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.

What to Do When You Suck

I’ll be damned if I know!

Most interpreters who write blogs are full of advice, which is always useful for a novice. But what I never see on interpreting blogs (maybe I haven’t looked hard enough) is self-criticism. It is always other people who suck: beginners, agencies, speakers. I think it is presumed that if an interpreter should speak on his or her own behalf, they are only worthy of opening their mouths if they have lessons to teach, advice to offer, both based on an immaculate track record.

I do not have advice. I’m apparently slow to learn and to create strategies for myself. I do it well when I finally do it, but I trip and fall a few times before I learn my lesson. I navigate through. Until one day one of those meetings comes. A meeting where everything that can go wrong goes wrong, where, in spite of all your prep work, no strategy works. The content is highly specialized and extremely complex, the topic is completely new, terminology is abundant, language is cryptic, there are no equivalents in your mother tongue (because you come from a country that had no idea what a market economy was until 20 years ago and that imports both solutions and problems (along with their names)), the speakers insist on speaking their own strange versions of English, with thick accents, bad grammar, long digressions, incomplete sentences and fast.

You’ve read all the documents, but when the experts start to speak, their words fly through you, without ringing any familiar bells. You know better than to focus on just words, but you fail to see a message beyond the banking jargon. Your technique has saved you on a number of occasions, but now the speaker virtually mops the floor with you when he starts to speak about the resolution (yes, really!) of financial institutions, but makes long digressions about German administrative law. You know better than to fall into that trap, but you fall anyway. You’re so happy when you hear words you  finally do understand, that you make up sentences with them, not knowing whether that’s what the speaker said or not. You do guess-work, not interpretation. Bref, you suck! Big time.

Since I found no mention of this kind of situation in the literature, I don’t know what one is to do in such cases. Since I was completely out of my depth (OK, I was fucking drowning!), I was at a loss for any ideas, solutions, strategies, techniques that I could adopt to save myself. I wish I could say I was trying to keep afloat, but what I did was manage not to die. So what does one do? I don’t know, but I can tell you what I did.

1. I cried.

So cry! Let it all out. You’re a mediocre to bad interpreter, after one year of working almost every week, you are not capable of delivering in a meeting. Your technique is shit, you can’t speak your own mother tongue, you don’t understand English, your teachers were idiots for ever letting you pass exams, your bosses are dumb for ever letting you near a console. You are never getting work again! You thought you were smart, but your whole life is a lie. All your peers are doing better than you. Your parents are delusional, you don’t deserve their love. You are almost 27 and still unmarried, you old maid, you! You have adult acne, you’ve been putting on (more) weight, your roots show, you have split ends. You are the typical subject of passive-aggressive posts on interpreter blogs. Well, not you personally, but fucktards like you.

Anything else wrong with you? Good! Moving on:

2. Disconnect.

Try to nap, and, if you don’t have time, read something that doesn’t have to do with work for about 30 or 40 minutes, watch the news or a light TV show. It’s good to remember that your job isn’t everything out there and that there are people who are worse off than you (as cynical as it may sound, other people’s problems do have the gift of making me stop whining).

Done? OK.

3. Prepare for tomorrow’s meeting.

And do it well. Don’t underestimate the difficulty or plunge into the abyss of despair. You have to be in shape because your damaged self-esteem can’t handle another botched day in the booth. Work well. You’ll have time to think about how bad you were later. Now go to sleep.

So this is what I did. I cried my eyeballs out, read a magazine, prepared for the next meeting, went to bed and did all right in the booth on the following day, even though it wasn’t easy at all. But it isn’t over. There is a step 4.

4. Figure out what went wrong and how you can keep it from going wrong in the future (if you ever get contracts again).

This is guess-work again, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

  • We don’t do pretty: too much focus on terminology – in trying to avoid Anglicisms (big no-no in our booth), I attempted to come up with the best equivalents in Romanian. That meant 4-5 words in Romanian for every 2 words in English, which led me to waste time and to miss the essential parts of the ideas that followed. I lost who was doing what, whether certain actions are good or bad in the speaker’s view etc. I was too busy speaking at certain points, and forgot to listen.
  • When forced to choose between text and speaker, choose the speaker! I have never learned how to work with a text in the booth, so I’m still at the stage where it hurts my work to read, listen and speak at the same time. In my desperate attempts to not lag behind, I thought the ppt presentations could help me keep up, but they didn’t, as I wasted a lot of energy looking at the slides, instead of listening and trying to understand (something, anything).
  • Freestyling is not always a good idea: I’m not so sure of this one, because either people understand everything better than me or are better at hiding the fact that they don’t understand. If they do bullshit at all, their bullshit sounds a lot more plausible than mine. I don’t have experience, my BS is less than credible, anyone can call my bluffs. Interpret, don’t guess!

I don’t know what difference that would have made a few days ago, but I’ll be better prepared for the next meeting on the resolution of financial and credit institutions (you read that right!).

5. Apologize.

This should probably have been step 1, but I was too busy trying to find a bathroom to cry in.

And life isn’t all that bad… You’re a good human being, your friends like you, your parents would love you no matter how dumb you turned out to be. Sure, you could lose a few pounds, but your boyfriend still thinks you’re sexy, and if you had a six-pack a year ago, you can get one again. A day at the beauty salon and you’ll be as good as new.

You remember there were conferences and meetings where you did well to great, in spite of the difficulty. You’re not a complete idiot. Life is good. There will be other meetings…

Unless…

One of the colleagues in the booth that awful day was your boss…

So it’s a good thing I didn’t set this blog out to be an interpreting blog, because I may need to change my career soon…