Humor and stories for interpreters: Code of ethics.

David Bar-Tzur

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Man with glasses holds two tables with 'Thou shalt' and 'Thou shalt not'

The image above is from (Academic dean and provost notices) which is no longer extant.


Illuminated letter The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.

- Gen. Omar Bradley

Illuminated letter Learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.

- Dalai Lama, 2005


Illuminated letter Tips for the professional interpreter

  1. At the start of all meetings, workshops, or conferences, always start the ball rolling by telling a funny joke or story.
  2. If the deaf person takes a long time to answer a question, or seems unsure of what to say, don't let them flounder -- help the deaf people out by providing any information you may have related to the topic. If you are unfamiliar with the topic, make up an answer. Remember, awkward and halting conversation can't lead to successful communication.
  3. Always offer (or interject) your personal opinion.
  4. Make sure that you're always the center of attention. If the audience is focusing on the hearing speaker, stand up, dance around, or make wierd facial expressions.
  5. Always wear the current fashion styles (bright colors and checkerboard prints are best.)
  6. Before, after, and during breaks give brief lectures on deafness, how you became involved in interpreting, and highlights of your childhood.
  7. If you become drowsy during an interpreting assignment, take a nap for 15-20 minutes.




Illuminated letter When I was going through Jedi interrogation school at Ft. Huachuca, there was a unit we had on working with interpreters. It went over the basics: job description, consecutive vs. simultaneous, prepping with an interpreter, qualifications, etc. We also saw a film documenting the use of native interpreters in Vietnam, many of whom were VC sympathizers. So you'd have an exchange like this:

Lieutenant: "Tell them I'd like ask a few questions."
Interpreter: "This ignorant capitalist swine wants you to betray us."
Villager: "Tell him to get lost."
Interpreter: "I'd be happy to help. Go ahead."
Lieutenant: "Have any VC guerrillas been in the village recently?"
Interpreter: "Count to ten! Loudly!"
Villager: "One! two.... three!..." (etc)
Interpreter: "It was terrible. They came through the village and stole our children..." (etc.)

You get the idea. How many people on both sides lost their lives because of crap like this?

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter When in Rome. . .

I used to interpret a shop class. Students worked pretty independently, would seek out the instructor when they had a question. For a long time I interpreted their attention-getting hand-waves as "Excuse me, Mr. Jackson." (Not his real name, of course.) Often had trouble getting teacher's attention. One day I happened to interpret a big hand-wave as, "YO JACKSON!" When the teacher immediately responded and answered the student's question, I realized that I had finally interpreted appropriately! Polite little excuse-me's were not what the student had been signing, nor were they appropriate to communicatioin between males in this dirt-under-fingernails environment.

My immediate internal reaction after I yelled "YO!" was to feel I had done something wrong. Where did that feeling come from? It wasn't that the behavior was out of line - the teacher and most of the students talked like that all the time. It wasn't that as a female, I was unable or unwilling to behave in masculine ways; I was accustomed to mostly male environments, having worked in the trades for a while. I eventually figured out that I had internalized a bunch of attitudes about being a "professional", including some middle class assumptions about politeness.

You'd think I'd have known better. Sheesh, the more ya learn, the more ya learn ya gotta learn.

- Sowa Unora

Hispanic interpreter plays fast and loose with a text.

Illuminated letter Cultural mediation

Part of my job as a public-health nurse is teaching new parents how to care for their infants. As I was demonstrating how to wrap a newborn, a young Asian couple turned to me and said, "You mean we should wrap the baby like an egg roll?" Yes, I replied, that was a good analogy.

"I don't know how to make egg rolls," another mother said anxiously. "Can I wrap my baby like a burrito?"

- Sandra Verhage, All in a day's work

While I was touring with an international repertory theater, we performed in a small village church in Scotland. Our program to a packed house began with several short, humorous plays. No one laughed at the first one, or at the second. By the end of the third play, the leader of our troupe said, "They must hate us. They're not even smiling. We'll cut the program short."

At a reception following the performance, we were puzzled when everyone said how much they had enjoyed us. I finally overhead one kilt-clad gentleman say to his friends, "Och, they wir so funny it was all I could do not to laugh in the chirch."

- Terri Michaels, All in a day's work

The line I was waiting on grew longer as the only clerk tried to understand a man who was carrying on a monologue in Spanish. The frazzled clerk looked desperately for someone who could help translate. Finally a bilingual employee appeared, and the clerk sighed with relief as he called, "Next!"

A young lady approached, smiled warmly and said, "Bonjour!"

- Patrick Vincent, All in a day's work

(Illuminated letter This is a reply on TERPS-L to someone's comment that "I take on the frame of mind that I become the person speaking, I am them.")

Interpreting a la Stanislavski,eh? How do we do this thing. . . this Becoming? And while we "are" this person, where "are" we? I wonder how much we kid ourselves into thinking that we take on someone's persona. I mean, nine time out of ten I don't even know the schmoe (schma? schmette?), and I am supposed to *become* him/her? Lissen, pal: you talkee, me signee.

Okay, it's a lot more complicated than that. But we're not Counselor Troi. Sometimes I've gotten carried away in the moment and "connected" somehow, but this is a far cry from subsuming my own identity. In fact, Seleskovitch, chapter 3, verse xxix reads: "And lo, thou shalt feel free to agree or disagree with the speaker; for in doing so, thou shalt come to a more excellent understanding of The Message, which Thing thou shalt interpret." Here endeth the lesson. No "method interpreting." No mystical union. No parapsychology.

Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.

- Leonardo da Vinci

Where the spirit does not work with the hands, the message is lost.

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter One time I used "Oy", which fit the affect but not the culture of the Italian American Deaf man who was speaking, tho it was natural coming from a Jewish interpreter.

- Alice Hagemeyer

Illuminated letter I was interpreting an assignment in cramped quarters, where my teammate sat next to me. As I voice interpreted a student's comments, I noticed that my teammate was moving her hands. I was taken aback when I realized that she was signing what I was voicing. I asked her during a break why she was doing this. "So that the consumers can check the quality of the interpretation." I asked her, "So you want me to voice what you sign as an interpretation so that the hearing people can check your quality when you are up?" She stopped her echo interpretation. The event still puzzles me.

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter An interpreter I know was faced with this joke in a college level political science class:

"There was this law student standing in line somewhere waiting when all of a sudden he felt these hands on his shoulders massaging him. He turned and said, 'Huh?! What's going on?' The massager (masseur?) said, 'Oh, I'm learning how to massage, so I was just practicing on you.' The will-be lawyer responded, 'So? I'm going to be a lawyer, but you don't see me screwing the guy in front of me!'"

So, what would you all do out there in Interpreterland? The interpreter was embarrassed, but I told her that there was no way that she could have interpreted that. Impossible.

- Stephen Tontoni

Illuminated letter Do you know any speakers that suffer from this? \.am(p)-f*-'ba:-*-je-\ n [ME amphibologie, fr. LL amphibologia, alter. of L amphibolia], fr. Gk amphibolos 1: ambiguity in language 2: a phrase or sentence ambiguous because of its grammatical construction - called also amphiboly.

- Jill Krey

Illuminated letter I was interpreting for a teacher who was reading his students the riot act about how miserably they did on their recent test. His vocabulary was scathing and very high-falutin' but he had almost no facial expression, since the key to his message was in his inflated vocabulary and his very resonant and agile voice. I had a great time tell the class how absolutely incompetent they were. After a few minutes of the Deaf student watching me scold them with great vehemence and then looking at the instructor's stone face, he shook his head at me as if to say, "You've got to be making this up!"

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter Dejanesia - the feeling that I've forgotten this before.


Illuminated letter The mafia was looking for a new man to make weekly collections from all the private businesses that they were 'protecting'. Feeling the heat from the police force, they decide to use a deaf person for this job; if he were to get caught, he wouldn't be able to communicate to the police what he was doing.

Well, on his first week, the deaf collector picks up over $40,000. He gets greedy, decides to keep the money and stashes it in a safe place. The mafia soon realizes that their collection is late, and sends some of their hoods after the deaf collector.

The hoods find the deaf collector and ask him where the money is. The deaf collector can't communicate with them, so the mafia drags the guy to an interpreter.

The mafia hood says to the interpreter, "Ask him where da money is." The interpreter signs,"Where's the money?"

The deaf replies, "I don't know what you're talking about."

The interpreter tells the hood,"He says he doesn't know what you're talking about"

The hood pulls out a .38 and places it in the ear of the deaf collector. "NOW ask him where the money is."

The interpreter signs, "Where is the money?"

The deaf replies, "The $40,000 is in a tree stump in Central Park."

The interpreter's eyes light up and says to the hood, "He says he still doesn't know what you're talking about, and doesn't think you have the balls to pull the trigger."

- Traditional Deaf joke

Illuminated letter What would you do?

KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 28 - The most striking, and the most potentially significant, public rebellion against President Leonid D. Kuchma and his chosen successor in last Sunday's contested election began silently.

Last Thursday morning, Natalia Dimitruk, an interpreter for the deaf on the Ukraine's official state UT-1 television, disregarded the anchor's report on Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich's "victory" and, in her small inset on the screen, began to sign something else altogether.

"The results announced by the Central Electoral Commission are rigged," she said in the sign language used in the former Soviet states. "Do not believe them."

She went on to declare that Viktor A. Yushchenko, the opposition leader, was the country's new president. "I am very disappointed by the fact that I had to interpret lies," she went on. "I will not do it any more. I do not know if you will see me again."

Ms. Dimitruk's act of defiance, which she described in an interview on Sunday as an agonized one, became part of a growing revolt by a source of Mr. Kuchma's political power as important as any other: state television.

In Ukraine, as in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, state ownership or control over the media, especially television, exerts immense control over political debate, shoring up public attitudes not only about the state, but also about the opposition. The state's manipulation of coverage was among the reasons that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the Nov. 21 vote fundamentally unfair.

Ms. Dimitruk, for her part, said her rebellion violated her own ethics as an interpreter. Only UT-1 provides simultaneous interpretation for Ukraine's deaf. (The Ukrainian Society of the Deaf includes 60,000 members, though the number of deaf overall is probably higher.) For them, she said, she is a rare and trusted source of information. As the protests unfolded, though, she felt compelled to present her opinion of what was happening.

"The deaf, they do not have a choice of what they watch," she said.

- Stewart, M.T. (2004, November 28). A silent act of rebellion raises a din in Ukraine. The New York Times.

Illuminated letter Reminds me of a story about an interpreter hanging out with a van full of underage deaf guys and a pile of open containers. When a policeman came over to ask them their ages, the interpreter signed the question but his sign for YOU was made with the thumb moving up and down, changing it to the sign for 21. They all took the hint and said they were 21. You can debate how this fits into the CoE or not as wish.

- Submitted anonymously

Illuminated letter Interpreting a beauty pageant, I was the voice for the male MC. Before the pageant started (without checking the mike) I managed to utter clearly and loudly for all to hear "Who let that cow in the pageant?" referring to a contestant in the pageant.

- Gary R. Sanderson

Illuminated letter When I was still an interpreting student, I was honored to be asked by the Gay Deaf community to interpret for a play called "Jerker" which was originally intended to be performed in the nude. There was one short moment in the play where there was some nudity, but before I knew it would be toned down, they told me I would have to interpret the play in my birthday suit. I told them that if I did there would not be proper contrast and besides that the audience might realize by my body's reaction that I was not entirely neutral.

- David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter I had a consumer that I interpreted for several hours a day. Setting: higher education. S/he would doze half-way through the lecture regularly. I never could understand this because my interpreting was pretty fascinating to me :-) and since I'm the center of my little universe, my consumer's world must have been revolving around me. Ergo, *I* must be the cause of their every action.

This is quite a responsibility. I had a few choices:

1 - Use all the guilt at my disposal to hone my skills to a Louie Fantish monofilament, and lash myself with shame every time my client looked even remotely bored. I'd be brilliant, but miserable.

2 - Chew the consumer out for daring to fall asleep during the very zenith of my interpreting career. I'd feel really good about myself but I'd be out of work.

3 - Pull my head out of my ego long enough to accept responsibility for *my* actions, and not for everything the consumer may or may not have gotten. I'd been imperfect, but it'd be a good clean, *human* Imperfect.

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter The next time you feel your blood pressure going up as you interpret something that goes against your grain remember:

"It's one thing to possess an opinion; it's quite another to be possessed by it."

- adapted by David Bar-Tzur


Illuminated letter Marilyn Manson shocks the crowd at the Fox.

Thousands of concertgoers fastened their safety belts and geared up for the roller coaster of their lives. On the evening of Tuesday, October 27, [1998,] Marilyn Manson made his second appearance at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.

A sea of bodies dressed mostly in black and handfuls of painted goth faces filled the seats of the prestigious concert hall as the anticipation grew unbearable. Outside, religious groups demonstrated by carrying signs boycotting Marilyn Manson's scheduled performance.

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., 12 Rounds, a British goth group newly signed to nothing Records, entered the stage to play a nine-song, 50-minute set. Fronted by Claudia Sarne, whose voice has been described as a cross between Cruella De Vil and Eartha Kitt, this gothic group slithered their way onto the crowd. A dark mood lingered which appeared to be too gloomy or too boring for most of the charged Marilyn Manson fans. The music was as mysterious as the vocals. One devoted Manson fan stated, "They need more metal. It's too calm in here. Other than that, I love her tights." At times, the sign language interpreter received more attention.

Smoke filled the area as Manson appeared before everyone's eyes in his sky blue bodysuit complete with a cape and thong to patch up those exposed areas. His hairspray-stiff, red-streaked black hair warped everyone back to the '80s.

The bright lights and costumes revealed a more glam-rock Hollywood style, more Marilyn than Manson. Costume changes occured as often as the number of times Manson spat into the crowd, which is to say very often.

The really controversial stuff began in the second half of the show. To start off, Manson taunted the security guards, one in particular, during "User Friendly," a song about how one uses another for their own gratification without being in love.

Soon after that, Manson paused to ask why there were sign language interpreters at his concert. "Are there any deaf people here? I didn't think you could f***ing hear me." He then incited the audience to spit on the interpreters.

- Janee Pridgen, Lifestyle Stringer


Illuminated letter On the subject of tipping interpreters, it depends for me. One time, I was interpreting a drag show and the Deaf people started tipping me. I didn't have any pockets, so I lay the money on the table beside me (I couldn't hold it in my hands, now, could I?) and continued to interpret.

- Jean A. Miller

(In response to above:) Ahem. If you get tipped like the dancers, you should store the money like the dancers. O:-)

- Dan Parvaz

On the topic of getting money at a drag show: to not accept it would be insulting. Take the money, and find a creative way to return it to the community-- emphasis on creative, in this community. Simple, ethical, supportive. Similarly, if the performer flirts with you, flirt back! (A bit of a wink, raised brows, or blushing smile will allow you to keep doing your work.) You never know, you might get lucky!

- Anonymous Well I guess that's about it for now. I do have some humorous tales for you, however they don't translate into written words. So I'll have to save them for when we do finally meet!

Illuminated letter Interpreting to the wall

Once, long ago and far away, a deaf student came into the class I was interpreting, looking like the cat drug him in. He told me that he'd had a late night *studying* and that he'd slip me $5.00 if I would just keep on interpreting while he put on his shades and slept through class.

What an ethical dilemma I faced! I guess he didn't know that when our meter starts running as interpreter, it almost never stops. I took the $5, kept on interpreting, and then the two of use went out after class for some serious caffeine - my treat, as I was suddenly flush with money.

- Lindsey Antle

Illuminated letter Waiting to interpret for Godot: How long to wait for the consumer to show up.

Hey, there are days when I resent having to work, too. :-) In fact, sometimes it feels like the Holy Grail of interpreting would be having my appointment book chock-full of no-show, flaky consumers and paying clients who let you go within 10 minutes. It'd be like having my own personal corporate welfare. The only thing that would better is if I could do that from home (or a hotel on the beach) via video relay.

I hate waiting around, but let's face it, there are times when my clients have to wait for *me*. And for sure, there are times when everybody has to wait for the doctor (no 15-minute rescheduling deadline for the doc... ain't it funny how that works?). Take a book, or a laptop, or something and get productive (or lazy!) while you wait. If I can get paid for sitting around and doing my billing... well, it almost makes me feel like a professional.

And then there are the times on college campuses where there's a 10-minutes-per-class-hour cutoff time for no-shows, where you *think* your client is not coming and mentally you've already spent the time... when, whaddya know, they show up in the last 30 seconds. There isn't a whole lot to do but say a mantra (my favorite is "$%@& -- son of a !@$#^%@," etc. Hum along if you know the words), paste a smile on my face, and do my job.

And then there are the Post Office jobs, where you get dragged around by some stopwatch-toting sadist who holds you for 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds. Of course, all they're doing is being smart consumers. Again with the mantra. :-)

- Dan "Just gimme my money and nobody gets hurt" Parvaz.


Illuminated letter TThe let's-pretend-that-sentence-was-never-said game.

TEACHER asks: "Are there any questions?"
INTERPRETER signs: HAVE QUESTION?? (avoids eye contact with student)
STUDENT: (raises hand)
INTERPRETER: (looks right over STUDENT's head)
STUDENT: (waves, makes eye contact in spite of INTERPRETER's best efforts to avoid)
Main process--

STUDENT: (starts to sign)
STUDENT: (waits for a second, then starts to sign)
Lather, rinse, repeat until the moment is passed.

INTERPRETER: (having kept one more STUDENT from learning, breathes sigh of relief)

Dilbert is mystified by the rules of the dress code.

Illuminated letter We're not the only ones with controversy about dress

MEMO NO. 1 TO EMPLOYEES: Effective immediately, the company is adopting Fridays as Casual Day so that the employees may express their diversity.

MEMO NO. 2: Spandex and leather micro-miniskirts are not appropriate attire for Casual Day. Neither are string ties, rodeo belt buckles, or moccasins.

MEMO NO. 3: Casual Day refers to dress only, not attitude. When planning Friday's wardrobe, remember image is a key to our success.

MEMO NO. 4: A seminar on how to dress for Casual Day will be held at 4 p.m. Friday in the cafeteria. Fashion show will follow. Attendance is mandatory.

MEMO NO. 5: As an outgrowth of Friday's seminar, a 14-member Casual Day Task Force has been appointed to prepare guidelines for proper dress.

MEMO NO. 6: The Casual Day Task Force has completed a 30-page manual. A copy of "Relaxing dress without relaxing company standards" has been mailed to each employee. Please review the chapter "You are what you wear", and consult the "home casual" versus "business casual" checklist before leaving for work each Friday. If you have doubts about the appropriateness of an item of clothing, contact your CDTF representative before 7 a.m. on Friday.

MEMO NO. 7: Because of lack of participation, Casual Day has been discontinued, effective immediately.

- Marti Attoun, Joplin (Mo.) Globe

Illuminated letter Several years agon I went to visit my best friend, at his parents' house, after an assignment. At this time I was in my "Black Period". I don't think I had the courage yet to wear anything else in which to interpret. At any rate, my friend's mom, who has knowm me for years, asked me, "James, have you gotten into Satanism or something?"

I still chuckle over that one. . .

- James Virgilio

Illuminated letter Getting in the habit.

An interpreter friend of mine once went shopping for "work" clothes, and every time she tried to put together an outfit, the clerks would insist that the clothes were too drab, and she needed more prints, flowers, etc. Finally, in order to pull off her shopping endeavor, she told all the clerks she was a nun.

- Judy Kegl

Illuminated letter Artsy fartsy on a Friday afternoon. . . and having a grumpy day

(The following is a response to someone's complaints about an interpreter for Peter Yarrow. Sorry I can't find the original posting.)

I know the interpreter in question - I'll lay odds on it. To me that is NOT interpreting. That is a frustrated WANNA-BE with a lot of chutzpah who has convinced some well intentioned performers that that is what interpreting music is all about. Poor deaf people can't see music so she has to make it visible and needs most of the stage to do it. This is more than likely the same interpreter who told a newspaper interviewer how she interprets for the LA Philharmonic (no singers involved mind you just instruments) she listens to the music and then conjures up and image and tells the people what that image is. . . my favorite was was that some parts of Mozart (Vivaldi?) reminded her of what a Chinese Man walking in a forest sounds like! So that's what she tells the deaf people in between her interpretive dance moves. PUH LEEZE. This is not interpreting. Nor do I want to lend it any credence by calling it performance art. Which is how some folks refer to themselves: Artists not interpreters. Then if that is so , I would hope that the program would say " The person off to the side of the stage doing all this hand flapping and gyrating is a performance artist who may on occasion use a sign that a deaf person might understand. We thinks she looks neat and makes us look like we care. Enjoy her xxx our show"

Can we sue for defamation of our field? Just asking!


Illuminated letter SIGS for you and me

Recently, I have noticed many special interest groups (SIGs) popping up in different professions or clubs. RID is no exception to this. We have LeGIT, EdITOR, ITOC, etc. It really doesn't matter if you agree or disagree with the concept of SIGs; the fact is they seem to be here to stay. With this in mind, I started thinking that there must be many special circumstances out there in Interpreter World that might warrant a Special Interest Group. I think we should start sharing these ideas with one another to see if there is enough interest out there to establish other SIGs. I invite anyone with any ideas about a SIG that he or she feels would be important to drop me a note explaining his or her thoughts.

To start off, I have a SIG that I would like to organize. It would be called ITWFTGOWST. So maybe it's not easy to pronounce, I never was very clever with acronyms. "What is ITWFTGOWST?" you ask. "I will explain," he replied. The following situation has plagued me more than once, and I suspect it may have happened to some of you as well. You are standing in front of the room in a mainstream class, very professional-looking with your contrasting interpreter attire on. The teacher is lecturing away, and your hands are doing all the right things. Suddenly, a student does something that the teacher really objects to. The teacher's voice rises, and you think to yourself "Oh , boy. . . stay true to the message. . . show the emotions on your face and in your hands and do all those correct interpreter things." By now the teacher is really mad and bawling this kid out but good! The other kids in the class have serious looks on their faces. The Deaf student has that same look. Finally, the teacher says "and if you forget your homework again tomorrow. . ." Then it happens. As you flash your signs in the angry fashion that the teacher is conveying, your thumb hooks under your glasses as you sign "tomorrow", and they flip across the room. Needless to say, this breaks the mood that the teacher intended for the class, not to mention making you feel like the world's biggest jerk. After the entire class (except the teacher) stops laughing and someone hands you back your glasses, there's not much else you can say.

If this is a problem for other interpreters out there, let's start:

Interpreters and

If this group is successful, maybe we can start the ITTCTCWST (Interpreters and Transliterators That Cut Their Chins While Signing TRUE).

The horse says to the cowboy, 'I said feedbag not feedback.'


Illuminated letter I prefer to live on the edge, with a higher degree of spontaneity. In fact, I make it a point to show up about five minutes late to each appointment, that way all the players are really glad to see me when I finally arrive, huffing, puffing and sweating; the Deaf person, the hearing person, my team...I find that the inevitable summarizing of the past five minutes information that occurs due to me bursting through the door unexpectedly and disrupting the meeting generally provides me with all the "prebriefing" content I need to know.

I mean, what is there to talk about before an assignment? Establishing a relationship, content, vocabulary, history? C'mon, those are all things that can be discussed at the conclusion of the assignment over a beer or coffee.

- (wink) Paul Christie

Illuminated letter When in Rome. . .

I used to interpret a shop class. Students worked pretty independently, would seek out the instructor when they had a question. For a long time I interpreted their attention-getting hand-waves as "Excuse me, Mr. Jackson." (Not his real name, of course.) Often had trouble getting teacher's attention. One day I happened to interpret a big hand-wave as, "YO! JACKSON!" When the teacher immediately responded and answered the student's question, I realized that I had finally interpreted appropriately! Polite little excuse-me's were not appropriate to communication between males in this dirt-under-fingernails environment.

My immediate internal reaction after I yelled "YO!" was to feel I had done something wrong. Where did that feeling come from? It wasn't that the behavior was out of line the teacher and most of the students talked like that all the time. It wasn't that as a female I was unable or unwilling to behave in masculine ways. I eventually figured out that I had internalized a bunch of attitudes about being a "professional", including some prissy middle class overly polite stuff. (Fortunately it wasn't too hard to rip THAT garbage out by the roots.)

You'd think that after all my years of lefty feminist activism I'd have known better. Sheesh, the more ya learn, the more ya learn that ya gotta learn.

- Sowa Unora

Illuminated letter The oldest profession in the world.

My first contact with the world of translation was in Madrid in the early 1980s where I was living in a garret flat, my only source of income a monthly wad of notes pressed into my hand by an unregistered staff member of the Irish embassy at a prearranged venue.

It was on a balmy evening in late spring that I first met Amaia who was working the terraces in the Plaza Mayor. Of course I had seen the "palabreras" before, shuffling from table to table offering cheap translations, with one eye over their shoulders for the police, but I had always avoided entering into conversation with such people. Amaia, however, was different. Unlike the others, she held her head proudly, and her first words were: "Any of these (she waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the other translators on the beat) could do the job in half the time and for half of my price, but if you believe that quality is worth paying for, I'm the one you're looking for". I had been brought up a strict monolinguist, and I was instinctively repulsed by her offer, but I invited her to stay for a drink with me.

After that, we began to meet regularly, though in all the time I knew her I never once paid for her to translate for me. Her story was all too familiar. She had had a respectable job as a prostitute, working in some of the better clubs in the area, but desperation and an ugly knife scar across her right cheek had led her into the sordid world of translation. Her brother, Javier, sent by the family to Madrid to try to rescue her from immorality, had fallen into the same trap. The first time I met him I knew from the glazed eyes, ghoulish stare and nervous inability to stay quiet that he was a simultaneous interpreter.

After a change of government in Ireland and a new policy on international "diplomacy" even my pitiful income for "information" had dried up, and I eventually went to live with Amaia and Javier and inevitably to work with them. Despite the apparent misery of our existence, they were not unhappy times. I worked mainly as a "frilansa", having learnt from my new friends to avoid the agencies, which tempted innocent young translators in with promises of steady work and careful client control, but which always ended up sapping the spirit of even the hardiest, forcing them to work unbelievable hours at low pay, and never allowing them the chance to turn down a trick, whatever the subject matter.

Of course, we were continually hounded by the police, and could not afford the back-handers paid by the agencies to keep the Civil Guard away. On many occasions I was forced by unscrupulous policemen to do free work for them, and on a few occasions even ended up doing court translations. Eventually though, my luck ran out, and I spent six months in Carabanchel for "comercio linguistico con el agravante de estilo libre". Naturally we were deprived of all writing instruments in the cell; no paper, no pencils, just an old Apple Mac, sarcastically referred to as a computer by the wardens. I found it easier to use dried excrement to mark the walls with.

After Amaia's tragic death, Javier went gradually downhill, working first in a cheap agency and then translating computer manuals. When I last heard from him he had become a lawyer.

I drifted north to the Basque Country. On her death bed, Amaia had asked me to visit her parents but not to tell them how she had spent her final years, and when I eventually found them, a poor but proud family of sheep farmers, I assured them that she had managed to get away from the world of translation and had been working in a strip club near Cuatro Caminos.

As for myself, once exposed to the "mundillo" of professional linguistics, I could never escape. These days, Spanish law is more lenient towards us. The revised Penal Code practically legalises translation, stating in the preamble that "...while the practise is generally considered vile and repulsive, [...] and condemned by many religious groups, it is our opinion that it is a necessary evil, and that no attempt on the part of the legislators will ever succeed in entirely ridding society of the practise. We also consider that legalisation of translation may help to ensure that it is carried out under better and more salutary conditions."

- Tim Nicholson

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