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When you’re suddenly the one who doesn’t speak the language

I work from home and really love doing so – the quiet, the lack of commute, having my cat share my office! But now and again a change is welcome, and when I was asked this year to work on site for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, I jumped at the chance. I thus spent nearly two weeks in Switzerland at the beginning of July, working in a team with three other translators in my language combination (there were twelve translators in the WCC language service altogether). There were quite a few eye-openers for me – what a pain it is to try and catch a bus for work during the morning rush hour, for example, or how nice it is to be able to turn around and just ask a colleague for a second opinion instead of having to post an enquiry on a forum – but perhaps the most interesting wasn’t actually directly to do with my translation work. Geneva is, of course, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and I don’t speak French. Well, I can order food, ask for directions, and thanks to my musical training can spout various operatic phrases (“Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle dans cette mirroir!”), but I cannot have a proper conversation with a French speaker, nor indeed understand a lot of what is spoken around me.
This was an unusual situation for me. When I travel, for various reasons I usually go to countries where one of my languages is spoken – Germany, Austria, German Switzerland, Canada, the U.S., Italy. I’m used to being able to understand what people around me are saying and being able to speak to them. Not being able to do so produced a number of instructive, albeit unpleasant reactions:
  • I felt helpless. Not being able to communicate what I wanted or needed made me feel powerless. Suddenly I was dependent on other people’s ability to speak one of “my” languages.
  • I felt stupid. There’s nothing like stuttering, trying to find the right word (no, make that any word), being reduced to pointing and saying “Cette…si vous plait…” to make you feel like a complete idiot – especially when everyone around you is speaking French with such ease.
  • I felt isolated. When all of us translators went off to the canteen at lunchtime, despite everyone’s best efforts to speak English so as to include me, conversation would inevitably drift into French. While I could often work out more or less what everyone was talking about, I was completely unable to join in.
All of this was very interesting for me. In theory, of course, I knew that not being able to communicate makes you feel powerless, but experiencing it full-on first hand was a completely different matter. It gave me a new understanding of the service we translators (and interpreters) provide: while on the surface we are helping clients to get a message written in language A across in language B, on a deeper level we are helping them not to feel helpless, stupid or isolated. An awareness of this will give us both new respect for our own work and greater empathy with our clients. This in turn can spur us on to produce work of an even higher standard.
So all in all, I feel the benefits of my embarrassing lack of French skills probably outweighed the drawbacks – even though I may invest in a “Beginners’ French” audio course before I visit Geneva next time!
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