COLUMN

Past Tense

A Tale of Pigs,
Wolves, and Ostriches

Ewandro Magalhães

Ewandro Magalhães is a conference interpreter, former chief interpreter in the United Nations system, interpreter trainer, and language technology advocate.
He is a TEDx speaker and the author of three books, including The Language Game.

Have you ever heard yourself humming, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, big bad wolf, big bad wolf?” (Repeated chorus).

It’s a universal melody embedded in the soundtrack of a memorable bedtime story from your childhood. The one with three little pigs and the notorious Big Bad Wolf, right?

Hold on, don’t nod off just yet; there’s more to this familiar tale than meets the eye.

Follow me as we dive into the enchanting world where pigs construct houses, anthropomorphic wolves plot cunning schemes, and ostriches, well … ostriches have their heads too deep into the ground to actually see anything.

The plot unfolds with a familiar villain, the Big Bad Wolf, who seems to enjoy appearing in various children’s stories. Little Red Riding Hood also falls prey to his schemes, creating a shared fictional thread.

Consider Little Red Riding Hood’s narrative first. Feeling sympathy for her granny, a young girl decides to venture alone through a dense forest to deliver some sweets. Yes, Granny is stuck in the woods. Now, let’s switch gears to the piglets’ tale. Three little pigs set out to build their abodes. One opts for a straw shack, another for a wood (sticks, to be polite) dwelling, and the third, the wise one, invests in a sturdy brick house.

Let us step back and zero in on the shared character: the wolf. In both tales, this character isn’t just imposing and nefarious; it’s opportunistic, crafty, and undeniably malevolent. Always scheming, perpetually on the lookout for ways to deceive. However, as vivid and compelling as these stories may be, they beg for the introduction of a fresh perspective.

As we reflect on these narratives, we encounter some intriguing questions. Why would anyone send a young girl into the woods alone when wolves lurk? Whose brilliant idea was it to leave Granny isolated in a forest cabin? And seriously, is it wise to bring sweets and pastries to an elderly lady who likely has diabetes, high cholesterol, and blood pressure issues? And what about those piglets? How wise is it to construct houses of straw or sticks with predators around?

These questions reveal certain inconsistencies, prompting a reconsideration of the characters in the tales. It doesn’t take much to realize that, aside from the wolf, everyone seems impervious to the risks inherent in their choices. They appear satisfied with the status quo, resisting the need for change or preparation. For them, it’s all about instant gratification and staying within their comfort zone.

We pivot from these fictional tales to the realm of language in general and the world of interpreters in particular, searching for a few parallels. The seismic shift in our profession, triggered by the pandemic, brought the multilingual event space to a screeching halt and left interpreters in a state of upheaval. It also drove us apart and into isolation. Fear, like Little Red Riding Hood facing the Big Bad Wolf, swept through our community. Our windows and doors were locked, and the wind was blowing hard.

Events started being canceled, one by one. Entire events crumbled. Meeting was no longer safe. A new way was needed. Novel interpreting technologies such as remote simultaneous interpretation (RSI) were developed and perfected. However, despite extending the only possible lifeline to interpreters and businesses alike, it didn’t take long for the new technology to get a bad rap.

The threat to the status quo was too big to handle, and a good share of interpreters marched metaphorically into the woods. They stood their ground. The pandemic was a passing cloud that wouldn’t linger. They went about their day, keeping the same routine, business as usual, without as much as a glimpse into whether the window frames could be reinforced, whether their homes stood on solid foundations. Meanwhile, the wind was blowing harder. Paralyzed, many saw their houses crumble under the weight of circumstances.

At the same time, the most adaptable among us gained a broader perspective, realizing the need for change. With little left to lose, some of the more tech-savvy, adventurous colleagues ventured into the woods. Armed with courage, some protective gear, and a flashlight, they searched everywhere for the evil, ill-meaning wolf, to no avail. They returned empty-handed, but the territory had been mapped, and their fears dropped.

A natural, physiological response to any real or perceived threat, fear can make us see or aggrandize things in our minds. Yet, despite the chills, we can’t afford to be paralyzed by it. To fight back, we need to give it new meaning, and that requires closing the gap to see things as they really are.

RSI and, more recently, machine interpreting (MI), along with other AI endeavors aimed at modernizing interpretation, have ignited fervent debates. Yet, these technologies aren’t sadistic disruptions; they present an opportunity for positive change. They aren’t the Big Bad Wolf but rather a chance to reshape a profession that has experienced minimal evolution in the last eight decades.

Since the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, where simultaneous interpreting was established as a new mode, technological progress affecting interpreters has been largely superficial. Microphones have become more compact and powerful; headsets now boast enhanced ergonomics, lighter weight, and softer design; wires are mostly a thing of the past; interpreting consoles have transitioned to digital and are less clunky. However, the core elements — microphones, headsets, and consoles — remain recognizable.

The same holds true for logistics and compensation arrangements. Interpreters were required to be physically present, catching flights, checking into hotels, riding buses, and receiving meal vouchers. Whether committing one or six hours, they earned a full day’s pay, and for valid reasons. Double-dipping was logistically impractical and frowned upon as unethical.

Working conditions were seemingly set in stone. Granted, interpreting is and will always be a collaborative effort. However, alternative approaches must be explored when sharing a booth becomes a life-threatening hazard.

The pandemic, laden with pain and suffering, provided us with a golden opportunity to reassess priorities, challenge norms, and hit the reset button.

In The Three Little Pigs, the piglet who constructs his home with bricks has an unusual yet remarkably fitting name: Practical. He embodies the spirit of action and adaptation, understanding the cost of immobility or neglect. Humorously, both tales encourage us to be like him: practical!

Once a paradigm is shattered, there is no turning back. A flat planet might offer a semblance of safety in a world rife with uncertainty, but the Earth is round, and indeed, 12 different individuals have set foot on the moon. The pandemic also underscored that denial can be a lethal mistake.

The world will never be the same, and that’s perfectly acceptable. These technologies are here to stay, swiftly evolving into something else. Wishing them away was a misstep then and remains so now.

As we navigate the evolving interpretation landscape, let’s embrace change, confront it head-on, and prepare and adapt. Let us invite ostriches to pull their heads out of the hole to acknowledge and befriend the wolf. Upon close inspection, it is a toothless, well-meaning wolf whose claws have long been trimmed. It has much to teach us about foresight, strategic planning, and execution. But we must draw near.

Allow me to conclude with a reflection from French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

Success awaits us on the other side of fear.

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