“Madam Interpreter, Indebted and With Kind Thanks” by Olivia Salazar-Winspear, Paris

BLOG,Borders August 26, 2011 07:00

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT

as shared at a PenTales event themed “Foreign Affairs”

Listen to the Story!

As the first notes of the national anthem piped through the still, warm air she shifted her weight from one foot to the next, an attempt to take the pressure off the balls of her feet. They were already sending sharp flashes of pain up her shins and into her lower back; it was only 8am and she had at least eleven hours on her feet ahead of her.

Her hand twitched at her side, hidden in the folds of pleated, generous sleeves. A thin rivulet of perspiration seeped silently from just above her collarbone … tracking a course over her sternum…. as the choir surged in volume and sang “shine on the silver and gold of this land”. She wanted to reach up and adjust her collar; the briefest of glances to her left put pay to any such ideas. Eyes trained to a spot a meter on the ground before her, she pursed her lips and swallowed wondering if this infinitesimal movement might satisfy the itch at her neck. It didn’t.

She was sure the song was taking longer than usual… “wise people, brought up in a brilliant culture with history five millennia” …. the words resonated with the unwavering articulation of a thousand voices, carrying across the vast square. They were barely through the first verse; it would be at least six minutes before she could sit down and make a surreptitious attempt at brushing the drops of perspiration ‐that she imagined – had surfaced like a bloom of morning dew across her décolleté.

Slowly, and without turning her head, she looked to her right. Four men, dressed in western suits, were watching the proceedings; their expressions were neutral, although they all fidgeted a little, one smoothing a lapel, another tugging at the cuff of his shirt.

One of them had darker skin than his colleagues. She had never seen skin like it: she’d only seen that color in the polished rosewood boxes that an elderly lady from the village had shown her when she was small. Long emptied of jewels, the boxes themselves were intricately decorated: ornately carved with lacquer jasmine flowers inlaid on the lid. At the time, the little girl said she couldn’t picture any trinkets that could be more beautiful than those boxes; the elderly neighbor replied that when she was young, the girls in the village were famed for their elegance and grace; she said when she was young, all the women wore jewelry.

The four men were taller than anyone else standing on the viewing platform, and broader, too. Their hair was sparse and erratic, and their noses seemed to be too large for their faces, as if they had been stuck on as a respiratory afterthought. Perhaps, in their country, she thought, odors are fainter and smaller, so they are given a long, broad nose to smell them with. As she studied their ears, one of the men caught her gaze and smiled broadly, showing his teeth, and crinkling the skin around his eyes. Instantly, she lowered her stare. Eyes to the floor, her neck and her face prickled with warmth. She hoped she wasn’t blushing.

As the anthem hit its heady apex, the PA system struggled to process the volume and fervor of the closing lines “country established by the will of the people” was somewhat obscured by crackle and feedback; it was almost deafening.

The closing strains gave way to applause and cheering, she primed herself for the signal from her boss. On schedule, he nodded and turned to his right; she followed suit, they found themselves face to face with the foreign delegation. She knew now that in less than 30 seconds she’d have to address them in their own language and it sent waves of nausea through her abdomen like sharp blows to the middle; just as she thought she might vomit, the fear changed tack – it moved, advancing into her thorax, slithering right up to her tonsils, where it lingered, holding her larynx firmly, ready to squeeze her into speechlessness at any minute.

“Good morning, I am Madam Interpreter, indebted and with kind thanks to you, Visiting Gentlemen, guests of my nation! We welcome you with highest and most formal regards.”

She stopped dead. She had forgotten the second sentence. However, speaking in this curious language (which was wholly unknown to her boss) her abrupt silence was taken as a full stop, and he continued speaking.

She listened intently, concentrating so entirely on the vocabulary employed that the meaning had been cast aside. As she turned to her patient audience, she realized that her mind had gone blank. The fear flexed its tentacles around her larynx, mopping up the first words that had formed in her mouth. She shot a look at her boss. He urged her on, nodding.

“We welcome you, benign representatives of a foreign soil” she began, hesitantly. No response from her audience, not a flicker. Her boss thrust his chin forward; he could see from his guests’ reaction that she’d not yet got to the point. His half‐closed eyes watched her, waiting for more. She realized that there was only one way forward and that it was the treacherous road of improvisation.

“Yankees are a herd of wolves in human skin” she offered. Their eyebrows shot up, creating furrows in their foreheads, deep and wavy in their weather‐beaten skin. Her boss’s nostrils dilated, his lips scrunched towards a pout. It wasn’t the response he’d been expecting. She back‐pedaled.

“This, of course, is a proverb in our language; it means to us that human form hides great secrets and strength. Cunning and skill, but where you don’t expect to find. My leader he expresses great respect, admiration, before the wolf. In front of the wolf, my nation, we are a new born puppy. We play with the wolf; in such, we learn the trick of the forest.”

Warming to her zoological theme, she continued: “We say, that “the young puppy doesn’t fear the tiger” – but if the young puppy enjoys protection from wolf, than together wolf and puppy can overcome bellicose force of tiger, and achieve victory.” Her audience glanced at one another, they looked vaguely interested but not overtly shocked.

The secretary of the central committee resumed his speech, and cut to the chase : demanding engaged and full support in his national endeavors from the men before him.

Imbued with a new confidence, the interpreter rendered her synopsis of his speech in English. In keeping with her previous performance, she replaced international actors with animalistic metaphors. “My leader says that the village is never safe as long as rabid dogs are running amok in the neighborhood ; and he thanks Your kind nation, in your protection from such dogs” At this point they addressed her for the first time:

“Thank you, Madam interpreter. We are very grateful to be at this unprecedented meeting, and what is for us, a very unexpected call for collaboration. We are committed to the peace and prosperity of all partner nations, and would be honored to count your country as one of those. You can tell your superior that the white house is on side.”

She’d never heard such vowels! They rolled around in those alien mouths like notes from an instrument, played centuries before. It really was nothing like the English she’d been taught by her Seon‐saeng; it was rounder and more baritone than the staccato idiom she’d heard read aloud from her textbook. Awed by their vocal performance, she had little notion of what they said. But she was SURE it positive, she definitely remembered the word “prosperity”.

She gave an approximate rendition to her boss : “They said that all shall be friends and prosperous in the house of peace, Mr Kim‐Ki Nam‐si.” He nodded fervently, saluting the men present, before shaking their hands. The foreign delegation looked faintly stunned; she presumed they were impressed by the ceremony. It had been opulent and the crowd was agitated; as to be expected on a national holiday.

Bowing to his guests, the secretary turned to the interpreter, and asked in a urgent, inquiring voice :

“Miss Sang‐Mi‐si, I do not know these men – they are new allies of our dear leader. So you must tell me, do you feel that the reaction of the Cuban delegation was warm? Do you believe that they will really support us, in the overthrow of American imperialism? I know we have their word, but how would you measure their tone?”

The interpreter swallowed, briefly, lifting her hand to her neck, brushing away an imaginary noose. She glanced at the smiling, suited men. “I would say their tone was friendly, Mr Kim Ki Nam‐si”. He nodded, content and reassured, as the two of them made their way back to Party headquarters.


  • admin

    Welcome to the last day of GOSSIP Week! For the last day of Gossip Week, I would like to crank it down a notch. We’ve talked a lot about the influence Gossip can have and how it can transform a person, for better or for worse; but those were all stories about Gossip being told on purpose, or people intentionally telling another person’s story. I think, however, that in life Gossip and rumors spread much more often through an experience like Olivia’s “Madam Interpreter.” An awkward or flustered moment, like the kind Olivia describes so painfully well, and the cover-up improv that always follows. Olivia’s Interpreter does her best, with the fate of nations resting on her words, but nobody’s perfect; and that’s how I think Gossip starts. Some kind of mis-communication, and then of course the scramble we all know: when the small window of opportunity to admit a mistake has closed, and we have to adjust to the mistake instead of correcting it. I am convinced that Gossip is, at the outset, a hilarious collection of mis-understandings, imagined subtext and incidental context, like a giant game of broken telephone we are playing by accident.