Hoboken (Anvers), Belgium
Luiza could not believe her ears. “We’re on the grounds of Fontainebleau!”
“What now” is a question I borrow from curricular design, social justice style. First cover the what, then the so what, and finally now what. What is the subject matter? Why should we care about it? How are we going to use this knowledge?
I was ready for three days in France, away from the halls of the European Parliament and the concentration of stimulation. “Scientists,” Luiza quoted the director of her thesis, “throw away the most interesting stuff!” I needed the change in place for perspective, knowing that whatever I encounter has the potential to enhance or distract my focus from the essential elements and determinative dynamics of the system of simultaneous interpretation in such a concentrated center of global influence. “What do you think of France?” she asks me. I cannot give a discrete answer: I am treading water, immersed in a sea of history, currents of contemporary discourse, and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods. The evidence, I think, displays a need to worship and the desire for control.
This is not unique to France, of course – it is the story of Europe, perhaps of homo sapiens.
“How do you measure the return on your investment?”
The night before I left for Paris, Geoff offered one anecdote after
another, generously spiced with his finely-honed business acumen.
“What is the value added?” Intuition, I know, is not enough. Will I
find the language of articulation?
Upon return to Luiza’s mod flat, I retreated from the day-trip’s high-speed (time)travel to recharge my introvert self. I soaked up the smell of melting then baking chocolate, absorbed the sounds of Dvorak’s cello concerto and Yann Tiersen’s juxtaposition of strings and piano (Sur le fil), wondered at the juxtaposition of Flemish musical history with Romania’s inability to develop (so-called) high culture (“we were too busy being invaded”), and read:
‘Is it to be believed . . . that an island abundant in all things necessary has been leveled to this wasteland through the making of a Stone God and then by his destruction?’ (2007, p. 133)
Who builds in stone wants to be remembered; no other monument lasts so long or so well. Yet people (governments, organizations, groups of all kinds) also try to fix social reality – relationships, communication itself – as if hardening the rules will determine outcomes, enabling the assertion of final control by banishing all possible space for anarchy.
We hash over linguistics while we eat: attempting to digest the cognitivists, distributionalists, generativists, structuralists, psycholinguists, and sociolinguists all at one go. We sleep. (No one reports dreaming.)
The Islamic Arts Department of the Louvre is closed, so I opt for Near Eastern Antiquities. I learn about the land “between rivers” (Mesopotamia), known to us through the “archeological fortune” of remains from Girsu/Telloh and Mari and (particularly) the reign of Gudea, who poses in all statues with hands piously held across his heart. In one statue, Gudea holds a “gushing vase” from whence stream fish, invoking Geshtinanna, “the goddess of the reviving water.”
I note references to Ishtar and Inanna, figurines of women, and circles. I am fascinated by the “oscillation tendency” of the city of Susa to be both “the eastern extension of Mesopotamia” and “the western expression of Iranian mountain civilization.” I am as repulsed by the ancient rite of hierogamy as Luiza was by the relatively recent public birthing of royalty. The art of engraving stones, by the way, is called glyptic.
Then, we tiptoed through the Tuileries, sauntered the length of the Avenue de Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, past Place de la Concorde, La Madeleine, Napoleon’s burial site at the Dome des Invalides, and Grand Palais. We failed to find socks but did stop for sweets at Paul, before heading to The Lab.
Winterson writes an interpreter into The Stone Gods, although he
appears first as a tour guide, “explaining something to them in Japanese,
and gesturing . . .” (p. 183). Interaction commences between Friday, a wise barman on The Front, and the
International Peace Delegation wishing to bring
Aid and Sanitation to War Refugees (i.e., people
living in The Back). “The tour guide, or interpreter, or whatever he was,
went on smiling. Then he bowed.” Politeness is a
puzzling feature of interaction: what is polite and proper to you may strike me as
optional or unnecessary, possibly even downright
rude pending the assumptions that elicit its display (and vice-versa, unfortunately).
“‘Terrible conditions,’ said the interpreter.
‘I take that badly,’ said the barman.
‘We will come in and inspect,’ said the interpreter.”
Who is in charge of this communication?
Who is speaking, and on what authority?
“Community” interpreters (those of us who interpret for
people using different languages in their daily, nonpolitical lives)
wrestle with these questions constantly. We are
challenged by interlocutors about the
integrity of our interpretations and the
motivations for managing the interaction so that we can interpret
effectively. “Conference” interpreters are
insulated from this scrutiny by
technology that separates language use from human relationships.
The Lab is a treat. Jose dives into musical history, demonstrating how each of the old instruments work and explaining the way scores were written. We even get to see one of the earliest precursors of today’s synthesizer. Then we walk through a quiet residential area, hearing birdsong en route to the Eiffel Tower – another impressive artifact of manmade worship. From viewing angles underneath, it looks like a spaceship. How many wonders can a single day hold?
We passed the Pantheon (smart dead people buried here) on the way to dinner (which was absolutely scrumptious), and afterwards the fountain at Place Saint Michel and Notre Dame. Charlemagne looks like the WitchKing of Angmar; there were many times these past few days when I felt as if the statues atop eaves looked down on us mere mortals with bloody demand. How does it come to be that a quote by Napolean accompanies Barack Obama on the cover of Vanity Fair? Riding the Thalys back midday, I read:
“the regrettable acts of war . . . to the broken and the dead, the wounded and maimed, to the exploded and shrapnel-shattered, to minds gone dark, to eyes that have seen agony no tears can wash away, it hardly matters that the dead language of war repeats itself through time. The bodies that can say nothing have the last word” (p. 233-234).
I wondered where we were, as the train hurtled at top speed across a plain toward France’s border with Belgium. What “regrettable acts of war” had occurred here, and what can be done to ensure that such “regret” becomes a thing of the past rather than a recurring motif of human history? I know the notion is counterintuitive, but interpreters – professionally trained, ‘conference’ and ‘community,’ of any and every language combination – are poised at a liminal opening to societal self-organization that structures difference and equality within the most basic component structure: that of language-based interaction between human beings.
Continuing to gaze out the train window I see the first fresh hints of spring; the trees tinged bright green appear aglow. Earlier, Jose had noticed that the conductor addressed passengers in the language of their destination. The only way to avoid war will be to intertwine economies and social relations so densely that no class interest can benefit from disruption. To keep the system vibrant, differánce must be celebrated in core institutional processes.