What would you do? Brooke Robinson on the origins of her debut novel The Interpreter
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Brooke Robinson’s enthralling debut The Interpreter explores what a criminal interpreter would do when faced with the moral dilemma of letting the wrong man go free.
‘If I had the opportunity to affect the outcome of a criminal trial, mistranslate one word and get away with it – would I take it?’
In 2015 I read a riveting article in The Guardian’s ‘Experience’ column by a woman who worked as an interpreter and translator in the criminal justice system. I’d never given any thought to this profession before, and two things struck me as particularly intriguing. The first being that interpreters translate in the first person, ‘I’, and for the interpreter of the article, this has meant speaking for, and as a murderer and a terrorist suspect. For the rest of that day, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like to spend your working life speaking as, effectively being someone else, even when that person’s actions went against your sense of right and wrong. I had worked as a playwright, so I know how psychologically difficult it can be for actors to come to the theatre every night and inhabit challenging characters. What, then, must it be like for the interpreter when their lines, their dialogue, isn’t a fictional story but real life? The second thing I learnt from this newspaper article was that words can have multiple meanings and how a criminal case, an asylum seeker application, a life, could hinge on the translation of a single word.
Some of us are naturally gifted at languages, so it follows that other people must be hopeless despite our best efforts. At university, I studied German but the minute I walked out of class, my Germanic vocabulary would desert me. Later, I was even more enthusiastic about learning Mandarin but still, nothing would stick. My university linguistics exam is the only academic test I’ve ever properly failed (30%, for the record, I’ve still not told my parents). Almost twenty years later, I occasionally re-live that day as a nightmare, of flipping through that three-hour paper and knowing almost none of the answers. I have accepted that I’m destined to leave this earth monolingual. But once I understood the power and responsibility of the interpreter, and the challenging situations they face, I kept thinking: what would I do? If I had the opportunity to affect the outcome of a criminal trial, mistranslate one word and get away with it – would I take it?
It took me a while to get to this point of publishing a book. I spent quite a number of years working as a playwright and my first two plays, like The Interpreter, were psychological thrillers. I wish someone had tapped me on the shoulder during those opening nights and said: ‘these are fine, but you know this sort of thing works much better as a novel…’ It’s hard to get psychological thrillers to work for the stage, so for years I changed what I wrote about to suit the theatre. But in 2020, like many of us, I re-evaluated how I was spending my days and thought it was time to go back to what I really wanted to be doing, and telling the kind of stories I most wanted to write.
The Interpreter is out now.
This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine about books for book lovers from Penguin Random House South Africa.
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