Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Geraldine Brooks on interpretation

August 1st, 2006

As I tend to do, I noted all of the references to interpreting in Nine Parts of Desire.
“I wanted to ask her if she blamed the Iranian government for not showing her son some mercy, but Janet, who was translating, s hook her head slightly and didn’t put the question. Instead, I asked gently if she felt that all her sacrifices had been worth it” (100).
“Even Hamzah [King Hussein’s young son] wasn’t excluded. Although the boy’s command of English was perfect, he preferred to speak Arabic, and would force his father to act as translater” (136).
“One British doctor, on an eighteen-month posting to a Jeddah hospital, thought his interpreter had failed him during an ante-natal checkup on a twenty-eight year old Bedouin. ‘I asked her when she’d had her last period, and she said, “What’s a period?” It turned out she’d never had one. She’d been married at twelve, before her menarche, and had been pregnant or lactating ever since” (172).
“Official translators milled among the athletes, facilitating conversations. Each of them wore the usual Iranian attire &emdash; black hood and long tunic &emdash; but with a vivid, color-coded athletes’ warmup jacket pulled incongruously on top. Indigo and acid green meant the translator spoke English; pink and chrome yellow, Russian; lime and sky blue, Arabic. As conversations bounced from Farsi to Urdu to English, the hotel lobby filled with a pleasant, feminine buzz…But in one corner a group of men sat self-consciously, murmuring together in Russian, without the aid of the young women translators…” (208).
“When I decided to write a story about the controversy, Sahar looked at the floor and said nothing. ‘Do you want me to find someone else to translate?’ I asked. She nodded. She didn’t want to visit Cairo nightclubs or talk to dancers” (217).
I could add commentary to each of the preceding quotes, but today I will refrain. 🙂 Each reflects certain decisions that interpreters must make, constantly, during each and every interaction. These are all reminiscent of the examples Marie Gillespie shared in her talk on the politics of translation. Brooks characterizes
“the Arabic language [as being] as tribal as the desert culture which created it. Each word trails a host of relatives with the same three-letter cluster of consonants as its root. Use almost any word in Arabic, and a host of uninvited meanings barge into the conversation. I learned that one of the words for woman, hormah, comes from the same root as the words for both ‘holy, sacrosanct,’ and ‘sinful, forbidden.’ The word for mother, umm, is the root of the words for ‘source, nation, mercy, first principle, rich harvest; stupid, illiterate, parasite, weak of character, without opinion.’ In the beginning was the word, and the word, in Arabic, was magnificently ambiguous” (10-11).

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