19 Degrees of Senselessness

This is actually my brother's garb for the annual no-pants subway ride in New York, but you get the idea.
My brother’s interpretation of 19°C

My fruit bowl is full. This morning at 8am, I stepped out of my apartment and was greeted by a cheerful, light-handed sun and the air was unambiguous and clear-hearted allowing me to bee-bop through it to the market on a fruit mission. When I returned, I looked at the weather forecast. 19 degrees. Being that I was raised on cornbread and fahrenheit, I considered the fact that the utterance “It is 19°C” has very little meaning for me. If I found myself in a closet angstfully trying to decide what to wear, and a cheerful ruddy somebody popped in and said, “It’s 19 degrees outside,” I might come out of the closet wearing snow boots and a tank top with a distressed expression on my face.

Seleskovitch’s théorie du sens, (or Sense Theory—I don’t know why everyone thinks it’s okay just to say stuff in French as if the whole world OF COURSE understands French—but I digress), contends that interpreting is contingent upon being able to parcel out units of meaning based on prior knowledge or experience. As such, I might have a bit of a difficult time interpreting our 19 degrees statement. Or, at the very least, determining how such information relates to the rest of a speaker’s line of reasoning.

Conclusion: maybe I should take up Celsius as a hobby.  I’ll start today: 19°C now equals that marvelously senseless Saturday in Ouro Fino when I, for a moment, let go of the words and began to experience meaning.

Why it Might Be Wise to Use an Interpreter

A colleague of mine from my Master’s of Conference Interpreting program at Glendon College shared this video with me regarding the withdrawal of funding for healthcare interpreters in the Netherlands. It really does a great job at getting to the heart of why medical interpreting is valuable. And it does it with grace and humor and in only one minute and six seconds. So take a look. It you’d like more on the subject, read through this post written by one of my-gosh-it’s-wonderful-to-have-her-as-a-trainer trainers, Michelle Hof.

Why interpreting anyway?

My Healthcare Interpreting professor put forth an excellent question: What do you like about interpreting? What led you to be an interpreter. You might expect these answers but I thought I’d go ahead and declare my love to the world.

  • The linguistic sport. The feeling when you’re keeping up , you’re disappearing, everyone is understanding, you’re remembering obscure terms. Oh this is nice.
  • The human connection. Being able to smile at someone in surgery or use dialect-specific language to help a patient feel more at home. Just feeling useful, like I can help in some way is a gosh darn gift.
  • The constant education. The never-ending research. Learning about the actual subjects we are interpreting.
  • Not being at a desk! I love that I’m often on the go between departments or buildings. This might change with more remote interpreting. I’ll have to learn how to pace in a small space.
  • My colleagues. I have had some rad colleagues. Yep I’m talking about you NYULMC. See this post for more on wonderful coworkers.

Now for the whole gushy history.

Like many in this field I didn’t set out intending to be an interpreter. In high school I liked English, writing. Many teachers praised my writing, and others used it to practice with their red ink pen. I didn’t want to let down the people who believed in what I wrote nor did I want anyone criticizing something so abjectly personal—or at least what felt very personal to an adolescent.

So I found my way to Spanish. I liked tinkering with the words, trying to get into a flow. And it was a foreign language so no one expected me to be good at it. So the story of Spanish and I began because it was safe, but stuck around because of the amazing people and art that it’s allowed me to meet along the way. For example, while living in the Dominican Republic, I met women more loving and open in a way so distinct from the Southern US; men who danced and kissed other men; children who smiled and fluttered and ran to buy sodas for guests from the corner store. You know what I mean. You’ve been there too. And you know how it makes your heart feel.

A stroke of luck in College introduced me to interpreting formally. We had a professor who was also a professional interpreter and rustled together some grant money together to teach a rag-tag bunch of French and Spanish students the basics of simultaneous and long consecutive. It was quite a challenge. Nerves, adrenaline, performance—in fact, it was the perfect substitute for the division I soccer world that I had quietly exited the year before. I don’t remember being particularly good at interpretation. But I wasn’t flagrantly bad at it either.

Following college I worked to get into the medical interpreting field because it seemed to be the best way to stay in contact with Spanish. Living in Athens, Georgia it was the most prominent interpreting setting around. I didn’t know any court or conference interpreters.

But interpreting evolved from a great job into a career commitment for me for two main reasons. The first is that, one day long ago, someone asked what God is to me. I probably say something different every time this subject comes up but this time I said quite without thinking, “It’s the space between two people. That’s where the Divine might be.”

Art by Vero Gatti. Thanks Lauren.
By Vero Gatti. Thanks Lauren.

Much later I reflected and thought, “How natural that I would become an interpreter!” As an interpreter I get to sink my hands and heart into that divine space and try to get to know it, learn from it, and contribute to it daily.

The second reason is because I tried working as a Web Editor in an office in front of a computer the whole stinkin’ day and it doesn’t work for me. Nope. Not one bit.

If you’re an interpreter reading this blog, you could tell me what you like about interpreting as well so that I can say ooooh, ya, that too! Or if you’re a chef or an accountant tell me what you love about that.


Coffee & Interpreting Sanduíche

The interpreting realm is a-buzz for me as of late. I want to lay it all out here, so if you’re not a part of the interpreting world or you aren’t my grandmother Mimi you may find this a bit boring. I’ll try to be as spicy as some of you know that I’m capable of being, but this may only be digestible by coffee or interpreting first-class geeks. (Which geeks, by the way, has apparently reached the Portuguese specialty coffee lexicon! Who knew?!)

Practice booths at the InterpretAmerica Summit.
From the practice booths at the InterpretAmerica Summit.

This past June I attended the InterpretAmerica Summit organized by co-presidents Katherine Allen and Barry Slaughter Olsen just outside of Washington DC. That was loads of fun as I had the opportunity to learn about and actually meet the creators of many new remote interpreting platforms such as Babelverse and Capiche.pro; interviewed with the new “netflix-style” training initiative by Michelle Scott (who is super sweet by the way) of Voices for Health; and finally had the opportunity to meet the hard-working Andrew Clifford, director of Glendon College’s Master of Conference Interpreting (MCI)—program in which I am currently, happily involved upon which I will expound for sure throughout the semester. Meanwhile, you can find out more through Andrew’s blog about the program. At the conference, Andrew introduced me to students and professors in the Portuguese-English track of the MCI, and I met conference organizer Katherine Allen and her sweet, chill daughter. Fast forward several months later, and I find out that the mismita Katherine Allen is my Healthcare Interpreting professor! Very fun.

Panel on Technology & Disruption in Interpreting. Left to Right: Mayel de Borniol, Co-Founder of Babelverse; Jake Rohn, Co-Founder of Capiche.pro ; Dan Gatti, Managing Partner, Innovative Capital Ventures.
Interpreting Technology & Disruption Panel. Jake Rohn of Capiche.pro, Barry Slaughter Olsen of InterpretAmerica, Dan Gatti of Innovative Capital Ventures, and Mayel de Borniol of Babelverse.

It was really neat having the presence of the signed language interpreting community. I’m actually now following a great blog, Street Leverage by Brandon Arthur which is focused on signed language interpreting but is equally interesting and valuable for the jabbering interpreter type as well. As the conference opened, the first presentation was signed for us all which was truly exciting to see. Booths were also available in the back for spoken language interpreters to hop in and play around with. I, of course, saddled up to the figurative horse, had a bumpy little joyride, and dismounted reaffirmed in my conviction that there is always lots more to learn.

The next conference I attended worth reporting on from an interpreting standpoint was actually a specialty coffee conference. I always meet the best folks at coffee events which I end up attending more frequently than one might expect because my partner Byron works in the industry as a coffee genius—title he doesn’t know he has until he sees this post. The Feira Internacional de Café (International Coffee Fair) in Belo Horizonte had the appearance of a typical conference and I got to see my lively friend Marty Curtis who taught a CQI cupping course that I interpreted this past April in Perú. This, along with meeting many heavy-hitters in the Brazilian coffee scene that I had heard about but had yet to meet, made me very happy indeed.

Marty Curtis demonstrating proper grinding technique for the CQI cupping course.
Marty Curtis demonstrating proper grinding technique cupping course.
Bidule equipment for the cupping course from the wonderful Giovana and Carlos at Universe Language Solutions.
Course Bidule equipment  from the super folks at  Universe Language Solutions.
Cupping course organizer Char who was an absolute delight! She took me to a beautiful water park in Lima.
Delightful cupping course organizer Char who took me to a beautiful water park in Lima.

I have to say, however, that a highlight of this event for me had to do with a small booth in the back of a large conference room populated by two super-friendly and, as I was to find out, very talented and well-prepared conference interpreters and master’s of their own interpreting business Tradus B&B. Canary Islands born María Barrera and Brazilian Larissa Benevides delivered into English excellent renditions of the presentations, nailing industry-specific terminology that can be quarrelsome. I was so glad I had the opportunity to appreciate their linguistic maneuvers.

coffee week
My conference badge (Thanks Byron!) I might have gone a different direction with the English translation visitor?

This leads me to a question I brought up to my Conference Interpreting Professor Michelle Hof, trainer at La Laguna and widely read author of the Interpreter Diaries (thank you Andrew for putting together such an amazing faculty) about how to best capitalize on opportunities to witness conference interpretation live. I was at first trying to listen to the source language (i.e. the speeches given on stage) and the interpretation into English at the same time to try to see what the master’s of the booth were doing with it all. I was able to catch some of each enough to appreciate the quality of the interpretation, however, it became a bit noisy up in the ole noggin as you can imagine. So then I focused on just listening to the Interpretation which gave me little insight into the interpretation process but knowing a good bit about the industry and terms that typically trip people up, I was able to again get a sense of the high quality of my new friends in the booth. Additionally, it was nice to walk in an end user’s shoes or, perhaps sit in their seats for a bit. I then moved on to shadowing the speeches to try to click into the rhythm of the speakers in my B and hopefully eventually C languages, Spanish and Portuguese respectively.  It has been at least four months since I’ve actively interpreted in the workplace, on top of which I’ve been in a bit of a Spanish-language desert here in Brazil, thus it was a delight to hear a well-delivered live speech in Spanish.

I subsequently described this experience to Michelle, and she suggested that at this point, it might be best to really focus in on the speech itself: How is it structured? Where is the speaker trying to go with it? What is the speaker’s personality? This suggestion really drives home the point that a large part of the work is getting inside the speaker’s head. So the next time I attend another rockin’ coffee conference you will find me in my caffeine-powered, x-ray capable, cerebral spaceship ready for exploration.

Mango Pancakes

A few things have changed. Now I eat mango on top of my cornmeal pancakes instead of berries. In Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, homemade almond-cashew butter always went on underneath. I arrived in Brazil with two jars of Brooklyn Larder almond butter to get the job done. They were gone within two weeks. So the immediate challenge in Brazil was not the language, not housing, not getting around, but what to do without almond butter. Simply not an option.

There happened to be a blender in the farmhouse, so I decided that I was gonna just have to make do with almond sprinkles—I wish now that I had called it almond pixie dust. So pixie dust it was. I roasted the almonds and we made dust inside as the dust flew around outside.

When it was time for the next batch I put a small amount of almonds in the bottom of the blender. Part of me said, “There is a little swirly knife in the bottom—why can’t I have almond butter god dammit?” But nothing. From dust you began and to dust you shall return. So I added the rest of the almonds and resigned myself to almond pixie dust.

And then a wonky noise like someone talking underwater happened and I thought, “I’m gonna burn this damn blender’s motor out! I thought about switching it off but then Mr. Blender regained his footing and I peered in the top and saw that a small miracle had happened: Almond Butter.

I suppose at breaking point, if I move through it, transformations take place and something delicious can happen.

Almond Butter


Those stupid picture frames.

Shouting, “Hey driver, let me out here!” I walked confidently down the aisle, corralling my comrades along the way. The picture frames for the Dominican communities who host us that I had carry-on imported from Athens, Georgia held their ground in the bus’s narrow overhead storage.

It took two days for my error to announce itself. When I realized what I had done I sought out some internet to find the small bus company’s phone number. Let us never forget the wonder of Google. Number in hand I called Aetra Bus of Santo Domingo. They gave me a number to call in Santiago. Against a pessimist’s odds, the cordial folks in Santiago had our frames. No, they couldn’t send them to me in Bonao but they could send them to Piedra Blanca, which was just about 30 miles down the highway.

On a Thursday afternoon, I headed down to the highway to wait for a passing van, the whirlwind of our program fading away behind me.  Facing north, I waited for a gua-gua to pull over and take me south. Within ten minutes, one such civilian soldier of the country’s informal public transport army screeched to a halt ten paces to my right. The grandiose arm gestures of the animated cobrador encouraged my paced toward the open door. A cobrador collects passenger payment, helps them squeeze into unlikely spaces and hangs out the open door announcing the final destination to largely disinterested bystanders along the highway. As I approached him, I realized that it was Domingo, who often beckons us from across the street to show us the wood stove candy factory behind his house and stuff our pockets with sweets as we leave.

Domingo’s son, Edydeyson, emerged smiling at me from under his baseball cap, hopping down into the dust. He had just finished practice, explained his Dad, and was pitching a 75 but needed to pitch an 82.  Drawn up and in to the gua-gua’s sticky embrace, I greeted the aged couple in the back and slid into one of the many open seats as we, this new momentary family of circumstance, barreled down the highway toward Piedra Blanca.

As we pulled into the Piedra Blanca stop, a faded bright yellow concrete structure with an open front, a spotty Caribbean rain found its rhythm above us. Domingo’s many warnings about the suddenly risen torrent of water along the curb found it’s way to the athlete in me. An easeful hop saw me across the water and propelled me towards shelter. Once inside, the frames were quickly located, thanks were given and a plastic bag happily embarking on it’s ninth life as an umbrella found it’s way over the top of the frames. My frames and I headed toward the street, pausing when confronted with the downpour.

“You better just wait ’til this water slows,” said a gentle, indifferent voice from behind. I turned and almost automatically desisted, in part because I didn’t want to ride back wet, and in part because I had learned that stubborness in a place that doesn’t readily respond to personal will is a futile waste of effort. But soon my inbred restlessness won out and I headed out into the rain to flag down a van headed back in the other direction. 

I found ready refuge with a small group of wet, chatty street vendors under a tarp strung between two structures. On the left, a shack or shed of some sort, silent under the steady rain. On the right, a wooden stand no bigger than a carnival booth, with a one-sided glass cover containing mounting piles of fried plantains, chicken, salami. From the corner, the accidental master of all things fried, relying heavily on the stool beneath him and the wall behind him, gazed through the street vendors’ conversation while tending to his sizzling pots by ear, sight being now unnecessary. 

United by the wait, I, the vendors who hawk their wares to passing vans and buses, and the gentleman manning the fritura, began our gentle social sway. Two of the vendors, swimming the familiar detached strokes of debate, highlighted best selling techniques for their dulce de leche and candied peanut and sesame bars. My focus, easily detaching from this language on loan to me, slipped out into the street, lazing between the constant rain, and finally latching onto the light swooning heart of a distant bachata.

“Here comes one, you’re going to get your ride right now,” said a delighted voice. “Put those over your head,” said another man, pointing at the frames. “No,” said an older gentleman who had shown up while my mind was out under the rain. “Take my cap, you can send it back from the van,” he said pushing it firmly onto my head. I hunched down a bit under my friend’s cap, nestled the frames under my arm and headed toward the van’s open door.

Miles passed and soon enough the bakery with the fancy bathrooms appeared outside the window letting me know that it was almost time to get off.  “Driver, let me off at the Los Mangos stop pleeease!”

Following a confident swerve and firm braking, the door slid open and my feet hit the ground.  Resituating my bag of frames for the short walk home I heard something fall to the ground. Looking down, a smile spread through my heart and took hold of my mouth. Down at my feet, a peanut candy bar—the type commonly sold by the country’s many street vendors.

Under the tarp, between a shed and a stand, bound together by an assertive rain, on of my comrades-in-waiting had silently sent me off into my new present with anonymous gift.

peanut candy bar

Like lost socks in the washing machine,
lost baggage happens too.

-Delta Airlines Website

“I don’t know what you’ll think but I think you’ll love it.”

This said Byron, who I, with twinkle in eye, lovingly call my boyfriend-husband, one weekday evening upon reuniting for the evening in our Brooklyn apartment. My intestines, where everything exciting and terrible lives, eagerly perked up for the rising action.  The plot of this Tuesday evening tale came in the form of an offer that Byron, who works in the specialty coffee industry, had received to be a part of a new coffee company as the Director of Agribusiness on a coffee farm in Brazil.

This idea felt immediately nice to me and my aforementioned digestive tract. The universe had prepared me for it by sending messengers. These “preparers-of-the-way” who I encountered frequently in my interpreting work in Manhattan almost invariably put forth the following question: “Oh you’re an interpreter? So how many languages do you speak?”

If an interpreter with one silly language pair didn’t know any better, she might confuse this good-natured interest with accusations of inadequacy. I, of course, never did such a thing (insert wry smile and emphatic head-shaking with a “no, no, no, never”). It did, however, lead me to investigate the language services market and to the eventual realization that, while one could get by with one pair, adding another language to the mix would open up many more opportunities—especially in the world of conference interpreting that I was preparing to enter.

Everything seemed to line up nicely for a Brooklyn to Brazil transition: My master’s program in conference interpreting could be done online from anywhere in the world; I was tired of living somewhere where plain ole boring English was the default language; sometimes I had to wear a rather thick coat in New York and no one likes that; my boyfriend-husband would be laboring in the dirt to make green coffee better—his favorite part of the coffee chain; plus they use comparatively smaller drinking glasses in Brazil which I like better.

So Brazil, Byron and I all joined hands and spun around in a circle a bit until we became delightfully nauseated by our merriment. We visited the farm, told our dear friends and family the news, packed our things, did some language-learning software as a sad substitute to the real thing and then excitedly boarded a São Paolo-bound red eye.

So yes, we boarded that airplane, landed in Brazil and then all of a sudden I found myself slumped against the back wall of the farmhouse, tears in my eyes, because…well, I didn’t know. Was it because the sunshine was too warm? The air too clean? The birds too melodious? Why was I disintegrating into tears over my pancakes every morning?

This was a mystery to me and all of my cognitive powers. Whatever the reasons it was pretty uncomfortable to observe myself behaving in such strange ways. It was Byron who helped me to tease out some of the underlying factors contributing to this unrelenting mood mystery. The real story goes something like this:

I landed in Brazil on a Monday morning in May. We rode through the gates of Fazenda Santa Izabel.  Our suitcases soon hunched together in the bedroom of the small farmhouse attached to the farm office where José, the Brazilian manager and Byron would sit at big heavy desks and do important things. Back in Brooklyn a young woman, so sensitive yet fiercely independent; interpreter, nonprofit director, and a million other things, stood on the tarmac, her bike like a most faithful dog at her hip.

This young woman was me. She is the part of myself that I had lovingly tucked into my suitcase but, knowing that there was no place for her in this new paradigm had slipped out somewhere between pre-boarding and baggage claim. Like a child upon perceiving that no one else seems able to see her imaginary friend, I watched this version of myself flash ghostly and then fade away. Sans subway, bike, income and professional identity, with nowhere to go and nothing to contribute, I mourned the woman I had left behind in Brooklyn.

From this it seems to follow that we may be nothing more or less than products of our own imagination. That being the case, I’m considering following the imagined advice of my dear friend Lauren, who, nestled inside a series of expletives, would tell me to invite whichever fictitious friend I damn well please to this new party among strangers.


A Love Letter to NYULMC Freelancers & Staff

It’s time to attempt to help each of you to understand the floating globs of magic that you have each been during this chapter of my life. Together you add up to one huge magic show that’s worth being alive for.

patio shadowOn a professional level, practicing within this department has been an experience that I never thought possible.  Schedules are so well-organized, dispatching so seamless, communication so thorough and warm, hospital staff so respectful and aware, department leadership so positive and accessible, and you–my colleagues–so professional, motivated, open and seeking.This might as well be an ingredient list to running a highly fruitful interpretation department. To miss being at work while away on vacation is an all-together new sensation.

The opportunity to work as a freelancer, the gift of being able to technically choose day after day whether to work or not, and then observing myself choose yes and yes and yes over and over again has been enormously satisfying, motivating and freeing. This system reflects my values. It’s the philosophy I like to apply to everything from flossing to marriage.

Beyond the accolades with which I would most certainly decorate the department, Laura the person has fallen in love with each one of you. I would bail you each out of jail, or donate a kidney to you, or travel with you to far away places (particularly if you have a useful language in your combination for zee destination).  Your belief in me, your trust of me, has solidified the notion that I might be, at a minimum, a pretty decent person and possibly even a good interpreter. You are responsible for inspiring me to get my master’s degree in Conference Interpreting. You have each accompanied me into the understanding that this specific realm of communication work known as interpretation is what I’d like to spend the rest of my life fiddling around with.

Whether you meant to love me so much or not I cannot know. In any case, that is certainly how I feel and I am grateful.

Out of the Trenches

Recently I was interpreting for a coffee cupping course.  During lunch, the following conversation occurred between me and one of the students who I had really come to enjoy.

Him: So, how long have you been speaking Spanish?

Me: Oh gosh, like ten years.

Him: WOW!

Me: But what? You think that my level should be better for having done this for ten years?

Him: [Plainly, uncharged] I just think that you should be more fluent. 

Me: [Change of subject.]

Moral: You win some you lose some.

banana boquet

Later I thanked this young man. Our conversation had pulled that infamous ego right out, bringing her into plain view. Guerilla warfare with one’s self is quite exhausting. My vision now clear, my foe in sight, I could take a rest from my post. She and I then sat next to each other for a bit, our animosity turning to the indifference of an upper east sider and a crown heightser on the A-train.

Maybe one of these days, just like in the famous WWII tale, we’ll lay down our arms all together and play a bittersweet game of fútbol together if only for a few hours.

Out of Lima

On the way to the airport, suddenly I feel the presence of the Spanish, not just the Spanish but every conquerer, all of us conquerers, the conquerer as a force that survives in it’s heavy buildings and crumbling ledges. The taxi driver asks if we’ve been through this part of Lima before. I interpret keeping the notes of sadness I perceive in his voice to myself, not sure if they’re mine or his. The driver continues to skim the depth of this place us: a comment regarding bygone indigenous building methods, current poverty in the area, and mass graves near the cathedrals, a meter wide where bodies where thrown in during the war.

Through the window I see Indigenous everywhere. Faces that say: we fought, we tried and now this is what is. Crowded buses, loud trucks, society. My academic brain kicks on. The indigenous resistance must have been valiant. I try to recall the names of the great caciques. I can’t. The radio continues it’s steady parade of oldies in English indifferent to time, mood and geography. I return my gaze to the faces.

This is the place I love. I am not this place but I love it. A self-awareness of sadness manifests. I am sad. No, I just haven’t had any coffee I decide. And then I realize, we all drink to forget.