Only Anecdotal

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Archive for the ‘international relations’ Category

An Outing to the Zoo

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As I have been watching the families at the border, I have remembered also that I spent several years in St. Louis volunteering at the International Institute. The refugee organization was generous to me, and I gained far more than I gave in assisting people in English classes, and in working with a social program for Amerasian teens from Vietnam. It was the early 90s, and most of the refugees then were from Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia.

I remember in St. Louis that the area around South Grand was an area where many of the families I met lived. For most of my life, I knew these areas as German (though my own family lived in North St. Louis), but the change was good. My family came under some hardship, but nothing like the trauma that the families I met at the International Institute.

Once, I helped a man to translate course certificates from an IBM course. The certificate was in French, and the man told me that he once spoke French as much as he spoke Vietnamese, but he could not remember now, and hardly remembering the programming had learned in those early days, a different time. But still, a certificate could make a difference for him.

A couple worked with me on conversation. They were former Soviets, and the man–an engineer–drove a taxi and complained, and resented that his wife (a patient woman) was learning English far faster than he was.

I worked with the teen program, but it was hard. The kids did not want to do “refugee things”, and preferred hanging out and enjoying normal American teenage life. I couldn’t blame them. And because all of them were their families’ tickets to refugee status–children of Vietnamese woman and American soldiers–they had even more reason to grasp tightly to their new country.

One day, a very cold day, I went to pick up my teen partner for a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. When I arrived, though, she was gone. Instead, I found her mother and four-year-old half sister bundled to the best of their abilities, and ready to go.

So we went. It was incredibly cold, though, but in the trunk of my car I had two extra pairs of mittens that my mom had knitted for me. We were warm enough now, and crossed past the bears (only a polar bear was out where we could see him). We looked to some of the enclosed exhibits, still, the reptiles. As we wandered, the mother began to see animals she remembered from Vietnam, and she started to talk about her country, and her past.

She told me that she could not remember her daughter’s father’s name. She tried and tried, but so much had happened. She told me of her house in the mountains, and of her other child, the one she begged not to cry, so they would not be found. She told me of the fire they set to her house in the mountains, and running, running with nowhere to go. She told me of the kind Vietnamese man who accepted her–he came to  the US with her, and he was the father of the little girl who went to the zoo with us that day.

At the end, I didn’t know what to do. I drove the family home, and they left–wearing my mom’s mittens. I never asked for them back, and I never told my mom, either. But I think that she would have been happy to know that they had them now.

I’m not sure what happened to the family, but the last time I was with them, they were working hard, and had moved to a nicer apartment.

That day changed my life.

I have thought about many of the people I met then, people who had fled horrific hardships to come to our country, to have a better chance. We all must know many of the immigrants who come here with their dreams and their ambitions, who give up everything for the sake of their families. I think of the incredibly educated, sage scholars who worked in ordinary jobs in car plants (like my sister-in-law’s father, an art history professor working for GM).

I think of my own friends, literature students who came because coming to the US was the way to succeed. I think of the richness of our diversity, the music and food and art and texture of cultures, and I admit to falling silent in despair in the face of hatred to all these things that I love. I have not always been proud of the aggressions of the US–hard to argue that many of the refugees I met suffered in their own countries because of us. But in my life, I was often also encouraged as I saw us change, grow, love.

I want to think we can find this in our hearts again. Our biggest danger comes as we harden souls by torturing children, by pushing away those who need our shelter, by giving even more power to greed.

Written by Only Anecdotal

21 Jun 2018 at 6:56pm

Meaning

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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

Thanksgiving

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I was recently reminded of a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but, when we look back everything is different?”

This quote has reminded me, in very real and tangible ways, of my own gratitude, the thanks that I owe to so many people and circumstances in my life. My children, my friends, my community.

In the last two weeks, we have indeed seen enormous changes, too, perhaps the culmination of so many small steps. Not all do I face with gratitude. I still cannot fathom the tragedy in Paris. Not yet. Not sure I ever want to.

But other changes in life I have considered, and am right now as I contemplate the last year and a half from a slightly more philosophical viewpoint, thinking over the perspective I gained moving from one world to another.

When I began working at the Consulate, the manager who hired me had described the role as “social services for Canadians in the US”. This was largely true, and as I saw it then, largely what I had been doing in the field–more like the trenches–for several years prior. I had worked around illness then, and disability, and dire situations that were often chronic; though, when I saw them, the need was indeed critical. I held a hand, shared a pot of tea, sat and listened, all the while wishing for a figurative hose to put out fires that had often smouldered for years before erupting in flame. But too often, my only defence for my clients was a squirt gun, at best, and always, always,  I wished for a magic wand.

I discovered quickly that a few things were quite different in the consular world. First of all, I cannot speak for the whole of the Canadian government, but from the start (my interview featured a test, by golly), it was clear to me that excellence was an expectation. That is it. You prove yourself, then keep working at that standard. I hit a huge learning curve of regulations and details, and I simply had to know them. I never even questioned that, and I enjoyed the challenge.

This had always been true, but now, rather than simply holding this knowledge as advantageous in my work, I felt the weight of responsibility much more. Was it the security clearance? Was it the various exams, and permissions, and processes? Was it the diplomatic cachet? Bilingualism? I am not sure, except that the culture supported high quality work. It made me  happy, too, to feel I was rewarded in perhaps subtle ways, and most of all from our clients, for giving it my all.

The above C.S. Lewis quote came from my manager, who spoke at a lovely party held on my last day at the Consulate. My term has ended there, and staff who had been on leave have all made their ways back into the work I had the great opportunity to live in depth. I will miss everyone. There were some very long snowy days riding the commuter rail, days when I was first learning all the various details of creating a document that for my entire life has been my symbol of freedom and adventure… and became as I saw it also a very real ticket to access, connection, and security. Winter. The very real lack of control we have over so many aspects of life on earth, and the many, many ways we learn to maneuver and thrive and love in spite of it, sometimes because of it. It was about the same everyday, in most ways. A few surprises, but the same walk to the station, people I met along the way, same roads, same tracks, the same gorgeous view of the South End, and the same kind faces who greeted me and shared the space everyday. It became natural after a while, as it does, and fun, and amazingly satisfying when there was a problem, a puzzle to work out, and we could do something truly meaningful, even small.

But now, looking back at where this all started, I see that Lewis was right. Everything truly is different.

And it continues, and onward to the next adventures, projects, my great desire to connect, to hear more stories and meet more people, to create something beautiful, useful, better in this imperfect, fabulous world. It is a wonderful life. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

24 Nov 2015 at 2:57pm