Interpreters are superior beings (Aurora Humarán)


What better way to get over your fear of the water than by doing something totally unexpected? Taking a scuba-diving course with an instructor who is a retired general and whose commanding tone of voice, reinforced by a matching moustache, keep you constantly petrified.

After my first snorkeling experience off the shores of Key West (internally torn though I was between the opposing feelings of irresistible attraction to that sea that I had just overflown and my eternal terror of the water, which had challenged every swimming instructor who had ever crossed my path), I decided it was time to overcome my trauma. And carried it to the extreme: Signing up for a theoretical and practical sports diving course that would last one (1) year.

It’s true that my fear of the water had held me at bay, but it’s not true that what I was driven by was obstinacy or a mere whim. I was genuinely attracted to that world where breathing is amplified while you share a medium with a veritable rainbow of fishes, and you swim (fly) in communion with an intuitive notion of something superior. The sea is a temple.


I was 18 when I decided that I wanted to be a translator, one fine day when I figured out that a line from the beginning of the Beatles song, “Girl” (“Is there anybody going to listen to my story?”) could be said in a number of different ways in my language. Especially, the fact that this wasn’t a future-type “going to”, but…something else.

1982 to Date

For the past 34 years, I’ve been a bridge-crossing wordsmith, and ever fishing for words here and there. Sometimes they’re in my own head (which doesn’t make them any easier to find, since, quite often, they hide under tiny and unsuspected rugs). Sometimes they’ll pass before my eyes (outside of myself), and for those you have to be lightning quick. They’re word-humming-birds. Still other times, I’ll find them stamped in my dictionaries or shining brightly on my computer screen. In any case, they are all elusive and whimsical. But how can I not love them? I’m a translator.

I translate in stages (eight in total). In other words, I “go over” the document eight times (sometimes more). I often include rituals. For the first time through, I make myself a cup of coffee. For the second, I break out the incense sticks. And so on. During the first stage, I dive head-first into the document. Normally at this point, I don’t look anything up (unless it’s essential in order to move ahead with the translation). Later, I compare the original with the translation about four times. Then I read my translation all by itself, to hear whether I like the music of it. Perhaps I’ll still need to go out hunting for other words. I’m sure to have to consult the latest rules governing proper Spanish, because it will have slipped my mind whether some word is now being written with or without an accent. Something worse still can happen, though: like finding out that a sentence that sounded so lovely to you is, in fact, wrong…now that I’m taking a better look at it, and not just because a certain adjective is in the wrong register (be it too high or too low), but because I’ve completely misunderstood the entire thing. Time to trace your steps backward, Translator.

At this stage, I turn off all music, I stop answering the telephone, and I enter concept-untangling mode. I refuse to fall into the temptation of criticizing the styles of my clients: As we all know, they are marvelous writers every one. The client is never to blame. For anything.

There are phrases that can make you dizzy, and in order to take them on, you have to pull your head back from them a few feet. You stay there with your eyes on them, like a lion observes its prey, or like a dolt awaiting an epiphany. Then suddenly, the veil is lifted and the truth is revealed. Doves and bells!

But then, perhaps we’ll have to see what the Real Academia Española says, or see how to take on these devilishly blessed words that are worthy of the existence of special group therapy sessions for translators (words like commitment, involvement, engagement, grassroots, and loads of neologisms that are gifted to us from the tech world and that blithely make the rounds in English but that are tantamount to a knife in the ear in other languages). So, then, once you’ve comprehended the macro, the foundation for that furtive phrase, it’s time to choose the word-magic that will best define a type of contract, or best describe the benefits of that new medication for diabetics, or explain that innovative new part for a helicopter. Understand, it’s not only in literary translation that you find magic, that those translators among us who swim in other waters will also raise our fist in the air and cry “YESSSSSS!” when we hit the nail on the head.

Sometime in the 20th Century

Being a cousin to interpreters always placed me at a close enough distance to feel both terrified by and attracted to that task, which is, by definition and from the outset, im-pos-si-ble. Instead of Poseidon at the sports club where I took the scuba-diving course, my intermediary between my phobia and interpreting was to be renowned interpreter and interpreting professor Margarita Moschetti.

So it was that I initiated a post-graduate course in simultaneous interpreting at the University of Buenos Aires. Like the sea before it, interpreting filled me with contradictions: fear mixed with a desire to be there, to give it a try, to make an attempt. If I found I was drowning, here it would be a lot easier to open the door of the booth and say, “Mayday, Houston, we’re in trouble!” than to recall what the hand signal was for that message underwater. So I forged ahead. Scared to death. I really wasn’t interested in another degree or in grades. I just wanted to see for myself what this crazy and im-pos-si-ble thing called simultaneous interpreting was all about.

The professor was a lot sweeter than the general, but much more drastic and precise in her descriptions. She received us with a question: “Can one talk and listen at the same time?” “No!” we all answered in unison. (Well, perhaps, for a while, but not a looong while. “And,” I thought to myself but didn’t say it out loud, “your head must catch fire.”

Then she took it a step further: “Could one, then, talk and listen at the same time for an entire workday of several hours?” “Nooo!” we all said. No way.

“And how about,” she continued, “if besides having to listen and talk at the same time, we were to add a highly complex element, an intellectual process like that of translating from one language to another, interpreting while they’re talking and I’m saying?” Well, that, of course, is something impossible…absolutely impossible. It went without saying.

But then, I immediately asked myself, “So what am I doing here?” It was indeed an impossible profession! So that must mean that the people who did it went into some sort of trance in order to be able to do something that you just normally can’t do! Talk, listen and cross over into another language (and, don’t forget, almost always regarding highly specialized topics). Interpreters aren’t there to tell you “more or less” what that letter says that my cousin sent me, but to interpret things about osteosarcomas, sovereign debts, nuclear reactors…).

I left every class dissatisfied, perspired, nails bitten to the quick and hating myself for self-inflicting this torture on me. If the goal was to suffer, “Why couldn’t you just go spend the night alone in the cemetery?” a hateful voice yammered in my brain. But my professor always congratulated me and never tired of telling me, “You’d make an excellent interpreter.” And I would always answer, “But, Professor, I’m having a TERRIBLE time here. This is torture!” So much so that, to this day (in December of 2016), I still recall every single word I wasn’t able to interpret and that left me stymied.

Because, let’s remember what an interpreter is… An interpreter is a translator with more functions and less comfort. Interpreters talk, listen and translate, all at the same time. Interpreters can’t sit back and look at the screen from a meter away in order to understand the “macro”. They have NO time to stop and untangle meanings, much less to mull over subtleties. They have no backspace key. Interpreters have no time. Worse still, they work side by side with an auditor (a colleague). In this, it’s the same as in deep-sea diving: It’s a risky sport, so you can’t go down alone. Therefore, to say that interpreting is a risky profession is no exaggeration either. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, I can say this with the voice of experience, that interpreters are superior beings. (It’s the only possible explanation).

Aurora Matilde Humarán

Translated by Dan Newland
Illustrated by Agustín Muruaga