An Adventure, of Sorts

If you’ve read my “about me” page, you know that besides collecting eggs and chasing dogs out of the garden, I’m a part-time Low German/English community interpreter and translator.  It has rewarding moments but it’s grim work.  Normally, people don’t need me at happy occasions.  I’ve never been called to interpret at a wedding or the reunion of a birth mother and a long-lost son.  I get called when doctors need to explain difficult diagnoses or complicated procedures, or when people in debilitating pain have to appear before a panel of strangers to appeal the government’s refusal of financial aid on their behalf.  The complete lack of guile in many Low German Mennonites when they’re called upon to explain why they need money is even more poignant.  They’re not preconditioned to justify not working; they would rather show you what they are still capable of doing, and although I hardly ever hear the results of their tribunals, I think many of them jeopardize their cases in this way.  Births are a joyous event, but even interpreting for a woman in labour recently frightened me because I had a notion that if I ordered her to “drekj sea” (push hard) one more time, she might slug me.  But whether my assignments are happy or sad, they have rarely been what you could call adventurous.  There was one, one time.

One assignment about a year ago smacked of adventure from the moment the telephone woke me up at 12:30 on a Sunday morning.  It was work.  They usually give me some details about my assignment but not so this time.   They told me to drive immediately to the police station in a strange town about forty minutes away.  I wrote down the directions, climbed out of bed, changed from my pajamas into street clothes and drove off.  Wind sent clouds scuttling across the moon and autumn leaves in front of my car.  If Heathcliff and Catherine had emerged hand in hand from the dry and rattling cornfield to my right, my deliciously morbid cup would have run over.  That is how I felt then.  Had they really appeared, I’m sure I would have wished I’d settled for a cup three-quarters filled with simply imagining the event.

I found the police station in the strange town and walked inside.  An officer whisked me into a little room in the back of the building and brought me face to face with the reason they’d sent for me.  For a moment, I simply gaped.  Whatever I had expected to find, it was not a thirty year old Gabriel Byrne in sock feet with white shirt tails hanging over dirty jeans.  You may think my descriptions far-fetched sometimes, and you may even be right.  But I’m not exaggerating: the man in front of me resembled Gabriel Byrne in every particular, from his mass of wavy black hair to every feature on his bewildered face.

The real Gabriel Byrne.

When I spoke to him, Gabriel looked like he’d seen an angel.  He’d been confined in a small room with no way to explain himself to the burly police men who guarded him for two hours.  I’m well-drilled in remaining impartial and professional while interpreting, but that night I was loath to remove my halo.  I love Gabriel Byrne.  Who can watch Polish Wedding and not love Gabriel Byrne?  My inner Lavinia Penniman rose to the fore.  I felt sure my instructors never meant for me to remain unbiased, at least on the inside, when commanded to interpret for a German-speaking Gabriel Byrne doppelgänger.

The good part was that he didn’t need me to defend him, only to help him express himself.  He had behaved badly indeed, but it was his first offence and he confessed it so openly and with such remorse that I knew instinctively that the best way to help him was to repeat his words in such a flat and disinterested monotone that the officers could be in no doubt that the sentiments behind the words were completely Gabriel’s and in no way embellished by a sympathetic interpreter.  It worked.  They softened visibly as soon as they heard his words in English; they even committed to help him get as light a sentence as possible.  The bad part was that he was going to spend the night in jail and face a day in court, remorseful or not.  When I said good-bye to Gabriel an hour and a half later, he replied,

“Thank you for coming to help me, and I wish you all the best”.

I’d make a lousy authority figure.  If I had been a police officer when he said those words, I would have shredded his file into teeny weenie bits; I would have dispatched a junior officer to get the man a pair of shoes and I would have delivered him to his home and family.  I doubt whether even the real Gabriel Byrne could have taken leave with such grace and appreciation under the circumstances as this lowly Mennonite farm-hand who looked exactly like him.

I’m not a police officer so I got into my car and drove away from the strange town.  The wind had subsided but it started to rain as I retraced my route home and crawled back into bed at four o’clock that morning.  I never saw Gabriel again and I have no idea what happened to him.  I’m not glad he was dragged, dirty and sock-footed into the police station that night, but I smile when I remember the few short hours when darkness and mystery shrouded my ordinary and often cheerless occupation in all the excitement of an adventure.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael on October 2, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Well I’m partial to his less romantic roles, like “The Usual Suspects” but one of my favorites as well. 🙂


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