Lifting the Bird’s Feather: A Love Letter to Interpreting

A Conversation with Poet, Educator, and Interpreter Judith Small

Tiffany Troy, Assistant Translation Editor for Columbia Journal, spoke with poet, educator, and interpreter Judith Small to discuss the magic of language learning, the musicality of traversing languages, the ethics of interpretation and the deeply human prayer in Second Tongue (Brighthorse Books, 2019). 

Small is a member of the Volunteer Interpreters Panel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. She retired six years ago from several decades of work as a paralegal in San Francisco. 

Second Tongue, her sequence of poems based on Small’s experience interpreting for asylum applicants as part of the Volunteer Interpreters Panel of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, was the winner of the 2017 Brighthorse Prize in Poetry, and a finalist for the FIELD Poetry Prize, the Georgia Poetry Prize and the Idaho Prize of Poetry. 

Second Tongue is available from Indiebound and with major booksellers.

How did you first get into the world of pro bono interpreting for asylum seekers? 

Judith Small: I remember sitting doing corporate law which is not the most exciting kind of law in the world, but it paid my bills for many years and I learned a ton. It was the middle of the day when I got a message that went to everybody in the international firm from our New York office, saying that there were a couple of attorneys doing a pro bono asylum case. They needed someone to translate a declaration into French and then read it to the client.
Was I prepared? I didn’t know. I majored in French and I’ve worked in France, so I raised my hand. The translation was for a Guinean man who was applying for political asylum. I was getting ready for “sight translation,” where you read the text in English, but you speak it to the client in their language. I did that for him on the phone and at one point, he had been rounded up along with several of his political colleagues by security forces in plain clothes in a truck.
And I was reading him the section in his declaration, where he talked about this truck, but wasn’t very specific. But in listening to what I was saying, he said, “Oh wait a minute. I remember some more about the truck,” and he started to describe it. I wrote that down and passed that addition on to the attorneys. Of course, the more details, the more credible the case is. Sometimes a client can have the least specific memory about the most important parts of the narrative which are the most dramatic so they blocked it out, you know just all these complications go on.
I wonder if it was just the fact of listening to his story in French that really helped him and his case. French wasn’t his native language; his native language was a West African language but certainly French is far closer to his early learning than English was. So that was my first experience.

How did your experience doing pro bono interpreting for asylum applicants in turn lead up to the writing of Second Tongue

JS: Not too long after Aissata’s case came up. Right after the first session with Aissata, I just closed my office door. I turned off my phone and computer and just sat there and felt as if I had been run over by a truck. 
At that point, I didn’t know how her case was going to come out. But I felt privileged to have been given the opportunity to use almost every single thing I ever learned as a human being. I never thought I’d be able to help save people’s lives through translation. I want to do more translation work. So it turned out there was a lot more work to do, and near the end of Aissata’s case which went on for several years, I remember after one of these sessions which had gone into the night. 

I was coming back on a fairly empty train late at night. I felt wrung out, but I was looking at my notes, which I think led to the poem “Consecutive.” I was not ready yet, but I really wanted to convey the very particular way that interpreting touches another human life. That was how the book started, on a train coming back from San Francisco to Berkeley one night.

Why did you choose to write Second Tongue as a collection of poems?
JS: I knew almost immediately that I wanted to try to convey in poetry the music of what was happening with consecutive interpreting, with this back and forth that in French. You’d call va-et-vient, this coming and going.

I also play piano and listen to things very musically. So as an interpreter I focus with every fiber  to convey not just literal meaning but the timbre and changing tempo of Aissata’s voice  as I’m telling her story in English, trying to present the best version I can of her voice.
The other thing that stuck with me was Assiata’s excruciating story of genital cutting. Of all the things that one might have remembered, she remembered that little knife tied with a piece of red string. That very specific, visual detail on a literal tiny thing conveys a whole world of suffering and complexity, because genital cutting was something that was done in the family, is a part of a poem too. 

How did your college experience and the class that you took, “African Literature of French Expression,” inform the writing of your poetry collection?
JS: The class was taught by a professor named Mathis Szykowski, who was himself an immigrant. He was a radical thinker and a real pioneer in some of his teaching. At the time, in 1969, there were not that many college classes in French that focused on anything other than what was going on in Europe. Then all of a sudden we had a very wide-ranging class that was one of the first classes on literature in French from West Africa and the Caribbean.
In fact, honestly, if I hadn’t taken that class at Oberlin, I might not have dared to raise my hand to do the sight translation. That class really opened a window for me because, when you read fiction or poetry, you’re really entering into people’s lives imaginatively. So maybe unconsciously, when I made that quick decision, I must have been remembering I spent a lot of time reading those books and imagining those people and listening to those voices so maybe I can do this, too.
It was also at a time in the late 60s, when there were a lot of young teachers doing work with kids in what was at the time, very innovative ways, including Kenneth Koch from Columbia.  Innovation was in the wind, and I felt teaching was something that I wanted to do.

After college, I got a Fulbright to teach English conversation in a girls’ high school in Lille, up in the north, near Belgium. It was historically part of Flanders just below the Belgian border, and suffered terrible loss of life in the First World War and then was occupied in the Second. Person after person after person in Lille said: “You’re the first American we’ve seen since the Liberation.” 
I was welcomed with open arms into their homes. I got to travel all over France and that really cemented my French learning. After that, I taught French on a high school level and got a teaching degree at Harvard and then taught English and French in the Boston area for several years. But then I didn’t use French for a long time.
You may have experienced this, like learning to ride a bicycle. It does and will come back, maybe not instantly. In my case, it came roaring back. 

I’m interested in what it means to speak through the voices of others. How does interpreters function as the “neutral” conduit? How is this illusion that the interpreter and the asylum applicant almost merge together constructed in your collection?
JS: The key word is “almost.” “Almost” because I would never want to romanticize the union. As I wrote in the poem “Consecutive,” we each live elsewhere, but not at this moment, which  was powerful and almost magical. But we can’t confuse that with the rest of our lives, right? We need to be realistic about the fact that we are two separate people. We could make a long list of the differences between Aissata and me, but then there are these moments. 

I have felt so honored to be able to take on the role of being the voice for these four people and a few others. It’s tricky but it’s also very powerful. The book is  a kind of love letter to interpreting. I really did fall in love with the work though it’s also really hard in so many different ways. For me, because I’m not a native speaker so there’s linguistic learning to do and then culturally, historically, psychologically, you name it, and then it’s exhausting. But it’s also incredibly worth it.

On the one hand, you become the means through which the client is able to communicate in English. On the other hand, speaking from my own experience, I feel what makes your clients remember you  years after the case is not necessarily the interpretation but the care you put in, isn’t it?  

JS: I think that’s absolutely right and one of the reasons that I’m still very much in touch with each of the people I write about, in various ways. 

Just this past Monday, the woman I call Aissata took her citizenship oath in New York. We had been doing these phone practice sessions since last June, going over the hundred questions that you need to be prepared to answer to become a citizen. And that all bore fruit on Monday. 

Ahmed loves to drink coffee and so do I, so we’ll get together before COVID and  at a coffee shop in San Francisco in the financial district near where I used to work and drink coffee and tell stories. 

How did you work with the people whose stories you tell to make sure it comes across in the right way?

JS: This is important to me and “collaboration” isn’t quite the right word because it wasn’t as if I was consulting with them on a regular basis, but I did not want to be appropriating their stories. I didn’t want to do anything that could do that. At a minimum, I wanted to do no harm, and hopefully, more than that, so I tried to be as careful as I could be in terms of the process.
At the beginning, I sat down with them and read the section that pertained to them in French in order for that to be a meaningful communication and a meaningful consent. I read it to them and if they had any comments or something wasn’t quite right, they would tell me. Then they signed a formal release. That process itself took so long and that’s the thing: you’ve really got to love languages and words to be doing this kind of work.

Your work, at its crux, is about the asylum applicants and their will to live and overcome oppression. How do you overcome stereotypes and profilings in the asylum cases that you worked on? 
JS: When I was working with Ahmed, 9/11 was not that far away in the past. We really had to work against stereotypes of the angry Arab terrorist. I was working with an amazing team of three young women attorneys: one was a White French speaker who grew up in a bilingual house with her father from France, another was Chinese-American and the third was actually from Canada, but her family was from India, and as a diverse group, we made the best team. The team had to be concerned with how he was going to come across to the judge. At that point, if you looked at him through a particular lens, you could see someone who was Arab—he’s not Arab, he’s Berber—but how many Americans know the differences between those two identities? And if you rub him the wrong way, he can get angry, really quickly. But he has been through a lot of things in his life to make him angry. We loved him—we all came to just love him—because anger was only one of his many characteristics. So, we would explicitly work with him on how to keep your voice low, how to take a breath before you answer. And it worked.

We also had to think about images of Arabs and Arabic speakers very carefully, because there are all sorts of things that can get in the way of the story that you want to tell. Each client was carefully vetted by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. That’s not to say there were not a couple of moments with one or two of the people I write about when the attorneys, in particular, but even for a couple of minutes I would think: “Is he or she telling the truth? That doesn’t make sense. That’s inconsistent. What’s going on?” But in these sorts of bewildering moments, there was always a reason.

Were there reasons for the inconsistency?
JS: It was never that they were lying. Of course, we know that there are asylum seekers who lie, but not the clients I’ve worked with. Once we had a meeting with Ahmed, and something new came up in his story and didn’t make sense. The attorneys came at it, logically, and nothing made sense. Finally, Ahmed and I went for a long walk around the streets of San Francisco and got coffee somewhere since it was Ahmed. By the end of that walk, I completely understood what was going on because it turned out that what he had said in the meeting was embedded in some very complicated family dynamics which he didn’t think were relevant. In the course of this long walk, I got to hear about a complicated tapestry but he gave me the threads to weave it together. 
One thing that is really helpful to me as a paralegal is that you’re not quite on that exalted plane that an attorney might occupy for a client, particularly someone who’s not fluent in English. You exist more in a kind of in-between place, as an interstitial figure, and that makes you more approachable. 

How do you grapple with agency and authenticity in the stories your poems tell?
JS: That struggle is embedded concretely in the stories the poems tell. The most excruciating example of the conflict between responsibility tied to role and my feelings as a human come about in the poem, “Accident,” when I was interpreting for Ahmed.
We had worked with him close to a year and made a lot of progress so that he could tell his story well. I don’t mean he was fabricating anything but there are certain boxes you need to check in order to establish that you meet the criteria for asylum. But in the actual meeting, under the pressure of being in the asylum officer’s office, he fell apart. Ahmed got really confused and instead of saying Al Qaeda tried to kill me, that they got out of an SUV and came into my restaurant firing at me so that I had to flee, he said I had an accident.
Having to interpret that to the asylum officer was one of the worst moments of my life. I knew with those words, Ahmed had just about guaranteed that he was going to be booted into immigration court. As a result, this case was going to go on and on and on.
In that context, I was bound by the ethical responsibilities of an interpreter, because I was not in my role as an advocate. It all gets down to context, and you have to be really able to be very nimble about shifting according to where you are and what your role is and that is tricky.

How does beginning the collection with a moment of inauthenticity help frame the stories to come?
JS: That section starts with my trying to do something that I tried to call mine, but isn’t mine. In a sense, the rest of the book is a journey toward and a struggle with making my second language my own. Not in the sense that I’m a native speaker but in the sense that I can have a deep conversation with another human being. That this second language will be adequate to what I need to say to this person and he’ll be able to understand what I’m saying to them, and for me to understand when he says something to me as well.

How do your experiences shape the way in which French appears in the collection?
JS: I wanted the book to be accessible to people whose only language was English. I didn’t want you to have to know French in order to appreciate the book. It was important to me to use these little smatterings and whispers of French to give flavor but it’s like when you orchestrate, you talk about the color of an instrument, and each instrument has its own particular color. I wanted to get that color into the palette because luckily, for me, many Americans heard a little French right? Like comme ci comme ça, merci. So, I knew that if I put in just enough to give a hint of what that kind of musical color is, it could go a long way to enrich the music of the book. Like cache-cache, which is French for hide-and-seek, I love how it fits in my mouth. It just sounds fun. Or in the poem “Consecutive” about Aissata, Parfois je me console, Sometimes I console myself, I love the sound of that. Ultimately, they were musical choices and it goes back to my long-ago training in music, in composing. 

In “Coeur/ Heart (2),” Ahmed says when you speak French, you speak from the bottom of your heart. How does the idea of French being natural function in your poems?
JS: What Ahmed said was one of the nicest things anybody has ever said to me. It was amazing because that meant it wasn’t as if I had put on a costume for a game, but that in my role, he was hearing me really speaking to him in a way that was fully human. Thus, there are two poems that are called “Heart” and in the first poem Ahmed says, thank you to me, and then the second one, I say thank you back. Utterly reciprocal.

But it’s very important in the book but I want to clarify that I don’t think it’s French per se. It’s French for me because that happens to be the language that I learned and made the most progress with. For somebody else it could have been another language. Pick a language.
What I think is particular for me was the process of language learning and of learning to know this wide range of people that I would never have encountered without my language learning.

You talk in your collection about when one of the relatives of an asylum applicant tried to screen you. And when you were having some difficulty because of the fast speaking and because of differences in accents in French. How does language differences function in your poem or translation practice?
JS: Right, there are two incidents, but they’re easily distinguished but related.
The first involved Sedira who was from Algeria. I learned what was called Parisian French, and because Sedira spoke a French closer to Parisian French than the French spoken by any of the people I’ve worked with, she was the easiest for me to understand. Her sister was totally bilingual in English and French, she screened me on the phone because Sedira has worked with other interpreters who apparently weren’t very good and her sister understandably wanted to make sure that I could speak French. We did an audition, and luckily I passed.
The second incident happened with Birahim who grew up in a village in Guinea. In general, there are many different accents but the intonation in particular is quite different from the sound patterns that I’m used to hearing in continental French. Plus, Birahim spoke quickly and  is also one of those people who speak less clearly. A native speaker would not have had any trouble with them at all, I am very sure.
But the first time I met with him, I felt mortified, particularly because I was working with his attorney that I admired from afar for five or six years, I attended the seminar she gave, and I was so thrilled to be working with her because she was a rock star in the world of immigration law. And here I was, totally screwing up. I went up to her afterwards, to tell her that I was happy to help her find somebody else. The attorney said: “Let’s give it some time,” and I thought this woman was a great attorney but she’s a fool, because this is never going to work.
I tried to learn everything I could about the lexicon, or the universe of words that he’s likely to use, so there are fewer surprises, but the intonation was still tripping me up. Then, as I write in the book, I listened to a recording of a wonderful musician from Burkina Faso. I don’t say this explicitly in the poem, but at the very beginning of the CD, there’s a very short recording of just sounds from his village, of people talking as they’re getting up in the morning, basically going about their business. I got used to listening to the intonation that’s more percussive, a different timbre. 
Birahim and I would meet, and he would drink tea and I coffee, but we would talk and share stories the same way I had with Ahmed. I still struggled with his French. I asked Birahim, if you’d like me to find someone else or I could find someone, and we can do team interpreting, would you like? He said, “No, no, I just want to work with you.” 

I was obviously very reassured. It made me want to work even harder for him, of course, but it also became to me that there are things besides sheer linguistic prowess that are helpful in this work.

You began each section of the four asylum applicants with a “cover page” with demographic information. How do the very factual and dry beginnings contrast with the very individualistic stories that you tell?
JS: That was very important to me. In a sense, in addition to French and English there’s a third language in the book.  I think of it as the ‘official’ language, the language of bureaucracy and the law. We have to use this language to some extent, but it’s made up of words that are used to categorize. These words set priorities, and then criteria to determine if people are meeting those priorities. I saw all of those very logical things in those covers in a file  as in  a musical way,  a kind of counterpoint  to the poems that follow. I wanted to start out with that very distant view of someone. I mean, they have a redacted Alien Registration number, right? And how much farther distant, can you get than that? Then the reader starts to learn what one human life really means up close.

How about the epigraphs that begin some of your poems?
JS: I use the epigraph quite a bit. There are two kinds. One is little bits of prose that helps convey information. I don’t want a long narrative poem like Longfellow so I used epigraphs to give the reader information quickly, like this is what happened to Ahmed when he got to San Francisco, this was the employment situation at the time, and he’s more secular than not.
Then there are quotes from the manuals for interpreters and for forensic psychologists, who are trying to determine if someone meets certain criteria or give some psychological context to certain clients’ applications. I use these epigraphs to give the reader a sense of what some responses to trauma might be.
In Ahmed’s case, I was careful about not getting too clinical because I’m not a psychologist. I didn’t want to go so far as to write explicitly about PTSD which is a complicated diagnosis, but I used the epigraph to give some sense to the reader of exactly how tough it is to be a person who has undergone this horrible violent uprooting from his own country to be sitting in San Francisco with very few friends and family members and with very few employment opportunities.

In “Conduit,” the interpreter and Aissata are described as fawns that bow consecutively as they reach for water. What role do animals play as symbols in your collection?
JS: Primarily there’s the owl that at one point scoops up a fish out of an icy river. Then there’s the deer, whose presence is more calm, more grave. The owl comes back at the very end when I’m locked in this fierce conversation with Ahmed on Montgomery street and I suddenly conceived of him as a fierce owl. I had a split second of being afraid, but not really, of him. You know, of course, that I wasn’t impervious to all those stereotypes and so the world of the animals is important to me in that they take certain themes and free them from the realm of the strictly human. 
The poem “Audition,” has the most extensive discussion of this idea that every human language is fallible in the same way in that it can’t fully describe or pinpoint reality. You have the owl with the fish in its talons. You have human language describing that, but the language is not the same thing as the owl. That’s true for every single human language, and so, in that sense the animals are a kind of a backdrop, a kind of reality check to what humans are doing. Talking to each other is great, but not one word from any language can lift the feather of a real bird.

All four individuals grapple with religion in some shape or form. How does religion feature as a point of tension or departure in your poems?
JS: First, I’ll just say quickly that what I’ve learned about Islam has been immeasurably deepened by long talks with my son-in-law, who is from Senegal. And with Ahmed’s son, although Ahmed himself is not particularly observant, he became over the years became more and more interested in Islam.
With religion, as with many other things, it can be used and abused. In the book, there are certain interpretations of Islam, which my clients found oppressive or in one case almost fatal, just as there are certain interpretations of Christianity which others may find oppressive as well. 
When Aissata is being tortured, she thinks about Allah. It isn’t that this God comes down and smites her oppressor and she’s free. Instead, there is a kind of prayer at the end there, or at least a question, which many prayers are. There was also in the last section about Ahmed, a kind of human prayer that starts with that line from that Jacques Brel song, Ne me quitte pas, Don’t leave me. And if there’s a prayer that’s pervasive in the book, it’s that very human-to-human request –don’t leave me, let’s stay connected, let me speak, let me tell my story, and please listen to me.

Is there anything exciting that you’re working on that we can look forward to?
JS: I’m very excited that Second Tongue is going to be translated into Spanish. I’m currently in a kind of transitional time, helping my daughter and son-in-law take care of their three little girls pretty close to full-time during the week. But after they are in preschool, I hope to focus again on writing.

I will always be fundamentally a poet but my next major project will be prose: a narrative/essay about my mother’s death five years ago, which was unusual in that she was a happy, healthy ninety-three-year-old who sensed dementia on the horizon and chose to control the end of her life with what she called a terminal fast, by not eating or drinking. The whole process took over three weeks and was, as you can imagine, enormously complex. We were very close and so I expect the writing process to be pretty intense. Five years out, though, I finally feel ready for it and feel it’s something I want to do. I’ve had lots of questions, from friends and from strangers, about her decision and the process of her passing. My challenge will be doing justice to her life and her death, in their many dimensions.

About the Author

Tiffany Troy is the assistant online translator at Columbia Journal.

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