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.



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The translator: a stranger in my own country

A couple of weeks ago, at a small friendly gathering of language professionals, I met an elderly gentleman who claimed to be able to pinpoint a person’s place of birth by listening to the individual’s accent.

He couldn’t correctly place me.

I might, despite decades of speaking English and French, still retain traces of the Polish I spoke as a preschooler.  I remember vividly being called a “dumb Pollack” on the school playground.  The “Pollack” part of the insult didn’t bother me as much as the prefix “dumb.”  The insult may not have been applied to me more than once or twice in my childhood, but I was determined to fight the image, especially since I had heard it being tossed around, almost like a catch phrase.  Being young and female (boys were allowed a punch in the nose), I went about it the wrong way.   I corrected our teacher’s pronunciation of Kosciusko during a history lesson.  She said “Ko-See-Us-Ko” and I winced.

It isn’t easy being “different”, being perceived as a foreigner.  We all want to belong.  In France, I strive to be one of the French.  I watch to see if cashiers in stores and wait staff in cafés instinctively speak to me in French, clueless as to my origins.  This past September, I walked into a tourism office in Bordeaux to ask for directions and I was asked “What département [French administrative district] are you from?  For our records…”  I smiled and said “Chicago!”  Under all my masquerading language games of hide and seek, I always have the comfortable feeling of two homes:  one in Chicago and one with my French family in Clamart.  A feeling of belonging. 

When I returned from France in the fall, a neighbor across the street had studded his front yard with “Trump” signs pledging to “Make America Great Again.”  My visceral reaction sent me back to Junior High, where I felt like the oddball living in the wrong place.  Or maybe this neighbor was the oddball?  I keep telling myself that Hillary won the popular vote!  The fact that Trump’s popularity could rise despite his anti-immigration remarks meant that were a whole lot of 2nd and 3rd generation Americans out there who were the grown-up versions of my bullies from the playground.  They weren’t going after me this time, but Mexicans and Muslims instead. 

Two days before the election, I had gone to visit my father at his nursing home.  A few residents were assembled in their wheelchairs in front of a big screen TV, watching (or sleeping through) a black and white video of a presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  I sat with my Dad and watched, fascinated.  When it was over, the Activities director got up in front of the group and asked “does anyone remember these debates?”

Younger than the seniors around me in their wheelchairs, I still remembered watching recordings of the debates.  I raised my hand and launched into praise for Kennedy’s and Nixon’s eloquence, decorum, politeness, the intelligent elaboration of a thought into speech.  No easy three-word slogans in monosyllabic chants intended to spark adrenaline.  No interruptions and name calling.  Instead, we had just watched a cerebral exercise between two contenders for the highest office in the land.  The irony of the situation was that they would both eventually win the Presidency, and both lose it prematurely:  one through assassination and the other through resignation following revelations of deceit and disrespect for the law.  I watched them and thought that they were both high and low points of politics in my lifetime.

It has been difficult for my age group to be seduced by politics.  My oldest cousin fought a losing war in Vietnam, coming home to angry protest.  The first President of my memory was assassinated and we never really learned why.  Johnson’s administration was fraught with protests and race riots that had terrified my parents and kept us from venturing into downtown Chicago, isolating us in the cookie cutter houses and manicured lawns of the suburbs.  We later saw Americans taken and held hostage in the Middle East, and a B-movie actor considered to be the Great Communicator of the United States bust up unions, starting with Patco (air traffic controllers?  really?), and begin the great shift of American wealth towards the wealthiest in the country, on the premise that it would “trickle down” to the rest of us.  He was almost shot to death as well.   Gun violence has been a constant.

During the discussion in my father’s nursing home, I started to explain to the three or four assembled caregivers my complete disarray over Trump’s popularity.  Didn’t people see that, as a billionaire Republican, he wasn’t really interested in helping low-income families?  He wants to scrap health care reform, the Paris climate agreement, the EPA, and reduce taxes on the rich!  I suddenly realized that I was drawing a small crowd:  other caregivers in their smocks and running shoes were gathering around, listening to my dialog with the activities director.  “Trump is a TV personality with loads of money and no governing experience!  And the people who are voting for him are voting against their own interests.”  The closest Trump was ever going to get to the working class was putting that baseball cap over his elaborate comb-over.

When I expressed my thoughts that Trump was playing to people’s fears, someone brought up terrorists and inviting refugees into the U.S.  I told them that the guys who shot up Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan in Paris were French citizens, born and raised in France. 

Ideally, America, spread out behind Lady Liberty lighting the path inward with her torch, should be one of the rare places on earth where human tendencies towards xenophobia are conquered by higher principles.  And yet all the fears are just below the surface, just waiting for someone to come along to whip them up and give them a voice.  Racism has always been a huge factor, but what really drove the election, leading Time Magazine to call us the “Divided States of America”, is the perceived division into “haves” and “have nots”, “privileged” and “takers” that blurred racial and ethnic lines.  And it all worked because of an even greater divider:  “informed” and “uninformed”.  A poll was released last night that showed that 54% of Trump’s supporters believe he won the popular vote.  When it comes to missing the obvious, it doesn’t take a lot of information to get people to vote against their interests.  Just a few piercing syllables of the right kind.  Three word slogans and adrenaline-spurring chants.  Truth and facts are the victims.

When the election was over, I left Facebook.  I was too “radical”, posting opinion articles from the New York Times, when really I was supposed to be using Facebook to be enthused about someone’s new shoes, a photo of an elaborate drink in a bar on a Saturday night, or the latest escapades of the new puppy in the house.  I find those things hard to compare with the consequences of national elections.  The last straw was being told by someone I “friended” to “redirect my time” to other pursuits, after I posted a map of the U.S. showing just how many Americans did not vote.  The woman who criticized my post was defending her right to abstain from going to the polls.

She wrote that she should leave these decisions up to people who know more than she does. 

I have known her since childhood. She was one of the kids who had been on my playground at school.



Friday, March 4, 2016

Let's win some money

The board meetings were drawing to a close.  The French directors had already risen from the board room table.  At this point, my attention to the conversation could move into a more casual mode.  I could physically sense my adrenaline level sinking, and the gentle onset of hypoglycemia that seems to come after a long day of interpreting. I always carry protein bars in my purse to counter my drop in blood sugar.

Adjusting his tie and buttoning his jacket, one of the French directors decided to end with some English of his own, always conscious of the linguistic divide between the French and American managers. 

But sometimes, an attempt to reach across that bridge only seems to make the distance seem wider.

“Let’s win some money!” he said, like a coach to his team at the locker room door.

The confused and amused looks from the Americans meant that I needed to gently step in with an explanation.

The French:  gagner de l’argent is what my colleague was translating into English. 

The single verb gagner in French can be translated a few different ways into English: as “to earn, to win”, and more precisely, when applied to money, “to make money.” 

The Americans in the board room all seemed to think that the Frenchman was suggesting they  go out and buy lottery tickets.

I was particularly charmed by this little slip of the verb.  One can say in French “se faire de l’argent” which is closer to “making money” but (between the use of the reflexive and the partitive) comes out sounding a bit like “let’s make ourselves a little (some) money”. 

My French board member was specifically thinking of “earning” in his translation. Winning money isn’t a bad thing.  I know a few Frenchmen who play the horses and the lottery.  The lottery is mentioned in Balzac and Guy de Maupassant.  But earning has a nobler connotation, because you can also earn a prize, like a Pulitzer or the Goncourt (“gagner un prix”).  The French have a different feel for money and monetary gain. Somewhere in the French psyche, I think that there is a concept that wealth is finite, and some have it and some don’t.  It is subject to dialectic, birth and politics. Americans dream of creating wealth, out of work or ingenuity.  Money in the French culture, however, is always a bit “tainted”.  Income is not discussed, a taboo subject.  A French client once told me of an adage in his native language: Ne vous moquez pas des riches.  Cela pourrait vous arriver.”  Don’t make fun of the rich.  It could happen to you.  Wealth is seen almost as some kind of disease.

Some of the French businessmen with whom I have worked have shown a sort of embarrassed discretion about any sort of financial success.  During a conversation with a long-time French friend who owns his own business, I felt comfortable enough to ask about his politics.  He unbuttoned his suit jacket.  “Look, Déborah,” he said as he held open one side of his jacket.  “My heart is here on the Left.”  And then he opened the other side of the jacket.  “But my wallet is on the Right.”  

We in the States could use a little of the French aversion to money, but that would be contrary to the famous American Dream.  It is the very cult of the American Dream that has cloaked Donald Trump, the Republican Emperor Who Has No Clothes (no substance, no policy, no vision), as a potential statesman.  Any time he compares himself to other candidates, it is always “look at how I’m winning in the polls” immediately followed by boasting about how much money he makes.  Trump sees himself as the answer to America’s problems because he knows how to make money.  Every argument he makes on his fitness to run the country is based on his personal creation of wealth.

He is more appropriately defined in French as a brasseur d’affaires, which translates as “tycoon” but comes from the verb for “brewing”, like brewing beer, cooking up a concoction out of a few ingredients.  A common drink, without the finesse of wine, produced in large quantities, topped with a lot of foam.

Elizabeth Warren, in her famous “Factory Owner” speech, has a more French view of wealth.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.  Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for…”

[Elizabeth Warren, 2011]

The reality of making serious money is the stuff of the American Dream, and retains a fairy tale, fictional quality for all but the very few who are able to pull it off.  And they are fewer and fewer these days.  Americans could do well to adopt some of the French sense that money is unpalatable.  Maybe then they wouldn’t be seduced by brewmeisters like Donald Trump.

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.