The Realities of Translation from One Language to Another

Before I arrived in Serbia, I was unsure how it would be to teach writing to non-English speakers. That’s not actually accurate—almost all Europeans are multilingual, many speaking multiple languages, and since English is one of the first languages people learn after their mother tongue, the majority of my workshop participants understand and speak English, obviously some more than others. There are several woman in our group who don’t understand any English at all. And I speak none of their languages. I hate being a monolingual American, but unfortunately, that’s what I am. Languages have never been my forte.

I wasn’t really worried about having my spoken English understood. I knew I’d have a translator, though the only model I had for that was watching UN committee meetings on TV. I’d never actually been in a situation with live translation before. But my first few days in Serbia immediately reassured me that being in conversation wouldn’t be a problem. My official translator, Stanislava, simply sat beside me and in a quieter voice simply told me what was being said when Serbian was being spoken. She didn’t translate everything. Sometimes she’d say, “They’re talking about the logistics for tomorrow.” Or, “She’s telling that story about the curriculum that you heard earlier.” In part it was her job to figure out what was relevant to me and when it was, she’d keep a steady patter of English in my ear, almost like music. She’d keep me current—well, almost current–with the lag of a second or two—on what was being said. When Slanislava wasn’t with me, Dusica would step in and do the same for me. And if she wasn’t available, Ivana (who I’ve been calling Ivana #1), one of the ITC volunteers, readily stepped in to do the job.

At the late afternoon Fulbright Scholars reception at the American Embassy the other day, Stanislava wasn’t there, and Dusica ended up being the honoree. As a representative of the Incest Trauma Center, she’d won the Trailblazer Award, for “excellence in social responsibility” and for being “exceptional and productive in making this society better.” As the winner of the award, Dusica was busy mingling. So at that party, it was Ivana who stood beside me, whispering in my ear as we stood on the parquet floor, crystal chandeliers over our heads, two large bookcases full of English language books (including Zlata’s Diary, Doctor Zhivago, Maus, Mark Twain, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, and American Indians Myths and Legends), stood behind us.

I pretty much stayed in one spot (mingling is not my thing) wearing my ruffled turquoise just-below-the knee dress, a long black cashmere sweater I’d borrowed from my friend Carolyn, lip gloss (also borrowed from Carolyn, a firm believer in lipstick), my mother’s turquoise and black patterned scarf, tied the French way (Carolyn learned this trick in Paris and taught it to me in her living room in Santa Cruz several days before my departure), and black patent leather shoes that had hung unworn in my closet for at least a dozen years. I’m happy to report that I was neither overdressed nor undressed, and the fact that I had refused to add stockings to my ensemble didn’t seem to matter.

Ivana and I watched the room fill with people in business attire and ate hors d’oeuvres off silver trays. I admit to picking the almonds out of the nut bowl, and when a waiter in a formal suit came by with the drink tray, I lifted off a glass of scotch (why not, it was an Embassy party?). Some of the time, I just let the Serbian language wash over me. Other times, Ivana gave me an idea what was going on, introduced me to different people, some of whom spoke flawless English–so we could have a much more nuanced conversation about politics. Later, when it really mattered, Ivana stood by me, continuously translating, as Dusica gave a short speech accepting her award. “This is a long term fight between the strengths we develop and the damages we’ve sustained,” she said, and at the end, she concluded, “My part in it is to try to explain that when it comes to the Incest Trauma Center, there is no compromise.”

I’ve only just arrived and I felt so proud.

The invitation.

The award.

Ivana and I waiting to get into the embassy.

So, in my first days in Belgrade, before I tried to teach anything, I’d already experienced that translation wasn’t scary or weird; it was fluid, easy, casual and effective. For days, I’d been marveling at how readily people here switch from one language to another. One sentence in Serbian to someone else, then a sentence in English to me. I’d watching my daughter and her friends do the same thing in Beirut—switching from French to Arabic to English, depending who was in the room and who needed to be included in the conversation.

But every time all the people around me were speaking Serbian, I was always aware that they could be discussing the fact that I had spinach in my teeth or saying that I was a rude, intrusive American and that it had been a terrible mistake to invite me to Serbia, but I’m actually not that paranoid. But I did have a few glimmers of uncertainty. But I had to trust my reading of body language, the genuine warmth I felt, and the laughter that often filled the room, to know that I was indeed being genuinely welcomed. They were clearly treating me like an honored guest.

In just a few days, I had grown comfortable with the translation of casual conversation. Not understanding much of what is being said around you is actually quite restful. You get to gather your thoughts, stare out the window, get better at reading body cues, and rest in your own awareness. But leading a workshop, particularly a writing workshop, felt like another matter. They were expecting me to…well, do my thing. And I was hoping I could, but I was nervous and uncertain how it would work out. I was going to be asking people to write, and I’d already told them in my introductory letter, that unless they were as fluent in written English as they were in their mother tongue, that they should write in their mother tongue. I wasn’t really sure how that would work out. I take cues from what people have written and I wouldn’t be in on that this time.

Our workshop participants were Slovenian, Romanian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian. The Croatians, Montenegrins, and Serbians had languages close enough that they could understand each other. The Slovenians and Romanians understood English. There were several in the room that didn’t have enough English and needed Stanislava to translate for them. As I spoke, her voice was a gentle soft echo in their ears. I found it easy to find the right cadence, to say only a sentence at a time, to pause, to use simpler language, to create a rhythm of effective communication in the room. And I made a special point to ask the women not to pretend to understand me when they didn’t—and to call on Stanislava as a translator if they ever wanted to have a private conversation with me.

I’d had worried about how Stanislava could possibly be in two places at once—translating for this who needed English translated, and for me, simultaneously. But that ended up not being a problem at all. When it came time to debrief an exercise, I’m jump off my chair and plant myself on the floor at Stanislava’s feet, my back leaning against her knees. That way when I asked or answered a question, she could translate for the women beside her, and when someone responded to my queries in the common language, as many of them did, she’d send their answers over my shoulders in English like a gentle stream. I found Stanislava’s voice comforting.

There was one particular moment during our first full morning session when I suddenly realized that it was working. That I could do what I do, that I could create the kind of space I wanted, that this group of women from 5 countries—and me, the monolingual American—could actually do this together. We could build a safe community. We could connect through writing. And we could do it effortless, easily–and that the intimacy I was used to creating through writing and reading together in a safe environment could happen here, too.

Tears slid down my cheeks as I listened to their answers to my questions. This was actually happening. It was working. It was going to be okay. I was actually here—teaching in Serbia. I had never felt so honored and grateful in my whole professional life.

Our sacred meeting space:

This amazing baby grand sat in the corner:

Ain’t it the truth?

Break time fun:

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