Interpreting for Amateurs

Dr Radi is a short man of fifty-four with an excellent patio. We met at the mayor’s name day party, and since I run by his house regularly, I was obliged to share a few meals of homemade wine and cured meat with him and his various relatives. Like most of the houses on the east ridge, this one has a beautiful view, obscured in the summer by a camouflage net to keep out the afternoon sun. Dr Radi sits at the head of the narrow table, facing the view, always within reaching distance of the kitschy little tap barrel full of wine. Yesterday he gave me a call.
“Are you free tomorrow at nine?”
“Nine in the morning? Yes, кажи бе.”
“Uhh, we need some interpreting from you.”
“Who does? Why?”
“Some English and Bulgarian language.” No shit, I’m thinking. I suspected Dr Radi wasn’t purposefully being cagey about the interpreting job; he probably just didn’t know any details himself.
I asked him the same questions when I met him in front of the municipality building at 8:55. He tried to take my hand as we went up the stairs and I pulled mine away.
“Well, how are you Eli? When are you going to come over again?”
“Who am I interpreting for?”
“The mayor. And someone who speaks English.”
“What are we going to talk about?”
“Ами…” We reached the top of the stairs and Radi was saved from my questions by Darina, his lovely and industrious niece. Darina works there as an assistant. Five times a week she wakes up at six to run to the site of the old Ottoman fortress at the top of the east ridge. Sometimes I go running early enough to be passed by her on her way up.
“Eli! Did you run this morning?” she asked. I was so pleased to be able to say that I did that my annoyance with the mystery interpreting assignment disappeared. Darina led me into the mayor’s office, where I shook hands with him and a tall Danish man in a plaid shirt.
“What can I treat you with?” asked the mayor. He’s tall, robust, and authoritative. He smoothed his yellow tie as he sat back down.
“Umn, coffee, if it’s easy for you, Darina,”
“We can get you some whiskey if you want it,” offered the mayor, and the Dane chuckled, understanding only the word “whiskey.”
“No no, just coffee please!” I called to Darina. Then a few awkward seconds went by as Darina made my coffee and the two men and I smiled at each other, before I said, “Okay, uhh, кажете,”
“This is Piere. He is a farmer in one of the villages, he says something about corn,” said the mayor.
“I grow corn and the gypsies are stealing it. All they do is steal.” said Piere.
I read somewhere that a professional interpreter is supposed to interpret exactly what they hear, without changing any words or participating in the conversation herself. But guess what, I’m just a volunteer so I do what I want.
“I have many Romi students and they do not steal.” Then I turned to the mayor and repeated Piere’s words and mine in Bulgarian.
“Why do they steal? Because they don’t have education,” the mayor answered, “That’s why I’m working to help them stay in school.” I was surprised and kind of pleased with that answer, but as I translated it I had a feeling it wouldn’t satisfy Piere.
“Listen,” he said, “When the carbines go through and harvest the corn, some of it falls on the ground. We can’t use this corn, so we told the people they can come to take it if they want. Still, it’s not enough. They are stealing it while it’s still on the stalk. They boil it and sell it at the seaside for one lev.”
I thought of the barefoot men in shorts stepping over me and my friends while we lay sunbathing in Varna. They’re usually wiry and deeply tanned, and all somehow yell in the same nasal cadence,
The corn salesmen weren’t pushy like the men selling shell necklaces, and many bathers were eager to see them walk by, and to buy an ear of corn. When they passed, I wondered how many of my students would work as beach peddlers.
Piere went on, “Since 2007, these gypsies are going everywhere in Europe. Before in Denmark we had no problems. Now we have problems. They come from Romania and Bulgaria and they can go anywhere they want.”
“There was a professor from our town,” the mayor replied, “she went to work in Denmark, actually. Because of her– only one person– one hundred people in Denmark have a good opinion of Bulgarians. Now, because of maybe one hundred bad gypsies, ten thousand people can have a bad opinion of gypsies.”
I translated. As the only American in town, I am somewhat familiar with this phenomenon.
“What do you suggest?” I asked the mayor.
“You know, you are an educator, that we have many schools with Romi students. The key to integration is education. We have the vocational high school for agriculture. Here agriculture is a big industry, not only people growing their own gardens but big farms, like his. Many large farms call the director of this agricultural school, and he recommends the best graduates for jobs. These students are Romi, they live in these same villages. Many of these people want to work, they don’t want to steal. If more of them have jobs, there won’t be so much stealing.”
I turned to Piere and tried to translate it all. I personally liked the mayor’s approach, but I wasn’t sure how Piere would feel about the suggestion that the way to stop thieves, essentially, is to hire them.
“Perhaps,” said Piere, “but it is not only the Roma mentality that must change. The Bulgarian mentality must also change.”
I swallowed hard and repeated that back to the mayor.
“I knew a Roma man,” said Piere, “two years ago. I was ready to hire him. I have no problems with anyone. This man was qualified. But my workers would not work with him. It’s hard to find good people, qualified people. What can I do? Can I hire one person and then seven people leave?”
The mayor sat up straight and smirked, “You are the boss. You tell them who they work with. They don’t tell you.”
“What do you do about this problem?” I asked the mayor myself.
“Listen, I am the first mayor of our town to employ four Turks, and three Romi here. One of my deputy mayors is a Turk. She helps very much because the Turkish people in the municipality trust her and we can work with them better. I hope someday to have a deputy mayor who is Roma. People are changing, Bulgaria is changing. It is a slow and hard process.”
I thought of my students, a mix of Romi, Turkish and Bulgarian, and felt grateful that I had no advice to share on this subject. Rowdy and irresponsible as they are, I’ve never seen them ostracize or insult each other because of ethnicity. Those unruly teenagers are doing just as much to change Bulgaria, and Europe, as the mayor’s staff. I translated, and then talked about my students, and then I really went off-script.
“He’s right. It will change. I know it. People ask me all the time, what are you doing here? What can you do in two years?”
“You’re here for two years?” asked Piere, “Where are you from?”
“Umn, I’m American. Surely, in two years I won’t see much. But, I know I’m a part of it and it will happen.”
The mayor followed enough to interject, “You help them to learn some English, they can get better jobs.”
“Not only that, but my students, especially the girls, see me and how I live, that I’m not married and I don’t have children, and I’ve traveled all over the world. I’m free. Maybe one or two of them will see that and think she can live how she chooses. I hope, anyway,” The words felt silly and grandiose as they came out of my mouth, and at the same time I wanted to believe them, and I did.
My coffee cup was empty. The mayor refilled our water glasses.
“I’ll give him the contact for the director of this school. Here we support the large farms, we want them to expand.”
“All you have to do is take the guy’s phone number,” I said to Piere, “you don’t have to make a decision today. And he says he supports your farm, he wants to help large farms expand. When people like you come to Bulgaria and start businesses, you’re creating jobs and opportunities, so young people don’t feel like they need to leave Bulgaria.”
Piere smiled, “I have some security guys now. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the corn. It’s not a big problem.
“I first came here in 1993. I lived here for four years. In 1997 I went back to Denmark and started a business selling Bulgarian wine there,” he spoke and I translated, “but I missed Bulgaria. In 2004 I came back. I sold my house in Denmark, gave away all my furniture, and drove here. When I got here I gave my car away. I love Bulgaria. I don’t want to go back to Denmark.”
It turned out we were all in agreement. We love Bulgaria. Things will change. It’s a long process.


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5 responses to “Interpreting for Amateurs

  1. Martyn Dunn

    Another great up date from Bulgaria.

  2. gramps

    Great story. I did enjoy our time together in Vienna, but after reading this, I may have made a mistake by not going to Bulgaria also to try to see the things you tell us about.
    Much love

  3. aiza

    great stuff! i really enjoy reading your writing

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