The Accidental Protagonist: Book Review


Endearing, controversial, genuine or stereotypically mean, a relatable character is key to any book plot. It helps if the protagonist’s life is eventful and glamorous, or if her job is somehow awe-inspiring or tinged with a hint of mystery. Add a drop of mischief and intrigue, some eavesdropping and world-changing encounters, and the magical spell is cast.

Perhaps partially for that reason, a growing number of works in literary and cinematic fiction that have recently hit the big screen and bookstore shelves revolve around conference interpreters. Interpreters seem to have a spellbinding effect on people.

This perplexity at one’s apparently magical ability to hear speech in one language and render it orally into  another, in real time, is akin to the fascination people experience when watching an illusionist’s show. You know a trick is being performed, you just don’t know exactly how. Eventually, you agree to temporarily suspend your disbelief and give in to the fantasy, lest the thrill should fade away.

In time, conference-goers get a handle on the mechanics and training that make it all possible, and the amazement gradually wears off. At that point, their curiosity, once confined to practical and linguistic aspects, slowly gives way to a different type of speculation surrounding the true identity of the men and women behind those evanescent, faceless voices.

Hitting the Shelves and the Big Screen

book      book      book     interpreter

That secondary fascination has gained traction with a much broader audience in recent years, as more writers and playwrights explore the peculiarities of these linguistic mediators. Most of the works employ the cloak and dagger approach. Take the example of Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter, which was not only a box office hit but the first to be filmed at the UN headquarters in New York, a privilege previously denied to Hitchcock.

In this highly suspenseful film the protagonist, played by Nicole Kidman, is a United Nations interpreter who inadvertently eavesdrops on a plan to assassinate the odious dictator of her imaginary African country. Before long, she becomes the target of the very conspiracy she accidentally uncovers, and spends the rest of the film running for her life—or making out with the cop assigned to protect her (sure, a little love never hurts).

Slightly more realistic and specific, but still in the realm of fiction, is the book by Suki Kim, also called The Interpreter. Kim’s novel centers on the life of a young Korean interpreter who uses her work to unearth details of her own upbringing. Here the investigation turns inward, in more of a psychological thriller. And in a third book sharing that same title, Suzanne Glass—who was once a conference interpreter—explores the ethical issue of professional secrecy, exposing the drama of Dominique, who learns of a plan to conceal a possible cure for AIDS while interpreting at an international conference. More espionage and mystery.

Another novel, The Mission Song, by Britain’s John le Carré, features Bruno Salvador, Salvo for short, a competent interpreter of African languages, including Swahili. In a book filled with interesting insights about interpreting and the nature of languages, le Carré graces us with yet another thriller.

Rounding out the action-packed circuit of political intrigue is Bel Canto, by American novelist—and former opera singer—Ann Patchett. Modeled on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, a group of jet-setters and diplomats gathered for a private opera performance find themselves besieged by terrorists bent on killing the president of an unnamed South American country.

Once the captors realize the president is not in attendance, hours of negotiation and bonding ensue, led by Gen Watanabe, the personal interpreter for a visiting Japanese mogul, who rather conveniently seems to master every language being used in the room, including the terrorists’. The bad guys end up dead, as does Gen’s boss. The interpreter saves the day, and gets to marry the opera star. Sorry to have spoiled it for you.

But perhaps the most interesting work of fiction to indirectly address the work of interpreters breaks away from the espionage genre. It is, rather, a love story. According to the author, Nobel-laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, a modern romance, as symbiotic and neurotic as the world is today and closer to reality than the stereotypical literary romantic love.

The Bad Girl

The Bad Girl (or Travesuras de la Niña Mala, trans. Edith Grossman), tells the adventures and misfortunes of Ricardo Somocurcio, a Peruvian in love with a woman whose ever-fleeting love he seeks over four decades on three continents. The book avoids the cliché that has interpreters cruising the world as international negotiators while rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.

No more covert meetings in London, New York, and Davos. Forget the occasional world-saving incursions into wild African hamlets and exotic Asian destinations. Vargas Llosa’s interpreter is a rather simple, undecided, almost naïve man. Not the type one would expect to weigh in on negotiations that could seal the fate of the planet. He’d be lucky to sort out his own love life.

Ricardo does travel the world and lives in Paris as a staff interpreter for UNESCO. But that is as far as the stereotypes go. His lover, a textbook sociopath—with all the endearing charm that entails—pushes him around and leads him by the nose while exhibiting a shameless derision for interpreting, which she dismisses often as that “profession of phantoms.”

In the words of Lily, the novel’s gold-digging femme fatale, Ricardo is “nothing but an interpreter (…) someone who is only when he isn’t, a hominid who exists when he stops being what he is so that what other people think and say can pass through him more easily.”

Vargas Llosa, a globetrotting writer who once doubled as a politician and presidential hopeful in his native Peru, has certainly been exposed to interpreters countless times in the course of his career, despite his mastery of Spanish, French, and English. That allows him to cut through the cliché with critical reflections on the impersonal and at times frustrating nature of an interpreter’s job. The result is a relatable, if wimpy, main character one can root for.

In a progression that is typical of many first and second-generation interpreters, Ricardo starts his career as a translator and gradually teaches himself interpreting, thus adding another few notches to his belt. He proceeds in fits and starts, facing enormous difficulties in landing his first gigs as an interpreter, in a professional circle that is a lot tighter than that of translators, and where the professional associations “admit new members sparingly.”

A tale of thwarted passion, The Bad Girl also offers a good overview of the social and political transformations that have taken place in Europe and, above all, in Latin America in recent years, as seen through the creative eyes of Vargas Llosa, one of its real-life protagonists. All of it served up with a certain lyrical detachment, good touches of humor, and the bitter reminiscences of someone who realizes he may not remember any of the millions of words he has had to translate, “because not a single one deserved to be remembered.”

This article did not start as a book review, but Vargas Llosa’s rich and agreeable prose is worth praising, if anything for avoiding the stereotypes and easy suspense formula. And, while dwelling on some of the less flattering nuances of an interpreter’s craft, and on the silly mistakes we all make when in love, his realistic assessment of what defines us as interpreters or lovers is refreshing, in a society where sugarcoating and instant celebrities have sadly become the norm.

Originally published in the  Source, ATA Literary Translation Division. Winter, 2017.
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Do you know of any other book where interpreters play a key role?
Have you read any book mentioned here?
Here’s my book about interpreting, by the way.

2 thoughts on “The Accidental Protagonist: Book Review

  1. Corazón tan blanco by Javier Marías, A Heart so White, in Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation, contains a hilarious scene where the interpreter, violating all the codes, says what he thinks the head of state should be saying. It’s a wonderful novel.

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