Monthly Archives: April 2013

There Is More Than One Way to Skin a Cat; a Personal Story


images-2What do a Brazilian Butt-Lift and a Kindle book have in common?

They are two examples of our society’s penchant for instant gratification. Language proficiency  and by extension interpreting, nonetheless, are not abilities you acquire overnight. They improve exponentially as you practice, and reflect consciously or not, the experiences of a lifetime.

I came to the U.S., as a Cuban exile with my family, at the age of nine, speaking almost no English.  We arrived to a completely new environment, and to what my four brothers and I naively classified as Davy Crockett country from our limited exposure to American folklore. Life in a wooded enclave where we largely fended for ourselves after school and learned to adapt to the Spartan life of New England.  While my brothers were out trapping and hunting for fun, I devoted myself to self development through reading, favoring fairy tales as a form of escapism from the inevitable household chores there was no one else to do. One of my fondest memories as a kid, is of creating a tepee in bed with my covers, after “lights out”, when I would read, flashlight in hand, so as not to wake my siblings. Above all else, I wanted to speak English well to fit in, get good grades and make my parents proud of me.  Imagine my discouragement when learned that the “F” grades I was so proud of did not stand for “Fine.”

After initially cutting my ties to Spanish, as many first generation exiles do, I went back to my native language by reading an eclectic mix of periodicals. They included magazines my parents’s Cuban friends would give us when they were finished reading them, some of which contained what were for me,  riveting excepts of unbridled sexual passion.  These came via the  stories of Corín Tellado,  a prolific writer of romantic novels that were very popular in Spanish-speaking countries and were definitely not permissible reading for an eleven year old at my house. Fortunately, my parents had no time to read magazines so they were unaware of this content. I remember that “tepee-time” required a dictionary to figure out what she was even writing about. That input was thankfully balanced by  my mother’s classical texts from the M.A. in Spanish Literature that she went on to get in this country, which she would eagerly share with me. Another favorite, secret childhood activity that fed my avid love for reading in English, was one that I could not share with my parents either because  they would have never allowed it.    There was  a semi-abandoned paper mill a few blocks from my house. It consisted of a warehouse dotted with mysterious, boiling, gurgling vats filled with chemicals, where printed materials were dumped and melted for recycling. Looking back, the place was an accident waiting to happen, without any type of security, but that was the least of my worries.  The allure it had for me was is that it was a clandestine, eerie, half lit treasure trove of all kinds of books with adult content I would never have access to  otherwise, and comic books, which became a great source of information on American pop culture for me. I would sneak in after school when the workers had left and have a field day going through the musty piles of publications messily stacked in the aisles, beckoning half-heartedly to see if I would spring them from death row.

Ka-ching in more ways than one

While in college, studying plastic arts, I had a revelation. The puritanical work ethic I had eased into in New England had a silver lining, work could be fun!  My husband-to-be was writing the dissertation for his PhD. In French Lit, and to supplement his income as an Assistant Professor, he used to do conference interpreting. To me as a twenty-year-old, that simply meant he was paid to talk and seemed infinitely easier to accomplish than my career path at the time.

Fast forward thirty years. Unfortunately it was not as simple as I thought then. However, if you are able to consciously align your values, activities that you enjoy and output that is of worth to a paying segment of society, you will usually end up in the right place. I am fortunate that over the years I was able to harness my desire to work “speaking” in another language (which had never occurred to me), my interest in studying and the discipline to work hard. The universe opened the right doors for me. I audited what conferences I could, signed up for whatever workshops were available and trained hard with generous professionals who shared their time with me.  As many before and after me, I  did not have the option to go away to school, nor where there many programs offered back then, but I made it a point to secure the mentors and the practice needed to pursue my dream of becoming a professional interpreter.

If interpreting/translating is a field that interests you, rest assured that “where there is a will, there is a way” and opportunities have expanded nowadays that will make this career choice not be as daunting as it may have been in the past because of a lack of standardized resources. Today, we even have our own section in the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”


It was only when the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, that I was jarred awake from the fitful slumber I had fallen into shortly after we took off. I was very tired from a trial that had taken much longer than expected, leaving me precious little time to prepare for this assignment which I knew was going to be a bear. It was a very sensitive case involving alleged malfeasance by government officials in the host country, during the construction of a power plant. As if to confirm my as yet unfounded suspicions, our party was met at the jet bridge by two armed uniformed guards with a military jeep to take us to our destination. I forced my mind to stop racing despite the memories that came flooding back of when I left my homeland under similar circumstances, at the age of nine.

The colleague that had been chosen to work with me, because I refused to submit to full days by myself, especially in these circumstances, looked good on paper.  He was a government interpreter seemingly with a lot of experience.

The following morning, after the advocates for both sides set the tone by arguing about everything under the sun before even starting to take testimony, we finally settled into a rigorous pace of work. That is, after the other interpreter showed up, almost an hour late. My colleague, whom I’ll call Raúl, did not exhibit any sign of camaderie whatsoever throughout the time that we worked together for several days.  He was shifty-eyed, had a loud, raspy voice and a pretty thick accent but he did his job briskly and efficiently, supported by unwieldy stacks of documents that I had never laid eyes on and which he explicitly refused to share. If he wanted a break, he would just stop talking, notwithstanding the juncture that we were at, get up and amble out of the room to smoke. After his turn was over, he would settle back in his chair, a notebook on his lap and his eyes fixed sullenly on me, waiting for me to make any mistake he could report to his handlers.

While he interpreted, I took copious notes of hitherto unheard terms, and I was able to appreciate that this man had all the “required” interpreter traits. He was very fluent, focused, able to manipulate the registers, and seldom had to ask the court reporter to repeat any questions, which spoke to his good memory.

Nonetheless, it brought back to mind a long-held conviction of mine, that in order to be successful, interpreters must embody not only these “hard” skills, but also the “soft” skills that are seldom mentioned.  Raúl had no intuition to speak of.  He could not tell that the attorneys, even his employers, resented his unwarranted interruptions to take a break, which could happen during key testimony.  He had no empathy for the witnesses, who were very nervous and would ramble on, to which he responded by brusquely shoving his open palm two inches from their face, or for me, knowing I was handicapped by not having many of the documents he was hoarding. He was not respectful to the whole group, arriving late more than once. In short, he didn’t have the people skills we need to interact successfully in society.

As an employer of interpreters, I have often had the experience of bilingual clients who are familiar with language nuances, preferring the less linguistically-talented interpreters who are personable, to the pros who don’t have the abilities to deal positively with others. Food for thought. I think it is easier to perfect language skills than emotional skills unconsciously ingrained over a lifetime.

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