All Ears

When I tell some people that I’m a writer, they respond with a smile and a raised brow. Then, a second or so later, they let it drop that they too have a book in them. They confide, in a low, serious voice, that they too would have written a book had they only had the time to do so between their endless professional commitments, their family life and their daily chores.

Isn’t it interesting how everyone thinks it’s easy to be a writer? Writing is not about putting words down on a page. It’s about conveying meaning and driving change, one word at a time. The easier something reads, the harder it is to write.

“It’s the same story with my profession,” Gurdeep Kaur Chawla said to me over coffee last evening. “People think they can be interpreters too.”

Gurdeep’s job is to listen. Sometimes, she has the luxury of a pause before a translation. Not always. For 20 years, she has been like a funambulist, testing the tightrope of the limits of language as she crosses between islands called English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Listening is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. I live with a man who always listens with all neurons on fire. He listens to the radio intently even though he isn’t having a conversation with it. He listens to my daughter’s ramble on weekends and overanalyzes her barbs. He listens to the GPS woman with complete attention—and she is not even his wife and her directions are not always more accurate than mine. He has that way of listening, I think, with all of his ears and all of his body. You could say that he listens like a cricket (which, by the way, has ears on its knees).

Most of us listen absently. If we were to analyze our manner of listening, I suspect there would be gaps in hearing, comprehension and analysis. And the juice of every job is in the analysis before a big next step. This is why I don’t dare discount the years people have invested in their careers, or their missteps and failures, often unknown, en route to their minor victories and major triumphs. That is why Gurdeep’s life of sudden interpretation seemed to defy interpretation. Even on deadline, writers had the luxury of sufficient time—to revise, polish and edit again.

“When I’m on the job, I’m all ears,” she said. No one wants to be asked to repeat something that they just said, especially when they’re in what one might call “a flow.”

What if your job depended on listening, analysis and simultaneous translation? What if you were helping broker deals in a lawyer’s office or at the United Nations? What if you had to bring in your experiences with life, your knowledge of world leaders, past and present, and your awareness of the globe you live in, of all the old news and all the new news, of the latest attack on an embassy building, of the crisis in Syria and of the term, in Hindi, for “technology outlook”?

“If I miss just one word, I cannot catch up,” Gurdeep said. The last time she felt that way—even though she didn’t exactly have time to dwell on it—she was seated between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private chatter at a big white house.

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