Thu Apr 27th, 2006 at 11:18:10 AM EST
Since October, I've been working as a public service interpreter in London. This kind of work won't help you earn the most Kudos in the interpreting world; it's quite at the bottom of the interpreters' foodchain, so to speak. Conference interpreters (making anywhere between 300 to 500 pounds a day) are the sharks, public service interpreters are the plankton. Police and court interpreters (highly qualified public service interpreters) are, say, the jellyfish. Or the baracudas.
Promoted by Colman ... read on for the social commentary.
But enough of marine similes. For me, PSI is a place to start, since I'm still working on my diploma and need to build up some experience before I take a leap to the higher grounds. I get crappy treatment from hospital staff and the payment process is a royal pain in the rear. I never get briefed on what problem I will be dealing with... I'm lucky to know the language combination. My pathetic sense of orientation is constantly being challenged as I frantically scramble to find the right tube entrance, bus stop, hospital, surgery or job centre, and also sometimes the loo. I get to sit there and listen to gruesome details about vaginal discharges(and usually twice, since it normally takes a while to be called into the ofice and the patient is eager to bare her soul in the waiting room as well), difficult intercourse, troublesome kids, irritable bowel syndrome etc. I see people sitting on a chair half naked who are being pumped full of water through their urethra (she's decent, you can come here now!)and have to convey the meaning of their unhappy grunts.
But there's the better side of things, too. I get to chat, travel and read my books for money. I don't have a boss to answer to, and can say no to an appointment anytime I want. Sometimes I even get a piece of chocolate or some candy from my compatriot who's happy he's not alone, at last, and shares his goodies (a minor violation of the code of conduct... bribe and loss of impartiality danger!!!, but what the heck). But most of all, I'm learning first-hand about the poorest of London's society, so I take it as a personal lesson in humanism, or whatever it may be called. Personal growth, and feeling I can be helpful, at least a little bit.
The people I usually interpret for have mostly a pretty tough life. I interpreted for a Czech woman who was waiting job from a job centre. She had about 11 pounds total for the next 2 weeks to live on. When filling her form, she put £7 as her available cash in the bank account. But then she asked me: "I put four more pounds there today, do you think I should change it?" Or the Colombian woman who had a baby, an older boy, a rent of 815 pounds plus another hundred of council tax, and a husband who made £700 in a full-time job. She just sat there with this happy seven-month-old on her lap, and was very composed all the time. The social workers were amazed at how the family manages to survive and enraged at the slowness and inefficiency (in their case, anyway) of the social system. She just shrug her shoulders. But when they told her how they spoke to her son and how he said he knew they had no money and that he was scared they'd have to live on the street and his dog would die, she broke down in tears. At the moment I just wanted to empty my pockets and take my clothes off and say, here, and come for dinner, too, and I will teach you English for free, but as an interpreter, you just have to sit there, you are just the voice. You can offer no solutions, no help, no nothing. It's frustrating sometimes, it doesn't seem enough.
I've encountered some serious ignorance as well -- I found out that the British social workers and hospital staff can be equally poorly informed about the rest of the world as the American ones are. An Ecuadorian couple was seeking accommodation, and put on their application the term "Latin American" for their ethnicity. The social worker was convinced they spoke Latin, and requested that I spell for her the word Ecuador, since she'd probably never heard of the country's existence. Another doctor was certain his diabetic Venezuelan patient came from Spain because he spoke Spanish, and expressed his surprise at his condition, saying that the meditteranean countries have much fewer cases of this disease thanks to their good diet. For many Brits, there is Britain, continental Europe and the US, and everywhere else "sunt leones", just like for many Americans. This was an important cultural lesson. We're seriously considering alternative education for Jonathan, at least as long as we're here in London.
I've been informed (guess by whom!) there has been a discussion on gypsies in Eastern and Central Europe. Well, today I interpreted for one Roma lady. I asked her if she was planning to go back home. She said no. I asked why. She said that she feels much less oppressed here than there. She told me she used to be followed by security guards in any store she'd go to at home. Treated like a thief all the time. She said, how come people come here and find work right away, and at home they couldn't do anything for years? Good question. I think we still have a long way to go as a nation.
Anyway, enough for today. I'll be playing a shark next week at the European Forum Conference in Athens, so I will report from there about my new interpreting experiences. Keep your fingers crossed for me that I do well... Speaking, processing and listening at the same time does not usually come natural to humans. Only to sharks :).