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.”
“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.