Translators and fixers who mess up your expedition, it’s not something explorers and expedition leaders like to remind themselves of once the trip is over. Yet, it happens. And it sucks. I want to share my experiences, not to blame or shame, but to ask for input and suggestions. How would you cope in a similar situation?
The Altai expedition
Last summer we, Arita Baaijens and Wayne Poulsen, circumnavigated the AltaiGoldenMountains in the heart of Asia. The journey on horseback took us from Kazakhstan, to China, Mongolia and Russia. We covered 1500 km in 3,5 months. Our aim was to intimately engage with the land and its people, and ask stakeholders to share their vision for the future of the Altai, an important biodiversity hotspot.
The expedition took years of preparation and planning. We would travel in sensitive border zone areas in a geopolitical hotspot and so we needed contacts and obtain necessary documents. We managed all that done, but were sure to run into trouble of some kind on the way. So we spent a good deal of time searching for the right fixer/translator in each of the four countries. And we thought we had found them.
We completed the circumnavigation and the journey was a fantastic experience. The landscape, wild life, nomadic people…. just incredible. So after coming back I soon forgot about the lows of the journey. But now that I am digitalizing my notes all the memories come back. Many happy moments but some were pretty grim. Am not referring to being bone tired, or drenched, or hungry. I am talking about misunderstandings, bad performances, deceit and outright lies from fixers we had hired to help us achieve our mission. The hurt is still fresh and of course this is only my version of the story, so keep that in mind when you read about what happened.
The first troublemaker was an experienced expedition guide / outfitter. His English was somewhat limited, but he was the only one in that part of the world who could provide us with the services we needed. We had communicated with him for many months about travel dates, maps, routes, horses, permits, fees, the expeditions mission and goals. We repeated these data many times over the phone and by email. We also offered to pay an advance via Western Union to show our Man we were serious and sincere.
When we met we got along very well. Our Man was fit, adventurous, pro-active and he loved the outdoors. But gradually we noticed that some things were difficult for our Man. For example, he did not like to answer questions and always rode far behind so that our questions were lost in the wind. If he was within hearing distance, his standard answer was: Hmpf. Or: I don’t know.
As we did not encounter many nomads or herders on this leg of the journey, we could live with his limited social skills and language skills. Besides, he was very good in other things, like cutting wood, making a fire, keeping track of our food situation. What worried us though was his inability to deal with authorities. And he was also unable to handle differences of opinion, which often meant he would not translate conversations when things got a bit tough. For example, when people joined our expedition without asking, but expected to be fed and paid. Or when the horsemen charged outrageous fees. Our Man made the situation worse by disappearing from the scene, or taking sides with the other party. When that happens a few times it is not that bad. But in our case it happened ALL the time because for reasons our Man would not explain we changed horses and men almost every 3 days. Which cost a fortune, because we paid for the days the men and horses worked for us and also for the days it took to get back.
After about a week I noticed a change in myself. I was holding my breath every time I or Wayne wanted something to be done, like choosing another camping site, or stop to film, or check a place for rock engravings, or leave earlier or later, or whatever. I know this does not sound like a very serious problem, but mind you, this was OUR expedition but that didn’t sink in with our Man (and for that matter the horsemen he hired). My expedition partner does not share my feelings about not being in charge. But to me, an experienced expedition leader who made many desert crossings, the difference between my former expeditions and this was crystal clear. And it was unbearable. No way was I going to be treated like a guest on my own expedition. What was the fixer thinking? That I hired him so he could tell me what to do? That I was a doormat? We tried to talk about it around the fire at night. We tried humour. We sweet talked. We got angry. Frustrated. To no avail. Finally we reached a point that we had to part ways. Luckily this was almost at the end of our trip in his country.
After a lucky and long break with an intelligent, good humoured translator who provided us with the best possible company and valuable insights about his culture, disaster struck again. This time the troublemaker was a woman. No gender issues when it comes to bad performance.
The Girl had studied English and came recommended through a photographer who had worked with her. Under less stressful circumstances, but nonetheless.
The first morning she did not get out of bed before 10 am, and only after being called. The rest of the trip we had to wake her up most of the time. Sometimes she would appear in pyjama’s at breakfast. Whatever strategy we tried, we never managed to leave camp before 10 am. And we never set off before she had applied powder and lipstick. Fine. Horses love to see a good looking woman.
What was not okay was the fact that she hardly ever translated conversations she had with our horseman and with nomads we met on the way. Of course I made her translate my questions, she would then talk and talk, clearly enjoying the conversation, and in the end give me a very short version of what was being said. I am not stupid, I am not a bitch, so trust me, I tried to make her perform better and I also explained what researchers need: A literal translation, not an impression.
‘This woman is not saying anything interesting,’ she would say whenever I asked to translate a dialogue. Or: ‘We chat about unimportant things.’ Sometimes she would just smile and give me that look. Stop bothering me, it said. Stuff the Girl labelled ‘unimportant’ was crucial information for me: nomads talking about their daily life, about rare plants, about legends and rumours. Or our horseman telling stories about geography, wild life, history of places we travelled through. She would talk with him for hours on end, not a word was translated. Not even when asked.
For me, as a writer, researcher and a human being, this was extremely frustrating. I had hired the translator to help me understand a nomadic culture. And if this girl didn’t deliver, I could not do my job. Why didn’t that register? I asked her, of course, but didn’t get an answer. Just a giggle and that look again.
So here I was, a 57 year old explorer who had crossed deserts and had successfully dealt with bandits. And now I was going to be defeated by a 20+ year old irresponsible girl? No way. But what could I do? Beat some sense into her? Throw her into the river?
The misery was not restricted to her failing as a translator. I wish it was. Thinking about all the rest that happened makes me so upset that I leave it up to your imagination. Let me just say that this girl messed up our expedition in her part of the world Big Time! Until the very last day. Dear Lord above, really, I did not commit enough sins to justify such punishment…
In the end all I could do was accept the situation, to be totally Zen, otherwise I would have gone mad. Only when she met our next translator, top ranking, the girl realized how utterly she had failed us, both as translator and fixer. Tears flowed and she promised to do better next time. Sure.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect the impossible when it comes to translators, and disappointments come with the job. But it was never as bad as this time, and I just can’t get over it that one person can cause such serious damage. Remember we were in the middle of nowhere, impossible to exchange translators there and then. We also had to meet deadlines. If we didn’t cross the next border at a given date we would not be able to enter that country at all. Of course it would have helped had we spoken Russian, Kazakh, Han Chinese and Mongolian. We do speak quite a few languages between us, but the brain has its limits.
Arita Baaijens is a legendary desert explorer and biologist, with a foot in scientific research, photography, journalism and as a writer. Now also a film maker. Visit her site at http://www.aritabaaijens.nl/index_en.php
*Photo Courtesy of Wayne Poulsen and Arita Baaijens