A couple of days ago a colleague came and asked me to help him at a special event on campus that is part of a larger literary festival in town. They brought in a couple of Mexican writers to do readings from their work… He needed to introduce one of them. Would I be willing to interpret from Spanish into English for him? He’d give me a written text of the introduction to translate before hand… Only 2 or 3 minutes… for those in the audience who don’t speak Spanish.
Considering that the event was held in the building where I work, and it was short, I said, "Sure." I have done some oral interpretation, but not much… Nevertheless, I felt I could handle a simple introduction. And besides it would not be simultaneous interpretation, but rather, he’d say a sentence and then I’d translate it from the prepared written text. Easy!
Umm… yeah... not so much.
He’s a bit of a poet this one… the Introduction was 3 double-spaced typed pages and had some of the most poetic and florid language I’ve seen in a long time. I actually had to look words up in my bilingual dictionary!
So, I spent almost an hour translating the introduction… but that was OK. I did agree to it after all.
Then we get there and the author whose work is being featured decides that she’s going to read her poetry in Spanish.
Would I mind interpreting into English?
I thought, "You want me to do simultaneous interpretation – in front of an audience of about 50 people – of poetry?!... In fact, a poem I have never read before in my entire life?"
For those of you who have not studied languages before, the nature of such a request may be lost on you. It would be like saying to someone, “Oh, would you mind doing an Ironman while wearing snowshoes, oven mitts and a blindfold? Oh, and just for fun… can you tie yourself to a Hummer and pull it behind you through each of the 3 sports?”
In other words… pretty much humanly impossible except for some kind of genetically gifted linguistic freak – which I am not.
I did not admit to the author that I had not read her poem, but I’m sure the look on my face said it all.
She quickly said (and I translate), “No, no, the book of poetry is bilingual… See? There’s a page in English and a page in Spanish. I’ll read it in Spanish and then you read the English.”
OK, that I could do… Reading a text that you have never seen before aloud in front of an audience is not particularly easy, but thanks to training in public speaking and those 2 years I spent at the student radio station in my undergrad, I was able to manage. The years I spent as an English major and closet poet myself helped with pacing the reading (yes… poetry must be paced as you read it aloud), the cadence and general flow. But it was a heck of a lot better than having to do a simeltaneous interpretation of it!
Needless to say, the “2 or 3 minutes” turned into a full 2 hours because there was a question and answer period afterwards and lots of discussion. It was a full-blown bilingual literary event… and some kind of warped translation torture that I’m sure Stephen King could write a good short story about….