Friday, March 12, 2010

Voice Over --- and Out (Richmond, VA)

I spent all of Tuesday interpreting at meetings between parents and a group comprised of teachers, a psychologist, a speech and language therapist, a social worker, and others, to determine whether or not their children would be eligible to receive or continue to receive special education services. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., I echoed what everyone in the room was saying, Spanish to English, English to Spanish. By the last session, I was so exhausted that although the parent never showed up, I was still repeating everything in Spanish. Finally, someone turned to me and said, "No one here speaks Spanish, B. You can just listen!"

Listening is not my forte. I'm a talker.

That's part of the reason why I ditched my dreams of becoming a professional interpreter. It suddenly dawned on me -- after taking all language classes, all of the time in college -- that I didn't want to just repeat what someone else said to me. I had my own (often strong) opinions about such things as war and religious persecution that I wanted to be able to interject. Alas, as I explain to the people for whom I now interpret , an interpreter is like a window. The people on the outside talk through it to the people on the inside. The window, itself, offers no suggestions or arguments or advice.

These days I can be a window, but only sometimes. Luckily, my job and other activities offer me plenty of opportunities to speak for myself.

Sometimes I shouldn't.

The best conversationalists are often people who listen more and talk less. Let me give you an example...

Years ago my father, depressed and lonely, came to live with us after my mom had gone from hospital to nursing home and while my brother and I tried to arrange to move her here. Every day my overweight, chain-smoking dad would slowly make his way to a nearby 7-11 and after a coffee and cigarette break, he'd inch along, stopping to rest from time to time, until he landed at a coffee shop. He'd spend most of his day there, reading, caffeinating, and filling his and others' lungs with tar, nicotine, and a treasure trove of other toxins.

Shortly after we managed to retrieve my mother, she died. Dad, my son, and I flew up to New York for Mom's funeral and burial. After a day filled with grief and a stomach filled with fat-laced pastrami, my father had heart failure. Although he survived for four more years, he never returned to Richmond.

However, during my rare stops at the convenience store and frequent forays to the coffee shop, people would ask me about my dad. More than once someone would say what a great conversationalist he was.

I was always surprised; my dad was a man of few words and fewer conversations. I don't remember any discussions in which he would add much more than a smile, some nods, and an occasional short, corny joke. And that's why people liked and remembered him: They got to talk about themselves and he listened to them.

My son has the same talent for listening. He often sits back as conversation swirls around him. He'll throw in an acerbic, perceptive, often hilarious comment from time to time, but he doesn't --- at least not while I'm around -- dominate the conversation.

I, on the other hand, can be a conversational dominatrix.

After spending Wednesday on the phone, conducting a workshop, and teaching; Thursday on the phone, at meetings, and (once again) interpreting at parent-teacher meetings, followed by repeated, unsuccessful attempts to chat above the sounds of blaring salsa music; and today, Friday, (twice again) interpreting, talking with A. and then M., talking, talking, talking, I've run out of juice, steam, and voice.

So I'm trying to maintain silence. And I plan to do so for the rest of the day -- at least while I'm alone.

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