interpreter as actor: an epiphany

Three years ago I retired from 30 years as a Spanish<>English court interpreter.  Before that I was a classical guitarist — a good one, but not so phenomenally good as to make a reasonable living out of it. At around age 30 I quit music and stumbled into court interpreting, thinking it might be an interesting and viable way to pay the bills.

All my life I have had a taste for adrenalin rushes and dopamine rewards of the kind you get from things like performing music on a stage, or skydiving, to which I was addicted for 10 years. I discovered that interpreting in open court, especially in scenarios like witness interpreting, is a performance before an audience, and that it provided enough challenge, pressure and excitement to satisfy the adrenalin junkie in me.

A lot of proceedings are largely scripted. I once worked with a defense attorney who, when prepping his client for a plea, spoke of when we go on stage — an expression I adopted and used forever thereafter.

Properly trained interpreters use the same grammatical person as the person whose words they’re interpreting, and in so doing, they are in a sense assuming the identity of that person. Most of us, at least to some degree, reproduce tone and expression, the better to convey the meaning as we understand it.

Often the outcomes in criminal proceedings are all but foregone conclusions, as if preordained, written in a script. Spoiler alert! The verdict is:  guilty.

I have rarely encountered any discussion in the professional literature, online forums or anywhere, about how we interpreters and translators, like actors, spend our days and make our livings expressing other people’s ideas and opinions rather than our own.  One exception I know of is the novel The Translator by the undeservedly little-known Ward Just, where this issue is mentioned in passing. No wonder so many of us spout off as we do when given the chance!  

Formulaic repetition; predictable outcomes; the ritualistic formality with which the players, if you will, play their parts in a courtroom; the way interpreters are constrained to reproduce other people’s thoughts, not their own; their use of expressivity to help get the meaning across:  in all these ways, the court interpreter’s job is like acting out a script. But this rather obvious notion of interpreter as actor was recently driven home to me with shocking clarity.

Last spring I succumbed to an urge to audition for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse’s production of the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night, and was cast as The Fool. Did I have any real theatrical experience? No. But the director liked my audition, and my musical abilities were useful to the production. Staged in the summer in an outdoor amphitheater, the show was extremely successful and well received. The other cast members were superb. I never had more fun in my life. One thing I found remarkable about this marvelous experience was how completely natural it felt to be on the stage, acting in a play. I have always had my attention-seeking, narcissistic, histrionic tendencies. Even so, this felt unexpectedly, almost absurdly normal. Why?

A few weeks after the play closed, I served as interpreter for an unusual event. You may recall news reports from September 2022 about the Venezuelan migrants whom Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis used as pawns in his criminal political stunt, conning them with false promises into boarding a plane bound for Martha’s Vineyard. With no warning whatsoever, members of the local community immediately mobilized to provide services and support. Not only were our unexpected guests well cared for; the same people who handled last year’s surprise invited our Venezuelan friends back to the island for a reunion to mark the one-year anniversary. I was asked to interpret for a ceremonial event — my first time interpreting before an audience in more than three years. When there came a pause in my part of the action long enough for my mind to wander, it dawned on me: I had worked as an actor for 30 years! Of course it felt normal, natural, indeed familiar to perform in a play.

No, doing court interpreting and doing Shakespeare are not the same. It may not be just one easy step for all interpreters to move from the former to the latter. But are not interpreters located on a continuum that includes almost everyone? At one end, the only people who are their pure, authentic selves all the time are infants (and maybe, people with certain mental disorders); at the other extreme, actual actors. Virtually all of us, to some degree, go through life acting out our various roles. In their professional lives, interpreters are located especially close to the actor end of the spectrum.

As Shakespeare’s character Jaques says in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts[…]

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Top ten books — because you asked for it

People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid — or perhaps, naive — in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.
Problem is, I can’t bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let’s give it a try anyway:
(1) Nietszche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.
(2) Juliet Schor – The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.
(3) Duke and Gross – America’s Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.
(4) Mathieu RicardHappiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.
(5) Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.
(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.
(7) Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently — a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the finest novels I have ever read.
(8) Haruki Murakami – 1Q84. It isn’t just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don’t know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet… universal? “Remember: there is always only one reality.” Really?
(9) Don deLillo – Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.
(10) Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them — a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I’ll call Fred — he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a “Catholic Marxist,” i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

The Cat in the Hat: best book ever

I sometimes think the best book of all time is the Cat in the Hat. No, not the best children’s book. Just the best book, period. You know the part where the Cat is juggling all that stuff. Then more stuff. Then even more. Then it all comes crashing down spectacularly. I love that. Then there’s Thing One and Thing Two. You can’t beat the Things. They’re the coolest.

Reading Cormac McCarthy

I had to see the Coen brothers’ realization of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men because I knew it had to be superb. It was. I hadn’t read the book, so I had to read it after rather than before seeing the film. The book was magnificent, and made me want to grab another one that I hadn’t read, The Road. That’s when I ran into a little trouble.
For a learned assessment of The Road, go see this NYRB review. All I have to say is that I am about 200 pages in and I find it exceptionally disturbing and distressing. None of the cliché adjectives like “searing” come close. It is as dreadful, horrible, bleak, dark and depressing as it is beautifully written. Perhaps what makes it hard to bear is the singularly anguishing nightmare scenario in which a parent struggles moment to moment to keep his child from starvation, freezing, or worse — struggles to no end, for there is no future. If you are not in robust mental health I would say stay away. I think mine is pretty solid and yet this book makes me wonder.
Why? What’s the big deal, it’s only a book, right? Yes, a work from the imagination of one person. But the horror and suffering it points to is all too real. It exists. We usually avoid facing that fact in order to survive. The Road forces you to confront that horror straight on, no flinching or averting your gaze.