Language wordcloud

My Sheltered Life – Living on the other side of the coin

– by Gio Lester ©2017

Yes, I have lived a sheltered life. At least where languages are concerned. I have always circulated within groups whose languages I understand. As a result, I have no idea what it must feel like to rely on a stranger to convey your thoughts, ideas, perceptions, doubts, feelings, insecurities. I imagine it is frustrating.

I have always lived on the other side of the coin: I am that stranger trying to convey others’ thoughts, ideas, perceptions, doubts, feelings, insecurities. I can tell you all about the frustrations of not being trusted with all the information that will allow me to fully convey a complete image of the person I am speaking for. Yes, the ancillary information that adds nuance, connotation, dimensions to the sounds uttered by the individuals whose voices we, interpreters, become.

As a professional interpreter, I am trained to grasp and relay ideas, concepts, feelings, doubts, insecurities, ambiguities, etc. just as they were conveyed to me by the speaker whose voice I have become. It can be a child speaking to a teacher or a doctor; a CEO speaking to his managers; a doctor speaking to colleagues from a different country; heads of state at an international meeting; an expert witness at a deposition, etc. But I perform at my utmost best when information is shared and I can prepare for the task at hand. After all, my job is to make those I speak for sound as intelligently in the foreign language as they do in their native language.

Language wordcloudNot being able to do so can have serious consequences, as can be confirmed by the 37-year-old gentleman who lost his driving privilege for life because his interpreter could not relay his empathy and remorse to the judge. Or the husband who was removed from home, leaving his bi-polar wife without support because a Cuban policeman thought that pegar in Brazilian Portuguese meant the same as in Spanish. Or the Spanish lawyer who could not understand why dever in Brazilian Portuguese does not necessarily mean “shall” in English… Frustrating is not strong enough an adjective.

Last year, I had the unusual pleasure of working with someone who fully understood the role of the interpreter and took advantage of that tool placed at his disposal to help carry his message forward with full force. It was such a pleasure to receive his carefully handwritten “Notes to Interpreters” one day before the event. They contained only the highlights and uncommon bits of knowledge he was going to touch upon. The advance delivery allowed my colleague and I to research unknown terms and concepts, plus we had a brief meeting with the speaker himself a few minutes before the event to clarify any questions we might have. How refreshing! And it had the effects he was counting on: we could prepare ourselves and a bond formed between us that caused us, interpreters to do more for him, to go beyond what was expected. The audience’s response showed him that his tactic was effective.

I can only hope that his example will be fresh in my mind when I find myself in his position: counting on the good grace and knowledge of strangers to convey my message in a language I am totally ignorant of.

6 Comments
  • Helen Eby
    Posted at 15:07h, 15 September Reply

    I found it very refreshing to travel in Switzerland and Germany, where I had no idea what people were saying most of the time. I suddenly understood what my services meant to other people.

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 23:29h, 15 September Reply

      The closest I get to that feeling of “lost in the words” is when I go into one of the many Latin grocery stores here in Miami and the person behind the counter is talking with a long-time customer and I just marvel at their speed, the half sentences, the giggles and smiles… I don’t catch a thing!

  • Lilia Banrevy
    Posted at 16:27h, 15 September Reply

    Hello Gio,

    The thoughts you shared are powerful, wonderful and well received. Besides being an interpreter, I am also a traveler; and I love to travel to places where the language is totally unknown to me. I do this in purpose with a purpose: I like to feel that vulnerability. It keeps me grounded and in touch with the reality of my self and my profession. Thank you for giving words to the feeling.
    And, what a lucky, lucky Interpreter one is when a speaker shares his or hers “secret” presentation in advance! I’m often doing research on YouTube about speakers in order to become acquainted with their style. And when nothing is found and nothing is shared, I get to the venue super early hoping to see them rehearse and wishing they won’t read -too fast- from a script. LOL

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 23:32h, 15 September Reply

      Yes, my boothmate and I were very lucky, indeed. It was a motivational speech and the speaker was making reference to some powerful personal experiences and there were foreign names in the middle of it all – geographic landmarks, names of restaurants, names of individuals. His notes helped a lot! And he was also very gracious with his compliments to our work, which he could measure by the interactivity of the session.

      I agree: we need more information to be able to deliver better service.

  • Constance Marina
    Posted at 17:10h, 15 September Reply

    What a wonderful and gratifying experience that must have been for you and your colleague and for the defendant and his lawyer! How sad it is that what should be the normal procedure for litigators when working with interpreters is rarely done from my vantage point of fifteen plus years working as an interpreter. Instead we have to ask for relevant materials in the few minutes before the motion/trial and scramble to prepare outselves to the best of our ability. Thank you for this posting!

    • Gio Lester
      Posted at 23:34h, 15 September Reply

      Many times they don’t even bother to send me the notice of deposition or the case style… It can be frustrating. But I got to meet many neat court reporters because of that. I always ask them for the information to copy and they are very generous. Lawyers should be more aware of this need.

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