What the shaman saw

Photo: Interpreting on an ecological expedition in the Altai Republic

I graduated from Cambridge University with the firm belief that one thing I would never be was a Russian to English translator. The fact caused me no particular concern however, as I desperately wanted to apprentice to a shaman.

I could think of no career more noble.  I would experience shamanic death, after which the spirits would find me fit for conversation and I would become wise having very little need for dictionaries because the spirits would all speak English.

The fateful meeting occurred on a late winter’s night in Siberia. The shaman sat waiting for us, warming a stringed instrument by the open door of a white-washed stove. I was introduced and rituals ensued. He was kind to me. I stood up with my back to him, arms outstretched. Looking into me through flames of burning juniper he uttered just one word: ‘interesno!’

It all took place at the foot of a mountain pass at the indigenous heart of the Altai Republic. It was a place where a young English woman could only be conspicuous. My presence there caused some suspicion and yet I clearly meant no harm. The shaman was about to answer the question everyone had been whispering since my arrival: “Who is she? What is her journey here?”

There was tangible anticipation in the silence that ensued. What would the shaman say? “She’s a translator”, he said. Unlucky, I thought, seeing the road of mystical potential close before me. “Yes” he continued, “a translator for nature”. OK! A sense of magic returned and I saw the road of the seeker open up again before me. I didn’t think much about the shaman’s words after that first meeting. At that time I taught English as a foreign language and couldn’t imagine how I could ever work as a translator.

In Altai, especially in the summer I spent days on end in the saddle, riding through alpine forest, crossing rivers, valleys and mountains passes with other people who did not speak each other’s native language. Naturally, with knowledge of both Russian and English, I was able to help my fellow travellers communicate with one another. With time I acquired my own home in Altai with a brick stove, at which point I spent many an evening reading books written by Siberian authors and naturally, I was enthusiastic about the idea of producing a version for them in the English language.  Over the years, I was so busy exploring, learning and engaging in philosophical dilaogue that I hardly noticed I had been interpreting and translating for a decade. It literally took me ten years to understand that the shaman had seen my true vocation – I am a translator.

Altai, Translation , , , , , ,