There’s no satisfaction in chewing someone out through an interpreter.

May 17, 2006

I’ve heard our Lao interpreters laugh and talk while they were resting in hammocks. You could hear their voices over the rumble of a chainsaw. But when I get angry, raise my voice, and expect my interpreter to pass my emotions along to a deserving recipient, he’ll use a voice appropriate to an American library, funeral home or putting green. I’m looking for the satisfaction of a verbal brawl; all I get is a whisper that suggests someone is telling secrets and I’m the one who doesn’t know. There is absolutely no satisfaction in chewing someone out through a Lao interpreter.

Here’s how it usually plays out. When I realize that my interpreter has filtered out the spice of my language and the spirit of my argument, I feel compelled to repeat myself and have him interpret my message again. (And get it right this time!) So, I scold again, but at a higher decibel level. I usually carry on longer too, because now some worthy embellishments have come to mind. When my interpreter delivers my second tirade in a voice smaller than the first, the person who prompted my initial anger now has a free pass. In fact, at this point my only desire is to strangle my interpreter who, to be fair, has absorbed all my wrath and now suffers among the walking wounded.

I’ve heard teammates shout: “Don’t interpret what I say! Just translate it word for word.” Of course our interpreters cannot do that. The Lao language is incapable of expressing all of our Western ideas and values, especially those related to aggression, hostility and anger. Eventually, after we regain our senses, we appreciate that while our interpreters often deprive us of momentary satisfaction, they save our skins by making our outbursts appropriate for Lao sensibilities.

My boss tells the story of how his interpreter diplomatically informed him of how the Lao people would receive a tongue lashing. “You are lucky”, the interpreter said, “In your culture you can tell people what you really think. You can get angry. If a Lao person did that, we would teach our children to hate him!”

It’s not just a Lao thing. Throughout Asia it is a commonly held value that it is extremely rude to show anger in public. On our flight to Laos last March, we had to overnight in Bangkok, Thailand. Bright and early the next morning, I was at the airline service counter hoping to work out a solution to a hitch in our itinerary. A European couple across the way either had a bigger problem than anyone else in the lobby, or they had the least ability to contain their anger.

The man stormed and raged. He gestured wildly as he paced along the service counter. When his voice achieved a menacing tone, his wife hastened to his side. I expected her to calm him, to gently bring some perspective to the situation. Instead, like a tag-team wrestling partner, she jumped into the fight. As he boomed, she shrieked.

As this play continued, I realized that we, the audience, had helped add drama to the scene. Throughout the service center all work had stopped; all conversation had ceased. Every man, woman, and child was struck silent. The only voices to be heard were those of the fearsome couple who didn’t have a clue about anger in Asia or, just didn’t care.

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