We are all familiar with the frustrating feeling of not getting things across in quite the way that we wanted. Whenever this happens to me I remember the rye words of the headmaster at my primary school: ‘You say what you mean – whatever you meant to say.’ The statement suggests, rather discomfittingly, that what is spoken – however it comes out – is the truest expression of our intent. Which leads one to wonder if all that might follow, the qualifications, explanations and apologies, are simply the means by which we try to smooth out and make palatable our essentially awkward and incompetent selves.
So, it was quite a revelation for me to meet Jamilla Lakjan and hear her describe the strictures of her job as a legal translator from Arabic to Dutch. One of the wonderful things about fiction is the leisure the writer has to revise and refine language until it conveys, as far as possible, a particular meaning. In my day to day life, I am constantly wishing I could have the chance to say or do things again, so they’d be better. This tendency has actually got worse since I started writing, perhaps because of the multitudinous rounds of revision to which I subject my work. Sometimes I think I became a writer partly in order to have the satisfaction of putting into the world something that was as right as I could get it at a given point in time.
In this milieu, interpretation, correction or revision are not liberties the translator can take. Perhaps for this reason, Jamilla prefers simultaneous translation to any other type. There’s no time to think about or judge the information she hears as her focus is entirely on being the Dutch mouthpiece of a defendant. The unalterable immediacy of her job is even more astounding when you consider that what she conveys to the judge will decide the fate of an individual. How very different her role is to that of a literary translator. Two people with the same job title must work in entirely different ways because of the context in which they find themselves.
Context can throw up incredible surprises. Last night during a car ride between Crossing Border venues, Patti Smith, in her lovely, gently ironic way, told the story behind Because the Night. It emerged that the hit song was written while waiting for a lover’s phone call. He’d said he’d phone at 7:30pm. As the hours passed, she didn’t hear from him and to distract herself she picked up and played a tape which Bruce Springsteen had sent her. It contained the chorus of Because the Night and, as that night wore on, Patti wrote the rest of the verses – and voila, an ordinary, universal experience was made extraordinary through translation into song. ‘What was his excuse then, when he eventually called?’ Someone wondered. ‘He wasn’t the type you asked,’ Patti said. ‘And if I had, he probably would have said,’ her voice deepened, ‘“That’s not for you to know, white woman.”’ ‘How long were you together?’ I asked. ‘Until he died,’ she said. Then she sang a few lines from the song and, I knew, better than ever before, what the lyrics meant.