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Teaser Part Three: The Interpreter’s Journal: Studying Foreign Languages

The Interpreter's Journal

Studying Foreign Languages…

In the hopes that my journey will help those of you learning Thai, I’m sharing tips on studying foreign languages. Btw – If you’ve missed the first two installments you can get them here: The Interpreter’s Journal: How it Started and Mistakes and Misinterpretations.

My leap into learning languages…

In languages I’ve been lucky to have found an interest that satisfies my intellectual curiosity, gives great pleasure, and also provides me with a very nice way of making a career. People are willing to pay me to help them with something that I regard as fun. Early on, I was attracted to English, then French, Japanese, and Spanish. I’m looking forward to new travel experiences and friendships when I learn to speak Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.

The Interpreter's JournalI was in Grade 5 when I first learned my ABCs in English. I recall the first lesson from my Oxford textbook, which contained the five sentences that all Thai school kids recited and memorized by rote: “This is a chair. That is a chair. This is a book. This is a pen. That is a door.” Our English teacher was Thai, so we copied her English pronunciation with a thick Thai accent. I was excited to learn these sentences because I was on my way to understanding those foreign English letters that started appearing on the TV and on road signs, spelling out the names of products and places. I learned to read and write English in school, but didn’t get to talk to a native English speaker until my encounter with Mike, the American Peace Corps volunteer, when I was fourteen.

There were very few English-language materials available in Yasothon when I started English studies. The textbooks were all based on British English. My first English dictionary contained only a limited number of words. As I started reading short stories and novels in English, and also learned English from pop songs, I couldn’t find many of the words in my pocket dictionary. I had to go to the school library, which had the one large dictionary in town. A few years later, when I was in senior high school, there were more dictionaries with a wider range of English words, which made me quite pleased. Whenever new dictionaries were available, I always bought the biggest one that included the most words, and I listened to English- language audio tapes to become familiar with the proper pronunciation by native speakers.

Around 1980, the English-language materials available in Thailand started to be based on American English rather than British English. “American imperialism” was influencing Thailand economically and culturally, even changing the style of English we learned. Hollywood movies and American pop songs were becoming more popular. Pirated tape cassettes could be had, and juke boxes all over Thailand played the current hits on 45 rpm vinyl records for one baht per song.

I started playing word games in English, like Scrabble, and practiced filling in crossword puzzles, but progress was slow due to the lack of reference materials to check for answers. I improvised by making flashcards with English vocabulary that I studied while waiting for the bus or at the wat before the monks started their chanting. I was lucky to have my dad to question when I got stuck on a word. Any foreigner who crossed my path was fair game to be pestered for conversation or a free lesson.

With all the limitations I faced in learning English, I really envy kids these days. My nieces and nephews in Thailand have many gadgets and communication tools that they could use to learn to speak English, but instead they use them to play video games, text, or chat with their friends in Thai on social networking websites. I had made-up flashcards, but they have TVs, CDs, DVDs, iPods, smart phones, and computers. There are an overwhelming number of books available that would allow them to learn any aspect of any language. There are free lessons and free dictionaries available on the Internet.

Anyone serious about learning a foreign language now has the materials readily available and has the opportunity to learn at a faster pace and more efficiently than when I started.

Tips for learning a foreign language…

If you decide that you’re interested in learning a new language, your first step is to determine the level of competence you’re looking to achieve and what you intend to do with your newly acquired language skills. A few simple phrases for a one-week trip to Paris, or does your interest in Italian cinema motivate you to be able to engage in casual conversations? Do you intend to become a serious student of the language or maybe secure a position as a tour guide or work for a multi-national company overseas? Each of these goals requires a certain amount of time and effort to achieve.

The Interpreter's JournalTo become proficient in any language takes effort, determination, and years of serious study. It never really ends, and there are no real shortcuts. If you see a language book that has “fast,” “easy,” or “simple,” in the title or blurb, beware. It’s just a ploy for you to buy the book.

If you want to advance in any language to a high degree, you have to be able to listen, speak, read and write in that language. A court interpreter has to develop these four skills to a very high degree.

Listening also means comprehending. To become a good listener, pay attention to native speakers and mimic their pronunciation. Try to understand every word they say. When you don’t understand the meaning of a word, check the dictionary or make a mental note to look it up later, or ask somebody who will know the meaning. When looking up a definition in a comprehensive dictionary, also check the pronunciation and etymology, because this helps verify that your pronunciation is correct. It also helps with memorizing the word.

Speaking goes hand-in-hand with listening. Comprehension is necessary, but if you want to make yourself understood, you have to be able to speak. To develop speaking skills it’s necessary to practice as often as you can, especially when you’re starting out. Select someone to practice with who is a native speaker or who knows the language well. Don’t be shy about making mistakes. Mistakes are normal. People make mistakes when they speak all the time, even in their own language. Some people are hesitant to start speaking a foreign language because they’re embarrassed that people will laugh at them. They’d rather practice until they can say a phrase perfectly before they open their mouth. That’s not a good way to learn to speak. Just keep doing it every chance you can. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And native speakers are usually happy to see that you’re at least trying.

Reading becomes important when you want to achieve a higher level of comprehension. When you can read, you’ll be able to advance in any language quickly. Reading helps expand your vocabulary and can help you delve deeper into the thoughts and culture of the native people. When you only speak the language, you’re limited to the knowledge of the people you speak to. But if you can read, you’ll be able to know the thoughts of the Shakespeare or Einstein of that culture. Reading new words ultimately helps improve vocabulary, pronunciation, and long-term memory.

Writing is the most difficult of all the four skills to develop, especially for non-Romanized languages. But this is true even for native speakers of any language. Many students struggle to acquire this skill when they learn a foreign language, since it intimidates them. It requires devotion, patience, and discipline. Most people set their goal to just be able to speak and understand a language; they don’t necessarily want to learn how to read and write, especially when the new language is not Romanized, such as Thai. If you learn how to write in your new language, it will force you to concentrate on each letter, which should improve your pronunciation and help you to retain your vocabulary longer. If you determine that learning to write is more effort than you are willing to put in, at least try to learn how to read the language. The rewards are exceedingly beneficial.

To successfully learn and use a new language, it’s necessary to recognize and memorize lots of new words. With a limited vocabulary, you can’t adequately express your needs or intentions. You need to know about 2,000 words to be able to hold a decent conversation in a new language. You have to keep adding new words to increase your vocabulary, and they have to stick somewhere in your memory. Without a good method to remember new words and expressions, you’re not going to go far in learning any language. Also, your recognition skills will need to be enhanced. You’ll need to recognize new sentence structure, grammar, and exceptions to rules. Just as with exercising any of your muscles, the more you exercise your memory and recognition skills, the more you’ll bulk up on your language abilities.

Another consideration when learning a language is what materials to use. If you want to speak a tonal language like Thai, it’s impossible to learn without having audio examples of the spoken sounds. No matter what language you want to study, make sure that the materials you plan on using are functional and provide sufficient information for you to learn to the level that you’d like. Even if you only want to learn a few phrases of Thai for a two-week trip to Thailand, you’re wasting your money on a phrasebook without an accompanying audio CD.

Raising bilingual children…

One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is to instill in them an interest in languages. Like it or not, we all now live in a global economy, and the ability to speak a second language might be considered superior to, and possibly more useful than, a college education – and is considerably cheaper to obtain. Being able to speak two or more languages will open up new opportunities for young people.

The Interpreter's JournalYou might think that the kids of Thai-Western couples would naturally have the advantage of speaking two languages, but regrettably this is not so. For the most part, children of Thai-Western couples growing up in the US end up speaking English only. Everywhere the children turn, they hear English spoken – on the street, in school, on TV, and from their parents if the Western parent is the more dominant one in the relationship.

To reinforce the Thai language, for example, parents must make a conscious decision to speak Thai within the household, but it’s not easy. I’ve seen many Thai mothers speaking to their children in Thai, but their children reply back only in English. After a while the mothers give up because, after all, they mainly want to communicate with the kids to get them to clean up their room or get their homework done before dinner. Trying to teach them Thai becomes too much work. Eventually the Thai mothers end up speaking broken English to their kids, and then later their kids laugh at them for not being able to pronounce or use words correctly.

The options available to Thai-Western couples are to send their children to the local Thai temple for language lessons each week, and maybe take them to Thailand every year to stay with Thai relatives, and also continuing to speak Thai to the children while they are in the US. If both parents are Thai and living in America, they still have to be conscious to speak Thai in the home, since their kids will pick up English easily on their own.

Another advantage of teaching Thai to their children is that through language it’s possible to teach Thai values and culture. Thais use specific words that are tied to the Thai value system. If you want to teach your children the Thai concept of kreeng-jai (having consideration for others), ka-tan-yu (being grateful to those who have done good to you), or nam-jai (a genuine act of kindness), it’s difficult to explain these concepts in English. Learning to speak Thai provides a gateway into the Thai culture. Just as learning any foreign language will open the door to the soul of its people.

Although it may be more advantageous to begin learning another language at a young age, you can really learn a foreign language and excel in it at any age. The determining factor, I believe, has to do with motivation.

Finding the motivation to learn a foreign language…

I’ve seen religious missionaries with only a few years of Thai-language classes who can speak, read, write, and understand Thai well enough to convert Thai Buddhists into Christians. And I’ve seen firsthand Peace Corps volunteers, trained to speak Thai, performing their duties in remote Thai provinces where very few people spoke English. These adults learned Thai well enough not to just ask for directions as a tourist, but to master it well enough to speak it fluently. These missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers were motivated to learn because it was necessary in order for them to accomplish their tasks or goals. It was a means to an end.

Determining what will motivate you enough to learn a new language is an important first step to actually learning. Vast numbers of people are motivated to learn Asian languages such as Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or Tagalog. In many cases the advantage in speaking these languages is due to potential business opportunities. Other typical incentives for learning would be cultural, education, or religious interests.

From my unscientific observations, I’ve found that a strong motivating factor for people to learn the Thai language is sexual attraction to a Thai person. Many students in Thai-language classes are Western males who want to communicate with their Thai girlfriends and future wives. Even if their girlfriends speak English, some men still want to be able to speak to her family in Thailand. Love can be a strong motivator. It was my motivation when I was dating Jose, my Mexican boyfriend, and I wanted to learn Spanish.

Finding your own powerful motivation will get you excited to start your language studies and keep you going.

The benefits of learning a foreign language…

And once you’ve decided to take up another language, there are many positive benefits when you can speak that new language. Studies have shown that when a student knows a foreign language, it also increases abilities in their native language. It can enhance the aptitude to learn, and the function in other areas of the brain, which can improve test scores. Speaking different languages can be a benefit at social gatherings, too.

Another positive aspect of speaking other languages is an increased awareness of the world around us. If you can read a number of languages, you can appreciate the literature, music, and movies of other cultures. When I see movies in Thai with English subtitles, I’m aware of the misinterpretation that the American audience is getting when the subtitles don’t convey the actual meaning and intensity of the spoken words in the story.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the advantages of learning another language. Not everyone will make a career this way, but you still can enjoy tremendous benefits, satisfying your intellectual curiosity by speaking other languages. It is a joyful and invigorating moment when you can communicate what you want to say in a different language. It makes life much more fun.

Teaser: The Interpreter’s Journal (in three installments):
How it Started
Mistakes And Misinterpretations
Studying Foreign Languages

The Interpreter’s Journal can be purchased at amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy) amazon.co.uk (Kindle), and Paiboonpublishing.com.

Benjawan Poomsan Becker on WLT…

Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Learn Thai with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Review: Three-Way Talking Thai Dictionary: Mac and PC
iPhone App: Talking Thai–English–Thai Dictionary
Thai for Beginners iPhone App

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Teaser Part Two: The Interpreter’s Journal: Mistakes and Misinterpretations

The Interpreter's Journal

The Interpreter’s Journal…

In the first installment you read about my beginnings: The Interpreter’s Journal: How it Started. And now I’ll share a window into what it’s like to be an interpreter.

Mistakes and Misinterpretations…

When an interpreter is working to convey one person’s words into another language, there are many elements conspiring to disrupt the flow of accurate information. The exact meaning of words, slang terms, noise distractions, accents, speech defects, and fatigue can all play a part in interrupting the precise meaning from being communicated.

For words that have multiple, dissimilar meanings, an interpreter needs to be diligent in selecting the most precise word or expression to accurately relate what a person is saying. If you take the word “glass,” it can mean a glass for drinking, a mirror, a windowpane, even a barometer or a spyglass. Try to think of a few common words and write down as many definitions as you can. Then check in a good dictionary, and you might be surprised that you are missing a few meanings.

If I become aware of a mistake during a court session, I attempt to correct it immediately. If someone else is able to determine that I’ve made an error, I always appreciate it if they point it out right away. On a few occasions, the people I’ve interpreted for have understood a sufficient amount of English to notice when I made a misinterpretation, and they have brought errors to my attention.

In this profession, I also know that what I don’t know can be detrimental to my work, so I always look up words that are new to me. I keep note of any unfamiliar words or phrases I hear during court proceedings, or on the radio or TV, and then go straight to a dictionary. Of course, most people don’t make the time or effort to do this, but it’s a necessity in the ongoing education for my work. Mistakes are sometimes very simple because I mishear the word or expression – “sleep walking” as “speed walking,” or “spirit” as “spit it.” Once, I translated “left hand” as “right hand” and “step on the gas” instead of “step on the brakes.” That’s why, in important cases with a lot of lengthy testimony, the court will usually hire two interpreters: one to translate for a period, and one to double check for accuracy.

The most common reasons for misinterpretation are that the interpreter doesn’t understand the source language well enough, the interpreter is unfamiliar with the subject, or the interpreter doesn’t know all the definitions of a particular word. When I first started working in the courts, there were standard phrases that lawyers and other legal professionals used that I was unfamiliar with.

A situation arose in one case when the public defender told my client that she would file a motion to get the case dismissed because the “chain of custody” was broken. I was unfamiliar with this term, and when I heard the word “chain,” I took it too literally, thinking that maybe the defendant had been chained instead of handcuffed while he was in custody. I imagined Johnny Depp in the Pirates Of The Caribbean with a huge cannonball chained to his ankle. So I translated it literally, that the chain used to detain the defendant was broken. The defendant was astonished and replied, “I wasn’t chained, I was handcuffed.” The public defender then explained that “chain of custody” describes the chronological documentation of the evidence, how it is seized, controlled, transferred, and disposed of. In this particular case the evidence had not been properly processed, and this oversight thus constituted grounds for dismissal. Such legal terminology soon becomes part of my working vocabulary and isn’t likely to pose a problem if it comes up again.

As we’ve seen, a few words, or even one word, can change the entire meaning of a person’s testimony and cause misunderstanding, perhaps even catastrophe. It can happen even when you speak the same language. Two people speaking the same language can attribute different meanings to the same word. When two people speak through an interpreter, the third person brings their own meaning to a particular word. Interpreters can’t read your mind. The best they can do is to know the dictionary and common definition of the words used and try to make them fit within the context. But if the two parties don’t attribute the same meaning to the word as the interpreter, it can still cause misunderstanding. Sometimes in the courtroom I cannot hear the source language because there is too much background noise, the attorney might not be speaking loud enough, or two or more attorneys are trying to speak at the same time. Even a chair squeaking or paper rustling can be a distraction. Most people don’t notice these little sounds, but they can make the interpreter miss certain crucial words, especially the word “not.” Now that’s an important one you don’t want to miss.

The people I interpret for are usually quite nervous and uncomfortable in legal settings. Often their speech and enunciation are not as good as when they’re relaxed and talking in an informal context. I’ve also interpreted for clients who were mentally unsound or delirious. That’s difficult to do. Sometimes they ramble back and forth, and little makes sense, or they don’t complete thoughts or sentences. Often the direct interpretation of their statements just doesn’t make sense either. But I have to interpret exactly what they say, not reinterpret and edit for clarity. So as they ramble on in court, I have to ramble along with them – and to some people, this might make the interpreter look incompetent. If the speaker is talking a mile a minute, it’s sometimes impossible to keep up. But often it’s the judge who speaks very fast during an arraignment, a plea, or sentencing. When a judge is reading out jury instructions that are pages long and contain complicated terminology or technical words, it can be an ordeal. If I get too far behind, I have to muster the courage to say, “Your honor, could you please slow down? The interpreter needs some time to catch up.” These are the times that I wish these people spoke or had studied other languages, because they’d then know how hard it is to interpret so rapidly.

Proverbs and colloquialisms can be problematic because they can’t always be easily interpreted correctly on the spot. Some can be quite obscure, but if they are commonly used and I’m familiar with them, it’s usually not a problem. Some, like “keep up with the Joneses,” even have equivalents in Thai. This one translates as “see the elephant crap, then crap as it does.” “Make hay while the sun shines” translates into “when water rises, hurry to fetch it” in Thai. One of the best mistranslations I’ve heard of was a Russian translator trying to translate “out of sight, out of mind” literally as “invisible lunatic.” Technically correct, yes, but it doesn’t convey the intended message. So far I’ve compiled around 400 English and Thai proverbs and sayings into a booklet and audio CD in volume three of my Speak Like A Thai series called Thai Proverbs And Sayings, so I can quote them in either language quickly. However, when it comes to the pressure of court situations, sometimes I can’t think of the exact translation immediately and might have to substitute words or phrases to convey the meaning of the proverb or expression.

There are significant differences in grammar and sentence structure between English and Thai. Often I have to clarify the intended meaning with the Thai or Lao speaker, when they drop the subject pronoun, or need to determine if they mean one leg or two legs, because Thai and Lao don’t have plural forms. Verbs in the past tense and present tense are the same, but adverbs of time are used to differentiate them. Most Thai and Lao speakers omit these adverbs of time because they assume that others already know it from the previous context.

Trained interpreters know when to translate words and when to translate ideas. I’ve heard amateur interpreters translate “today is beautiful” literally into Thai, as “wan-nee suay” – which does literally mean “today is beautiful.” But it sounds odd because that’s not how Thais would say it. Thais would say “today the weather is nice.” If the phrase “did you win (the lottery)?” was translated into Thai, it would have to be changed to “did you hit (the lottery)?”

Slang, epithets, and fad words are another problem to translate on the spot, even when I translate from Thai or Lao. If I’m unfamiliar with a term, or if it seems to be crucial to the testimony, I’ll ask for it to be clarified. I grew up speaking very proper Thai and Lao, and was only taught the Queen’s English in school. It still makes me feel a little uncomfortable when a witness says something like, “You stupid asshole.” In one murder trial that I worked on in San Francisco, the expletive “motherfucker” was heard over and over because it was the key phrase that allegedly caused the victim to be shot to death. At first I had a hard time repeating the term in open court, but during the course of the proceedings I heard it so often that, by the end of the trial, it seemed normal and I had no problem or shame in saying it. I now understand how kids get desensitized to this type of profanity, when they hear words like this used all the time by adults.

It takes years of practice and formal study to become a good interpreter. It’s very competitive because other interpreters also continue to improve their skills. I practice diligently and sometimes go to special interpreting courses in order to be able to continue to interpret at a high level. I know that key words cannot be overlooked because they can have an impact on the outcome of a case. Legal interpretation mistakes can be detrimental and costly to the judicial system, and can be used as a reason to appeal a verdict. Indeed, numerous cases have been appealed because the interpretation has been questioned. The wrong medical interpretation, for example, can be disastrous; serious errors like indicating the wrong medicine or dosage, or the wrong diagnosis, can be cause for a lawsuit.

With so many pitfalls along the way, even well-trained interpreters with the best of intentions can make mistakes. After all, we’re only human. No matter how good we are, we’re not perfect. Some legal assignments are extremely complicated, lengthy, and challenging. Without adequate information to prepare, it can be stressful. If I’m lucky enough to get to know about a case before the interpretation – like being briefed by the lawyer before the assignment – it’s of the greatest benefit to the client and me. However, more often than not, there’s little or no indication what the situation is about, and you have to determine the context as the case proceeds. If it’s a familiar court setting, like a traffic court or family court, I usually have a pretty good idea what will transpire. The best advice I can give to clients is to treat interpreters as valuable members of the team, and to provide them with the back-story and context of the case, so as to allow them to do the best job they can. Every time I make a mistake, I try to learn from it. I hardly make the same mistake twice, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t always new and unexpected problems just around the corner.

In this world of rapid globalization, there are new words, terms, technologies, and systems that appear each day. So much so that it’s impossible to be familiar with everything. That’s why there is a new need for specialized interpreters for esoteric subjects. These interpreters need to know both the language and the subject matter well. If you end up in court, you might need a legal interpreter. If you go to see a doctor, you may need a medical interpreter. If you’re an American property developer applying for a construction permit in China, an interpreter who understands architectural drawings and construction methods, as well as speaks perfect Mandarin and English, will better serve you than someone who speaks the languages only. If you’re in a situation where more than one language is being spoken, it’s important to have experienced, trained interpreters to work for you.

In the legal world, sometimes a brilliant lawyer just isn’t enough to save you. You might also need a brilliant interpreter, too.

Teaser: The Interpreter’s Journal (in three installments):
How it Started
Mistakes And Misinterpretations
Studying Foreign Languages

The Interpreter’s Journal can be purchased at amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy) amazon.co.uk (Kindle), and Paiboonpublishing.com.

Benjawan Poomsan Becker on WLT…

Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Learn Thai with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Review: Three-Way Talking Thai Dictionary: Mac and PC
iPhone App: Talking Thai–English–Thai Dictionary
Thai for Beginners iPhone App

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Teaser Part One: The Interpreter’s Journal: How it Started

The Interpreter's Journal

The Interpreter’s Journal…

Most people know me as an author of Thai and Lao language learning products. But in the United States I also have a flourishing career as a legal and medical Thai and Lao interpreter.

And at long last, I’ve put down the story in my latest book, The Interpreter’s Journal.

In three posts I’ll share teasers: How it Started, Mistakes and Misinterpretations, and Studying Foreign Languages.

I hope you enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it!

The Interpreter’s Journal: How It Started…

“You must be the girl that people told me about.”

She was a beautiful young woman with black hair down to her waist. Her colorful sarong made her a striking sight in the plain surroundings of the restaurant.

“I’m looking for someone to help me,” she said. “And they told me to come here.”

She was in her early twenties, and since I was the younger one, I instinctively greeted her with a wai – hands pressed together, prayerlike – to show respect.

Her words carried a sense of need, and her eyes darted around to see if anyone was within earshot. “I was told that you speak good English,” she continued. “And that you teach kids. I’ve got these letters from my German boyfriend. He’s been writing me in English. I kind of understand them, but I want you to translate them properly for me, and I want you to help me write him back in English.”

Moments before, I’d been in the room above my mother’s simple restaurant in Yasothon, northeast Thailand, studying for my high-school exams, but unbeknown to me, this event would open a new world of opportunity. How could I have known – this smalltown Thai girl of fifteen – that this day would be the beginning of my career as a professional interpreter, and that this chance meeting would, years later, lead me to the Federal and State courts of California?

I learned that her nickname was Oy, which means sugarcane, so I called her Pee Oy because she was older than me. Oy handed me three envelopes, each addressed in precise handwriting, and I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful foreign stamps. I opened each letter and read a paragraph at a time, then translated the meaning into Thai.

The letters were filled with sweet words and promises to take care of Oy. I was lucky because they were quite simple, so I didn’t have any problems with the words. But they seemed the most romantic words I’d ever read, and I must have blushed a bit. I explained softly so that nobody could overhear her story and start gossiping. But after the final letter, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and blurted out, “Sounds like you’ll be going to Germany soon.” Oy looked around to see if anyone had heard. “Yes, he wants me to go to live there. I think he wants to marry me. Can you help me write back? Okay?”

I didn’t need to think for a second. “Sure, I can do that.” As the delicious aromas of Thai cooking filled the air, she revealed to me her hopes, her joys, and her love for her German boyfriend.

I took notes, then excused myself and scurried upstairs to find the special writing paper I’d been given as a New Year present. Only the best paper would do for this letter. Back downstairs, Oy sat in amazement as I composed her reply in English, then rewrote it in my finest penmanship.

After the letter was finished, Oy and I talked for a long time as customers came in, ate their meals, left and were replaced by others. She told me that she had met her boyfriend when she left her village to go to work in the beach resort of Pattaya. I’d heard about girls from the area going to Pattaya and getting jobs. Many of them sent money back to their parents, and it seemed like a good and honorable thing to do.

The Interpreter's JournalI was still quite innocent at this age. I had no idea what kind of work Oy was doing in Pattaya, but I was sure that she had been lucky to meet and fall in love with such a nice man. Her boyfriend eventually had to return to Germany, and had been sending her money so she could stay in her village and not have to work far from her home and family. I believed that he must be a wonderful person to send money and take care of Oy and her family – the kind of thing that earns much respect in Thailand.

Nobody understood English in Oy’s village. That’s why she had to ask around for someone who could help her. And this was the first time I realized that I could “make merit” – do a good deed and accumulate good karma – by helping someone through my language ability.

It also impressed me when Oy handed me 200 baht for the work. With the baht then at eighteen to the US dollar, my first translation job had earned me eleven dollars. It had only taken two hours, and at fifteen years old I had never earned so much money. Wow. A lot of people around there would have to work for days to earn that much. I started to get the idea that this might be a good career to pursue.

I used my newfound wealth to buy audiotapes and English-language books from ads in the English-language Student Weekly. I was inspired, and I set about my English studies more intensely.

Oy came back to see me one more time, about six weeks later, for another translation. It was during Songkran, in April – the traditional New Year water festival – and the hottest time of the year. I came home soaking wet from the water festivities in town, and saw her at one of the tables near the back of the restaurant. She was happy to see me, greeting me with a big smile, animated as she waved a new letter in the air. Yes, she had received a marriage proposal, and wanted to write back with her answer – an emphatic yes. She also wanted to make a note of her dowry requirements.

I never did see Oy again. I assumed she’d worked out all the details and was happily in the arms of her German husband. Not only did Oy provide me with my first translation assignment, she also gave me my first glimpse of a Thai-Western relationship. Before this, I’d never dreamed that a Thai girl could marry a Western man and live in another country.

Teaser: The Interpreter’s Journal (in three installments):
How it Started
Mistakes And Misinterpretations
Studying Foreign Languages

The Interpreter’s Journal can be purchased at amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy) amazon.co.uk (Kindle), and Paiboonpublishing.com.

Benjawan Poomsan Becker on WLT…

Interview: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Learn Thai with Benjawan Poomsan Becker
Review: Three-Way Talking Thai Dictionary: Mac and PC
iPhone App: Talking Thai–English–Thai Dictionary
Thai for Beginners iPhone App

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