By definition, interpreters traverse at least two worlds at each meeting. And that is just the surface. There are layers upon layers of cultures and subcultures. We deal with historically imposed languages and native languages, occupations and resistance, second and third languages. We see mixes and mismatches of cultures, including whatever we think of as our own. But in a predominantly monolingual culture such as the US, most of these cultural underpinnings that form the lifeblood of ancient societies go undetected and unmeasured, only straddled by the interpreter. Sometimes I find myself in the presence of someone who still has, intact, the soul and the speech pattern of people whose culture is as incomprehensible as their native speech to those of us who have not been exposed to its rich treasures.
Albert Einstein, in what may be the only thing he ever said that I could actually understand, told the Progressive Education Association in 1934 that schoolchildren across the United States should be taught “a sympathetic understanding of the characteristic of various peoples … and this understanding should include those peoples commonly designated as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’.” He posited that this cultural understanding would add to our chances for peaceful coexistence. In the truncated quote I saw, he did not expand about how that would enrich us as well.
One of my most rewarding moments at work is when I get a glimpse into one of these ancient worlds, where the human connection and the collective social fabric seems to be less fragmented and torn than in some of our modern industrial societies. One experience that really stands out in my mind was at labor and delivery many years ago. I noticed that the fifteen or so family members from four generations who were squeezed into the delivery room were very careful about walking between any two people. They would stop and ask for permission to proceed, and the people who would be “walked between” would give permission before the walker moved through. It was very ritualized and carefully performed.
I asked the elder about it, and she explained that there is a golden thread that ties us all together in all our relations. It makes up the web that sustains and holds us, and we need to constantly repair and build it – strengthen it and be aware of it. Each action of each person can unite or divide, and it is unity that is the desired state. After I became cognizant of it, I noticed that some of the less traditional subcultures had held onto some form of this. They would ask permission to step between two others, and especially to leave someone’s presence.
I started asking permission to leave the patient’s presence at the hospital until it became habit for me, too. Once my eyes were opened to this, I would notice how the roomful of people would give an almost imperceptible shudder when some of the young medical staff would throw open the door, greet no one, and barge through and past people as if they were not there. The young doctors were rushing to carry out their very important work, but they were not building relationships, because they just didn’t have that on their radar. It was not one of their measurables, and they were there to perform up to a set standard.
Years later, when a baby presented with a herniated umbilical cord, the mother explained to the doctor that it was a young relative’s fault, although he had meant no harm. He came home with dirty hands from work, and he went to wash them, and then he completely forgot, after the fatigues of the day, to greet the newborn baby when he came back out. This naturally caused the baby distress, and such a longing to be seen, that she strained until she had created the hernia, essentially tearing the stomach muscle wall and pushing out a bit of her own intestines. It was the baby’s longing to be acknowledged by each person present that had caused the harm. Her kinsman felt terrible about it! The doctor gave her a very different story to explain the hernia, ignoring everything she said and talking about bowel movements. They sat facing each other, each with a look of bemused pity at the ignorance of the other party.
I was with a recent arrival to this country who was completely new to the hierarchical formality of the criminal justice system. The judge sat on high, commanding silence, and people had to stand up every time the judge stood up. Imagine suddenly being trapped in another culture’s ritualized formalities, where any misunderstanding might influence whether you are to be kept in some sort of a cage. The turn-taking orders, the formality, the audience. The staff and the paperwork. The vortex of unknowns.
Here was my newcomer, mind reeling, in just this situation. Having a lawyer on one side, an interpreter of his non-native second language on the other, and straining to comprehend his huge risk of jail and possible deportation, after fighting with his own brother, which he had no idea could be considered a crime against the state. Knocking some sense into a younger sibling actually had seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. It was his job to keep the lad under his wing and on the straight and steady road. Why would the state care?
It must have been overwhelming, yet this newcomer was gracious and respectful. He knew how to behave in this situation – in his own culture. And that became a problem. Because at each utterance of the judge, he would follow a “call and respond” pattern, showing his obeisance and respect for the judge’s authority, just as he might with a village elder at home. He would interject shows of respect, and acknowledgement of the other people present, while nodding. “I hear, and it is for me to obey.” “I respect each and every person in this courtroom.” “God stands above us all – may we be rightly guided.” “I thank Your Honor and the blessed prosecutor and all others who are present here today.” When the judge ordered the defendant to day reporting and UAs – urinalysis – he encouraged the judge, in case the judge might have mixed feelings about his ruling, by nodding and calling out, “That is surely the safest thing to do. I hear and agree!”
Meanwhile, the judge was getting testy. He interrupted his ruling and ordered the defendant to listen several times, but this defendant had no cultural background to know that the judge meant he was both to listen – which he WAS doing quite actively – and to NOT respond – to remain dead silent. So he kept showing that he was actively listening by responding appropriately – for his own culture. Finally, the judge warned the defendant, “My decision on whether to let you remain out on bail or day reporting is based in part on whether I think you will obey court orders, and you keep interrupting, after I ordered you to be quiet!”
The defendant had never been in a situation like this where his silence was needed to show that he was listening. He now grasped what the judge was asking of him, but it seemed wrong and unnatural. Even disrespectful. So he contented himself with whispering things like, “I hear and obey,” “Thank you,” “I am grateful,” and “This is right,” with the occasional “God’s blessings!” Sometimes he would raise his voice, and I would hover between raising mine, or letting it be more quiet while others were talking. But I could not stop interpreting whatever he said, because it is my ethical duty even when ethical systems collide. The judge finally ordered the defense attorney to “move the mic further from the interpreter and closer to yourself!”
In hindsight, I think the judge saw it as a bit of a power struggle. But I am absolutely sure that the defendant had no idea that anything he did could be read as anything but respectful. I am convinced he was showing the utmost respect to the authority figure by encouraging him, backing him up, approving of the difficult decisions he had to made, and using the call-and-response speech pattern that was clearly quite familiar to him. He made a point several times of including the other people in the room, acknowledging them as important, valuable individuals, and calling god’s blessings down upon them – even to the other defendants in the benches behind us.
I accompanied the defendant to take his first court-ordered urinalysis, and he was equally gracious and loquacious with that court employee, who in a one-on-one, was quite charmed with him and found him polite and respectful. She was careful, knowing we were using me as interim interpreter, to speak slowly and clearly, until he could later get an interpreter for his native language, and not his second tongue. She encouraged him to ask any questions, and things seem to flow along smoothly, right up to his final question, which was beyond her knowledge.
“I am suffused with sadness, because I cannot believe that my own brother would accuse me of hurting him. I have helped him throughout his life. I have sent him money to study and to clothe and feed him. I helped him to come here and work. I stand in the place of a father to him. I must guide him. And now this. I cannot sleep at night, as this sadness permeates my being and robs me of sleep. This is what I am worried will show up in my bodily fluids. Will that be a problem for me?”
The employee’s response was to tell him straight up that he is not allowed to drown his sorrows in alcohol, because yes, of course it will show up, and then he will be sent to jail to await trial there. She said he’d better admit it if he had been drinking or taking anything, so we could have that as a baseline measure. He looked so surprised at her. How could she not know?
“You misunderstand me. I am drowning in sorrow. I am filled with sadness. So it will naturally come out in my bodily fluids. I am not drinking. I am talking about my sadness. Will that be a problem for me with the judge, when they measure my sadness in your laboratory?”
Now she in turn was looking surprised at him. What the hell?
The rule is law. We need measurables, in part to show equal treatment and due process. But beyond all of that, we are dealing with very human drama and people’s fates lie in the balance. How can we own our sadness – how can we fully experience it, if we have lost our connection to feel it, and yet we do not yet have the tools to measure and acknowledge it? How can we acknowledge the suffering of others unless we know that we too are suffering?
If you ask the cutting-edge neuroendocrinologists, who study things like stress hormones and more, they may in fact be able to detect long-term depression or acute sadness in our bodily fluids. I don’t know where the science stands. But outside of science, this newcomer understands on a very deep level that his sadness permeates every cell of his body. He is very aware of his feelings, in a way we are taught to repress, for the most part. Part of his life is still taking place in a magical world that many of us have completely lost sight of. A place of cosmic innocence.
It is a magical world that I sometimes get the merest glimpse of through my work. Like seeing the tail of a fox disappearing behind a stand of trees in the forest, and you stand wondering – was it really there? What else is hidden from our sight? What else are we not trained enough to see and experience? Where does our ignorance keep us in darkness? What have we forgotten, and what do we not yet know? What can we recall, and what can we yet learn? How can we recover?
We humans have so much in common that is absolutely universal. And yet the individual human experience through time, culture and geography has so many layers and manifestations that we cannot begin to grasp from our personal vantage points. We are each floating in our own tiny duck pond, with our familiar ideas and ways of speech and manner and thought. We cannot know our own blind spots. We cannot grasp the absolute collective immensity of the tiny, wild pockets of endangered cultures that lie just outside our spheres of vision and speech.
I am blessed to have some glimpses into these other worlds, through my work as a linguist. I am suffused with gratitude.