26 Nov The Legacy of a Voice
Sometimes, words just don’t cut it. As interpreters, we often
have to rely on facial expressions, body language, voice tones, quality of
speech… aspects of communication that we can easily take for granted. Of
course, life usually gives us the experience we need to understand the unspoken,
and we can “see” what somebody is trying to communicate pretty innately. When I
reflect on my ability to read people, I have to acknowledge that I was blessed
to have had a relative with a communication disorder. She was my paternal
grandmother, and when I was about 10, she was struck with a brain disease.
Although her illness severely limited her ability to speak, she made sure her
voice was heard loud and clear for the rest of her years.
Grandma’s ability to communicate was amazing. I remember she
would suddenly get inspired to tell us a story about a photograph on the coffee
table or would pull out an album to share and “talk” about. She would point a
lot, and would sometimes try to write words in the air (that was never helpful,
but we smiled and nodded a lot). Then she would say one of the few words she
knew. Her limited vocabulary included words such as mother, love, family
names, and a few deeply ingrained expletives. What truly told the story were
her expressions and her voice. When she was trying to express affection or
something happy, her eyes would light up and her words would be deep and slow…
like a long embrace. When she described something that infuriated her (and boy,
did she know how to express that!) she would become especially animated, and
sometimes fall into her own language of gibberish. These, along with writing a
word or two in impeccable handwriting, were the ways we would hear the stories
of her youth, events in her life, her joys, her sorrows. When she felt there
was more to say that she just couldn’t express, she would take us by both
hands, shake her head, and smile. Hugs always followed.
The tragedy that the older generation of the family felt
when she became ill turned into a blessing for all of the grandkids. We’re all
pretty sensitive people, many working in public service and other areas
requiring good communication and people skills. Could it be that our
personalities were shaped by this one incredible woman? Could it be that we
learned much of our patience and kindness at Grandma’s house? I think she
impacted us more than we may realize, to be frank.
When I think of my task as an interpreter, although I’m often
expected to simply interpret what is actually said, there are ethical
principles that allow me to take non-verbal expression into account. I wonder
how much of my interpreter intuition is attributable to Grandma? Sometimes,
when I find myself interpreting for an attorney-client interview (a less
restrictive environment than the witness stand, needless to say) there are
times when I simply have to stop and “read” what they’re trying to get across.
Could it be that I would lack some of the patience and intuition had it not been
for Grandma? I choose to believe that were it not for Grandma’s illness, I
might have a greater tendency to become impatient and dismissive when the
non-English speaker cannot, or will not, communicate clearly. I’m so thankful
for her blessing us and not letting a lack of verbal communication rob us of
such a sweet and loving soul. Thank you, Grandma, for all you were and all you
taught us from the heart.