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A New Way of Listening

Leigh Bonner
Third-year master of divinity student

One of my favorite moments at the UN session came when I received the opportunity to provide simultaneous English-French interpretation at the Ecumenical Women orientation. Right before our all-day orientation began, a man announced that there was a need for Spanish, French and Japanese translators. Because I speak French fluently and love using it whenever I can, I enthusiastically volunteered. As orientation began, I adjusted my headset, activated all the switches and began my first attempt at simultaneous interpretation. Although I started off translating confidently, I learned quickly the necessity of assigning two volunteers to each language. Simultaneous interpretation is an exercise in careful listening, on-the-spot translation, and transference of not only words but also expressions, idioms, and jokes that may or may not have cultural relevance to the person receiving the translation. Because interpretation requires listening, speaking, and translating all at once, it is an exhausting job, to say the least.

At one point, I sat in a break-out group of about eight women from Western, Southern and Eastern Africa who all spoke English, but I still had to translate for Jeanette, a French-speaking woman from Cameroon. She ,understandably, preferred to hear everything in her native language. As the members of the group spoke passionately about the issues facing women in their countries, namely how governments and large nongovernmental organizations misuse funding and refuse to listen to grassroots workers, I found my attempts at finding precise ways to translate their words more and more frantic and the French phrases I uttered more and more disjointed. The conversation concerned where the women's food would come from, how they would access clean water, and whether or not the money their villages and towns received would be used for helpful work. As one who spent a year in Ghana, I knew what they were talking about; the images and smells are still fresh in my mind, even five years later. Naturally, I wanted to stop translating and participate in the conversation. My role, however, was to listen. Even though the work I did that hour was probably the worst job of speaking French I have ever done, that moment taught me that as an interpreter, I had a unique position to hear words in new ways and to transform those words into someone's native language. I learned a new way of listening, a new way of understanding.

Hearing the Spanish and Japanese interpreters speaking quietly into their headsets, I noticed something spiritual happening as well. When the Ecumenical Women group gathered in the chapel for the evening storytelling program that ended orientation, the words of Acts 2 came into my mind: "AAnd how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?... In our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." Lynnaia, ( the other French interpreter, ) and I ended our role as interpreters by translating for the entire group Jeanette's story of overcoming her father's refusal to send her to school, but that time, we translated from French into English. Each woman heard stories of God's power in her own language, and I had the privilege to help make that happen.

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