Every year the interpreter attended the interpretation conference at the lodge in the mountains, where interpreters from near and far gathered to talk, learn, and gripe about things interpretive. Some years, the interpreter gave a presentation with an intriguing title, such as “Nine Great but Somewhat Fictitious Anecdotes about Bears,” or “The Instant Death Mushroom and other Mind-bending Ways of Dealing with Unruly Children.”
The interpreter’s presentations were always well-attended. He had been told, more than once, that he had a gift for such things. What no one knew was that he struggled and fretted and worked extremely hard to create those presentations. What most people thought flowed from him like an eternal spring was actually born of great, protracted effort. His presentations were ancient pyramids of effort. In other words, the interpreter required a lot of prep time.
Thus he was alarmed when, next to the coffee table during a break in the afternoon sessions, one of the conference organizers tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Our first speaker for this evening has cancelled. Would you be able to fill in with something?”
“Something?” asked the interpreter.
“You know, one of your usual talks,” said the organizer, "with your trademark blend of information and humour.”
The interpreter laughed. “Are you kidding?”
The organizer said, “It doesn’t have to be anything great, just something, you know, funny.”
“Funny,” said the interpreter.
“That would be awesome,” said the organizer. “Normally, I’d hope for forty-five minutes, but on such short notice, let’s say, about twenty, no, twenty-five? You can do that, no sweat, right?”
Extemporaneous speaking is something all interpreters are required to do, but rarely for so long in front of so many, almost never in front of so many other interpreters.
"Twenty five? Well...” said the interpreter.
“Great! For seven PM.” The organizer then scurried away through the crowd of coffee-drinking interpreters into the room where the next session was about to begin.
Seven PM gave the interpreter about four hours to prepare -- with no slides, no PowerPoint, no plan. “Think!” the interpreter said to himself. His inner self was saying, “Run away!” But, man of duty, professional, he went to the front desk and begged a pen and pad of paper.
As the interpreter was leaving the lodge, another interpreter walking in called, “Hey! I’m looking forward to your presentation!” He pointed to a flip-chart on a stand on which, amazingly, the interpreter’s name was already written next to 7PM.
“Thanks,” said the interpreter, feeling he was in the middle of an unexpected calculus exam dream.
The interpreter went to his cabin, which had no desk and only a small, uninspiring window that looked out over a parking lot. He propped himself up on the rock-hard bed, and stared at the pale blue lines on the pad. After an hour and a half he had come up with two possible presentations: “You Weren’t Born an Interpreter. You Became One When You Were Seven,” and, “Dog Walkers, Plant Pickers and Other Villains: Outsmart Them Without Being Bitten or Fired.” But he was having trouble assembling either with his “trademark blend of information and humour.”
The interpreter took his pad, pen and buzzing head to dinner and sat by himself. Between mouthfuls of soup, he scribbled. His soup became cold. There was little more than an hour left. The interpreter decided to take a short walk in the forest. He knew of a path that led to a clearing with a fallen log. He would sit on the log and let Nature talk to him, or at least calm his growing apprehension. As the interpreter crossed the parking lot toward the forest, a young woman called his name.
He turned to see another interpreter, whom he had met at three previous conferences -- a young woman the interpreter secretly admired.
“Where you off to?” she asked.
“Just going for a walk,” said the interpreter. He nodded at the head of the trail.
The young woman asked, “Mind if I join you?”
The interpreter said, “Um." He did not want or need company. But because he secretly admired this young woman, his inner self wanted to go for a walk with her. So off they went into the forest.
The forest was dense and dark, composed of narrow-trunked spruce trees with dead, dry lower branches. The trail was not as distinct as the interpreter remembered. He recalled that to get to the fallen log, you took a side-trail off to the right somewhere. The interpreter and the young woman arrived at a likely spot and went right. After about 100 yards, the trail, or what had seemed to be a trail, ended. The interpreter stopped. “Oh,” he said. “I think I took a wrong turn.”
“Oops,” the young woman said, cheerfully.
The interpreter and the young woman backtracked, looking for the original trail, but strangely it seemed no longer to exist. “This isn’t good,” said the interpreter, who was worrying about the time. He was no closer to finishing the outline of his presentation. He was still not even sure which presentation he was intending to give. He had not been paying attention to what Nature had been telling him and now he was lost. He also wasn't sure why, now that he had company, he was still intent on finding that log.
He wasn't sure about anything, really.
The interpreter and the young woman stumbled through the spruce trees, snapping the dead branches. They bumped together, and the interpreter noticed that the young woman’s hair smelled like strawberries. He was about to say that her hair smelled nice, but then what else might that mean, even if it meant nothing else? So he didn’t. He glanced at his watch. Twenty-five minutes to go. “Oh, heck,” he said. “I never get lost. How could I have gotten lost?”
The young woman asked, unhelpfully, “Aren’t you supposed to be giving a presentation?”
"Unfortunately,” said the interpreter.
“Maybe you’ll end up giving it just to me,” said the young woman.
The interpreter turned and searched the young woman’s face. He had no idea what she was thinking. The interpreter knew a lot about nature, but almost nothing about women. He didn’t even know what he didn’t know about women. The interpreter wished he had had a sister. He often wished he had had a sister, for pointers.
A car horn sounded, to the left. “Oh, the road is that way,” said the interpreter. They made a beeline through hostile trees that poked at their eyes and pulled at their clothes. The interpreter and the young woman emerged from the forest, and slid down a steep bank to the road. They were breathing hard, as though having almost drowned. The lodge was a quarter mile away. The interpreter said, “I better run.”
The young woman said, “Go, I’ll see you back there.”
Breathless, sweating, twig-covered, the interpreter entered the hall.
“And here is the man of the hour, our presenter,” said the organizer with a dramatic sweep of his arm.
The interpreter picked his way through the chairs to the front of the room, stood behind the podium and placed his pad of paper on the ledge. He wondered which presentation would flow from it. He looked at the faces, at the sea of expectations he could not fulfil.
He cleared his throat and said, “Being a Nature Interpreter is about the most pointless thing in the world. You will be underpaid, disrespected by employers and the general public, and will have your soul destroyed every step of the way.” He added, “And you’ll never get the girl, either.” He said all this in complete, bitter sincerity, but it came off comically deadpan.
So they laughed at him.
Their laughter had the miraculous effect of unleashing the results of the frantic workings of his subconscious over the previous four hours. He talked, seemingly effortlessly, for twenty-five minutes, a talk that could have been called, “You Weren’t Born an Interpreter. You Became One When You Were Seven, and Later on Learned How to Outsmart Dog Walkers, Plant Pickers and other Villains Without Being Bitten or Fired.”
It went along very well, like the chain-reaction toppling of a lengthy, increasingly inventive array of dominos. His mind raced ahead of his spoken words, setting up more and more elaborate tricks. He could feel himself heading to a grand ending, where the words, the threads, the dominos, were to branch out into a magnificently clever starburst of meanings, and then swoop back together in a stunning summation.
And then there was a click, followed by silence--a crucial domino missing its target.
It was also the door at the far end of the hall closing. Rosy-cheeked and only slightly dishevelled, the young woman whose hair smelled like strawberries had arrived. Over the length of the room, their eyes met, and she smiled at him. The interpreter said, “Um…”
He was lost.