Tales from the Trenches: Humbled by “Humble” by Irina Jesionowski

Like many of you, my dear colleagues, I have made it my daily business to agonize over words.  Summarizing my long, painful and joyful experience of dealing with these pesky lexical units, I must say it has been humbling. In fact, the very word “humble” humbled me on many occasions. 

In January of 2009, I had an assignment in Western Michigan. An international corporation brought four Russian technicians to the U.S. for a three-week training course, and I was contracted as an interpreter.

The four Russians were very good, hard-working, salt-of-the earth young guys. For them, coming to the United States was an out-of-body experience, a dream come true.  Their American counterparts were very friendly and welcoming.  During lunchtime, a cafeteria was quite a cheerful place: Americans and Russians were exchanging jokes, discussing national food and, of course, beverages. Americans bragged about “the Russian five” – the Detroit Red Wings’ legendary Russian hockey players.  However, our hosts, whose ancestor came to the U.S. from the Netherlands, didn’t forget to mention that “if you are not Dutch, you are not much.” 

On January 20, the atmosphere in the cafeteria was quite different. Everyone’s eyes were glued to a TV showing Obama’s first inaugural ceremony.   People were silent, tense and unhappy.  Most residents of Western Michigan are no fans of the Democratic Party.  

The Russians become quite excited.  People in Russia, as in the majority of other countries, were ecstatic about Obama’s 2008 victory.  As the Russian guys put it,  “Whew!  No more hawks in the White House; no more unilateral wars or arbitrary bombings.” I am not commenting; I am just reporting.

The four Russians quickly caught on to the fact that their enthusiasm was quite dissonant in the room filled with gloom and doom. Baffled, they turned to me for an explanation: “What happened? Why is everyone so unhappy? Was there a terrorist attack?”

What could I do?  Provide a simplistic answer that would lead to more bias and misunderstanding, as if there is not enough of it already? Explain the complexities of the American political and ideological dynamics?  Then I would inevitably impose my own biases and opinions, and I am trained to avoid that at all costs.  I did what I could do more or less competently – I started interpreting.

First, there was the swearing-in ceremony.  Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama fumbled a couple of times as the oath of office was administered, -- but that was OK; I could deal with it. Next, the inaugural address:

-        My fellow citizens  Дорогие сограждане

-        I stand here today  Я стою здесь сегодня

And then it came, this dreaded deer-in-headlights moment when you understand the meaning of what is being said but have no idea how to render it in the target language:

-        … humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

Humbled… There is a perfect calquing option in Russian -- смиренный: to be in the state of deference or submissiveness, especially in the religious context. «Я стою здесь сегодня, смиренный перед стоящими перед нами задачами…» Ouch. Think, Irina: “humble” is the opposite of “arrogant” > approaching the tasks before us without arrogance > taking them seriously > being aware of their complexity > полностью осознавая сложность стоящих перед нами задач … Whew!  

The devil is that while all this thought process is taking place in your head, the show goes on, the speaker keeps speaking, and you have to keep up. 

In the course of my career, I have interpreted for many dignitaries, business leaders, and legislators, but I don’t remember any other occasion -- before or after this one -- when I was so fired up, when I felt so acutely compelled to render the significance of the moment as I did for those four Russian kids.

I wish I could share with you many of my small linguistic victories, but, in reality, I ate more humble pies than I would care to digest – or remember.

While simultaneously interpreting a report on therapeutic justice in Michigan, I uttered:
“Вместо того, чтобы сажать секс работниц в тюрьму, мы предоставляем им возможность повышать свою квалификацию в области обслуживания клиентов.” 
Instead of incarcerating sex workers, we provide them with the opportunity for further improvement of their customer service skills.

Of course, what I should have said was,
“Вместо того, чтобы сажать секс работниц в тюрьму, мы предоставляем им возможность для приобретения специальностей и трудоустройства в сфере обслуживания.”
Instead of incarcerating sex workers, we provide them with the opportunity for receiving vocational training and obtaining jobs in the service sector.

I am not discriminating against any of my working languages; I am an equal-opportunity blunderer.  My only solace is that I am in a good company, along with many other “binders full of women.”

Words… for many years they have been feeding my addiction by reliably supplying a daily dozen of puzzles and keeping me on my toes.  As many of us are in this profession, I am a happy glutton for punishment.

Усердней с каждым днем гляжу в словарь.
В его столбцах мерцают искры чувства.
В подвалы слов не раз сойдет искусство,
Держа в руке свой потайной фонарь.

На всех словах -- события печать.
Они дались недаром человеку.
Читаю: "Век. От века. Вековать.
Век доживать. Бог сыну не дал веку.

Век заедать, век заживать чужой ..."
В словах звучит укор, и гнев, и совесть.
Нет, не словарь лежит передо мной,
А древняя рассыпанная повесть.

С. Маршак

Through dictionaries’ pages, I wander more each day,
Within their ordered columns, I find true feeling’s spark.
For to this cellar warehouse, where words are stored away
Art comes with secret lantern to guide me through the dark.

Translation of the first stanza by Lydia Razran Stone


vprokofiev's picture

Many thanks for this, Irina.

I agree, it's not an easy one. I for one wouldn't go with either смирение, скромность or anything of this sort. Wrong register.

Perhaps, "humbled by the task before us" -

- осознавая масштабы/величие стоящей перед нами задачи?

- ... высокую ответственность момента?

or, as one famous character in an iconic 1960s movie said, "оказанное мне высокое доверие" (с)?


Victor Prokofiev