Je ne suis aucune Madame

This post is dedicated to Alina.

Once upon a time, The Poetess and I were flying together on a plane of the defunct Malev Airlines, and, since talking to people when I fly keeps me from barfing and since I was in a shitty mood (I think), I decided to pester her about something completely innocuous like the shaking off of dead skin flakes. During this time, of course, I was gracefully picking my teeth for something stuck in there at breakfast (speedy departure; don’t judge!). One of the conclusions of that conversation was that neither of us is a true lady. We came up with examples and decided we do not fit the criteria.

Last week, for the first time in my life, someone referred to me as Mrs. [insert last name here] and it startled me; and, naturally, with me being the lady that I am (after a little wine), the most mature thing I could do at that time was to send a collective message to colleagues and students, to make it clear that Mrs. [last name] is my mother. Oh, la classe!

No, it wasn’t the first time in my life actually, but it was the first time someone referred to me that way in Romanian, which made it even scarier. Not even telemarketers have done that, because they are stupidly instructed to call people Miss/Mrs./Mr. + first name because some idiot decided it doesn’t sound as childish as it actually does and that it creates a connection  (it doesn’t). In the report my boss drafted after that awful meeting I told you about here, I am referred to as Ms. [last name] which was also not as scary. I like this title, it’s very convenient, and I use it very often, too. Unfortunately, Romanian does not have an equivalent for this handy feminist concoction, so we are stuck with resorting to Mrs. (if we are polite) or with the ever-ridiculous question “So are you a Mrs. or a Miss?” (if we are sleazy jerks).

Why did I bring all of this up? Well because one of the things I have been trying hard to get used to since I started working in Brussels (and occasionally Strasbourg), is being called Madame about twenty times a day. “Bonjour, Madame”, “Oui, Madame”, “Du thé ou du café, Madame?”, “Merci, Madame”, “Bonne journée, Madame!”, ya know, the usual. I just can’t…

I wish I had a scientific explanation for my aversion towards this word, but as you may have noticed I don’t have scientific explanations for anything much. The result of my training, I think; most interpreters know a little bit about everything, but few have in-depth knowledge about a particular subject. Anyway, the first, most obvious reason that I could think of was the cultural difference. In Romania (at least in Transylvania), it is rare that people address each other just by saying Mr/Mrs/Sir/Madam without anything before or after, anything like a title, a last name, that person’s occupation or even an adjective or a pronoun to show affection or consideration. It just sounds BAD! Don’t get me wrong, I have heard it used, but never by well-educated people, and whenever I hear some chav saying “Doamnă” (Mrs/Missus/Madam/lady) without attaching the vocative to anything, I just shudder. It’s like using “Mister” or “Missus” the way children sometimes do in English.

Now “Domnișoară” (Miss) is very often used without any concern for the fact that it is rude, condescending and reeks of unwanted familiarity, but that’s the kind of society I live in. I have never heard anyone complain about this so far, so is it all in my head? Well, the Romanian code of good manners doesn’t say much on the subject. The polite forms of address almost always include a name or a profession after the title, but apparently it is also considered acceptable to address someone with a simple “Domnule/Doamnă” followed by nothing, in the case of strangers.

What do I do? Nothing. I just don’t use any titles at all when talking to someone I don’t know, ever, in any language. I actively encourage my students to not address me using the politeness pronoun and I ask people to call me by my first name. Can this all be explained through a mere cultural difference? Probably not. It is also true that us Transylvanians are less formal than the rest of Romania, at least from what I’ve seen, but surely interpreters should find it easy to move past cultural differences, no? I mean, I haven’t heard of my Spanish colleagues having any issues with being called “Monsieur” or “Madame” in Belgium or France, even though Spain is the least formal country I’ve ever been to.

The truth is I am afraid of formality. Though I’m fairly reserved in my relationships with people, I don’t think I’ve ever gone past college in this respect. For one thing, I went from struggling student to well-off globetrotter in a pretty short span of time, and, for the next, I’m afraid of getting old. When did I have to start dealing with grown-up stuff anyway? Who are all these people in airports, and restaurants, and conference venues, talking to me like I’m an adult? I guess, then, that it is also a form of regression that I may sink into, as a way of seeking shelter from the responsibilities of my new life, as well as a way to cope with the gap between a culture that respects neither women nor children and an ultra-formal, yet egalitarian one that I haven’t quite managed to understand yet.

Yeah, that, and the fact that I am no Madam, I am not a lady. Ladies do not yell or curse or gossip or say inappropriate things; they don’t get angry and start bashing people, even if those people are chavs or sleazy jerks or idiot bosses. Ladies get what they want by using tact and charm, not by going in head-first with the “my way or the highway” attitude. Ladies let shit slide sometimes, because they know it’s not worth the hassle. Ladies are decent even to people who don’t deserve it. I can only aspire to that.

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Interpreting for Europe: the Survival Guide

The thing that springs to my mind when I think about my status in this profession is an episode in “House” where the good doctor was forced (by Cuddy, I think) to hold a lecture, for some reason. You probably remember, it’s the episode where he (sort of) reveals how he got his bad leg. The line that got stuck in my mind was one very shocking sentence that went something like this: “Rest assured, you will kill people!”

Well, in conference interpreting we don’t really have people’s lives in our hands, but that advice, in a different form, can apply to us as well, especially to those of us who take their job too seriously (I’ll get back to this someday). Even the most seasoned of interpreters make mistakes, so, the sooner you get used to that idea, the better. I’m sent aback sometimes by the overconfidence of interpreting students who contradict feedback, want to add five languages before they graduate, and imagine they have two retours). However, I am hopeful that reality will hit them in the face someday… which brings me to my first point.

1. You Will Make Mistakes

Do you know all of your experienced colleagues who can understand everything the speakers are talking about AND give every detail in impeccable language and flawless presentation? Yeah, you can’t! The sooner you get used to the idea, the better. This is one of those jobs where you get better with time, so bide your time and use it to learn.

Of course other interpreters do it better! They’ve been at this for a while, probably working for the institutions for years now. They’ve interpreted in plenty of meetings on the same subject, they know the procedure, they’re already familiar with the terminology. This increases their ability to anticipate, thereby reducing the effort they put into deciphering the message, and into searching for the right terms, leaving energy available for recoding, rephrasing, and packing the whole thing up nicely. Patience, padawan, you will get there someday, but not today.

Yes, it is frustrating to have to cut through ideas, give the bare essential, all with a pretty sterile presentation, but safety is your best bet for a while. It’s even more frustrating to miss information, not to understand what’s being said, to find new words you had never heard of in a language you thought was your B. However, you’d better make peace with the thought that there is not much more you can do, given the circumstances.

2. Remove Parasites

In an earlier post, I was talking about some of the things I’ve been getting used to since working for the institutions. According to the definition we have learned and established during our master’s programme, some of those factors, if you allow them to eat at you, are called parasites. Parasites in interpretation are imaginary issues, things that get to you, because, in fact, there are more serious problems that you haven’t dug into yet. When I say big problems, I’m referring to the ones I listed above: not understanding what’s being said on the floor or in your relay booth, not knowing the subject matter, insufficient preparation, not enough practice with one of your languages, or simply problems relating to the difficulty of the meeting, from all points of view. Naturally, when the job is hard, you need to focus even more, and any clicking of the pen, gust of wind, uncomfortable chair or extra testosterone will get on your nerves. It may sound childish, but it did take quite a while for me to figure out what the real problems were and how to tackle them. So the “getting used to” part was more of a treatment of symptoms rather than  an in-depth healing process. It felt amazing to see how, after I started learning to prepare more efficiently and to understand whatta hell is going on in that place, the “background noise” started to disappear.

3. The Bottom of the Food Chain Is a Comfortable Place

Now, while I did come to this particular conclusion myself (too), the wording does not belong to me and even an anonymous blogger should give credit where credit is due. In spite of working in teams, interpreting is, essentially, a lonely profession. Of course it would be useful to have a bit of an “orientation” course when we get there, to break the fall. It is assumed that you should have a pool of knowledge of your own when you get accredited, but you couldn’t possibly know all the inner-workings of several notoriously complicated institutions. If it takes those people a year to agree on a “milk and fruit” programme for elementary school children, then  I shouldn’t feel bad for taking a year to start feeling comfortable in the booth.

Another thing: breeding teacher’s pets the way we do in Romania is extremely damaging for anyone’s psyche in the long-run, not to mention their career. It reduces people to the status of children perpetually seeking attention and approval from the “big people”. I’m not a fan of “know your place” policies, but it’s useful to know that you are, after all, a beginner.

Your life becomes a whole lot easier when you stop trying to impress people…