Three Easy Steps to F**king Up Your Retour

Wake-up calls are always welcome when you’re overwhelmed by the importance of your own profession. The fact is, though, sometimes we interpreters are, through no fault of our own, slightly less necessary than the chairs our clients sit their asses on in the meeting room. Have you ever noticed how people with bad English always have a way of understanding each other no matter where they’re from? At best, in those cases, we’re just walking dictionaries.

That, however, doesn’t bother me anymore. One of the stupidest inventions of the modern world is working when you don’t need to be. I would honestly prefer to have less contracts than to work for an empty chair or to give my colleagues gossip material. I would rather my potential client take his/her secretary along for a business meeting than torture an interpreter s/he doesn’t really need. The secretary knows the subject matter, is used to their boss’s accent or way of speaking and is a more useful partner in a negotiation than an interpreter could be.

Even so, as you might have guessed, unnecessary recruitment is less frustrating than misrecruitment. In these cases, you’re not only wasting your time and the client’s money, you’re also butchering your skills. It’s those gigs when your clients need you, but you can’t help them. Let’s calls these wtf gigs [insert hand gesture here].

Step one: It frequently happens that my foreign clients don’t speak English very well. That is an understatement; more often than not there is no predicate in the sentence (“Can yu plis mor saund?”); if there is a verb, it’s invariably in the infinitive (no conjugation, no tense), their nouns don’t have plurals, their subjects are a series of “this” and “than”, very limited vocabulary, all coupled with ample gesturing, and self-assured mouth and guttural noises. If ever they actually realize they don’t know the word they’re looking for, they replace it with a hearty “well, you know, eh!” (No, I really, really don’t!), and then look at me with trusting eyes while everyone waits for a rendition, and I, in turn, stare back in despair.

After a little while, however, provided you’ve done your homework before the gig, things usually fall into place. You get used to the clients, you figure out what they’re looking for, maybe you’re lucky enough to work with a more experienced colleague, so you pull through somehow. Plus, there’s invariably someone on the Romanian side whose English is equally bad, so this person manage to communicate with my client better than my fancy ass ever could. It’s quite magical if you pay attention, really. It’s like they read each others’ minds, their worlds come together, they even finish each others’ sentences. One of the most persistent mysteries in Linguistics and Cultural Anthropology!

Step two: Great! So you managed to somehow understand the client. Now you have to use your hard-earned retour to give them what they want… aaaaaaaand it’s their turn to stare at you blankly, uselessly repeat questions that were answered a few seconds before and interpreted into some pretty decent English and say that they don’t understand when the answer comes again, this time in a simplified form (not to mention make the interpreter look like an idiot in the process).

The word “installment” seems to be particularly problematic. They prefer “trench” instead and get confused if they don’t hear it from me. Sometimes they make no difference between “purchase” and “procurement“, so I have to use them together for them to know which one it is I mean. But ok, I’m there to help people communicate, not parade my English. Any effort to give grammar and vocabulary lessons is going to be counterproductive (not to mention dickish), so I dumb it down (you don’t practise that when you prepare for your interpreting exams, do ya?), and I use my hands; it seems to help. What’s that, Thierry? You don’t know what a welding machine is? It is a machine that brings metal pieces TO-GE-THEEEER [insert ample hand gesture here]. The driver says we have to go around the potholes, Francesca, AH-ROUND the holes in the ROAD [insert ample hand gesture here]. Also, I have to speak slowly. No getting cocky with actual honest-to-God English idioms either. Mixing in words from a couple more languages doesn’t hurt. Plus, I have to try not to sound as condescending as I do now.

Step three: repeat!

This is how it happens, folks. Good as my English may be, I will never speak it as a native does (hence the difference between A language and B language), nor will I use it as comfortably and as flexibly as I use Romanian. Prolonged exposure to a badly spoken language will affect any interpreter’s mother tongue or A language, let alone their retour. Not irreversibly, but it will leave him or her with some pretty bad habits for the future.

However, this goes much further. In September of 2013, the General Secretariat of the European Court of Auditors published a report called “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications” comprising an index of a few dozen red-tape English delights that are constantly used and abused by the EU in its documents and meetings. A very smart and funny colleague (who chooses to remain anonymous much to everyone’s chagrin, but I understand why) even proposed the creation of a Globish booth, perhaps to match the reality linguists must deal with every day.

The power of the English language has become its curse and ours. Its expansion all over the world has lead to countless local, regional and continental forms, even pidgins and creoles, which are in fact legitimate, and sometimes official, forms of communication, as much as that may frustrate purists. Many people predict that in about a millennium, if not less, English will suffer the same fate as Latin.

That’s not what I’m complaining about, though. What was I saying? Oh, yes, misrecruitment! Why, you may ask, are we forced to work in English for people who don’t know English? Well you know and I know that they don’t know, but they don’t know that they don’t know, ya know? And who are they going to admit that they don’t know to? That would be embarrassing. So they ask for interpreters with Romanian and English. But these people, you may also ask, must have other languages they speak better, right? There must be interpreters available out there somewhere with a more suitable language combination! Yes, there are, very good ones, and they are now looking for work, because someone is trying to save money by putting it in the wrong place. Economie de bouts de chandelle…

Insert ample hand gesture here. Come on, use both those fingers!

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