Being a Guide and an Interpreter

In the souq in Rissani

I just said goodbye to my good friend Jon who came to visit me from New York. We spent a lovely 10 days traveling around Morocco and enjoying the charms of this country.

Taking him around Fes and Morocco resulted in some interesting and revealing interactions, many of which involved language.

Jon speaks a little French and no Arabic, so as his guide I was responsible for interpreting what went one around us. Interpreting require conscious, directed effort. Sometimes this came easily; I'd attentively explain the details of a conversation or subject. Other times, I'd completely disregard Jon's language deficiency and dive head first into a conversation, leaving him behind politely smiling and nodding his head, pretending to follow along.

Since Jon's departure, I've thought a lot about these phenomena. My intention was to be his interpreter, but that only happened in certain circumstances.

Translation came easily when we had 'set-piece' conversations. For example, when we visited the souq we stopped at a date seller and questioned him about the variety of goods he sold. Here the role of interpreter is well-defined, and was something I found myself stepping into quite easily. I would question him about such-and-such variety of date and then turn to Jon and explain the question and response.

Another example of interpreting with 'ease' came through observing Moroccans' conversations ( a nice way of saying we eavesdropped a lot). On our last train ride together, we sat in a compartment with several young Moroccan students heading to Rabat to protest unemployment. An older Moroccan man sat with us in the compartment and began to debate the students about their political motivations. Here, I also found it easy to lean over and explain to Jon what our fellow travelers were discussing.

Difficulty came when I participated as an interlocutor with Moroccans, which happened a lot over the course of our trip.

We spent lots of time with Moroccan friends, and most of the time we spoke Moroccan Arabic together. Jon of course was lost during these conversations and I found myself unable to really translate for him. Sometimes several hours later I would go back and summarize what had been said, but of course this resulted in great translation loss. The subtleties that he could have grasped from through immediate translation had been forgotten by the time I got around to explaining things to him.

Looking back, I think two factors contributed to my 'failures' at being an interpreter. The first was the spontaneity of our interactions with Moroccans.

As I took Jon around Fes we talked a lot about Morocco, the city, life, all of those things good friends discuss. And then we'd run into a Moroccan friend of mine and I'd turn away from Jon to exchange greetings and news, and then turn back to pick up whatever conversation we had been having. I forewent translation in most cases and Jon must have missed 50 or so examples of typical Moroccan greetings, which I never really explained to him.

The second factor is the subjectivity of being an interlocutor. I found that when I participated in conversations with Moroccans, I forgot my duties as translator. My primary motive was to communicate with a friend in Arabic, not to catalog whatever discourse occurred between us for later explanation. Early on, I attempted to be both a translator and an interlocutor, but I found that doing so required excessive disruption to the conversation, so I abandoned my commitment to it. It also required great effort to balance the tensions between translating and participating in the conversation. I didn't anticipate this tension, which now seems obvious.

To be an interpreter or a translator you need to be objective, you need distance from your subject. In interpretation, that means listening to and not participating in a subject. In translation, you have to read or listen in a specific way, listening for both content and language. Otherwise you get lost within the subject, losing the perspective you need to translate it effectively. Establishing this perspective is also a conscious decision you have to make from the outset.