The Interpreter’s Journal

The Interpreter’s Journal: Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter by Benjawan Poomsan Becker might be more aptly entitled An Interpreter’s Journal because it describes the unique experience of one interpreter, from her relatively humble beginnings in Isaan (Thailand) and study abroad experience in Japan, to her trials, personal and professional, in her adopted homeland (the United States), marriage and divorce, business ventures and burn out, concluding with professional and personal success.

An annotated table of contents clearly sets out the book’s main themes: the author’s personal story; social commentary that focuses on “Thai-Western relationship stories”; and the author’s professional experience as an interpreter, which might be most interesting to aspiring or working interpreters. A quick tabulation of these annotations reveals that 45% of the book is devoted to personal memoir, and 23% relates to Thai-Western relationship stories, while the remaining third relates to interpretation. There is a fair amount of crossover between personal memoir and professional experience.

The emphasis on personal memoir is not surprising since the author seems most at ease and animated when writing about her family and her life. As the blurb on the back cover promises, the anecdotes are indeed “engaging.” In a disarmingly guileless voice, the author describes her hard-working, no-nonsense mother; her lazy and spoiled brothers; her father’s professional peregrinations, ill-fated vegetable farm venture and long absences while he worked in the Middle East to send home money; and her encounters with farang (foreigners) who would profoundly influence her personal and professional life choices.

Some of the stories are very funny — for instance, to supplement the familial income, the author’s mother opens a small unnamed fast-food restaurant. She learns of a secret, rather pungent-smelling ingredient that seems to be all the rage at other restaurants. She finds the ingredient at the local market and adds it to her recipes with excellent results. Problem: the secret ingredient is ganja (marijuana, for the uninitiated), and within a matter of months it is banned by the municipality.

Despite her measured narration of it, Becker’s first day in the San Francisco area must have been quite disorienting. In addition to overdosing on slang (“What’s up, dude?”), she must have been in a state of culture shock aggravated by jet lag when, as she relates, she “saw naked men walking along Telegraph Avenue.” The Thai temple and grocery in Berkeley, however, softened the transition and made her feel “comfortable about the idea of maybe living” in the Bay area. 

The voice doesn’t change when the author embarks on a description of her professional experiences as an interpreter. For example, having passed the exam to become “the first registered Thai and Lao interpreter in the court system in California,” Becker enthuses about the “host of wonderful places like the county jails, state prisons, and mental health facilities” to which she will now have access.

The narrative style dictates the organization of the information. Through personal anecdote, readers learn that the California court system requires its interpreters to complete 30 hours of continuing education courses every two years; has qualified interpreters for over 200 languages; that navigating complex ethical issues forms an important part of court interpreting; that court attire varies greatly depending on culture; and that depending on language pair workloads can be overwhelming (“Spanish and Chinese can easily have more than ten cases per day.”).

One chapter (“Thai & Lao Language Services”) takes the reader out of the courtroom and into some equally interesting interpretation contexts, and provides an opportunity to explain the difference between consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. Becker describes working as a translator and cultural coach for the television series King of the Hill, working on the DVD transfer of the movie The Sting, providing phone interpretation for emergency services and, back to court, interpreting for a Thai drug-smuggling kingpin.

Chapter 18, “Mistakes and Misinterpretations,” again written in a personal and anecdotal style, drives home the importance of quality interpretation and qualified interpreters. Becker describes how a mistake translating a Thai expression as unconscious instead of as unaware of what was going on “could have changed the nature of the case from one of self-defense to attempted murder.” She describes a host of challenges that an interpreter faces: people who speak too quickly, people who mumble and people who are emotionally or psychologically unhinged. Add colloquialisms, neologisms and specialized terminology, and environmental issues to the mix, and the complexity of the interpreter’s profession becomes apparent. Becker writes: “Even a chair squeaking or paper rustling can be a distraction. Most people don’t notice these little sounds, but they can make the interpreter miss certain crucial words, especially the word ‘not’. Now that’s an important one you don’t want to miss.”

Becker dons a sociologist’s hat when she describes Thai-Western relationships. Aside from relationships per se, the chapters devoted to the topic contain interesting information about the modern history of Thailand, the diverse cultural and language groups in the region, reflections on culinary matters, the modern penchant for Western-inspired nicknames (“Ball, Win, Boy, Mickey, Bank, Ice, Cream, Cake, Crystal”) and intergenerational friction caused by emigration. Invariably, the cultural issues resonate in the courtroom where long, difficult-to-pronounce names, the lack of significance attached to surnames, the penchant for nicknames and frequent name changes motivated by astrology or the advice of a monk create confusion and sometimes, particularly in a Western context, suspicion. Different approaches to transliteration leave even our intrepid Becker stumped at times.

The Interpreter’s Journal is not a handbook or how-to for interpreters. Despite efforts to keep the three themes separated, well-organized and clearly identified, there is a great deal of overlap. For instance, there’s a helpful (if short) bibliography on page 74 in a technically “personal” chapter that a reader might miss if he or she keeps to the chapters identified as “interpreting” chapters.  

In addition, the chapters on relationships seem out of place in an “interpreter’s journal.” The romantic aspirations of Thai “ladies” (according to an informal survey of Western men, “good housewives and good cooks,” “feminine” and “sexy”) and “the allure of the handsome foreigner” (read: Western) left me a little cold, as did descriptions of Thai men as inveterate drunks, gamblers and philanderers. Some reflections just made me sad: “Thai society has the idea that Eurasian kids are cute and will grow up to look like movie stars. Such kids are always in demand for advertisements and TV shows, and many do indeed go on to become celebrities, regardless of talent.”

Despite an attempt to put a cheery gloss on it, the author’s own sadness pervades the chapter entitled “Trips to Thailand”: “I can’t say that people today are any happier than when I was growing up. Years ago we didn’t have much beyond the basics, but we didn’t feel deprived. Everyone was in the same boat. Now, with the ubiquitous and gratuitous marketing everywhere, all villagers want to have what they see presented on the television. Their role models are the picture-perfect family [sic] they see portrayed in commercials for the latest clothes, washing machine, or skin-whitening product.”

The book could do with more rigorous editing. Transitions from one subject to another are sometimes abrupt and disconcerting. Occasionally, tense shifts are ambiguous, which is not surprising, since as Becker explains, “[In Thai, v]erbs in the past tense and present tense are the same, but adverbs of time are used to differentiate them.” There are also some glaring spelling errors (“Nancy Pelozi”; “when I worked on the movie The Sting, staring Robert Redford . . .”) and typos (“I look at the audience to find the person I’ll interpreter for.”)

That said, there is a good deal of information to be found amid the anecdotes. Becker’s descriptions of diverse courtroom situations and brief accounts of conference interpreting paint a vivid picture of the professional reality. Her enthusiasm and commitment to the profession, to the Thai community and her new home in the United States are palpable and contagious.