Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Say What?

This is a repeat/update of an old post that bears repeating, in honor of  PS.

Interpreting, translating – what’s the difference? Most people use these words interchangeably, but an interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text. In consular work, officers who are not fluent in the local language must sometimes depend on local employees for both skills, but interpreting is by far the most difficult.

Interpreters must be discerning listeners. They must be able to process and remember several sentences, and repeat them accurately in another language. They have to possess excellent public speaking skills, and the ability to transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand. And they must be able to do this for speakers who are not trained to use interpreters, and so tend to speak in paragraphs.

Madam once watched a news broadcast of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, making a statement. He was slouched comfortably on a small stool. Next to him sat a younger man, his interpreter. As the ambassador began to speak, the interpreter sat up very straight, concentrating on Zaeef's face and voice, clearly preparing to accurately and completely render his boss’s Pashtun to Urdu. But Zaeef spoke and spoke and spoke without pause. The young man’s forehead creased, his hands tightened into fists, his back tensed, his eyes widened. After well more than a minute, with no break in sight, it was the interpreter who broke. He suddenly let out his breath, closed his eyes, opened his hands, and surrendered. There was no way he could do that job, and he knew it.

Zaeef and his interpreter in better days

As consular officers, we cannot afford to leave our interpreters – our local employees – so dispirited.  After all, we need the information that the person we are interviewing will give us, and we need to pass accurate information back.  So here are the rules, learned from (and checked by) many excellent FSNs/LESs and professional interpreters:

The officer:

It is you and the customer who are having the conversation. The interpreter is not a member of that exchange. Look only at the customer, glancing at the paperwork or computer screen as necessary, but never look at or speak to the interpreter.

Use simple, clear sentences; no convoluted, complex, stream-of-consciousness, rambling.

Pause after every declarative sentence or two, and after every question, for the interpreter to catch up.

Wait for the whole response from the customer, and then wait for its interpretation.

If you want to consult with the interpreter about the possible veracity of the customer’s answers or for any other reason, get up and leave the window together, have that conversation, then return and resume.

Rinse, repeat.

The interpreter:

Stand or sit to one side, slightly behind the officer; your presence should be minimal. Your voice is the officer’s tool. You as a person are not there.

Translate only the exact words used. Do not preface any sentence with ‘The consular officer wants to know…” or “She says that …” 

If the interviewee addresses you directly, continue to translate exactly what he says. For example, if he says directly to you, in the local language, “Oh sister, please please help me,” what do you do? You repeat, “Oh sister, please please help me,” in English.

And please accept Madam's - and every officer's you have ever interpreted for - humble thanks and appreciation. After all these years, we still have no idea how you do that. Good job!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Your Bible Verse For The Day

Esther 4:14 -  When Esther hesitated to risk her life to save her people, Mordecai, her foster father said, "Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

"Daddy, do I have to?"

The entire story is riveting, but Mordecai's question can also stand alone. And it can be taken personally by anyone who is looking for their purpose in life - or at work.

Why and when and how might a humble consular officer relate to such a grand statement of finality and fate?

Every FSO was hired for a reason. Much of that reason is that the hirers decided that the hirees' judgement could be trusted. And much of the way that a person acquires judgement that can be trusted is through having complex experiences and learning the right lessons from them.

No consular officer stands at the window with an empty mind and blank character. Often it is previous life events that give conoffs the edge to make decisions not just by the book (or the FAM) but also by common sense, a clear heart, and courage.

An officer of Madam's acquaintance often tells the story of what most would consider a simple, easy visa refusal: in a European post many years ago, a young man from Eastern Europe applied for an NIV. The young man had no passport, only a refugee travel document from the country that had taken him in. He was not working. He wanted to visit his Amcit girlfriend in the US. Who wouldn't refuse such a case?

Madam's friend refused him, with apologies. The young man said, "That's all right. I thought you'd probably say no. It's just that this is the best time for a visit, since my work here starts in three weeks and then I won't be able to go for a long time."

They parted pleasantly. And that night Madam's friend couldn't sleep. In the morning, he dug out the young man's OF-156, called him, asked him to come back, requested a waiver for the travel document, and issued the visa. A month later, the young man came to the consular section to introduce the girlfriend - who had come with him back to Europe - and to reassure the officer that he had returned.

What's the lesson? Compared to possible genocide, a single visa decision might seem trivial. Compared to Amcits in real trouble, compared to rising unrest that might break out in bloody violence, compared to hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, maybe it is trivial. But even if the issue is not life-threatening, trust the judgement you were hired for, and trust yourself to do the right thing. Madam's friend issued the visa because, through years of raising teenagers, among other challenging experiences, he knew the applicant was telling the truth, and he was right.

Did that one NIV matter in the course of a consular career? Like the little child who tosses the starfishes back into the sea, the officer knew that it mattered to the young man he issued it to. And it mattered to the officer, too; he had done the right thing even though it was harder to do than to just invoke 214(b) and get on with his life. Perhaps most of all, it allowed him to exercise the judgement he had been hired for, and we all know that to keep any muscle (or thinking process) ready for action, it must be exercised regularly, not just wait for the big genocide-threatening life event that, unlike Esther's, might never arise.

Like Esther, the officer made the harder decision, which was the right one, not the easy one. And he didn't even need a peevish Jewish foster father to tell him so.