Monday, 1 March 2010
The Life of Others
An interesting article from last Sunday's El Pais.
French, Arab, Polish, Turkish, Hungarian, Chinese, Romanian, Portugese...These and many more languages can be heard in a small room in Madrid's police headquarters. In this room translators spend hours listening to conversations and transcribing them. Sometimes they have to listen to unpleasant things-- threats, arguments, accusations.. At times they listen as the same person who was shouting threats tells their mother that they love her. It is a hard job in which, eight hours a day, one lives the life of others.
Immigrants translate the phone-tapped conversations of foreign suspects for the Spanish police. The Romanian translator is a pious Catholic and has only been with one man in her life: her ex-husband. Ironically, everyday she has to listen to calls between pimps and their prostitutes. She works for a police taskforce investigating sex traffickers. When she translates the conversations she tries to omit swear words or sexual references but sometimes this is impossible and she goes bright red as she writes. At first she was surprised to hear that the pimp called all the girls by the same name, Irina. Afterwards she discovered that Irina was the name of the pimp's wife and using only this name avoided problems at home.
The Hungarian translator was the coach of the Hungarian women's swimming team when her country was still part of the Eastern Bloc. 15 years ago she had to emigrate to Spain and since 5 years ago she has not been once to a swimming pool-- it brings back too many memories. Her physical build attests to her history as an athlete, as well as to the use of anabolitic steroids which she says was common practice in those days. The USA had to be beaten at all costs. The human body has its limits, however.. She is married to a Spaniard and when she goes home to him it is sometimes difficult not to talk about what she has been listening to all day. But she can't. Nobody can know. When people ask her what she does she tells them that she works in an accountancy firm. This sounds so boring that no-one asks her for more details.
The oldest translator is a Turkish woman. Single and attractive, she always tuns up with full make-up on. She turns the heads of the policemen as she walks past. She has a teenage son and she works extra hours to support him. As she has no time for her own life she spends the day living that of others: those that kill for money, those that smuggle in contraband from Turkey and those who commit credit card fraud. She knows all of them by name, she knows who their parents are and what they say to their girlfriends before going to sleep at night. She understands them, translates their words and hates them, all at the same time. Life is not black and white she says, but sometimes it is too grey.
The Arabic translator is a doctor of Philology and has 3 sons. Her husband stays at home with the children while she works. It wasn't thier plan but she found work before he did. She is familiar with every type of hashish and with all the different ways that it can be smuggled into Spain but she has never once rolled or smoked a joint. One day she arrived to work looking pale and almost fainted. She was fasting for Ramadan. People asked her if she was very religious. She replied that she wasn't but that it was more of a tradition than a religious practice. One doesn't have to be a practising Catholic to celebrate Christmas, all Spaniards celebrate it.
A group of police officers burst into a clandestine laboratory where kin, a Chinese drug similar to ketamine, is produced. The police needed to catch the dealers red-handed so the translator had to spend all night listening to phone conversations until he discovered the location of the laboratory. The translator is the only man in the translating room but he doesn't stand out. Quiet and efficient, he never takes off his headphones, not even to eat. He speaks Spanish with a Madrid accent. He was born and raised here and has never been to China, not even for a holiday. The truth is that he still misses China but does not know why.
All these stories are real. They are not taken from the violent streets of Baltimore portrayed in 'The Wire' or from the old East Germany as seen in 'The Life of Others'.
They come from a small room in police headquarters located at Cuatro Caminos.
I know all of this first-hand because for a while I was an inhabitant of that small room. I was the Portugese translator. I was so engrossed in my work that I talked of the people on whom I eavesdropped as if I really knew them. The other day I thought about each and every one of those people who I got to know in that room. I thought about all the stories I heard and all the moments we shared. I would like to dedicate these lines to them. There are people in the real world who do things which would surprise us in the world of fiction. With headphones on and brains alert, they live the life of others without missing a word.
Carla Guimares is a Brazilian writer living in Spain Translated by Czarny Kot 01/03/08 Source: El Pais