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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On Being Bi…

Bilingual that is…

Jokes and cheesy metaphors aside, my last post (greatly inspired by this) was mainly an allegory of how I was too lazy and never well-disciplined enough to learn French properly and how the way French is taught over here is really getting in the way of students liking and using the language actively. You cannot learn a language from books, you cannot like a language when it’s being shoved down your throat by frustrated teachers who think English is overrated. You learn a language by using it, by immersing in it. In junior high, the books we used were at least 25 years old. The language in them was outdated, with too big of a focus on grammar and almost none on vocabulary. We were not introduced to literature, pop culture (movies, comics, music, stand-up comedy, you name it), the books had been passed down for I don’t know how many generations, they were old, the pictures were black and white, they told almost nothing of French history, culture, the cities, the personalities, modern life, sports, slang… In highschool, we had French students visiting us and they did not speak the language in our books.

Bottom line, the system and the teachers didn’t know how to sell their stuff. We played hookey so much, our junior high French teacher forgot she had class with us. And be honest: have you ever met kids with self-discipline so motivated that they take up something completely new on their own and just because? Maybe I’m making excuses for my failure to be proactive about learning French. The teachers thought it was so great, though! Of course they did! They had probably learned it during the Communist regime and it was a rare connection to an outside world they didn’t know, it was a sort of an escape for them. For us, it was a burden. They never tried to explain, to make us curious about it, to show us all the interesting things behind the language. Ya know: all that stuff that makes teachers good. To them it was beautiful and rich and nothing more, and because they liked it (did they?), we had to like it too, they took that for granted.

The fact that I managed to squeeze through the system (up to a certain point) with mediocre French says something about the educational process in Romania. So now I only work with one language: English. This can’t last long, as interpreters are always under pressure to add new languages. But for now, my Romanian A <> English B is still a bankable combination.

For now…

But they don’t seem to like us of the puny language combinations in Brussels. I’ve heard people say quite directly “yes, well, we, in the bigger booths, we have to add a language every few years, we have to have at least 4 or 5 languages in our combination, and it bothers us to see that our colleagues from the newer booths (hint much?) have only one or two languages. We do appreciate all their work and their excellent retour, but…”

And this is where I come to the point of this post. You see, we had to make up an ambiguous and funky, yet not offensive, name for these people, because they’re so annoying! Bilinguals, people who grew up speaking languages, who had languages all around them, who grew up in Jo’burg, spent their gap year in Argentina, had a government-funded scholarship in Madrid, an aunt in Estonia and spoke to their German cousins on the phone every week. They went to college in France and had their MA in London, spent three years teaching English in Lisbon, freelanced in Geneva and now spend all their summers between Athens and Palermo, while our parents bankrupted themselves to send us on a three-month Erasmus mobility in Aix-en-Provence. You see my point.

I would hate them if I didn’t envy them and their perfect lives so much. “My dad is Belgian and my mom is Swedish, my dad is Spanish and my mom is French, my dad is English and my mom is Spanish” etc. How is life fair? It’s not, but you don’t see me complaining! (right…) Bottom line, we here in this strange corner of the woods had to work harder to learn things people in the West take for granted. We had to work for our languages, while their parents f***ed and produced a bilingual baby.

I know it’s not as simple as I’m trying to make it look. Most interpreters actually don’t come from bilingual families. But they certainly do have more resources, they travel from a very young age, they have more solid educational systems, good quality public TV and, let’s admit it, more open minds (except when they make comments like the one above). I really don’t know a lot of people in Romania who, out of the blue, go: “I think I’ll take a year off from college and spend it in Peru just to learn Spanish.” (When I was 5, I asked my mom if I could walk to kindergarten alone. She got mad and didn’t speak to me for a whole day). They’re born with wings, we need to grow ours. They run in an open field, we’re on an obstacle course.

Then, to hear something like that coming from a colleague and a professional I admire… I’m not trying to downplay the work of the older booths, on the contrary. The quality of their work, the expanse of their knowledge, their style, their charm, the ease with which they express themselves in all of their languages, these things never cease to amaze me. But let me tell you something: the Romanian booth kicks some pretty serious @$$, in spite of us not being as bi as other people are.