As an interpreter, Suzanne Glass could speak only for others – but the work provided terrific material for her first novel.
‘No, no, no! You’ve got to get away from this or you’re going to lose it.’ The voice reverberating in my head was my own. I was at an international conference. My throat was killing me and my headphones were pinching. I had just been interpreting a speaker whose last words had been: ‘We must take very seriously the standardisation of the length of cucumbers and the size of tomatoes.’ You can’t afford to have your own thoughts when you’re interpreting simultaneously, so, of course, I missed the speaker’s next sentence and lost his train of thought. Sitting in a darkened booth at the back of a huge conference hall, I was thrown. Fortunately, my colleague grabbed my microphone and took over.
This high-pressure, high-output work was not quite the dream profession I had hoped for. Although I had fun with it in the beginning – occasionally being among the first to hear of medical and political breakthroughs would be exciting for any 25-year-old – I realised that this was a job in which I would never be able to find my own voice. I had always known that words would be my life in one form or another. My mother thought she’d given birth to an alien when I began to talk at the age of seven months. That momentous day, she had placed my playpen in the hallway and gone into the bedroom. In imitation of the words she had repeated to me again and again, I apparently called out towards the bedroom door: ‘I see you. I see you.’ I was already in training for a career as a professional parrot.
But how mistaken I was to think that international interpreting would be glamorous. The speaker rarely stops to think that there’s someone at the back of the room, listening to his words, absorbing their meaning, and converting them into another language at the same time. Often I was confronted with a droner, a whisperer or a mumbler through my headphones. The mumblers were the worst. Most of the time, an interpreter is thought of as a machine – a funnel, a conduit. Which, I suppose, is precisely what we are. Sometimes, when those we are translating for hear us cough or sneeze, or turn round and look at us behind the smoky glass of the booth, I think they’re surprised to see that we’re actually alive.
Ironically, part of the secret of interpreting is non-verbal communication. You have to sense when your partner is tired, and offer to take over. At the same time, you have to be careful not to cut him short and hog the microphone. Interpreters can be a bit like actors: they like to show off. You do develop friendships when you’re working in such close proximity, but there’s a huge amount of competitiveness among interpreters. They check on each other and sometimes even count each other’s mistranslations.
Translating other people’s ideas prevented me from feeling involved and creative as an interpreter. Actually, you can’t be a creative interpreter. It’s a contradiction in terms. Sometimes, when I disagreed with a speaker, I wanted to rip off my headphones, jump up and run out of the booth, shouting: ‘Rubbish. Rubbish. You’re talking a lot of nonsense, and this is what I think about it.’ Instead, I had to sit there and regurgitate opinions in violent contradiction with my own. Sometimes, I’d get my revenge by playing games with the speaker’s tone of voice. If he was being serious, I’d make him sound jocular. If he was being light-hearted, I’d make him sound earnest.
Eventually, I wanted to find a career where my own words would matter and where my own voice would be heard. So, to redress the balance, I decided to write a novel. While I was writing it, I did go back and interpret at a few conferences to get inside the head of Dominique, my main character. At first, I was a little rusty and a couple of the delegates turned round to glare at me, but after twenty minutes, I was back into it, playing that old game of mental gymnastics. Interpreting is like learning to turn somersaults: you never forget how to do it. But for me, sitting in the booth had a ghost-like quality to it – as though I had gone back into a past life. A life that belonged to the time before I found my own voice.