“For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illness that so strangely bean with a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars-and it is not enough if one may think all of this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been inside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not until they have turned to blood within us, to glance, to gesture nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves-not until then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them. ”
– Ranier Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
This quote was one of the many stories that established interpreter, Nancy Du, told in her speech at NTU last week. For her, this quote captures the skill interpreters need to excel. It’s the ability to internalize knowledge; not just to know it but also to be able to use it at a moment’s decision. She talked about how her background molded her personality and how that contributed to her skill set as an interpreter. She also discussed what it means to be an interpreter to her.
Growing up, she felt she was a bystander; she was never able to fit into the conventional Chinese mold nor the privileged white South African mold she was educated in. She learned to constantly adjust her attitude and her culture to best suit her surroundings. There was never a true self, always a conscious awareness that she was trying to fit in. But it was precisely due to this innate ability to switch between personalities that made her especially suited to being an interpreter. She was allowed to put on different personas for different assignments. For example, she once played the role of a Tiffany’s salesperson and learned how Tiffany’s is always the first stop when it comes to ring shopping. Yet, customers never really make purchases there, only to price compare. She also learned the Tiffany approach which is to never hard sell and to never qualify (judging the customer based on how they look and dress.) Throughout it all, she never lost sight of her duty as an interpreter: to protect the fidelity of the message. Even if you’ve interpreted the same speech a billion times, give it your all every time because people in the audience are only hearing it for the first time. It’s the same work ethic as any Broadway actor. Why would the actress who plays Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire put the same amount of energy and passion in every single performance? It’s because the audience is always seeing it for the first time.
Humans make mistakes. But the difference between a professional interpreter and an amateur interpreter, according to Nancy, is the way they face up to their mistakes. Amateurs blame it on others. Professionals learn from their mistake with humility and become better. They don’t dwell, they move on and give the next task their undivided attention. It is okay to have doubts but those doubt come with experience. It is okay to make mistakes. In the end, she is still very much a bystander. But being a bystander is a blessing. It allows you to be detached but fully participating. The sense of “I” is gone. Everything fades away and it’s just moment to moment to moment.
But the interpreter career path isn’t for everyone. If you crave a title that proclaims your achievements or you have ambition that pushes to constantly move up in the corporate world. Interpreters have no titles. In Nancy’s words, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”