forward back Back to: [Elena Alexieva][SLOVOTO]

The Interpreter

When he first entered the small room there was a faint smell of mould and stagnation. A large fat crack was creeping across the ceiling and straight down the wall. It was disgusting how would he spend here the whole day, and the next one, and the day after? If he knew he would work in such a place, he would have refused to. Or asked for additional payment. Now, however, there was nothing he could do he was prepaid and gladly took the money, though it was unusual for his job.

He glanced at the equipment, all piled upon a narrow chipboard plank attached underneath the small window that offered a view of the hall. The black and silvery boxes, with brand and company names printed on top, were covered with a thick layer of dust under which the red and green indicator lamps seemed dead. Even the tiny heads of the screws, that turned this interpretive miracle into a kind of wholeness, had lost their inviting shine, buried under dusty coats. The slender, bent backbone of the microphone, ending in a soft black cap, made it look like a withered exotic flower, lonely and somehow indifferent. He reached out to straighten it but then, realizing it would be much more inconvenient to him, he left it drooping in its melancholy posture. He liked the somber frozenness of the apparatuses. Their cables interlaced and parted, entangled and disjoined, and there was neither beginning nor end, nor could one tell the direction in which the electricity flowed. He remember how once, when he was a little boy, he was given a children's book about electricity, its colorful ugly illustrations showing the electrons as large peas with eyes, lips, noses and arms, and when the electrical current ran, they would hold their hands, but if the circuit was broken, they would let their hands lose. He imagined them the same, enclosed and rolling under the black cable skin. But now they were probably sleeping, their tiny arms lying on their rounded bellies, lips parted and the thin eyelashes casting shadows on their cheeks. Shadows one could see only with a microscope.

He sat down on the uncomfortable wooden chair and glanced through the small window. The hall rested in obscurity and one could vaguely see the dark backs of the rows of seats, the massive speaker's desk, raised on a podium, and at the exact opposite the pale spot of the white projection screen. He knew how, in a few minutes, the hall would light up, the doors would be opened and the people would start pouring in, first modestly, in twos or threes, then more daringly; they would be noisily taking their seats, looking around, commenting, the seats creaking under their weight; then the crowd would gradually thin out, the lecturer would take his place behind the desk and the sound of a door being shut behind the latecomers would echo more and more annoyingly in the prevailing silence. He knew this ritual better than he knew himself. He had seen it a thousand times; a thousand times had he dreamed of it and still, he would succumb to its exciting solemnity, to its naïve vanity and would always envision a bunch of multicolored ladies with powdered wigs entering and musicians in red-and-golden coats playing ball music. And yet, even if that happened indeed, he wouldn't hear a word before someone has turned the microphone on.

Sitting as he was, he had sank in somberness and silence his own and that of the speaker, whose words he was to interpret. He was tied to him, like a marionette to its puppeteer, though the threads that transferred every movement were fastened not to his arms and legs but rather to his mind and speech. He was tied like this before even he had seen him, and long after; for some time their lives would merge like the two sleeves of a turbulent river, they would follow the same course and run with the same speed, they would gurgle with the same articulation, forming the same intellectual whirlpools, thinking deeply, then uttering the same words and so, until the speaker was over, offering the threads to the next one. Information would rush into his head vivid, changeless and implicit. He would dismember it for less than a second, finding the equivalent of every sound and pause, and then, assembling it again, he would raise it bit by bit around the lucid core of meaning and utter it in words, alone in his gloomy cabin, as if speaking to himself. And then his head would be empty. The thoughts of others would sweep his own away with a single stroke and populate his mind, where, after being uttered, they would still float wretched and freakish, like the remnants of a shipwreck. It happened that someone in the hall would turn around and look at him through the small window. At first this would embarrass and annoy him, for he'd take it as a sign of his own misperformance, feeling as if exposed behind a shop window, wanting to be rude and insolent. He had just this window, both to disturb and confirm his isolation, and since it was his, he could look through it as much as it pleased him. If, however, looked at from the opposite side, he would take it as a painful and aggressive intrusion, an invitation for a war which he had no right to answer. Gradually, he got used to these miscalculated manifestations of human curiosity, and sometimes he was even delighted, for they made him feel less lonely. He was trying to figure out what made the person with the small apparatus and phones whether funny and sticking out of the ears, or smartly perched on one side turn around and look at him, as if to ask or blame, and if he did that consciously.

Here: the doors opened and in the sunny spot on the floor the shadow of a man laid down, remained there for a while and vanished under the immediate flood of light. The people began to enter and he pressed the small red button he had been shown. The apparatuses brightened for a moment, the needles jumped up on their scales, then back, and most of the indicators went off. He reached out to turn the neon light above the window on. It blinked a bit and its sterile radiance suffused the cabin. He put his headphones on, the soft cushions gently pressing his ears, and glanced at his reflection in the window glass. For a second, the rim of the headphones, bent over his head, seemed like a halo and this made him laugh. In fact, he had no memories of being different.

The speaker turned his microphone on and the tumult of the hall dashed into his brain. This was the sign. He too turned his microphone on.


It was always hard at the beginning. He needed some time to catch up with the speaker's rhythm, to get accustomed to his pronunciation and articulation, to find the most appropriate tone for his own voice so as to prevent him from excessive modulation and allow for a good speed. After the first five minutes, he already felt like a ship, freely sailing across the open sea. The tension was receding. His anonymity made him more independent; if he had to, he could easily tell those seated down there anything: he could abuse them, speak obscenities or tell them about that book with the electrons. The hall belonged to him. He was the incarnation of the divine intention and if he would suddenly shut up, if he would stop interpreting, they would feel like the builders of the Babylonian Tower. He was their only salvation, the link between the speaker and his listeners, which turned the man on the podium into an authority and the rest into his audience.

This time was not different then the others. It seemed he even managed to get into the speaker's rhythm more easily and was gradually assuming his usual composedness. He still listened carefully to the words of the lecturer, passing them through his mind and trying to understand everything; he agreed or disagreed, though in a while it would all become automatic, he'd turn the mechanisms of comprehension and consideration off and start using his consciousness as a mere tool, a simple implement for interpretation; he wouldn't care for it anymore. It was always a pleasure to disconnect himself from himself he did that with relief and was glad for being able to, for otherwise he could have gone mad. His head and right hand formed a peculiar, instinctive construct: he didn't even realize when he pressed the pause' button of the microphone in order to clear his throat or swallow the saliva that watered his mouth abundantly. It was fine when there was saliva to sooth his throat and tongue, enabling them to work with neither fault nor pain; but at a certain point his mouth would feel dry and his tongue would stick to the palate. Thus, he would have a gulp of water at a time, rarely at first, then more and more often and when the glass was emptied, he'd realize that his work was nearing its end. He looked around in anger: there was no water.

The man was speaking faster then the usual and yet, it was even better, for the interpreter's voice glided gently in his trace, keeping the standard distance of half a sentence, sometimes lagging behind at a full, while others sounding almost simultaneously with the speaker. Without hearing himself, for the sound in the headphones drowned even his thoughts, he contemplated the gracious impersonality of his own voice which, once set free, allowed him to remain internally silent and talk without sharing a word about himself. He was looking at the hall, but in fact was seeing nothing. His glance remained fixed on some particle in the air, perhaps a molecule which, God knows why, seemed different then the rest. From time to time he'd mindlessly move his eyes to view the room he had been told that he'd work in a cabin, but it was a room, a small room, completely lacking the coziness of the soundproof walls and muffled floor. It was dirty and forlorn. Cardboard boxes of various sizes were piled up against the walls, surrounding him from all sides, and if he only tried to sit more comfortably, they would undoubtedly tumble down on him. Everything was buried under an inch of dust and muddy steps covered the floor under his feet. Suddenly something small, cold and heavy hit him on the neck and he shuddered: it was a drop. An ugly wet spot had formed around the crack above his head, visibly increasing, and a new drop was quivering at the edge of the crack, ready to fall on him. He was utterly disgusted: who knows what was there on the upper floor, it could be even a lavatory. He tried to move a bit, but the pile of boxes tilted dangerously over him and he gave up. He felt like vomiting. Little by little he started shifting his thoughts from the spot above to the speaker. Rather confused, the interpreter discovered that the man had speeded up and in fact, he had hardly managed to follow him in the last couple of minutes. The words were rolling towards him with a kind of evilness and he was trying to catch them and, at the same time, avoid being engulfed. At first he was successful. Then, however, his self-reliance began to melt away and give way to panic. Now the lecturer was speaking so fast he had to stop breathing in order to interpret everything. He began inhaling at larger intervals, but still was unable to open his lungs completely for the speed wouldn't allow him to. He felt ridiculous: striving for air like a drowning man, water dripping on his neck, though he couldn't sense it anymore and even though he knew he could stop all this and run away whenever he wanted to, hiding in his anonymity, something inside wouldn't let him do it. He was obliged to interpret till the end, neither out of foolish professional dignity nor because he was one of the best, but for the dull stubbornness of answering the challenge of a stranger, who'd never see his face or know his name. What kind of monster was that man? Didn't he realize there was an interpreter in the cabin? He should have known, just as the others did.

Then he remembered the window. But sure it was there not to torment his claustrophobia, but to let him signal if there was a problem. He waited for the speaker to look at him and made a gesture asking him to slow down. For a second it seemed that the man glanced at him mockingly and then speeded up a little. The interpreter was enraged: the time was hardly good for jokes. And what if the man hasn't seen him at all and he was mislead to think he had looked in his direction? He leaned towards the window and made the sign to slow down again. Now the man definitely saw him, even fixed him heavily with indifferent eyes and speeded up again. The interpreter was stunned with horror, the air quietly whistling in his parched throat. The blood has long ago withdrawn from his ice-cold hands and feet and kept throbbing in his head like an enormous fiery ball. There was one last chance, the most miserable one, almost equal to a defeat: to ask on the microphone that somebody from the audience tell the speaker to slow down. Never before had he needed do this. He suddenly imagined their ears, every pair of ears and every single ear overwhelmed by his half-choked murmur, his plea for mercy and all their heads turning towards him, a whole armada of outraged faces rushing through his window, drowning him in pity and amazement he did not deserve and couldn't bear.

Now there was nothing more to do but relax and wait till the end of the lecture. It seemed to him that hours had passed; his throat was sore, his sticky tongue flapping in his mouth, and though confusing words and stammering, he went on interpreting. It was only that he couldn't calm down, no matter how hard he tried. He pretended to be at ease, but was actually sitting crumpled and trembling on his stiff chair, feverish, his tense nerves strained to the limit and he wished that they break down, smoking as if in a short circuit, so that he could at last tumble down on the dirty floor, free. His eardrums were throbbing painfully, maddened by the powerful sound. He couldn't feel his ears, squeezed in the embrace of the headphones, but something inside them, inside his very brain, blistered and hurt. Very slowly he reached out and turned the button, with a loudspeaker drawn above it, down. Nothing. He turned it again and again, until the tiny white mark pointed at the zero and refused to move more. For a moment, all sounds and words withdrew from his head, as if having rushed through his ears, headphones and cables, back to the speaker's microphone, in his inexhaustible throat and on the sheets of paper scattered in front of him. The interpreter froze, emptied, all body and silence. Tears started creeping down his cheeks, tracing uneven grubby paths, and dripping on his lap. And then, coming from far, far away, with a monstrous speed, the speaker's voice penetrated him, a thousand times louder than before. It returned through every single pore of his skin, through every single opening of his body, tore him into pieces and carried his own voice away. The interpretation was resumed.

His speech had shriveled and shrunk, coming out of his mouth as a muffled wheeze of agony. The words faded and disappeared, even the simplest ones were missing - he couldn't remember them. He had forgotten everything. He searched like blind, stumbled against terms and expressions that meant something entirely different and he didn't know what. Finally, as he was unable to find the right word, he would utter the first that came to him or some other, made up in the same moment as to resemble the actual one, which he couldn't remember anymore. Something warm and viscid dribbled down from his ears but he didn't feel it. His collar turned red. He was interpreting, mumbling in hysteria - anyway, that's his job, he is an interpreter and they'll never understand anything without him, they'll be locked up in their own language, they'll suffer, perhaps to death and it's not that he gives a shit about them, it's just the way his job is, besides he was prepaid, so they know they need him, he'll bring the key, the holy word, they have entrusted themselves to his mercy, they've entrusted themselves... So, that's it, nothing has changed, it has always been that way, just a minor trial, a small one, almost nothing... No will? Who? Him? Well, he might have nothing left but will... One more word and one more... It doesn't matter what they mean, it's just that he shouldn't stop, not now... Oh, sing to me, my wondrous nightingale, sing to me your lovely songs, alone in this silver-barred cage, alone in this cell, half-ruined, rain falling, everywhere, someone's playing with the flushing cistern, so what just a minor trial... Who? Him? He's got the will to, got it, besides, that's his job... I can hear your voices, then talk, tal...


The hall still filled the window. Empty.


forward top back Back to: [Elena Alexieva][SLOVOTO]


Elena Alexieva. All rights reserved!


© 1999-2023, Slovoto. WEB development - © Plamen Baruh