FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 18: Our human colleagues

18. Our human colleagues

While I feel a growing political and social gap between my London existence and Brussels, the geographical distance appears to have shortened considerably: my arrival has coincided with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. I take it hundreds of times during my 6 years living there. Flights are still favoured by regular Euro-commuters for the first few years. The old-fashioned route is still possible, too, with boat trains and ferry to Ostende, including a night crossing, which I resort to once when I miss the last Eurostar due to floods in England.

But rushing back from a translation exam at London’s Institute of Linguists, a few days after moving to Brussels, there is a new option on that November Sunday that had not existed the previous week. The 10:10 from Waterloo trundles through Vauxhall, just like my childhood train to Datchet, where the platform is dangerously packed with photographers. Then it rises up to swoop over Stewarts Lane yard, giving views of the Orient Express carriages, and round on a totally new connection to… Brixton. We trundle past the pubs my contemporaries hang out in. The same friends I started out with at university, are now, I imagine, having fry-ups in one of these trendy South London cafés, while I am carried out to my uncomprehended sprout exile.

The trains have a special shoe to pick up the current from the third rail, on this system peculiar to southern England. President Mitterrand comments that, due to lack of British investment, there is time to enjoy the scenery of Kent. Prime Minister John Major responds that northern France is flat and boring, and best passed through at 300kph.

As we leave Ashford, I have a strange, slightly exhilarating feeling- instead of slowing down to stop at a harbour station, we accelerate into a tunnel. Because it’s the first week of service, they bring all passengers champagne.

Being an interpreter of course means immediately losing oneself in the role of another, like an actor (at least for the duration of the assignment). We don’t have half an hour of darkness and champagne between our English and French territories of the mind- at least, not on a good day.

But there is a paradox: just as an actor accesses real feelings in order to be convincing in a role, so interpreters use aspects of their own personalities to empathise with speakers, and emulate them in another tongue. We need to “disappear” only in the sense that our own opinions are irrelevant- as speakers we must not become robotic. The greatest compliment we can be paid though, is for a meeting participant to stop noticing our presence, and quote someone else without feeling the need to add “According to what I heard in the translation”.

The balancing-act is the same as in my training. The example I am given by senior interpreters with my languages is the Spanish colleague who turns cricketing images from a Brit into bull-fighting images in Spanish. It’s an inspired technique which works smoothly, and vastly assists communication. “Sticky wickets” don’t really translate, but someone who has a profound understanding of English, and a superb command of Spanish, can do wonders with them. The only problem is when the enthusiastic Spanish delegate later takes off his headphones, turns on his microphone, and says “Since you’re talking about bulls…” and goes off into a whole new range of imagery. The corresponding interpreter from Spanish into English does, luckily, manage to take this particular bull by the horns, but ends up being bowled at least one googly.

It’s not only my London friends who don’t understand what I’m doing. I am surrounded by the uncomprehending. If you need an interpreter, you know a professional can provide you with the service you need- but if you knew exactly what that service was, you wouldn’t need them in the first place. This leads to a polarisation in the perception of our role: we are either talking-machines to be “installed” at some point between the sound system and the flower-arranging (many’s the time I’ve heard meeting organisers say things like “Right, we’ve hired the simultaneous interpreting equipment. Now we just need some voices to come out of it.”) or we are magicians, mystical Babel fishes speaking dozens of languages at once.

We are normally seated in raised, sound-proofed, glass-fronted booths, which of course doesn’t help with mutual understanding. But just occasionally we have to sit, and work, in the midst of our “customers”, for instance off the beaten track. Portable equipment has not yet been developed, so in the late 90s I find myself frequently sitting at a dinner table in imposing surroundings, armed only with a notebook and pen, and dreading the sound of a spoon tapping against a wine glass (usually just before coffee) which signals the onset of hostilities.

The first time this happens to me, on a “mission” to a European capital, I sit nervously at the table and greet my neighbours. A Portuguese gentleman rises to his feet, bows slightly, and enquires “Are you civil or criminal?” (I have researched the context of the meeting enough to know that he is asking about my specialisation as a lawyer. Even better was the Medicines Evaluation Agency, divided into veterinary and human medicinal products, where experts at the former, if referring to the latter, would call them “our human colleagues”).

“A little bit of both,” I reply, “I’m the interpreter.” He then ignores me for the rest of the meal. A bulbous-headed private secretary with a twinkle in his eye keeps coming up to me and saying “I hear the minister’s preparing a little bit of poetry for later, ha ha ha”. In the event it is a quotation from surrealist André Breton, given, with no warning, in the original French with a strong Spanish accent. No doubt the excellent red wine has helped us all see the relevance of the moon, the house and the heart to harmonisation of technical provisions, the mythical voyage to Ithaca, and what T. S. Eliot said about the past, the future, and getting lost in a bog. My French colleague has noted down the Breton for me, and I stand up, with an empty champagne glass, to relay all of this in English and call for a second toast. It’s not over- the Italian minister gives a vote of thanks, but not without Penelope unpicking her tapestry and Ithaca looming back into view.

I get real feedback from real people: an enthusiastic British delegate congratulates me on my English. “You don’t sound at all Spanish!” High praise indeed.

An Italian aide takes me to one side.

“What you said in English was very interesting, but it wasn’t quite what he said in Italian.”


“No, no. In fact, what you said in English…. “ (leans in conspiratorially) “…is what he should have said in Italian.”

The Portuguese gentleman seeks me out to say goodnight, and congratulates me on my work. “You are, indeed, both civil and criminal.” It’s all I’ve ever hoped for since.bull

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 17: Barmy Brussels bureaucrats

17. Barmy Brussels bureaucratscrisps

It’s rather bizarre hearing first hand about EU legislation, and then reading the UK media. The institutional structure can be complex, but my compatriots do their best to turn the opaque Brussels-speak into simple, colloquial English. What a great service they are doing to communicate complex matters to the British public.

Here’s an interlude with my top ten EU stories.

10. EU rules require bosses to assess risks to employees working in the sun all day. It’s up to national authorities to decide what measures to take in each industry, like handing out sun cream.

The Sun: “Hands off our barmaids’ boobs- the EU has declared a crackpot war on busty barmaids. Po-faced pen-pushers have deemed it a HEALTH HAZARD for girls to show too much cleavage. And in a daft directive that will have drinkers choking on their pints, Brussels bureaucrats have ordered a cover-up. A spokesperson for CAMRA said: ‘It’s just another blatant example of Europe gone mad.’’

The more serious and well-travelled Telegraph: “Bavarian barmaids are to be forced by an EU directive to cover up. Brewery owners, politicians, and most of the women themselves have condemned the legislation as absurd, claiming the “tan ban”, as it has been nicknamed, will destroy a centuries-old tradition.” They then include an elaborate description of how figure-hugging and revealing the “dirndl” can be.

9. EU national governments and the European Parliament agree amendments to the 1986 legislation, itself based on rules from the Industrial Revolution, protecting workers’ hearing.

The Sunday Times: “An edict from Brussels is to ban bagpipes.

8. Industry representatives have asked the EU to classify fruit and veg by shape as well as size, to assist with planning how many you can fit in a box for transportation.

The Daily Mail: “EC officials are trying to ban curved cucumbers.

The Sun: “Brussels bureaucrats ban bent bananas.

7. In line with EU recommendations, the UK government decides to have one standard design for lollipop-persons’ sticks across the whole of England and Scotland, to ensure sticks are instantly recognisable. This was originally proposed by the UN in 1968 and was implemented in Wales in the previous decade.

The News of the World (and Sun and Metro) go with:

STOP THIS MADNESS! The barmy bureaucrats of Brussels appeared to have gone totally bonkers last night… they banned the sticks used by our lollipop ladies. The Euro meddlers say foreign drivers may not understand the “Stop: Children” sign, suggesting they will simply drive on when a lady stands in front of them.

6. The EU Directive on the Protection of Animals in Transit states that live animals must be carried in conditions appropriate to the species. In the case of shellfish, this means ensuring that they arrive at their destination in good condition and fit to eat.

The Times, Telegraph, Mail, Evening Standard, Sun and Express go with:

Brussels says shellfish must be given rest breaks when on long journeys.

5. Approximately 30 people die each year in the UK as a result of a fall in the workplace. EU laws on “working at height” protect workers by asking national authorities to decide on appropriate safety equipment for each sector.

The Sun: “EU laws set to FORCE trapeze artists and tightrope walkers to wear safety helmets while performing.

4. Sometimes it’s twisted. The boss of the European Investment Fund joked that maybe Waterloo Station should be renamed, to avoid putting off French tourists.

The Sun and The Express quote the response of a Tory politician: “Eurocrats are trying to rewrite history.

3. Sometimes it’s completely invented. The UK, along with the rest of the Commonwealth, started going metric in 1965, 8 years before joining the EU. The European Commission’s only role is to ensure that EU laws democratically recognise pints, miles and ounces, for as long as the UK government wishes the country to use them.

The Sun: “Brussels is on a drive to rob our country of her identity.

Daily Star: “The British pint could be BANNED.

2. Sometimes it’s just a drive to make boring news sound interesting. For instance, geographical data used in EU-wide environmental programmes are to be made more interoperable between member states.

The Sun: “New EU map makes Kent part of France.

1. And sometimes they get it right. The EU member states agree maximum amounts of flavourers and sweeteners in foods.

The Sun went with “EC to ban prawn cocktail crisps”, which was true, because the UK forgot to request an exemption for crisps. But when in London they realised their mistake and requested it, the crisps were promptly “unbanned” again. Those barmy Brussels bureaucrats, eh, letting member states sell crisps with excessive amounts of sugar in! Well, at least you don’t need to worry about any of the ingredients needing rest breaks on long journeys.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS: 16 Helping straighten the bananas

16. Helping straighten the bananas

As the date of our final exam approaches, we are increasingly exposed to “real life” meetings, in what is called the “dummy booth”. Here we are dropped in at the deep end, as if we were already professionals, but do not switch on the microphone. We are listened to by more experienced collegues and given some final tips. A group of us are so alarmed by what “reality” means that we send a delegation to the course director to say that we are more afraid of passing than we are of failing. We think that we could scrape through if we are lucky with the carefully calibrated speeches that fellow interpreters give us in the test, but that it would be utterly irresponsible for the authorities to let us loose on the kind of weird shit real human beings seem to be going on about.

He tells us, diplomatically, that our reaction is a good sign- it is impossible to do a perfect job, and the fact that we realise the scale of the challenge shows that we are better prepared to meet it than those who think the whole thing’s a breeze. This predates Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” by almost a decade, and anyway, he is more of an Oscar Wilde figure. He is basically telling us that we are all lying in the gutter, with the saving grace in our case that we have calculated the exact distance to the stars.

Then the day comes, and I am finished by midday- but they cannot announce the results until 5pm, when all the other candidates have finished. My future boss winks at me though, and tells me to “have a good lunch”. I go for a massive curry, and return to find that I have been assimilated to the status of European civil servant, as a full-time staff interpreter, for at least two years.

Working full-time makes it harder to do my comedy shows, but I am told that there are hardly any meetings in August. My colleagues are vigorously encouraged to take their annual leave then, and I may be able to request some unpaid leave, a mini-sabbatical, to do London previews, and attend the whole Fringe.

I sign the EU equivalent of the Official Secrets Act, so here I’ll just be talking about meetings in the public domain, many of which in recent years have been streamed online.banana

I am a convinced European, starry-eyed and idealistic about the meetings I assist, whether they are of the Commission itself (consulting experts from member states before drafting legislation) or of the Council of Ministers (at which national representatives debate and amend the proposals before they are approved). It not only seems transparent and democratic (the UK is almost always the “awkward squad”, blocking what seem like enlightened and progressive proposals), but fundamentally good news for the people of Europe, whatever your political leanings. If you’d asked me whether my modest Eurocrat’s salary, coming, in a tiny proportion, from the UK taxpayer, was justified, I would have pointed out that at multilingual meetings the UK (and every other member state) could send its best people on agriculture, technology, or whatever it might be, without requiring them to speak foreign languages. If harmonised rules on trade, environmental protection, and so on, were agreed, then that was good news for British consumers (often saving them money, and ensuring they received quality imports), and for British producers (eliminating barriers to exports to Europe). You’re glazing over already, aren’t you? It’s really boring. Suffice it to say major progress was made with completing the single market (a capitalist’s dream, fervently supported by Margaret Thatcher), and with labour rights, equality, and environmental standards (music to the ears of socialists and Greens). But people in Britain appeared not to be hearing about any of these positive developments that were having a direct impact on their lives. UK politicians would take credit for anything positive, and blame “Brussels” for anything negative, and there were no curious journalists to explain the bigger picture.

I was developing a new kind of non-identity. Whenever I went back to the UK, nobody had a clue what my job was, or what I meant with my bizarre foreign-sounding words like “European Commission”. The occasional EU news story in the British press was about as exciting as what you read in the last paragraph (thanks for still being here!)- our beaches will probably be cleaner, but local councils will have to follow a new procedure. Woohoo! Fascinating!

But then came a British journalist who was determined to see the funny side, and post some more entertaining, provocative copy to explain what was happening in those arcane corridors of sprout-land’s power. One of my favourite meetings to work in was the daily press briefing, at which I would occasionally be the English voice of French officials, commissioners, ministers and journalists. I got to know the regulars in this slightly obscure demi-monde, like a maverick, dishevelled Telegraph correspondent who’d been sacked by The Times for inventing a quote. He himself was the son of a Eurocrat, and had been to the Brussels European School. The other Brits all dreamed of being posted to Tokyo or Washington, and were just killing time here, but he seemed to relish the challenge.

He had fun with stories like “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. I had been at most of the press briefings and couldn’t quite see where the stories came from. A French journalist told me he’d challenged him once in the bar, and got the reply Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He was describing what increasingly sounded like a fundamental threat to the British way of life.

Here he is, in his own words to the BBC, a few years later: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power”. Soon he was fuelling conspiracy theories, and when the Commission tried to set the record straight at the daily briefings, the British press would treat their earnest denials with some caution. Surely there was no smoke without fire? And as people began to prefer this wittily sinister version of reality, so the demand for it grew. Other correspondents of the period have testified, on the record, to the fact that news editors were now demanding similar fare. Only 3 types of EU story were permissible: 1. Faceless Brussels bureaucrats are imposing absurd rules 2. Scheming foreigners have ganged up on us 3. The plucky British PM has triumphed against a hostile continent.

When I visited the UK in the late 90s, I gave up on trying to explain what I did for a living. “Yes, yes, I’m helping straighten the bananas, that’s right.” A new agenda had been set by a playful, ever-so-slightly narcissistic journalist, Brussels-educated and son of a Eurocrat, whose name was Boris.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 15: Interpreter-land

15. Interpreter-landcake

I am learning to give an English voice to a speaker of another language in real time. It’s a strange sort of ticklish feeling, a mixture of drawing upon my knowledge and cultural insights, showing off, and making things up. Obviously I know that theoretically I shouldn’t really be doing the latter two things, but somehow I always get better feedback from my trainers when I do, and if I ever try to be totally responsible and disciplined, and stick to what I know, I am told that I am not “convincing”.

The trainers keep a logbook of their feedback on us, and I discover a new trick. More than the quality of the end product we are coming up with, they seem to prioritise our progress. Each step forward gets a tick, and inertia is almost as bad as a step backwards. So, I assume, if I deliberately take a step backwards from time to time, then I can take far more steps forwards than if I just stay where I am. Get more ticks. One day I screw up the conclusion to a speech, and notice that the trainer’s verdict is that I may have a general problem of not maintaining my concentration right through to the end. The next day I deliberately screw up the conclusion and the second trainer endorses the conclusion of the first. On the third day I go back to doing the conclusion normally, and get Brownie points for turning myself around and overcoming my personal challenge.

I notice the presence of real interpreters (people who actually care, who get a sense of satisfaction from this farcical game of Chinese whispers) and real Belgians, and feel inadequate in the company of both. I know I will never be able to do the job properly, nor will I ever feel I belong in this country. Although the capital city itself is mainly French-speaking, and French has yet to be displaced by English as the dominant language of the European Commission, it is not like France at all. On closer examination, it’s not actually the same language, either.

There is a lot of admin to be done, requiring visits to different offices with bizarre opening hours. I am feeling particularly inadequate one morning as I realise that my one and only suit, that I bought for a wedding, is showing signs of wear and tear, and that shirts do not look smart if you take them straight out of the spin-drier and put them on for work. I rush to an office that is open from 10 to 12 on Wednesday mornings, making it at 11:58, sweating, dishevelled, and hopeful. The key official has just left for lunch, but I really need his stamp in order to be registered at the institution. The gatekeeper looks me up and down, and says “Mais… vous ne savez pas repasser, monsieur?” (Belgian French for “Couldn’t you come back later?”). In French French this means “But… are you incapable of ironing?” I assume for several days that my career has been cut short due to my dishevelled appearance and creased shirt.

Because it’s such an unpredictable activity, in which we can easily come a cropper, a camaraderie develops amongst classmates, with a kind of gallows humour. More importantly, it attracts weirdos like me, people who are somehow indeterminate, shape-shifting, slipping in and out of different languages and cultures. You never quite know where you are with them, and after a while, this actually becomes a place in itself: interpreter-land. There is Dimitri from the Greek island of Ikaria, who sits up late watching Alan Partridge with me, constantly quotes his catchphrases just like my Edinburgh comedy friends, but has never visited the UK or any English-speaking country. Jorge from Madrid, with a degree in Arabic, who taught himself Finnish, but whose first love is Esperanto. Andrea who is simultaneously from the backstreets of Rome, and Berkshire.

In many ways, he is the best of both worlds. He loves a full English breakfast, but gently sautées the mushrooms in olive oil with garlic and parsley. He tells me that one Christmas, when his diverse family had convened in Rome, he wanted to make Christmas cake, and set off for suet. Being bilingual, he could explain to the local butcher exactly what he required. The butcher at first assumed he wanted kidneys.

“No, no, you know the hard white fat around the kidneys? I just want that. Not the kidney itself.”

The butcher fetched some kidneys, snipped them with scissors, and gave him a pile of suet for free. “Normally it goes in the bin! Er, if you don’t mind my asking, what do you want it for?”

“To make a cake.”

“A cake!?!”

“Yes, an English cake.”

“Oh, I seeeeeeee.”

Catarina comes from Coimbra, northern Portugal, and her deep eyes are sad. She threatens to return there at any moment. But she has arrived here from Germany, a country she describes as cleaner and vastly superior to Belgium in every respect. She refuses to speak French. I love a challenge, and do my best to cheer her up and get her to enjoy life for a few months. But even when she laughs, she is sad. I already know that my next love will be the Portuguese language.

The people who did this same mixture of crash course, induction into a cult, and public speaking competition a few years ago, and are now teaching on it, are equally fascinating. Hubert, who I’ve never seen without a bow-tie, has just been given a medal for length of service, but minces around the room, doing a bizarre mime, and maintaining “I carry my years like a balloon!” Kunteel, a British Asian public-school rugby-player with a hip-flask of cognac, drolly introduces himself with the words: “I’m not going to try and say anything clever.”

My hero, the one person who makes it all worthwhile, is Christos, who is in charge of the Greek group. Within days of making his acquaintance, I find myself discussing the nature of the cosmos with him in front of a bottle of white wine that magically refills. He is clearly an artist, and imbues in me a Greek respect for tradition and quality, combined with a disrespect for petty conventions and people in authority. He says that if it were up to him, the aptitude tests would not be about language knowledge. “If I find the right mind, that mind will learn a language. That’s the least of our worries. There are too many people around here who have languages, but nothing else. Interpreting is not actually about language at all- it just happens, like most things, to use language.” My teaching is still based on this principle.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 14: Sweet… but it can get sticky

jamie14. Sweet… but it can get sticky

One of the “jury” assessing my ability to understand short presentations in my languages, and render them in eloquent English, was Leopoldo Costa. A slight, unassuming, charming man, as I remember him, he was bilingual Italian-Spanish, interpreted into both from all 7 other official EU languages, and was studying Finnish, his first non-Indo-European language, to be ready for when Finland joined the EU the following year.

A prize for relaying idealistic platitudes about the future of Europe has since been named in his honour.

He gives me what I later discover is his standard speech for Spaniards who claim to know Italian, but have yet to show evidence of their knowledge. He has native fluency in two languages which have a certain overlap of vocabulary, if not necessarily nuance, in some fields more than others, so it is not much effort for him to knock together an Italian speech which gravitates towards key terms that would be unguessable to a non-Italian-speaking Spaniard. This, I suspect, is designed to catch me out, and expose my subterfuge. “Dick” has remained unflappably polite and generous in his phone calls with me, but his analysis of my situation has clearly been astute. The speech is about basil in window-boxes deterring mosquitoes.

Ironically, because it is a day-to-day subject (herbs and insects have cropped up in my lived experience of the language), I fare better than I would with a speech on politics or economics. The “aptitude test” is a kind of talent competition. A dozen of us start out at 9a.m., but by lunchtime we are only three. After each round, we are either dismissed, or given a simple personalised tip for the next (mine is to stop umming and erring, and wasting time being perfectionist- I remember thinking “Seriously? That‘s all I have to worry about? That‘s easy to rectify!”) I pass, and am told to report for duty on the first of the next month, to receive training from all three languages into English.

The course will be only six months long, with eliminatory tests every two months, a reasonable grant to cover living expenses, and if all goes well, a two-year full-time contract at the end of it, with the possibility of taking a competitive exam to become a European civil servant for life. It sounds fun, and when they find me out in a few months and send me packing, I won‘t have wasted much time, or any money (a very different situation to that facing misguided aspiring interpreters these days). Still, to give myself a fighting chance, I ask to postpone my training by a few months, to go to Italy at my own expense, and knock my more formal vocabulary into shape. I even start reading The Economist, a sure sign of desperation.

I learn a lot: how to look in 5 directions at once for oncoming mopeds, how driving requires an incredibly vivid and contorted sexual imagination (in case you need to pass comment on another road user), how to buy breakfast for a waitress (I ask “would you like a small croissant?”, and she replies “No, it’s all or nothing for me!”), how “business lunches” in restaurants are tax-deductible, so one should always phone one‘s self-employed friends around midday, how the receptionist is correct when he says you really won‘t get any sleep if you stay in the room next to the “Dominican ladies”, and, most importantly, how to interact. Rather than unambiguously sharing facts, priority goes to smiling, inappropriate flirting, and evasion of personal responsibility. I find myself feeling increasingly comfortable with that. A charity worker in vertiginous heels leaps out at me in the street, seizes both my hands, and shoutsCercavo un angelo- e eccolo!!” (“I was seeking an angel, and one appeared!”) If you want to find your way, use a map. If you ask a human, the response will be… well, human. First they will ask you where you’re parked. If they eventually understand that you seriously intend walking, they will send you the wrong way, and become defensive when challenged. Or they may walk with you, and buy you a coffee.

Restaurants, interestingly, are about food and eating. This is an extremely serious business, more so even than in France, and you have to play by the rules. Not only is there profound innate resistance to the idea that the customer is always right, the foreign customer is in fact always wrong, by definition. You cannot have parmesan on a seafood sauce- I mean, really, what were you thinking? You cannot have a cappuccino after a meal. You might do that sort of thing back in Germany, or whatever barbarous place you come from, but I’m not having that sort of nonsense on my premises.

I am even told off for stirring my coffee too vigorously in the station cafe. I order a sandwich. They tell me I should have eaten the sandwich before drinking the coffee. They ask if I want it warming on the grill. I say no. They say it is better served warmed. I say I have a train to catch. They explain why it is better warm. I miss the train. This is basically the story of my time in Italy, with one significant omission: I am in love. Once you get a bit closer to eating like an Italian, thinking like an Italian, and speaking like an Italian (which you must do strictly in this order), there is no going back.

(Your palate has been ruined for places like “Jamie’s Italian”. You stare in disbelief at antipasti called “Jamie’s dance around Italy. The pasta comes with a jumble of strong flavours, as if a four-year-old has been allowed to choose ingredients for the first time. The sad realization dawns that words like “Italian” have no meaning outside the country. In the English language, the phrase “going to an Italian restaurant” has nothing to do with food, and is simply code for inviting low-level sexual harassment from a waiter.)

The Italian relationship with language is just as special. Again, once savoured, never forgotten. Nothing matches the pleasure I feel interpreting from Italian- whatever the frustrations, it unfailingly gives me a thrill. Just the other day:Esiste dunque la possibilità di vivere tranquillamente nel capoluogo toscano e andare a lavorare, ogni giorno, in quello emiliano. O vice versa!” Yes, folks: “You can commute between Florence and Bologna.

I’m not saying emotional manipulation is rife. Life is too much fun for that. But at the next table, the waiter forgets to bring a child’s meal. The mother turns to her 5-year-old and says “Non te lo fanno!” (“They’re not making it for you!”), which causes a tantrum. The child must suffer, visibly, to make the waiter suffer. At the time, I find this perplexing- but I remember this moment, later, when I’m interpreting Italian politicians. It helps me more than many books.

My training in Brussels is given by the interpreters themselves, between assignments. It is very closely focused on the precise job we will be called upon to do (again, unlike the situation for students now). There is no textbook answer to our questions, just a range of personalities to inspire us. They are sometimes mutually contradictory. The head of the French booth gives me a speech which concludes “La culture c’est comme la confiture. Moins on en a, plus on l’étale.” (literally Culture is like jam. The less you have, the more you spread it”, but used to imply someone is a vacuous show-off). I don’t understand the verb “étaler”, let alone the finer nuances intended, and say “Culture is like jam. Sweet… but it can get sticky.” I am praised for my creativity. At my two-month exam, though, I am told “Mr. Perret clearly has the makings of a good interpreter, but must learn not to bluff.” Treading that middle path has been a balancing act ever since.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 13: Formal qualifications


13. Formal qualifications

Oxford was, overall, an extraordinary, nurturing place. Although I had no idea of it at the time, the tutorial system was also an excellent preparation for being an interpreter, since it involved trying to hold your own with an expert, being picked up on for any slip in intellectual rigour, and in a sense giving supremacy to the spoken word over the written. Not only was it based on a tertulia-style dialogue, but whilst in theory one was “reading out an essay”, in practice many was the time I left gaps (such as the entire conclusion) and improvised on the spot.

I applied to stay, and pursue literary research with Eric Southworth, dedicatee of the Spanish novel, and inspirational lecturer of mine. In the middle of my final year, I was awarded a one-year research scholarship to Spain, on the basis of an exam in which I was in competition with doctoral students.

But despite this good omen, I then narrowly failed to get a First Class degree. I’ve been looking through the dozen or so notes I received, via the Hogwarts-style pigeon post, from my tutors and other dons (including supportive poet David Constantine) with their mixture of surprise, commiseration and solidarity. “I really didn’t see that coming”, was a common thread. The British Academy withdrew its offer of DPhil funding, so whilst I still had a well-funded year in Spain to look forward to, I didn‘t actually have anything to research. Constantine, who was appointed my supervisor, suggested I go back to the Muses of Granada, and so another year passed in La Tertulia, writing, translating and performing. I worked with Antonio Muñoz Molina, best-selling author and neighbour of mine up on the hill, who was still barely published in English. My 15 minutes of fame came when he wrote an article in the national press about how invigorating it was to collaborate with one’s translator (probably a diplomatic way of saying I was impertinent, again).

As my scholarship ran out, and the time came to look for a job, the number one challenge was coordinating phone calls and paperwork to ensure everything was in the right place at the right time. A typical day would involve me queuing at the locutorio to place an international call, hoping Mum would be at home in Datchet, so that I could ask her whether a letter had arrived containing a form that I needed to fill in. For one job in Madrid I was told openly over the phone that they wouldn’t give it to me because I lived in Granada. “But I can move to Madrid tomorrow!” “Yeah, you say that, but you’re just some guy on the phone in Granada. You have to come by and meet us.” The first potential employer who would pay travel expenses for my interview was the European Commission, so I didn’t think twice.

I had already considered a career as a conference interpreter, and visited the most prestigious school in Paris. I had bought the key theoretical and pedagogical works in their bookshop. Whilst there, I enquired about admission criteria and was told “Don’t bother applying, you need at least three foreign languages.” (I only had French and Spanish, since Catalan, of course, didn’t count.) I knew one interpreter in Oxford, who lived in Bill Clinton’s former house, and he had offered succinct advice over dinner: “It’s a world dominated by malevolent, self-important, superficial middle-aged women. I don’t recommend it at all. The only thing that might be of interest is the “stage” (traineeship) in Brussels, for which they directly recruit bright young things from all over Europe- now that could be fun!”

But there was some question over my eligibility there too. They also required three foreign languages, so I unhesitatingly put Italian down on the form, on the basis that I had been speaking it for a year with my first girlfriend, a half-Florentine half-Roman au pair in Oxford who learnt virtually no English thanks to me, but gave me a superb crash course in two difficult dialects, blasphemy, superstition, and the problematic relationship between objective reality and expression that lies at the heart of all communication in the language of Machiavelli.

I was told to phone Brussels to clarify my eligibility. The phone was answered in an unfamiliar Northern European style, not with a repetition of the number, but with the speaker’s name, and a slight hint of enquiry: “Fleming….?”

I pursued my enquiry in French, out of politeness (after all, I was telephoning the country of Hercule Poirot, right?) and felt a complete fool when after a few minutes, my interlocutor, whose French had been impeccable, asked if I spoke English, and we switched to that language, in which Mr. Richard Fleming was clearly a native. He told me he had a son just starting at my Oxford college, was an Oxford man himself, and had just spent an agreeable few months in Granada too. From his demeanour, I naturally assumed he was the proprietor of the ubiquitous language school chain “Academias Fleming”, which claimed to teach English to Granadinos with an urbane, sophisticated touch. Then we got down to business:

“I need to check a few things. You don’t have any formal qualification in Italian, correct?”

(I waited for the next question)

“You say you visit the country frequently?”

(I know that one, I thought.) “Yes”.

“When you are there, do you understand the television news? Can you follow?”

(Trickier, since I had hardly watched any TV news while I was in Florence- it had seemed as sensationalist as the chat shows- but surely there was only one possible right answer, here?) “Yes.”

“That’s fine, we’ll set up the aptitude test. Is your current domicile Granada?”

(Completely floored by that one). “Sorry, can you repeat the question?”

“Are you just visiting Granada, staying with friends, or do you have some kind of rental contract?”

“I have a contract.”

“Please bring a copy. We’ll pay your travel to Brussels.”

I remembered Dad’s story about his first job interview in London, just after the war. This was an exciting development for a Brummie, especially when they offered to pay his train fare. He arrived at the swish hotel, slightly early for his appointment. They took his name and sent him to the reimbursement desk first. He handed over his ticket.

“Thank you, Mr. Perret. Second class return from Birmingham, yes…”

“That’s right.”

“Very good. Here is your fare. Thank you very much.”

“Er, where do I go now, please?”

“That will be all, thank you. You are free to leave.”

“But I came for the…”

“We are only interested in people who travel first class, Mr. Perret. It’s a different class of person. Goodbye.”

I felt completely out of my depth, and a fraud, making arrangements to visit Brussels. EU interpreter, from a language that I could only speak in the sense that I could swear colourfully in a regional dialect? Why had I embarked on this?

I had been given a different number, a private line, to finalise the arrangements. A familiar, suave voice answered, this time on first-name terms. I heard, with a tone of long-term expat insouciance, the one word: “Dick…?”

I had to hang up and try again.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 12: A toddler in the boxing ring


12. A toddler in the boxing ring


Previously, I had “done” a thing called Languages, the way other people had “done” History or Politics, as a sort of stepping-stone. Now I am back in England, they have graduated, and I am turning inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain before leaving. It is a recent novel, set in Oxford, and I think it might be an interesting experience to look at the city through Spanish eyes, as I return, tainted by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish.

The book is narrated by the Spanish “lector” (a glorified, and, this being Oxford, indeed prestigious, visiting native-speaker assistant), a role now taken by my friend and confidante, the witty and fascinating Xon de Ros. In fact, the narrator lives in the very same pyramid-shaped house where she and I share wine and cheese. I say “the very same house”. In this fiction, the author makes real a house that I think I already know. I can no longer visit Xon without having the impression that I am stepping into a novel. (It is a tribute to her fascination that this is not an entirely new feeling).

There is something deliciously subversive about the underdog (the walking dictionary) turning his gaze on the pompous professors- especially if you have been dismissively called “an impertinent boy” by a flesh-and-blood one, when you tried to argue your case with a hint of sarcasm. Other members of this Sub-Faculty are described with great warmth, which only heightens your own affection for the versions of people you thought you knew on your last visit.

On reflection, maybe I had been impertinent. There was a game going on, about our respective roles. I was fresh out of school, in one of my first “grammar classes”, and, quite simply, I shouldn’t have answered back in front of 20 people from different colleges, while under his authority (he was running the class, like it or not), and on his territory (in a college so prestigious any references to books in its library would be followed, as his eyes scanned the room and noted the presence of outsiders, by the phrase “I’ve no idea whether you might have this in any of the other college libraries”). The fact that my remark got a laugh from my fellow students obviously didn’t help.

Some lecturers enjoy variations on the Socratic dialogue. A friend, recently appointed in Oxford, got a shout from the back row “We can’t hear you”, so he tried to bellow for a bit, and then checked in: “Is that better?” The reply: “Well, it’s certainly louder.”

When I am lecturing post-graduate students or professional interpreters now, I embrace any heckles in the same way I would when performing stand-up i.e. if it hits the mark and/ or is funny, the audience member is figuratively elevated onto the stage, or podium, for a moment. They have helped break the routine, which is a very powerful disruptive energy- it is my role to ensure that their contribution adds to the momentum of the class, rather than competing with it. Since we are now abandoning the script for a different genre, the rules of improv apply: I must do a “Yes and…” rather than a “Shut up! So anyway…”

A heckle may hit the mark either with its deeper truth, or expression of what is silently on the audience’s mind, both of which are hugely valuable things for us all, especially me, to hear, and in this case help me avoid the constant insecure badgering “Is that clear? Is that surprising? Are you convinced? Can you all see how that would work, yes?”. But if it neither hits the mark, nor is funny, I will ignore it, and mercilessly shut it down if it persists. In these cases, I am taking the gamble that the majority are thinking “Shut up and let him get on with it”, and so I try to implement their will.

I felt unjustly shut down by an authoritarian, so I did what most people would do in the circumstances: I performed and recorded a rap in his distinctive voice and posture, consisting mainly of the sample Spanish phrases he used to explain the same points of grammar I had covered with Margalida in The Old Trout in Windsor, but with a mixture of the weirdly archaic (“Si yo tuviera dineros, me compraría un caballo”-a reference to buying a horse that sounds a bit like “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, though I am reliably informed the textbook equivalent of this is “mi sastre es inglés” or “My tailor is an Englishman”) and the downright wrong, given as counter-examples, a practice that, even then, struck me as of dubious pedagogical value, given the way curious-sounding phrases tend to linger in our minds (“Como andaba por la calle” as how not to translate “As I was walking down the street”). (When points of language crop up in my classes now, I try to stick to the motto “Don’t tell people how you don’t say something”).

The upshot was that I earned myself an enemy in a high place. When Xon told him that she was attending a college ball at which I was performing, as my guest (“Just good friends”, remember) he strongly discouraged her on the basis that tongues would wag. She apologetically withdrew her acceptance.

What happened in my first grammar class was symptomatic of a wider malaise: I think a generational change was taking place on several fronts. Firstly, the authoritarian approach, whilst still firmly rooted in Spain, was undermined in Oxford by the potential of the tutorial, that fabulously Socratic enquiry that propelled a toddler into the boxing ring. It wasn’t that we weren’t immediately pummelled and flattened- it was the fact that we were allowed to punch back at all that made the difference. After landing a timid blow on the Goliath whose books adorn the shelves behind you, you cannot take a didactic, out-dated, prescriptive pronouncement from on high without at least throwing in a firecracker one-liner to test its intellectual foundations. Secondly, thinking on “grammar” had moved on rapidly since this particular don had trained. In parallel with the postilion prose, we were receiving linguistics lectures from a dynamic new recruit who had just christened her first-born Noam. Thirdly, for all sorts of other political and economic reasons, the teacher-pupil relationship was changing. This was true of the outside world, and within a decade I was noticing it on all the MA courses in the UK on which I was teaching, but perhaps Oxford has remained impervious to the trend. Anyway, two snapshots of it: a course director whose number one priority is pre-empting, and if all else fails, rebutting, student complaints; and a post-grad student in the early 2000s, who just could not hear criticism. When light finally dawned, I was confronted with the remark: “I get what you’re saying, but I’m paying my fees for you to tell me how brilliant I am, not for this shit.”

She probably felt I was impertinent, too.