Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Archive for May 2016


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This Saturday, I went to my first translation event in over twenty years. It was the twentieth annual conference of the New England Translators Association (NETA), and I was so happy to be there this year. I learned a lot in one day, finding myself back in a world that has changed so much in so many ways, but in others has stayed much the same.

I say this with some embarassment as I think back to my young self, so filled with ambition that I quit university rather than return after my father’s death to what I saw as less than what I wanted in my life. I told everyone that I wanted to be a translator, and literally knocked on doors all over St. Louis–anywhere with the word “international” in its name–until I got hired somewhere.

I was astoundingly lucky. A woman named Beatriz (Betty) Calvin had a translation company, and talked to me when I walked nervously in the door. I was twenty years old, had never been in another country, and learned my French (which admittedly was not half bad even then) from subtitled movies and pen pals.. and a few great teachers (thank you, Mme Eggers).

A few days after I visited Betty’s company, Calvin International was juggling an enormous job–translations and conferences for a big conference with a big client. They needed help. Could I come in?

I did help out, for several weeks. Within a month, I was hired, full-time. It was my dream, working in an office where I was the foreigner–the only native English-speaker, I managed projects, but also edited translation. I researched, and practiced, practiced, practiced. My French became so much better. Even my Spanish became pretty good (Latin Americans are enormously helpful teachers!). My German improved. I learned how to act around different cultures, became sensitive enough to pay attention to what everyone else was doing and saying, and adept enough to ask questions when I simply did not know.

I eventually decided, with some pushing from a poet who saw some spark in me, to return to university, and study literature. I managed to stay in school for a long time, and thought I would stay forever. I loved it. I never regretted it. I abandoned even that dream when the reality of my children came into play. Disability does not always leave room for the intentions we think we have in this life, but it often helps us become more who we really are. Boundaries. Understanding.

And so it was as I sat in the afternoon session thinking as I listened to Eduardo Berinstein’s discussion on why technology–despite its inevitability–will not supersede the abilities of the human translator.

The talk was titled: “The straw that broke the camel’s back OR The drop of water that overflowed the cup.” The reference was to common expressions… the point at which we cannot take anymore.. expressed so differently in two languages, and yet, conveying the same meaning, at least in the same context.

I suppose we could go back and discover more of the development of these idioms. Why straw and camels? The drop of water seems perhaps more clear to me, but we would never say this in English. Simply “the last straw”–this I often hear, but the camel is always understood. Camels so exotic; phrase origin, in truth I could never really even find a definitive source for this. I can imagine these phrases in works where we would need an enormous adeptness to get the point.. how to convey, for example, some rhyme, or some reference to, say, those camels, in some lyrical turn of words in a literary piece, obvious reference to the phrase, with all the connotations and denotations, and… Well, I get ahead of myself here.

I pondered this, though, on my drive home, and for much of my day afterward, thinking of what pushes us to new places in our lives, what breaks us, what sets us free simultaneously, and what it all means.

I think back to a day when I sat, still frustrated with my lack of progress in my doctoral work, but not caring really so much about it anymore. I was instead looking longingly at a boy who at nine months still was (with his older brother) the focus of my attention. My younger son was not like his older demanding, ever-frustratingly barrier-breaking brother. My younger son did not try to reach for things that he clearly liked. He had not yet succeeded even in rolling over. He cooed and smiled at me, and loved to interact. But clearly, when the pediatrician told me that nothing had changed, when he said that my little boy could still live with me–even though–, I knew on the contrary that absolutely everything had changed.

My younger son lived with me for many years after that, as life became something quite different from what I had imagined, what we had imagined. The words from the doctor that day, I think, were the point that these phrases convey so well: that drop of water that would not fit in the cup we had prepared; the straw that our camel could not sustain.

Life did change dramatically, and as my children grew, I watched and learned. My son, now nineteen, does not speak at all, least in words. He has often made me think so much about the very nature of language and languages in this world. I so often can sit with him, despite his lack of words, and know what he means. His face lights up when he sees me, and there is a sense of wonder that fills me. I am filled at the same time with a strange sense of the irony in having a child who cannot speak in any official language to me or to anyone, despite the fascination I have always had throughout my entire life in the nature of languages.

I have had the luxury of returning to worlds where we bridge the gap of cultures and language. It has been incredibly rewarding to me to return to a place where I can consider the place where I started years ago with that desire to understand, to break down the barriers and boundaries and borders that separate one human being from another at the very source of our being, our meaning. What do we mean? What do we want to say? What do we mean to accomplish in our lives? And then, what stops us? What are the walls, the doors, the stairs we cannot climb?

I have moved into new worlds in the last few years, where I still see the bureaucratic efforts and frustrations, the wish to build (companies, worlds, dreams), and the efforts simply to maintain equilibrium in it all. Only Anecdotal, the stories that here started as discussions of systems of care and the people they affected, is evolving. The stories continue, perhaps with difference foci, but in essence, they remain stories about meaning: how we express who we are, and what we want.

I think of this as I think about Saturday, the relevance of translation and interpreting in our current world, so many languages at our fingertips in seconds, so many desires to have immediate access to worlds we used to wait years to see. We may wish for that immediate fix, the instant translate available so easily, and we may get the jist from this, but do we find the deeper sense of who we are as human beings? Can we read between lines, or do we end so often with word-to-word efforts, in utter jibberish that makes us throw up our hands in complete misunderstanding?

I realize that the old battles remain, as they did back years ago at Calvin International Communications, that words on a page are not so easily transposed into other languages, other cultures, other minds. But I do think that as we have become used to the smallness of the world now, we do desire–and will desire more and more–the quality of our experience much more than the quick fix of the general idea. Translation, interpreting, understanding take time, and expertise, and patience. It will be the desire in our experience that separates art from mere utility, and that brings us to embrace that art, and our own humanity.



Written by Only Anecdotal

15 May 2016 at 9:03pm