Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Something really cool happened last night.

I showed up to Open Letter's first fall event in their Reading the World Conversation Series (more info about the next free event on Oct. 1 here, if you're in or near Rochester) . Chad Post, Open Letter's director and soccer aficionado, had warned me that his guest, the French author Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, spoke English fine, but might need a little help.

I hadn't realized that was code for "Allison, you should grab a mic and sit on stage with us to interpret as necessary." 

It's no secret that I will never be a professional interpreter. I'm too much of a perfectionist, and I don't think quickly enough on my feet. Both well-known facts. At least to me. The world at large must have missed that memo. 

Because there I was, sitting on a little elevated platform with a warm, funny, and world-renowned French author, trying to keep up with Chad's rapid-fire English and catch any sudden switches of Jean-Marie's speech from halting English to fluid French, fielding questions from the audience. And none of it was perfect.

But it was good enough. 

It didn't matter that I gave two or three English choices for the one French word Jean-Marie queried me on. It didn't matter that I didn't have more context than "La preuve est...?" because the odds of "preuve" being "proof" were heavily in my favor.  It didn't even matter that I couldn't perform as a professional interpreter would, because in the end, he didn't really need me. I was there as a crutch, a cushion, a smiling safety net. And if that provided enough comfort for him to tell his wonderful stories of falsified biographies, hypocritical publishers, and thinly-veiled dick jokes, then I did my job right.

Still, I'm not ever going to add "interpreting" to my list of professional skills. I have too much respect and awe-filled admiration for interpreters to do that.