Sep 29, 2014

Open to Interpretation!

Prime Minister Modi’s Japan visit made me think of a something very close to my heart. Something I have been associated with for over 10 years.

In Today’s Japan and I post, I talk about the Art of Interpretation.

I wonder if any of you noticed a prim bespectacled man sitting behind Prime Minister Modi or following him like a shadow during his japan visit. The man was Modi’s official interpreter and without him most of our PM’s passionate and voluble speeches in Japan would have had little effect!

For a lot of people Interpretation or translation is simply ‘converting’ what the speaker is saying from one language to another.  Frankly 'Converting” is a term that would make all self-respecting language professionals seethe with anger.

Converting is a frivolous word, something what google translate or some other internet tool would do. A human bilingual, if he is true to his profession, not only conveys the meaning of the words but the actual intent and the emotions behind them. Interpretation or translation is simply not conveying sentences; it is conveying understanding in two different cultures. Along with language acumen, it also requires a whole lot of socio- cultural awareness about the country and its people.

Another misconception is that there is not much difference between Translation and Interpretation.  Infact no Interpreter worth his salt will ever be like to be called just a translator. A translator deals with written text. Interpretation is oral. You are verbally communicating what the speaker is saying into another language. Translation of course is infinitely easier than interpretation. When you translate a text you have ample time to think of the appropriate words, to refer to dictionaries or the internet.

Interpretation is immediate and in Real Time. There is no time and no scope for referring to a dictionary or asking someone else. A true worth of a bilingual only comes out when he is interpreting. An Interpreter not only needs to be good in the language, he also needs to be super quick in grasping, managing and conveying information.

My first brush with interpretation was when I was studying Japanese in JNU. We had what was known as ‘Language Lab” classes then.
The classes were held in sound proof rooms lined with a cork like material. Each one of us had a headphone and a separate cubicle and it made us feel all important and special. Our professor, though an eminent name in the Japanese fraternity was a dour faced unsmiling man who rarely saw humour in anything. The only time I have seen him smile was when he ribbed a student mercilessly about not being able to answer his questions as the poor fellow stood there squirming and wishing the earth would swallow him.

 But in all honesty I owe a lot of my Interpretation skills to that professor and his intensive (and almost Boot Camp like) training. He used to play tapes that were usually from the NHK (the BBC of Japan) and a commentary on a current political or economic situation. The tape ran for 10 minutes and during those 10 minutes we all made notes frantically not even daring to breathe too loudly in case we miss what is being said.

It was in these interpretation classes that I learnt how to write in short hand and use key words instead of writing full sentences. If you try writing full sentences while interpreting, the speaker would be miles ahead by the time you finish with one sentence. I also learnt to listen to not only the words but the tone and underlying emotion of the speaker and interpret appropriately. For the interpreter also somehow needs to reflect the emotion of the speaker with his words and intonation while remaining detached enough not to feel the same emotion himself.

A translator deals with text. The worst problem he might face is bad font size in a hard copy or content that is difficult to understand.

An interpreter however deals with human beings and not a piece of paper. Humans unfortunately come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and personality and attitudes.  

Some speakers whisper or mumble making it difficult for the interpreter to understand what they are saying. Some on the other hand will speak faster than a bullet train. Some confused souls will keep contradicting their own statements leaving the interpreter thoroughly bewildered.

The usual norm is to take a logical break after every few minutes and allow the interpreter to do his job. But some speakers go on and on without a break and as a result the interpreter will have almost 15-20 minutes of data to interpret in one go. 
That is what happened during one of Modi’s speeches in Japan. He got carried away while speaking. In a span of 10 minutes he cracked jokes and then turned again to serious matters without giving his interpreter any chance to interpret. As a result the Japanese in the room were totally baffled by the laughter and his Interpreter was faced with the daunting task of not only interpreting a lot of content but also witticisms and serious topics in one go. And jokes when not interpreted immediately lose a lot of their charm!

Some people like to pretend that interpreters are blessed with a photographic memory. I have had speakers change the slide of the ppt before I have finished explaining it or rub off drawings from the board before I could explain them.

And I used to absolutely hate lunch or dinner meetings. Most of them used to be in very good restaurants but since I was busy interpreting all the time, I couldn't taste a morsel unless I wanted to speak with my mouth full of food.

I remember one dinner in a very famous North Indian restaurant where I spent 10 minutes interpreting from English into Japanese what a culinary delight Butter Chicken is without getting to taste even a morsel of the damn bird!

There is no greater woe for an Interpreter than confusing pronunciations and different dialects.  I remember one interpreter who got thoroughly confused between Maruti and Multi – because of the simple reason that the Japanese pronounce ‘Ti’  as “Chi”  and ‘L’ as ‘R’. So Multi when spoken in a sort of anglicized Japanese – becomes Maruchi. Unfortunately Maruti of the Maruti Suzuki fame is also pronounced as Maruchi.

The poor fellow, a novice to the world of Automobile interpretation was totally befuddled between the two terms and used them indiscriminately till the Indians in the meeting thought that Multi companies were making cars like Maruti instead of Maruti making multiple cars. I was torn between an overwhelming desire to laugh and to correct to poor chap !

Of course such incidents are fun as long as you are not in the eye of the storm.  
I have spent some time in a scenic Japanese city called Kobe where a particular dialect of Japanese called Kansai Ben is spoken. The Japanese team members would automatically assume that because I know Japanese I would understand all dialects and slang. They would speak something rapidly in the dialect and then look at me expectantly where I would sit there with a totally confused expression on my face.

One of the worst situations I have faced is when I was required to interpret to a bristling, angry mob of union workers in an automobile Company. The Japanese MD chose to address them in Japanese and I was faced with a daunting task of interpreting in chaste Hindi. The worst was yet to come. The union leaders, all belonging to the dusty badlands of U.P were in no mood to listen to pacifying speeches and their response was richly peppered with the choicest invectives that even I with my extensive Japanese vocabulary found a tad difficult to Interpret!

I haven’t interpreted for years now but honestly if I ever feel a need to check my language acumen, the best thing would be to try another hand at interpreting! 

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.

Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read here.

Sep 4, 2014

U.S Chronicles - A Bite out of the Big Apple

New York City failed to impress me at first. I had my first view of it at night, when it is supposed to be at its dazzling best. We came out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city lay in front of me sparkling and twinkling against the backdrop of a velvety dark night.

I felt as if I was entering into the bowels of an Urban Jungle.

My first day in the city found me sitting on top of an open tourist bus, broiling in the heat as the bus slowly moved through Manhattan and all of its touristy spots. It was hot and it was crowded and the traffic was horrendous. I don’t think I enjoyed the sights too much either. The Empire state Building didn't look as majestic close up as it did from a distance. I refused to climb up.

 The 9/11 memorial had none of the sobriety I associated with it because of the hordes of noisy tourists there.

But the worst was Times Square. I am not fond of big crowds at any given point and Times Square was nothing but a huge over flowing river of humanity. The huge skyscrapers with adverts running on them simply hurt my eye. I found them rather garish. 

The only thing I enjoyed to some extent was the boat ride to the statue of liberty. The imposing statue in front with the Manhattan skyline behind us was rather nice.

New York in summer is perhaps the best and the worst time to visit. The weather is perfect but thanks to the selfsame good weather, tourists descend on the city in droves, forcing even the hardened New Yorkers to hide inside their homes and only venture out to places less crowded.

Fed up of the tourists I encountered everywhere (and conveniently forgetting that I was one myself) I decided to explore the city as a city should really be explored - on foot and with no particular destination or time schedule in mind. I decided to pick a neighborhood a day, any neighborhood, and just wander.

The next couple of days were a revelation, for I realized I was looking at New York all wrong. The city is not about tourist sites or sky scrapers. Frankly, after a while its physical and geographical aspects simply ceased to matter. For New York City is a way of life. It’s an experience. You need to live it, explore it, let the spirit of the place seep into you, feel its pulsating, vibrant heart.

The few days that I spent wandering in the city, left me with a kaleidoscope of impressions, vivid and colorful.

To discover New York you must walk. Walk in the shadow of the great glass and steel skyscrapers, with people rushing, jostling past you in their hurry to get to work. Heels clicking, briefcases dangling, smartly dressed. So much like Tokyo, with even the weather hot and humid one day and incessant rains the next.

New York to me is Guggenheim with its intriguing structure and fabulous paintings. 

New York is the Metropolitan Museum of art where I wandered happily for hours and hours and hours and felt that no amount of time I spend in it is ever going to be enough.

New York is standing in front of Tiffany’s and feeling a little like Audrey Hepburn did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

New York City is also wandering the cobbled streets of SoHo, peering into quaint boutiques. Then walking a few blocks down to encounter rows after rows of glittering shops housing the best brands in the world. 

New York is also the Wall Street. The architecture here is different, old, historic. There is something shiny and brash about high-rises that doesn't appeal to me as much as dignified, staid beauty of old architecture.

New York is the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, with cafes warm and inviting.
Simply sit with a coffee in your hand and watch the world go by, or aimlessly stroll through old, tree shaded neighborhoods, turn a corner and discover that under the shadow of the high rises buildings like this still exist.

It’s about cutting through central park to reach your destination so that you can revel in the peace and greenery that you never thought could exist in the chaos and madness of New York. 

New York is also The Strand - the book shop that is the mecca for every self-respecting Book Lover. 

It’s about sitting on the wide sweeping steps of the New York Public Library, marveling at that magnificent building. This is how a library should be – majestic, solemn and filled with the best books ever. 

New York is Bryant Park, just behind the library with the little French Bakery nearby. I bought some delicious sandwiches there and sat eating them at one of the little tables set under the trees while I watched people battle out chess games at the next table.

New York is jogging along the river, or skating or cycling or simply sitting in a river side café as you watch the sun set over the Hudson River. 

New York is the World’s finest restaurants and the happy knowledge that every conceivable cuisine is available to you within a few miles of where ever you are. Ethiopian to Japanese to Italian.

It is also about eating hot dogs from vendors on the road and eating the very famous New York Cheesecake and Bagels to see if they indeed are the best in the world as the New Yorkers claim. It’s biting into that slice of New York style Pizza bought at a shop that is just a garret like hole in the wall but sells the “Best pizza ever”.

New York is stopping to listen to street musicians. It’s also about Broadway and musicals and summer night Jazz concerts. Nowhere except perhaps London have I ever seen a place so vibrant with art and music and culture.

New York is also about its canary yellow cabs. As I discovered, catching a cab in Manhattan, especially on a rainy day is an art. No cab stops if you stand by the side of the road and wave demurely at it. You have to literally stand in the middle of the road and wave as if your life depends on it. And somehow my fondest memory of NYC is of a cab driver who instead of cursing the horrendous traffic would take out a book and read a page or two while he waited for the light to turn green. 

New York is the police and ambulance sirens that jolted me awake even on the 23rd floor of my cousin’s apartment. Stepping out in the tiny balcony in the dead of the night to look down at a city humming with activity. For this is truly a city that never sleeps. 

New York City is fast and manic and brash and competitive and unabashedly unapologetic about it. There is an undercurrent of energy here that compels you to move faster, think quickly, to be on your toes always.

It’s a perfect place for people who want to do their own thing. This is a place that lets you be. It doesn't question, doesn't meddle and accepts you with all your idiosyncrasies and quirks.

New York is one place where you can dream anything,do anything, become anything, if the city doesn't get to you first!

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