Bureaucracy & Belonging (Audio Available)

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!



          There’s a telltale sign I’ve made it, truly made it, here in Brazil. It’s sublime in its unadorned simplicity. Others don’t see it. Foreigners at home in their own foreign lands don’t see it. Locals don’t see it, and those who are directed to it fail to grasp what massive hurdle I’ve laboriously scaled and finally conquered: good old, home-grown bureaucracy. I’ve walked in, dodged the security guard telling me it’s five minutes to closing, made it through five, six, ten lines on three or four separate occasions, argued with the paper-pusher at the local Department of Motor Vehicles and worked my accent-filled charm into a spirited conversation with the scowling civil servant at the office of the notary public more than once, and emerged triumphant – that paper in hand, the residency card now tucked into my wallet, that one last stamp or signature I needed for some now-forgotten reason right there for all to see in clear, blue ink – the indelible mark of localness sambaing through my veins.

          Far more than this country’s healthcare or some random company’s products, what is genuinely cradle-to-grave here is the bureaucracy. If I want to make it here (literally, like if I want to actually have the papers I need to live and work here legally; and figuratively, like if I want to grasp the subtleties of attitude and action so I can interact with Brazilians, not just ex-pats), this is one thing I absolutely need to understand.  It is not enough to just navigate the system or call upon some inner alternate mellow me to keep from blowing up at the guy who keeps writing my name down as a coffee filter brand – Melita, although these are essential skills. If I want the stamps, the papers, and the visa, and if I want it all without a headache or complaining of time lost, and if I want it all without looking disparagingly at the country that has generously taken me in, and if I want to feel genuine gratitude in the process and product, making it means facing the most basic idiosyncrasies of Brazil to the point that I no longer see them as idiosyncrasies (or at least bearable ones). Making it means whittling down my own cultural judgments, smiling as the unassuming guy in the snaking line next to me whistles and my instantly recognizing the tune as the iconic Samba de Uma Nota Só – One Note Samba. Making it means coming home and laughing appreciatively at my most recent, three-hour, exhausting government-office adventure as I ferociously type out how strangely part of my adopted country it made me feel.

          After fifteen years, I guess I really do belong. And if I had any musical skill at all, now is probably when I’d score my Samba de Uma Gringa Só – One Gringa Samba.

Happy words,

* Lest you walk away thinking I have overlooked the universal pervasiveness of bureaucracy, and to catch the five words I will use in next month’s post, read “Bureaucracy Must Die” by Gary Hamel for the Harvard Business Review:


How Do You Do That?

Ask any interpreter what question or comment she hears most often (outside the ones being translated at an event) and, without batting an eye, she’ll respond: “How do you that?” (or, if the person asking is under 30: “Oh my God! How do you that?”). By that, the astonished audience member actually means hearing one language while coherently and engagingly speaking another. And if you deign to ask that person after a long day at a taxing conference, she’ll likely give you the answer she’s pared down to elevator-pitch length, doing her best not to roll her eyes because you are the only thing standing between her and a glass of wine (hypothetical description, of course).

If you want the dirty details, though, you’d best ask on a day she’s not working, maybe even on a quiet holiday morning (just saying). And then you’ll hear not just about how we do that, but what you need to do to help us do that well, things you should never ever do if you want us to successfully do that, the way the goings on of different industries affect our doing that, and why it matters that we’re doing that for you.

This month’s Take It From A Translator is Tom Reaoch, host of Talk2Brazil, interviewing interpreter Melissa Mann about the ins and outs of THAT: hearing one language while coherently and engagingly speaking another. Here’s the listen

Practice Makes Perfect

I was sitting through a presentation last month, suffering for my booth partner who was trying her hardest to make some sense out of the speaker’s intellibish (that’s gibberish mixed with plenty of big words and buzzwords in an attempt to pass for intelligent). Buried somewhere in the talk was some degree of expertise on the matter, but it was painfully hard to tease out. While it is a rare occurrence to face a speaker who does not know what he or she is talking about, all too often we translate veritable specialists who cannot even remotely convey a coherent message.

There are three reasons why speakers who truly know their subject matter still manage to utterly fail their audience: ludicrous speed, poor organization, and verbal crutches. Ludicrous speed means racing through 60 slides in 20 minutes, testing your listeners’ recall skills as the lag between your motor mouth and their normal processing capacity grows with each passing minute. Poor organization means thinking that the fabulous brainstorm of ideas will magically organize itself when you stand up to talk, giving artistic license for the 200 members of your audience to walk away with 200 unique lectures, none of which resembles the story in your own head. Verbal crutches: using more ums, ahs, you knows, likes and like you knows than actual words, prompting your listeners to focus more on your utter lack of verbal dexterity than the content of your discourse.

And there is one foolproof way to avoid all the pitfalls that make even the best expert an utterly ineffective speaker: video practice. Take it from a translator (who sees her fair share of horrible speakers and who has made the embarrassing mistake of not taking her own advice): stand in front of a camera, practice your lecture, observe yourself, tweak. Your audience – in any language – will thank you for a brilliant talk.

Wandering Seasons (Audio Available)

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!


          It’s loquat season where I live – out in the countryside, embraced by rolling hills and sweeping vistas. On my walk, I pick a few straight from their inviting perch and pop them in my mouth without bothering to wash them. The juices from the perfectly ripe fruit dribble down my chin, and I wipe the sticky sweetness onto the shoulder of my worn shirt. I could also pick mangos. There are a good three dozen mango trees in this countryside community and, though their time is winding down, plenty still dot the landscape in all their tempting red and gold splendor. Or native guava, also in season, and so ubiquitous they bring birds of all feathers to the surrounding areas. But as this is loquat’s annual debut, I invite it to center stage and delight in it alone. Next week or next month, it will be another vegetable or fruit. And so on, and miraculously and deliciously so on, year after year.

It has always seemed intuitive to me that nature is an easy access, catch-all cure to half our modern ailments, and certainly the Zen-like key to my finally learning to check my tongue, focus my ideas and time, and be more deliberate in all that I do. I truly feel this or, as Brazilians would say, I feel this on my skin. But my intuition (sample size of one) doesn’t hold a candle to broad scientific findings that everything about being out in nature, from coniferous essential oils used in hospitals to stave off skin diseases, to exercising visual fluency and diminishing the anthrophone so as to strengthen our internal system for reducing stress and heighten our sense of joy through aesthetics, is boundlessly beneficial.

When the opportunity presented itself to keep an apartment in the city but make this masterpiece my home base, I snapped it up. I was starved for the unbound wild of nature. Through love, through marriage, I was invited to tap into this very basic, unmet urge – to regularly replenish myself through the natural world, and I latched onto it like sticky seeds to pant cuffs. It had been fifteen plus years in one or another smoggy, Latin American megalopolis, and three in a rather circumscribed city in the US, for a grand total of twenty years skirting my screaming inner monologue to, please, please, swap out the grays for peaceful variegated greens.

Just shy of two years in the countryside, on the day following a long, moonlit walk scored for a prodigious chorus of frogs and boisterous drum circle of crickets, with special effects from meandering fireflies, I pause to write out a small homage to my home. It’s warm and inviting. It’s peaceful and healthy and generous. I have lived in so many houses and apartments, six cities and three countries; I am frequently asked where I belong; and I shy from pinpointing my physical place. And now, now I find myself joyously falling into the embrace of nature’s exuberance on a near daily basis and recognizing that this same exquisite wholeness is what has washed over me in every hike I have ever taken, in every walk through the woods, all the long runs over dirt roads, and in my earliest memories of my five-year-old self catching fireflies after dusk. The peace of all the thens in nature are now my every day. And home has become the most beautiful word in the world.

Happy words,

* For the science and psychology behind our intuitive need to have meaningful contact with the outdoors, and for the following five words I will use in next month’s post, read “Call to the Wild: This is Your Brain on Nature from National Geographic:

* Bonus: repeat appearance:

How to Become a Generalist

Renaissance (Hu)man

Once we’ve built a solid foundation of technique, we translators and interpreters get to spend much of our days diving into new medical research, following the latest business buzzwords and investment tips, contemplating the intricacies of legal theory (or, in Brazil, the legalities of a political quagmire), and learning about crop science literally on the ground. There are few branches of knowledge where we are not given at least a peek into the complex beauty within. Being generalists, we are precluded from the details and in-depth knowledge of experts, so you’ll often find good translators and interpreters making up for that lacuna by picking up one or another intellectual hobby that allows them to talk about a few subjects of interest for longer than the standard 10 cocktail minutes jokingly associated with our profession. Still, despite the shallow limitations of knowing just a little bit about so many topics… we actually know a little bit about so many topics.

Specialist friends and colleagues, ranging from hedge fund investors to oncologists, express awe that I can talk to them about the state of the art of their line of work (admittedly usually just for those established 10 minutes), and time and again ask how we do it and then how they can do it. I have a standard answer: assuming you’re not blessed with the dizzying professional command to hop from event to board meeting to international conference or to submerge yourself in wide-ranging texts (actually, even if you are), the absolute easiest, least time consuming and fastest way to quench your thirst to become a generalist in these times of omnipresent technology is very simply: listening to podcasts while driving/commuting/traveling.

There are literally thousands, covering all subjects known to modern humankind, many no longer than 30 minutes, all with transcripts online. What follows is a curated list of English-language podcasts, but I would be happy to suggest any one of the many other amazing podcasts I’ve found (in Portuguese, Spanish and English) in the comments section. For the sake of brevity (!), this list does not include podcasts featuring fiction, music or sports.

2DOCSTALK – a 15 minute check-up on current issues in medicine and health policy; A16Z– fintech; ALLUSIONIST – a podcast about language; FARMER TO FARMER – by farmers, for farmers; FREAKONOMICS – the hidden side of everything; GASTROPOD – the science and history behind food; GUARDIAN’S SCIENCE WEEKLY – discoveries and debates in biology, chemistry, physics, medicine and math; HIDDEN BRAIN – the unconscious patterns that drive human behaviour; MEMORY PALACE – short historical narrative; MORE PERFECT – how the Supreme Court got so supreme; PHILOSOPHIZE THIS! – philsophers and schools of philsophy served up by a witty 30 year old; PLANET MONEY – the economy explained; ROUGH TRANSLATION – how things are being talked about elsewhere in the world; SCIENCE VS – what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between; TWENTY THOUSAND HERTZ – the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.

Matters of Laugh & Death (Audio Available)

Big Booth Words is now available in AUDIO! Click to listen along!


          Death may be a rather outré topic to shore up this lapsed blog, but I promise not to dampen your spirits. Some would wax solemnly philosophical to bravely confront the frightening specter of death. Not so my late father. Guided by pragmatism and wit, Dad was wont to allaying the fear of death by regularly asserting deadpan that death is a perfect opportunity for a big blowout. No joke, my father was divinely bestowed with just the right mix of dark humor and foresight to request and then correctly predict that his own funeral actually be a party since “it’s hard enough in life to get everyone together.” And so, I present you with a light-hearted anecdote about my recent comical encounter with the Málach Hamávis (the endearing Yiddish term for Angel of Death).

Last week, while indolently milling about the house pre-coffee, I received a call from an unknown number in Israel. I pressed mute to allow myself time to industriously procrastinate further. But the caller was obstinate, and I intrigued, so I yielded. It was Avraham from the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Administrator General and Official Receiver, Department for the Location of Property Owners and Transfer of Unclaimed Assets to the State, whose soporific voice made it sound like I should not have been at all surprised to be receiving a wake-up call from the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Administrator General and Official Receiver, Department for the Location of Property Owners and Transfer of Unclaimed Assets to the State on my cell phone in Brazil. His monotone recitation of quite possibly the longest job title in existence seemed proof enough that this was no prank call. As fortune would have it, Avraham explained, property in Israel was long ago bequeathed to one Yankel Machonbaum, who may or may not have been my paternal great grandfather, b. 1884, d. 1960, and to which all living heirs, yours included, may now have claim.

Suddenly perfectly alert, I walked Avraham painstakingly through the knotty family tree, which I had meticulously drawn up but a year earlier because – oh the irony! – a childless great uncle Abe had died with a will scrawled on a paper napkin that had never been probated. The lawyer I retained to dig through the red tape on I’ve-Never-Met-You-Uncle Abe, unfortunately for me, did find legal standing to probate a paper-napkin will (translation: no lucky lottery win for me), but, by some twist of fate, I now found myself once again entertaining the possibility that I stood to draw the lucky inheritance card from a real-life version of Monopoly. How’s that for a good party, Dad?

While Avraham droned on (and stressed more than once how unlikely it is that I am heir to Yankel’s gelt), I found myself thinking how completely ironic it would be to make money (dare I say, make a killing?) off two people I had never met and who certainly had no intention of granting me, my father or any living relative so much as a penny. And from there, I asked myself what moral could possibly be drawn from this spiel. Is this a wake-up call to get my affairs in order before Death comes knocking? Maybe this is all happening to ensure I don’t inadvertently become someone else’s Great Grandpa Yankel and let random people benefit from lethal loopholes. Could it be a ghostly message from my father to make my funeral party wishes known in life so surviving family members can make the most of a typically dour situation? Maybe this is just some guilt-inducing sign to finally sit down and fill in all the missing information on ancestry.com.

And then it dawned on me. The prospects of becoming filthy rich were offering me a whole morning of heady amusement. Jauntily though I may have walked off after hanging up with Avraham, I was keenly aware that the thrill of an unexpected financial windfall drew on elaborately imagining my newfound life as a multi-millionaire and not on any likelihood of such a vision materializing. I thanked the deceased for giving me a laugh and prompting me to let my creativity have a good run. And then, none the richer and all the richer, proceeded to go about my day.

Happy words,

* For more happy halloweening in the dead of January and for the five (small booth) words I will use in the next post, read How death got cool from the Guardian:

* Bonus: repeat appearances:

Grandma’s Story

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #20)

This year I’ve pledged to read the most famous work of fiction that takes place in each US state. The list includes a seductive potpourri of classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, East of Eden), fast reads I’d otherwise dismiss (The Shining by Stephen King), and a few publications that will be a harrowing test of my resolve (A Painted House by John Grisham), yet, on the whole, my year in words seems promising. If I do not cop to my usual urge to leap to a new novel almost immediately after finishing another, I should be able to honor my secondary pledge to review all 51 mini-projects (yes, there are still only 50 states; out of reverence for my college years, I included the Washington, DC-based novel as well).

I found myself talking recently with Grandma about this venture (the famous Grandma who had a cameo in this earlier blog post), and her face lit up. She agreed that the current book (The Jungle) must be good because “everything by Upton Sinclair is wonderful” and commiserated at the thought of my having to read Stephen King and inquired fondly of authors she respected but who did not make the cut. This went on for some time. Then she paused, and in the quiet I tried to interpret her guileless, 92-year-young facial expressions forming and vanishing as she silently pondered a lifetime of words.

Her still blue eyes are now weak, and she misses the days when reading words did not equate to physical strain. I suggested audio books, which she peremptorily rebuffed: to Grandma, there is a look and feel to grasping a “regular old” printed book; there is the distinct smell of a new book, or a book on loan, or a book fortuitously pulled off an under-dusted shelf. The printed book invites our eyes to dance across pages and to delight in the subtle waft of air formed by ruffling back a page or a chapter; its weight and spine (paper or hard) force our hands and arms to bend or contract to accommodate; its font bespeaks whatever the typesetting trend at the time of publication. To Grandma, and I’d imagine to a great many, the printed book is a temptress, an impressing (pun intended) minx, a siren whose song lures more than audible books and echoes far deeper than e-readers or other digital screens that numb us with their extraterrestrial glow.

I find solace in books, whatever the format, and had made my suggestion of audio books in hopes that Grandma could latch onto the same sense of general reading pleasure I derive from my digital experience and not lose all claim to her precious pastime. But Grandma was obdurate; she understood perfectly well why I am partial to listening to fiction or traveling with an e-reader, but she merely smirked when she saw that I didn’t seem to comprehend why she was against abandoning printed books in favor of something new. It took me another two days of reflecting to grasp the depth of Grandma’s spurning my well-meaning recommendation. Her strongest argument had been in those priceless seconds of silence, when she was not referring at all to mere books, when the flickering  of her near-blind eyes was actually offering me a speechless narrative, gently revealing to me that life’s best stories can never truly be adapted to other formats.

Happy words,

*** From a 2015 article in the New Yorker that opened my eyes to the profession of bibliotherapist, here are five words to bring into the booth:
— from Ceridwen Dovey’s “Can Reading Make You Happy

So Nu? Who Are You?

So Nu? Who Are You?

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #17)

Late last semester, I had the opportunity to interpret a lecturer who spoke the language of my childhood, which is not English. Well, not exactly. Or not so narrowly. I grew up speaking an English generously peppered with words from two other languages (Yiddish and Hebrew), patently molded by the cultural mindset of American Jews, and uttered with the telltale lilt of an Ashkenazi Jewish community now well-established in metropolitan pockets mostly along the coastal United States. It has a beauty, a timbre and a doleful humor all its own.

I hear this language infrequently now, the attenuated strains of a once-ubiquitous cant. Like most of my assimilated generation, I have moved off (our unofficial sections in big cities), moved on, moved away. And with the moving, I – we – have doggedly doffed the verbal garb of parents and grandparents. (The irony has not escaped me that one even older trait of this culture-cum-language-cum-religion, the endless wandering since Biblical times, remains so ingrained as to have sardonically trumped the attempts of all of us less religiously observant to neutralize our childhood Northeast-US-Ashkenazi-Jewish-sons-and-grandsons-of-immigrants-and-of-Holocaust-survivors English.)

I wax mildly wistful now when I hear it, on those exceedingly rare occasions I do: when I meander in one or another Jewish enclave and listen in on conversations, or stick around for a shala shudis and hear fellow Jews expound on the weekly Torah portion, sometimes at weddings and sadly at funerals too. What once seemed an irritating revelation of geography, upbringing, social class and culture is now something I appreciate for the intimate understanding, and thus (noisy) comfort, it  affords. And I see, years later, in an interpreting booth 7,700 kilometers from my hometown, that to some extent what framed my childhood still frames my adulthood.

Happy words,

*** A short article by Maria Popova to contemplate who we truly are and how our personalities change over time, with five words (in befitting context) to bring into the booth:<


— from “What Is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality

Fueling the Feeble Mind

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #19)

….musings at just over 23 hours into a full day of fasting…. I don’t merely keep silent on the countless thoughts I entertain on a regular day; nine times out of ten, I brush them off entirely. Quixotic at best (“what if I set up an online board for interpreters to see which event planners, agencies, shady professionals and all out gonifs stiff interpreters on pay?”), supremely mundane at worst (“can I get away with wearing these jeans once more before washing?”), most of my thoughts come crashing in and go scurrying out in a matter of seconds. I dwell only where sentiment is involved (and then, I sheepishly admit, I brood, holding hour-long conversations with myself about all the witty retorts I could have made but didn’t to that dolt at the immigration office (ahem, ahem)).…

But today the thoughts, the explicably meager few, are lingering. Since early morning, they’ve been jutting out beyond the habitual limit of disregard, and, despite a few activities that would otherwise let occupation trump contemplation (some gardening, some Facebook scrolling, some home improvements), they’ve laid down roots. Nothing more profound or less profound than the usual, just thoughts – thoughts latching with strange and peculiar zeal. Hardheaded, in every which way.

Fasting is actually not too hard on the body, but day-to-day I cloak myself in physical comforts, so it is indeed hard on the mind. The denial of victuals that fuels my sense of hunger (23 hours, 30 minutes, by the way) has a more tenacious grasp on my mind than does the actual food that could allay the reality of an empty stomach. And I sit here, typing, pondering, mentally bucking the pangs brought by the idea that I am not satiated with the enervated knowledge that I have enough fat stored in my body for three times this experience. And so it is that Nourishment and Satiety have become the underlying, incessant, ironic, obvious, obstinate thought of my day.

By the last minutes of the fast, what grips me is how often the other 364 days a year I do not explore the limits of what nourishes my mind. Or… I fuel my mind from the automatic base of physical satiety and rarely let non-emotionally charged thoughts settle in and hold tight. It’s not that I don’t think on non-fast days (obviously), it’s that I don’t think nearly as deliberately when I feed the part of me that cries the loudest before I nourish the part of me that cries the deepest.

My Jewish New Year’s resolution is to spend this year carving out more days to heed and then indulge the muffled recesses of longer, sweeping, earnest thoughts, independent of whether they be singularly unsophisticated or exceedingly intricate.

{In case you were wondering, I waited two days to review these reflections to make sure I wasn’t sending out a hallucinatory post, as eccentric as this rambling might be.}.

Happy words,

*** From the book review “Emma Donoghue’s Art of Starvation” in The New Yorker, here are five words to bring into the booth:



— from “Emma Donoghue’s Art of Starvation

On Running, Rushing and Rolling On

Dear English-B Interpreter Friends,

(First, my letter to you to using words from Post #18)

Last week
My (new) nephew came rushing into this world with inexplicable pressing urgency ten days before his due date, and we rendezvoused briefly over the internet hours after the well-deserved pomp of his arrival. It was a fleeting video chat, a precursor to a week that went from walk to trot to canter to gallop in short order. To keep me on my toes, variegated interpreting assignments included coliform, city planning and cerebral tumors. Smack in the middle of my booth-and-mic madness, I spent a day at a corporate acting job where I was wryly tasked with getting fretting candidates in a simulation exercise to squirm but not snivel during my unforgiving English-language mock interview. At one point in the week, I nearly ran out of gas along a solitary stretch of road flanked by endless sugarcane fields and no place to fill up in sight (reminding me – since happenstance makes for a good story – of the time I managed to get lost in the mud-soaked trails snaking through uncut sugarcane already 75 kilometers into my first ultramarathon four years ago). And on one day of what turned out to be a rather adventitious week, in exactly 20 minutes: I dropped off my car, hightailed through a parking lot, hurtled through an airport, careened up and down a flight of stairs, hastily sweet-talked the ticket agent to let me cut a massive line – all at a speed befitting an Olympic sprinter – and helter-skelter squeaked through a last call for boarding, collapsing in a profuse sweat in my assigned middle seat on the day’s last flight out to my destination. And now, having debunked the façade of being a good planner and well collected in general, I have begun frantically type out this digest while flying back home. Draw the curtains on this most motley week and cue…

This week
I am now seated at the federal police station located at the outlying airport (and having outed myself as the living version of Mr. Topsy-Turvy, it should come of no surprise that I arrived here two documents short of what I needed and had to trudge back into and out of the city to produce what will ultimately serve as file stuffers and dust collectors, that I had to look for two ATMs to take out money, that I had to work through the notary line twice because I forgot to photocopy one page of a passport that is no longer valid, that I had to convince the valet to watch my car at the notary while I found a place a few blocks away to take my morning mug shot, and (as the cherry on the cake) that I had to negotiate the cost of my cellphone repair because I had broken my phone precisely twenty-four hours after the previous repair). Also true to character, while sitting on uncomfortable waiting-room chairs, occasionally looking up to face the utterly unadorned walls of a government agency, I am smiling. It is my great fortune that my happiness does not at all hinge on outsmarting Brazilian bureaucracy, reconciling São Paulo traffic with airport schedules, knowing in advance when meetings will occur, or ensuring never getting lost among sugarcane fields (not that mastery of this omnibus skill set wouldn’t be most welcome in my life). To be sure, the cycle of running, rushing and rolling on underpinning the daily events of my life this week and last proved just a slightly (ok, substantially) more acute manifestation of my usually spirited approach to life. And as long as I can laugh (at myself) a shade more than I fret, I hold to the belief that these usual day-to-day adventures will continue to unfold in all their mysterious and masterful serendipity.

Happy words,

*** From this fascinating NYT article that weaves together the science, the culture, the joy and the oddness of running and racing, here are five words (in context) to bring into the booth:


— from “Man vs. Marathon