  Just as in grammar school, I want to feel connected, and yet some types of connections alienate more than reunite.

Social media, ostensibly designed to bring people together, has become a place where “follow me” is taken to a new level.  We are comforted by finding people of like minds, but those thoughts and ideas must first be formed outside of the social media, outside of the Slam Books.  The unfortunate truth is that people spend more time on social media than reading a newspaper or a book.  Now someone can come onto Facebook and post political information that plays into that need we all have for belonging.  Our likes and dislikes are now statistically evaluated, our numbers are crunched and our trends are analyzed.  The Popular Kids in School now have big money behind them when they read our responses.

Maybe, someday we can overcome our fears of exclusion, of foreign peoples and religions, and finally arrive at a single reverence for our common humanity.   On the understanding that each human being is his or her own expression of what it is to be human.

Don’t Slam what I Am.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Tale of Three Cities... et trois bestioles

Case One:  Northern Indiana and a deer tick

Madame Rouquine is an avid gardener, an occupation which serves her twin passion for food quite well, since she grows her herbs just feet away from her table on her deck and her Professional Grade grill.  On a lovely summer’s day, unbeknownst to her, Madame Rouquine’s private space was invaded by the tiniest of blood thirsty raiders.  A tick, the size of one of her sesame seeds, decided to have lunch on Madame Rouquine’s porch, finding her soft sun-warmed shoulder to be the perfect picnic ground.
A few days later, Madame Rouquine, beset with various ailments, drives to her doctor who reveals that the bulls eye rash on her shapely shoulder is the calling card of a Lyme disease infection.  A two-part test is sent to a lab and a diagnosis of Lyme disease is made, setting off a round of state-of-the-art antibiotic treatments.  In due time, Madame Rouquine makes a lovely recovery and learns that Medicare and a shirt with sleeves are important coverage for gardening under her trees.

Case Two:  Just outside Paris, butterflies

Madame Clamartoise is dressing for work one warm summer day and suddenly has her vision disturbed by “papillons devant les yeux”.  She is seeing butterflies everywhere she looks.  She makes a phone call and drives to her local physician who immediately does a glucose test.  Madame Clamartoise’ suspicion that she has experienced an attack of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is confirmed.  Her doctor’s office gives her some cookies to raise her blood sugar, warns her about her sugar intake.  Madame Clamartoise might have abused the dose of her confiture on her toast that morning.  Feeling better, she gets back into her car and drives to work.  She will have follow-up exams.

Case Three: Chicago suburbs and mosquitos

Madame Traductrice went to a house party on the weekend.  Cake and coffee were served after dusk and Madame Traductrice, enjoying the cool evening air and the pleasant company, lost track of the time during a long conversation in the garden with a woman who was a devoted Francophile.  Once back at home, Madame Traductrice noticed several large itchy lumps on her legs.  Mosquito bites!  Having dressed in a lovely black lace skirt for the party, and not expecting to be outdoors, Madame Traductrice had unexpectedly exposed herself to a mosquito attack, despite electric bug killers on the patio.  Three days later, she suddenly developed a fever, joint aches, nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue.  Le total.  When the symptoms continued into a third day, she had someone drive her to the doctor.  At the front desk, the receptionist charged her a $50 Co-Pay for the visit.  This, on top of the hefty premium that she pays out of pocket for insurance as a self-employed person. The doctor agreed that all the symptoms of West Nile virus were present.  “However, the blood test is very expensive.  We don’t do a blood test unless you’re hospitalized.”   Sick but not sick enough, Madame Traductrice was recommended some probiotics for the nausea and told she would probably feel better soon.

Moral of the story:  When you encounter a nasty bug, you will receive better treatment if you are insured by the State.

Monday, February 13, 2017


One of my long-standing clients used to employ an International Director stationed here in the U.S.  That gentleman has since been relocated back to France, but I remember distinctly his passionate first reflections on his ex-pat experience.  He was so inspired that he sought me out, as the interpreter to his company, to propose a potential co-authorship of a book on French – American cultural differences.


I’m sure he was thinking we were going to break new ground.  I quickly lent him a few of the books from my shelf:  Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik;  French or Foe? by Polly Platt.  One of my favorites is Français & Américains, L’autre rive by Pascal Baudry.  And then there is the long-time standard, that has been around so long (1988) that it is now somewhat outdated [See Chapter Six:  The Telephone]:  Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience, by Raymonde Carroll.  I so love the title of this work in its original French:  Évidences invisibles.  The obvious that is imperceptible.


My intention was not to discourage my French friend, but operate instead on the idea that we had to build on what was already published.  Unfortunately, our project never materialized.


However, I live that same inspiration through my work, in tiny, perhaps insignificant moments of finding the right word in an interpretation, and watching the light of comprehension spark in the eyes of the two parties for whom I serve as a linguist bridge.


Any explanation of the joy and adrenaline rush from finding the ideal translation of an expression, in the blink of any eye during simultaneous interpretation, is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t interpreted.  The brain is firing away on all synapses.  The heart is beating faster.  But if the job is done right, the audience doesn’t even know that small works of art are happening.  Because, if the interpretation is elegant and correct, the interpreter appropriately fades into the background of the ideas being exchanged.  


This afternoon, I took a break from my computer to watch the press conference with Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau.  I watched as the press and government officials filed in to the room and I saw the familiar interpretation equipment on each chair:  a receiver and a head set.  My heart immediately went out to the professional in the interpretation booth.  This was a big meeting.  Two heads of government sharing a common border yet politically opposed on so many fronts.


Mr. Trudeau gave his speech and answered questions from the press in both French and English. 


Mr. Trump only attempted to listen to the interpretation through his earpiece.  He raised it to his ear, lowered it, and eventually gave up.


Some interpreters were denied entry to the U.S. following the Trump administration’s executive order on travel from several countries.  It was interesting to me that the press chose to focus on some of them as notable victims of the order.  I’m sure there were doctors or other professionals who were blocked from entry into the U.S., but I watched a report on an Afghan interpreter whose life was in danger in the homeland he was fleeing, for having assisted our military.  In a time when cultural differences are tearing nations apart, it is encouraging to see interpreters recognized.


Interpreting is a difficult profession.  I haven’t had my life endangered by my job, but I do want to make a plea for the respect of the invaluable services my colleagues provide.


Here it is:  LISTEN to the interpreter!  The person across from you has a message.  If you are not bilingual, put on the headset or the earpiece. 


Respect for the person’s message begins with respect for the interpreter.  You might just learn something.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Translator defends the Affordable Care Act

As someone who has been self-employed for over twenty years, I have known the joy of achievements that I owe to no one but myself.  Self-employment is not for the faint of heart.  Each conquest is accompanied by hours of unpaid work in unrelated fields.  I have had to be my own bookkeeper, sales staff, and IT specialist. 

Translation and interpretation are not occupations that can be learned overnight either.  I am constantly trying to improve my game.  I have to keep up reading in two languages.  Watching the French news on the Internet is essential.  Before the Internet, I actually listened to Radio France.  When I started working in my first bilingual job, not only were there no computers, but things like “airbags”, Mad Cow disease (I heard it misinterpreted as vache enragée), acronyms like AIDS and HIV and GPA ( not "grade point average" but grossesse pour autrui or “surrogate motherhood”) were not a part of current vocabulary.  Minus efforts to make almost daily contact with both cultures, my bilingual skills would be outdated.

Another aspect of this profession is that not everyone will need a French translator or interpreter, so freelancers are constantly recruiting new opportunities, living from one assignment to the next.  Anyone who is self-employed has lived through the precarious days of anticipating the next assignment, or waiting for the difficult client to pay his bill.  We have to pay our taxes quarterly, since there is no withholding by an employer.  We pay self-employment tax to cover Social Security and Medicare without contributions of an employer. 

One of the biggest responsibilities the self-employed individual has to take on is providing his or her own health insurance.  If there is no life partner or spouse to help with that, health insurance becomes a huge concern.

So let’s look at some math:

According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the median annual wage for a translator working in the U.S. was $44,190.  (Statistics from May of 2015. )

Under the ACA, a single individual’s Adjusted Gross Income has to fall under $47,520 to qualify for a plan.  To be clear on what the Adjusted Gross Income entails, a self-employed person can contribute $12,500 per year to a SIMPLE IRA account.  If a Health Savings Account is opened for that individual, (according to the insured person’s age), an additional $4350 can be deducted per year, to cover uninsured health costs.

            Translator’s median income                               $44 190
            Retirement account contribution                    -$12 500
            Health savings account                                        - $4350

            Adjusted gross income (estimated)                  $27 340

On that calculation, a translator is $20 000 under the minimum for coverage,  left with $2278 per month to live on, out of which the health insurance premium must be paid.

Even without the deductions for the retirement account and the health savings account, a translator earning the median income would still qualify for ACA insurance.

I have known quite a few translators and interpreters, and we don’t discuss our income, but I can imagine that pretty equally, there are some who earn more and some who earn less than the median.

We are part of one of the oldest professions in human history, and a very honorable one.  We can bring together human beings who would otherwise not be able to communicate with each other.  The job requires a good ear and the ability to catch delicate nuances of language, writing skills, speaking skills, a sense of humor, deep cross cultural understanding and a solid memory, both long term and short term. 

So, in view of all the personal investment in time and energy and good will required to stay alive as a freelancer, it is particularly abhorrent to me that we have a government that aims to take away the available subsidy to help self-employed persons pay for health insurance.

Subsidy is a word that carries all sorts of baggage with it.  I once had an argument with a gentleman I met in my parents’ Assisted Living facility.  He was not a resident, but a visitor, and had taken the occasion to spout about Obamacare to the beleaguered Receptionist who was obligated to stick to her post and keep smiling. 

“I don’t want my taxes to be paying someone’s subsidy for health insurance!” he complained.

I couldn’t help myself.  I asked him very politely “Sir, how old are you?”  He responded “67.” 

“Well, then, as a taxpayer, I’m helping pay for your Medicare.”

This did not make me very popular with the man, and he went out to the parking lot in a huff, climbed into his brand new car and drove off.

We are going to be governed by a President who reportedly, through tax loopholes, hasn’t paid taxes in 18 years, and yet he wants to kill the little subsidy, which is no more than a tax break that has to be justified on the 1040, and that keeps a lot of self-employed people insured.

With the example of France’s socialized medicine, wouldn’t it be great if Mr. Trump lived up to his recent statement that his Obamacare replacement plan will cover everybody?

At least, working as a translator and interpreter, studies have shown that I have greatly reduced any predisposition to Alzheimer’s by working in two languages.  That should make me less of a drain on the country’s health care costs.