“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.