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  And then there is the long-time standard, that has been around so long (1988) that it is now somewhat outdated [See Chapter Six:  The Telephone]:  Cultural Misunderstandings, The French-American Experience, by Raymonde Carroll.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.


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