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I’m in the early stages of preparing for the interpreting exam of the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters. If rumour has it right, the pass rate is 11 per cent, which makes me more than a little nervous. Stuck to the wall above my desk are images of St Jerome, patron saint of translators, and of La Malinche, the Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast who acted as Hernán Cortés’ interpreter during the conquest of the Aztec Empire. I look to them – to La Malinche, in particular – at the times when I’m struck speechless; when, after listening to a speech and taking notes, my concentration suddenly disperses, or when I am at a loss as to which path to take, which connection to forge between languages.

It excites me, interpreting. Translation does too, but the immediacy of interpreting – the sweaty palms; the requisite flamboyant, rapid inventiveness; the deep concentration that only comes with the simultaneous performing of so many tasks – sets it apart from its written sibling. The threat of failure, of being suddenly overwhelmed, always hovers near.

Even top-level interpreters are forced to accept failure as part of the job. French scholar Daniel Gile was a mathematician until an interpreter didn’t show at a conference in Japan and Gile was serendipitously called from the audience to take on the role, during which he became so fascinated by the cognitive processes he was experiencing that he decided to abandon mathematics altogether. One of his studies centres on the tendency of expert interpreters to make mistakes in simultaneous interpreting. He has developed the Tightrope Hypothesis to account for this puzzling detail, maintaining that most of the time interpreters work close to saturation point, and their errors don’t occur because they lack the necessary knowledge but because the mind doesn’t have the capacity to process the speech fast enough. Making mistakes in interpreting, then, is an occupational hazard, something particularly disconcerting for the perfectionists among us.

While growing up in country Victoria, interpreting wasn’t something I ever imagined myself working towards. But fresh out of high school I set off on a year-long exchange to Peru, a place I could point out on a map, if pressed, but about which I had only the vaguest idea. It sounded exotic, and after the tediousness and rigidity of school life I was ready to throw myself at the feet of anything that promised adventure. So acquiring Spanish was a happy side-effect of teenage restlessness.

A few years later, after finishing an undergraduate Arts degree and wondering, as so many Arts graduates do, what now? (Writing, yes, but how to earn a living?), translation struck me as something I might enjoy. I decided to enrol in a translation course but, after starting, found myself increasingly attracted to translation’s audacious sibling.

The more I practice interpreting, the more I feel what I felt those years ago in Peru when I started forging a way into my second language: the same scrambling for words, the same sense of taking creative meanderings on the path to the heady achievement of articulated meaning.

Take the following example. After a month of living with my Peruvian host family, I was still unable, for the most part, to say much to anyone. One day I wandered into the kitchen and, looking at the freshly boiled eggs, saw an opportunity to help. I wanted to ask my host mother the question, ‘Would you like me to shell the eggs?’

I had a problem: I didn’t know how to say the verb ‘to shell’. So I concentrated on finding an alternative until I mentally restructured my sentence into: ‘Would you like me to remove the eggs’ shells?’ But the alternative was worse because there were now two words I didn’t know how to render – the verb ‘to remove’ and the noun ‘shell’. Which led me to try again, this time resorting to thinking metaphorically. Bingo. A thrill surged through me; I was able to make myself understood.

‘Mamá.’

‘Yes, darling?’

‘Would you like the eggs without their clothes?’

(Screech of laughter.) ‘Yes darling, I want them nude! Nude is exactly how I want them! ’

So the feeling goes with interpreting: the steady concentration, the victorious high when you manage to render what is, in the case of interpreting, not your own thoughts into language, but rather the speaker’s words and actions into a different language. When you find a way not only to locate meaning but to carry it across cultural and linguistic boundaries.

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Much of the work of interpreting involves interpreting culture.

‘Culture’ sounds like something robust and thus immediately identifiable, but often it’s the smallest things that need to be intuited. In 1990, Christine Béal reported on her study of French and Australian employees of a multinational company in Australia, which showed how interaction could break down at even the basic level of greeting. While Australian employees considered the open door of a certain colleague’s office a threshold to a private space, and therefore paused at it until they had attracted his attention (at which time, upon making eye contact, they proceeded into the office), French employees interpreted the open door as a sign that the colleague’s office was part of the common work environment and thus walked straight in.

Another example, and one that falls within the Hispanic context in which I operate, is leave-taking in Colombian culture. Also in 1990, Kristine Fitch analysed a long conversation between a guest and his hosts as twice repeating a four-part sequence of the guest announcing his intention to leave, the hosts demanding a reason, the guest providing a reason, and the hosts vigorously denying the validity of the reason and offering an alternative. After the repetition of the sequence, the guest stayed a further hour.

If carried out in an Australian context, the behaviour of the hosts – their refusal to allow the guest to leave – would make for an uncomfortable situation; instead, the guest’s announcement would perhaps be lamented but the host would say something like, ‘Well, it was lovely of you to come’, before ensuring that the guest had a means of transport home. Yet if carried out in Colombia, this Australian behaviour would be understood as antagonistic; it would imply that the host had never wanted the guest present in the first place.

But perhaps my greatest lesson in the cultural forms I would have to navigate while interpreting came through personal experience, when I lived in Spain for six months. I wasn’t worried that I might experience anything like culture shock; after all, I could speak the language. Yet in Spain, I found myself constantly perplexed. Did the apathy and coldness I experienced signal that others wanted me to shut up? Did their rudeness mean I had offended someone? It wasn’t apathy, coldness or rudeness by Spanish standards. But by Peruvian standards it was, and I was unwittingly judging everything by this benchmark.

For example, at a market in Peru, the vendor might ask with a smile what can be glossed as ‘Do you want any-little-thing else, caserita?’ (The latter a term of affection for ‘customer’.) In Spain, I was met with a bored expression and the equivalent of, ‘What else?’ While Peruvians answer the phone with ‘Hello?’ my Spanish housemates would often answer with ‘What?’ Whenever my Peruvian boyfriend rang, my housemates would hand the phone to me, amused, declaring with a giggle that ‘A kind sir has requested the pleasure of conversing with one’. Their manner of answering the phone had made him think they were annoyed; so as not to offend further, he had become even more polite, which to them sounded archaic. So much for speaking the same language.

In order to interpret, then, it is not only cultural differences across languages that must be negotiated, but also cultural differences within languages, and across language varieties.

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Negotiating cultural differences also occurs in translation, of course, but in interpreting it is heightened because interpreting’s medium of delivery (speech) forces the cultural negotiation to occur in real time. Interpreting’s medium enforces a certain visibility on the interpreter that is absent in the translator’s case. This visibility – the fact that the interpreter is a real (as opposed to evoked) presence in the space and time of the message’s delivery – has led many clients (and, indeed, some interpreters) to mistake the interpreter’s role not as conveyer of the message but as advocate for one party.

In a police station, someone under interrogation might respond reactively to a question and then request that the interpreter not relay the immediate response. In a courtroom, barristers are often frustrated by interpreters, seeing them as interlopers in the legal process, as making their task of questioning more laborious and difficult. As with other so-called middle men, interpreters are at times regarded with suspicion or disdain, whether because they refuse to play the role of clients’ advocate or because clients suspect that they are doing so for the other party.

Yet this is not the only way that interpreters have been perceived over the years. The profession garnered visibility for the first time during the Nuremburg Trials against leading Nazi war criminals in 1945 to 1949, when the mode of simultaneous interpreting was first invented and utilised. Interpreting was suddenly on the world stage and the public was shocked for two reasons: many interpreters were young, and many were women.

Films such as The Interpreter (2005), in which Nicole Kidman swans around solving a mystery and enacting revenge whenever she isn’t sitting in the interpreting booth (a portrayal that conveniently glosses over the hours of preparation required for such work) have afforded high-level interpreting some glamour. Yet in a seminar with other would-be interpreters, the lecturer opened the talk to us with, ‘So, you want to be an interpreter for the UN?’

Many students were immediately attentive.

‘You should know that those who are have a high rate of divorce, alcoholism and suicide.’

Some aspirations were hastily revised.

As for how interpreters are perceived in the moment of interpreting, clients of course expect interpreters to have dual-language identities. Yet actually witnessing an interpreter move effortlessly between them can make some clients uneasy, as if the interpreter were somehow duplicitous (interestingly enough, the expression ‘Janus-faced’ is derived from an Indo-European root that has the benign meaning of ‘transitional movement’, which to my mind describes what interpreters do to a tee). The possibility of such feelings in clients must be considered and negotiated carefully, if only because the interpreter alienates each party every time she uses the other language through the simple fact that they don’t understand her. By facilitating communication, interpreters also, simultaneously, thrust clients into the dark.

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This all points to the interpreter as potentially occupying a position of power (no wonder those barristers can feel so uncomfortable), which brings me back to that historic interpreter whose image peers down at me from my wall: La Malinche. Hers is a remarkable story, not least because, in tracing the contradictions of her image in the Mexican consciousness, we can learn something of the ambivalent space that interpreters must inhabit. We can also learn how the role of interpreter has at times existed in the one person alongside those of negotiator, adviser, confidante and advocate, contributing to people’s readiness to confuse and conjoin these functions.

According to sixteenth-century soldier and chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, La Malinche was a noble firstborn who grew up speaking Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, until her father died, her mother remarried and the stepchild La Malinche was sold as a slave to the Mayans, at which time she learned their language as well. Enter the Spaniards. La Malinche was among twenty women given as slaves to Hernán Cortés by the Tabascan people and, because of her language abilities (it is not insignificant, I think, that as a child she was given the name Tenepal, meaning ‘one who speaks much and with liveliness’), she became Cortés’ interpreter. Thus, thanks to the very circumstance that had caused her to go from princess to slave, through a second twist of fate in her short life, she – a slave and a woman who occupied the space in which three classist and patriarchal societies intersected – became one of the most important figures of her time and place. She was no less than, in the words of scholar Zunilda Gertel, both the creator and disseminator of the discourse of Mexico’s conquest.

La Malinche has become a symbol of Mexico, which sounds unambiguous and straightforward enough, but her figure is anything but: she is the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim and the founding figure of Mexico all at once. She is seen as treacherous because she assisted the invaders; as a victim because of her status as slave (and, I suspect, because such an understanding is easier than acknowledging agency in a woman); and as the mother of postconquest Mexico because she gave birth to Cortés’ son, one of the first American children of both indigenous and foreign ancestry. Hers is a complex, contradictory role – always the best kind, I think, because it reminds us that nothing is ever simple, no matter how free from complications it might at first appear.

But what is unambiguous is that Malinche, as interpreter, occupied a position of power. The meeting of empire builders took place through her mediation. At one stage she sent for her mother and half-brother, who wept when they saw her, thinking she would put them to death – such was the power she was seen to embody. Malinche consoled them, forgave her mother for selling her into slavery, and sent them home laden with jewels.

This act is an important lesson for budding interpreters in not letting such power go to one’s head. The Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators’ Code of Ethics says it well: ‘Interpreters shall be unobtrusive, but firm and dignified.’

Malinche, I am sure, would approve.

As for me, sitting here writing these words, that 11 per cent pass rate is beginning to sound generous. There’s only one thing for it: back to practising. Wish me luck.