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


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