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EDITOR’S NOTE: In the most recent installment of “Greatest Women in Translation,” a monthly section of Carol’s Adventure in Translation, Caroline Alberoni interviewed Angela Levy, a pioneer in the translation and interpretation industry in Brazil. Angela was PLD’s Distinguished Speaker at ATA’s 55th Annual Conference in 2015, which took place in Chicago. You can also read Angela’s profile posted here after the event.
1. In your interview to Programa do Jô (a Brazilian talk show), you mentioned you learned English by yourself. How did you manage to do it at a time learning resources were limited?
It’s an interesting story. My father was one of the many lawyers who worked for the Consulate and was a very close friend of American Consul General Cecil M. P. Cross, during World War II. The consul came to my home one Sunday, to give my father a lift because they were going to Santos for a Luncheon at Ilha da Palmas. The consul was early, my father was still getting prepared to leave, still dressing, etc… – and asked my sister, Anna Maria, and myself to “entertain” Cecil till he came downstairs. We were elated at the prospect: we had seldom been with the consul, but we had always loved the English language and anyone and anything that came from the States, so rejoiced at the chance of a conversation with Mr. Cross. He was a very nice, even – tempered, accessible man, and we told him we would like very much to learn to speak English, but our father would not let us have lessons. And he asked why the “Big Bad Wolf” (his nickname for my father) was being so much against our plans, and we explained it was because we were studying at a school (I was 14 and my sister 15) where we spent all day (from 7 am to 5 pm – including Saturdays) and he would let us have English classes when we were through our entire course, because then we would have time to study. And Mr. Cross said: You look as intelligent and resourceful as your father, and I’d like to make an official bet with the two of you: sign a paper stating that in one year’s time you will be speaking English as well as I do! We were game, he asked for a “nice leaf of paper”, and drew a contract, very “official looking”, stating: The undersigned, Cecil M. P. Cross, etc., etc. and the two of us (complete names, of course…) would do exactly that (explaining the bet, of course…). The three of us signed the document – which he put in his folder – and we said : “Thank you, sir”! He answered: There’s more: promise me you will not say one word about this agreement to your dad, your mom, your other sister or anyone else, anywhere else. This is between the three of us only. You promise? We did, my father came down the stairs and they left, leaving the two of us completely speechless, frightened to death of the promise we had just made, wondering how to go about it, where to start… The month was February, we were on summer holidays from school, and the first thing we did on Monday was to go downtown and scout for a book which could help us. The only thing we found (it was war, and imported books were hard to find) was The Pocket Book of Basic English. We bought it and, to our dismay, found nothing in it that we hadn’t learned in school (very basic, indeed…). So we put our minds to work, and decided to try unusual methods: movies, and American songs (we could sing a few, lyrics and all, but without understanding a word…). So we went on Tuesday to Cine Metro, on Avenida São João (now, of course , demolished), to watch “Two Girls and a Sailor”, starring Gloria De Haven, June Allison and Van Johnson… In the 2 pm show we watched the film and read the subtitles and, I can tell you that was the last time in my life when I read subtitles! The next show at 4 pm, we only watched the movie, without reading the subtitles, knowing the story from the first show and paying attention to what was being said (and not understanding about 95% of the words, I confess…). We watched that movie about 6 times during the week and also started memorizing the words to songs, and trying to write them down (in a very broken, misspelled English…). The next addition to our venture was pronunciation, because we found an old book, Pronunciation of American English Words for Brazilians, in my father’s library, at home.
This program of ours went on and on. We joined a correspondence club, “The Caravan of East and West”, and started to receive so many letters, from English Countries, that my father, without knowing the whys and wherefores of that “ocean” of strange letters in our home mailbox, decided to rent a post-office box for the two of us…
We belong to a very musical-linguistic family, and people say this natural ease that we have to learn sounds and imitate them perfectly (Japanese, German, whatever…) is rooted there.
The next step was showing people that we could speak the language. Here, we had the help of 2 cousins, who did not understand our all-encompassing desire to learn English perfectly, but decided to come along in our bold shopping expeditions. We would enter nice-looking shops, pretended one of us couldn’t speak Portuguese and wanted to buy some items, and one of the other three would translate the choice into English and then back to Portuguese to the saleslady. It worked, and everyone was nice to us…
Well, the happy ending to my story, I’m proud to say, is that, exactly one year after that famous contract was signed, we went to the American Consulate: two very tall Marines were guarding the door and we said to them we wanted to talk to Mr. Cross, and they asked if we had and appointment with him. I said no, we didn’t, but we have just arrived from the States and our father (we had adopted the names Suzy Badminton, from Sun Valley, Idaho, for me; and my sister was Judy Wilkins, from Chicago, Illinois), and both our fathers were very good friends of Mr. Cross, and we had an important personal message for him. The marines were baffled at first, we insisted and told them that Mr. Cross would be mad at them if they didn’t let us in. One of them called Mr. Cross’s secretary, she came down and brought a list with names of all Americans (very few – it was war, remember?, 1943, and we were teenagers) who were expected here and of course didn’t find our names on it. She asked why we wanted to see the consul and we repeated that we had a personal important message for him and would she please ask him to come and see us? She asked who were our fathers and I said: Please, tell him that “The Big Bad Wolf” has sent us, and she got really mad and said: Do you expect me to give this ridiculous message to him? I said: “Yes, miss, and I’m sure he is expecting us. It’s a secret message.” She was dismayed, but took us upstairs, asked us to wait and went to get the consul. He came walking very fast and, when he saw us he asked: “Oh! It’s you, what can I do for you?” (all this in English , of course – and, believe me – he didn’t notice we were speaking English…). We asked if he remembered the contract we had signed a year before, and he said: “Good Lord, you are speaking perfect English!” I answered we had learned from the “Big Bad Wolf” to always keep our promises, no matter how hard it could be… We had a nice little chat with him and he suddenly got up, saying: “I have to tell the Wolf about this miracle!” I begged him not to, because our father would be furious, and we’d be grounded for months… He said he would just ask our father to come and see him, and would not mention us. He did that, my father’s office was quite near, he asked Mr. Cross if it was important, he said yes, our father came (of course he had free entrance to the Consulate), went up to the 2ndfloor and, when he saw us, he asked, in Portuguese, of course, looking very mad: “What on earth are you two doing here?” Mr. Cross said to him to forget we were there because he wanted to talk to him. They started a chat, and Mr. Cross, little by little, included us in the conversation; they continued to talk (now the four of us) and as it had just happened with Mr. Cross, it took my father about 2 minutes to “register” that we were speaking English… When he did, he was speechless at first but then exclaimed: “You are speaking English! How come?” We told him about the contract, Mr. Cross went to get it out of his files, showed it to “The Wolf”, who read it through, and came out with the shortest comment ever: “Well, I’ll be damned!…”
2. You are the pioneer of simultaneous interpretation in Brazil. How was your first experience in simultaneous interpretation?
My sister was the “Cultural Affair Specialist” at the American Consulate for 18 years but, before that, the two of us worked and taught at União Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos, the official binational center in São Paulo at that time, before Alumni was founded. One fine day (May 8, 1950, to be precise), the American Consul came to see us and said: “I have a job for the two of you”. I always answered, every time I was asked that question, “I’m game”, even before being told what the job was. And he said: “It’s for tomorrow morning and you’ll be doing the same thing you do for us here: when they speak English, you translate it into Portuguese, and vice-versa. But he omitted the only word that we really needed: si-mul-ta-neous-ly… He then asked us to be at Automóvel Clube, on the corner of Viaduto do Chá and Libero Badaró – then the seat of that club – the following day, at about 10 am, “to test the equipment.”
On our way there the next morning (May 9, 1950), we were wondering what he had meant by “test the equipment”, since in our work at UCBEU the only equipment we used were two mikes – one for the speaker and one for us, for the translation (I had never heard the word “interpreting” connected with translation). “We’ll soon find out” I said. Getting there we asked for “Jack, the technician”, as the consul had told us to do. He came and I said, trying to sound very efficient: “We are the translators sent by the American consul”. He answered: “Oh! The interpreters! Come, let’s test the equipment.” And I asked him the question which betrayed me: “What equipment?” He looked “panic-striken” and asked: “But you are interpreters, right?” I answered in a flash: “Not yet, but we learn very fast…” The poor man had no choice, for the banquet was set to begin at 1 pm, and it was already 11 am. So he said, resignedly: “All right, then who is first?” I was the bold one and so I said: “I am”. He seated me at a very small table, covered with wires and strange looking apparel, handed me a pair of earphones so heavy that when I tried putting then on, my chin fell on the table and I almost broke my front teeth. And he added: “Take good care of this pair, it’s the same one used by the Japanese admiral when he surrendered to Gal. MacArthur, on Tokyo Bay, in 1945…” I was totally lost, and asked: “What am I supposed to do? How do I go about it?” And he answered: “Simple! They will start: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to’ – and you, POOM!” “I what?” I asked, horror-striken… “You start with the Portuguese, of course… always half a sentence behind the speaker.” Incidentally, that was the first and only lesson I learned about simultaneous interpreting from somebody else. All the others I learned by “banging my head against the wall” – meaning always experimenting, groping for answers to the ever-present problems with words and all that never before I had faced.
Well, the event started, it was a banquet for over 200 people, the introduction of IBM to Brazil. And our small table was placed right in the center of the room, where we could hear everybody’s voices, and the waiters shouting: “João, água na mesa 3”, and things of the sort, all the time… I don’t remember most of what I heard and had to say, but I do remember thinking: “I like this job, but this work cannot possibly be done this way, with all the noise around the interpreter…” And, zaz! I learned, by myself, my second lesson when I realized I had missed 2 sentences during my thinking spell: Don’t think of anything but the words that come to you through the earphone..
Of course, I must have made millions of mistakes, but I also got many things right, because Jack (the technician) left me a nice message, which I still have with me: “You had me worried at first, but you finished like a veteran.”
My sister said she never wanted to ever hear about or be near that “factory of loonies”, but I loved it, and went on to research how this was done in developed countries – for one thing was certain to me: real interpreters couldn’t ever work in a small table smack in the middle of the guests, the public, whoever was supposed to be listening (at this important event, there were only 9 speakers – 3 Americans, 6 Brazilians).
Now, about how I discovered the existence of booths is another story, which I will keep for some other time.
3. You are co-founder of Alumni and was coordinator of the school’s Translation and Interpretation course, having trained most of the market’s professionals. What are the most important lessons you used to give your interpreting students?
Well, besides the classes, the practice and the constant “pushing ahead”, these are the most important lessons―or rather advice–I give them; and of course, suggestions on how to accomplish them:
- Study your A and B languages every day;
- Learn something new every day in the work areas of your choice (Law, IT, Medicine, Engineering, Technical or any others you’re trying to specialize in);
- Always keep in mind that you’re not just a trained parrot or, in translation, a simple scribe, but a transformer of the language being spoken – or read into another totally different cultural universe, a different society with different habits, rules of etiquette and choice of words for different areas, social classes, cultures, etc.;
- Develop your sense of intuition;
- Develop your reflexes: keep them always present and preferably exalted;
- Develop your power of concentration;
- Develop your spirit of analysis and synthesis;
- Do memory drills every day;
- Develop a mammoth intellectual curiosity;
- Live all your life with an absolute intellectual honesty;
- Develop an all-encompassing sense of tact and diplomacy;
- Always maintain a professional attitude, however baffling the situation may be;
- Never accept to interpret or translate a subject, theme or ideology that goes against your innermost life principles;
- Tips on dress codes for beginners.
4. You are 87 years old, with more than 60 years of experience in the market. How do you keep your professional skills in shape?
I’m 87 now and in December will turn 88. I still teach all my classes at Alumni, which is a great help in keeping my mind alert. I still do my memory drills and try to do simultaneous when I watch the News on TV. And I have a Translation/Interpreting agency with one of my daughters and my granddaughter, who is already showing great talent in both T and I. I take care of the English part of translations for our clients, but simultaneous I’ve left to my students and younger colleagues and, specially, to my granddaughter, Luiza.
5. In your interview to Diálogo Nacional, you said your dad was really important and marked your infanthood. Why?
Because he was a man ahead of his time in every way, and his influence marked not only my childhood, but also my adolescence and my adult life, until his death in 1952, when I was expecting my first child. He was self-taugh in English, Spanish and French. Contrarily to my schoolmates’ dads, he had long talks with his daughters (not only with sons, which was customary then), commented the daily news with us every day, taught us to write poems and articles on interesting subjects, to like opera and classical music, to sing opera bits, folksongs and, along with my mom, was always there for me and my sisters, when we needed advice, suggestions and help, or needed a good scolding…
6. You say a translation/interpreting university course is not enough to properly prepare a professional. Why not?
I’m all for young people going to University, but, in my experience, at least in Brazil, translation-interpreting courses teach too many subjects which won’t be of any help in their professional career and too little of those which they will need badly in the future. Of course, in great part, the guilt lies with the official education curriculum, which they are bound to and forced to obey. But the worst feature of all is that Universities are obliged to accept all candidates who pass the entrance exam, and I personally think it’s quite impossible to prepare T/I professionals in classes with 40 or more students. Still, I always say that a university course accustoms the student to the habit of research and a methodic style of studying; hence it is very important in the professional preparation of T/I students, regardless of the main area of their study.
CAROLINE ALBERONI operates Alberoni Translations and updates her blog Carol’s Adventures in Translation, which was nominated a Top 25 Language Professional Blogs by Bab.la. She translates from English and Italian to Brazilian Portuguese and specializes in IT. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation Studies (English and Italian) from UNESP (Universidade Estadual Júlio de Mesquita Filho) and a Master’s Degree in Translation Studies with Intercultural Communication from the University of Surrey (UK).