Suki Kim describes in today’s NY Times her experiences working as an interpreter as part of her research for a novel. She describes the cases, mostly dull, for which she translated depositions in “gloomy offices known as reporting services,” focusing on one in which she learned more than she wanted to know about a Korean storeowner from her block in the East Village. She concludes:
English, in some ways, struck me as a weapon, and not speaking it was the greatest economic handicap. And my role, as an interpreter, was not only to translate a witness’s testimony but also to relieve this pain somehow.
With each case, I kept forgetting my mission as a novelist, my responsibility to my heroine, Suzy. After Sept. 11, I ran to the family assistance center at the armory to volunteer as an interpreter. It became increasingly difficult to pass by a Korean market or a nail salon and watch some customers berate the workers, or condescend to them as though their lack of English suggested lower intelligence. I was often tempted to interrupt and act on behalf of the non-English-speaker. I was driven by a professional instinct. But it also signaled my shortcomings as an interpreter. An interpreter, of course, should never take sides.
I stopped interpreting soon after. And I did finish the novel. But the city has changed for me. I keep noticing lines. Between a customer and a worker. Between a prosecutor and a witness. Between Manhattan and the other boroughs. Between one who speaks English, and one who doesn’t.