Giuseppe T. Gervasio: Interpreter Today, Tomorrow – Who Knows?

Translating the Untranslatable – part 2: What underwear (doesn't) say.

(Translating the Untranslatable – part 1)

Ah, underwear, daily life's sweet sorrow. As you wake up, after the shower: the rite of opening the wardrobe and explore in search of underwear, as if exploring an interdimensional portal to another galaxy – a parallel universe of unlikely hues, stretch or things, impossibly elaborate ornaments and unbearably tacky patterns. No one can escape this daily rite... unless you work in the porn industry, where underwear is banned as not to leave marks on the skin... or so I'm told! Now, getting back to the article's headline: do you think underwear speaks? And if so, what does it say? Do they need an interpreter? My answer is: absolutely yes! Consider how they call to you when you're getting ready for work: you'll be immediately drawn to the most comfortable pair; when you go to the gym, you gravitate toward simpler designs just in case you end up under the eye of your peers; and what about underwear for a romantic date? The underwear you choose will immediately tell you how the evening will turn out! (...though often it will lie!)

Regardless, the underwear I want to tell you about is literally of intercontinental proportions! It was November 2012 and I was in Rome to coordinate the Japanese – Italian translating for the Mostra Internazionale del Cinema, when a professor from the University of Venice contacted me by phone. We didn't know each other too well, but we had collaborated previously in various events around Venice and I had appreciated both her mastery of the language, and the many ways in which she knew how to make learning Japanese accessible – no small feat. She told me that around mid-December one of the world's greatest entrepreneurs, hailing from Japan, would be giving a lecture at Ca'Foscari University. The institution was looking for a professional translator who had studied in the University itself... and I fit the bill! The businessman's company produced all kinds of products, from pins to clothes, from games to luggage, all the way to... underwear! They had also opened a retail point in Venice as well.

The event's setup was handled by the professor above with absolute professionalism. A week before the event I received all slides both in the Japanese original and translated by her and a team of students. The slides tell the story of a business that moved past traditional branding, taking instead its social responsibilities seriously. The day of the conference comes, and I get excited in interacting with a Japanese savvy public. I show up early and end up chatting with the professor and her colleagues while waiting for the special guest. He finally arrives aboard a motorboat, wearing a heavy coat and accompanied by a cohort of smartly dressed Japanese.

Along with the assistants we got the formalities out of the way – mostly getting over my guests' surprise at having to deal with a non-native Japanese translator – yet a look at the glossary under my arm was enough for our honor guest to understand I'm not going to skimp on the translating.

We were first led to a conference room, where a briefing took place. We then finally get some face-to-face time alone with the honor guest, who details us on the speech he's going to give to the Ca'Foscari crowd.

The time for the conference comes, and the usual 'interpreter's crisis' strikes at full force. Maybe the three coffees and the liter of water I drunk during the briefing weren't the smartest idea ever... at east I'm wearing comfy underwear!

I'm not a superstitious person, but I have my own rituals. One of them is the habit of wearing underwear made in the country the speaker hails from. Yes, if I am translating from English or Italian to Japanese, I'll be wearing 'made in Japan' underwear; or Bloomingdale briefs if I'm translating into English. Once NASA called me, telling me my white, blue and green underwear could be seen from space along with the Great Chinese Wall.

I know, some will wonder what I wear for multilingual translations! In such cases I mix and match the underwear with white shirts, ties, pens from various countries... or 'stolen' from colleagues.

As I imagined, the Main Hall was packed with students and professors. The introductions are taken care of by the professors doubling as moderators, including the vice-president and other lauding the special guest's presence to the event. Ten minutes later, it was our turn – me and the guest, alone on stage.

As I translated I basked in every word said by this man, who embodied the spirit and determination of a real entrepreneur. According to him, our urban way of life led us to purchasing according to perceived needs rather than actual usefulness. Originality is prized over practicality and function in all aspects of life.

His speech was, of course, far more articulated; still, how many times we buy a more expensive option just because it's flashier? This is not a judgment, but an encouragement to live more at peace with oneself and others.

Don't worry, I didn't forget! The dark side of the underwear is about to show up any minute! Right then, during Q&A!

One of the professors asked the public to interact, and we were inundated by all kinds of questions – more or less technical and businessy. The guests skillfully manages to address all with humility and accuracy, an example for all present. Then he arrives: the little know-it-all student! The one you see and you know he wants everyone to know he has the most (metaphorical) junk in the trunks. I recognized him immediately, as I was the same in school! The question, more or less, was: “So, you want everyone to address your business as if it was Steve Jobs'? Everything one could need with your brand on it?” The deceptively simple answer was: “Surely not. In life variety is good. I am wearing Donald Duck pants today.” As of these words, a veritable opera resounded in my mind:

Prelude: Ring of the Nibelung.

First Act: Rustican Shit Act (if I get this wrong I'll be stoned with green tea).

Second act and grand finale: Madamn Butterfly (if I get this right maybe I might get a chance at some thong action someday).

The difficulty was given by 'pants' meaning underwear in Japanese and British English but trousers in American English. Quite a difference (only one contains what the Japanese call 'the golden spheres', which I'm not going to explain further).

So, I grab courage by the horns and enunciate in a tone halfway between Ungaretti and Littizzetto pretending to be a Lolita:


Hilarity ensued. I was afraid I'd be having an accident on stage, but those who p***ed themselves probably were the students. I think they, however, saw the very serious meaning underlying the guest's funny answer.

So, wrapping up...

Are you curious to find out whether the guest stood up and really wore Donald Duck pants, or I was de-eared with a katana, the spoil sent to my family by mail?

Relax, I wasn't wrong: it was the underwear... a good interpreter does not rely only on their ears.


Still, a question: better a thong today or a bloomer tomorrow?

  • 1
  • 2