(Somewhere in an oddly shaped building in
Washington DC., February 23rd, 1996)
"OK, Dr. Flora. You will start tomorrow. As
I said, all work has to be done on the premises. You will be strip-searched
when you enter the A42 wing and also when you exit it again. Sorry, but
that's the rules. Officially, you'll be doing computer research. Any word
about what's going on
in there to anyone and...," his gesture was clear enough.
He seemed amused. I was not.
"That's quite an interesting job interview, I have to say," I remarked, frowning.
"It's not an interview, it has been decided and I'm here to give you directions. Any questions?"
"Nope," I said dryly, "I'm not interested..."
The officer faked cheerful laughter. "You don't have a choice, Dr.Flora, did I not make myself clear?"
"Eh, listen," I added, "I don't take a job that I know I wouldn't do well at. That certainly wouldn't be in your interest either..."
"You're our best bet in the moment," he said, visibly annoyed. After a second or two, he added slowly, "unfortunately...".
"It can't be done. Not in a way that makes sense, at least," I insisted.
The officer raised his voice angrily and exploded without a warning.
"Why not, Dr.Flora, it's just some f**ing translations of some f**ing old texts from a f**ing strange place and in a f**ing weird language! Why, the f*** don't you just do this f**ing job?"
For a while I didn't say anything. He stared at me in disgust. "Can I have some more coffee?" I inquired eventually.
"Go ahead," he said, pointing at the rather dirty thermos can on the table between us.
"I can tell you why, but it takes a little while," I said.
"Might as well," the officer said, leaning back.
I took a zip of the stale and watery coffee, cleared my voice and started to explain:
"About two years ago I was invited for lunch by the chief of a hill tribe in Northern Thailand near the east side of the Golden Triangle on the Thai side of the Mekong river."
"Wait," the officer interrupted me, browsing through a stack of paper. "That must have been either on December 11th, 1993, or on January 9th, 1994, what day was it?" he questioned me.
"Some time in December, does it matter?" I said.
"Just for the record, he answered, scribbling something onto a piece of paper, and I continued:
"After several hours on the back of elephants
who stopped every half mile to have an unscheduled snack of their own we
finally met the tribe in a small valley at the outskirts
of the mountain region.
A guy who claimed to be Thai citizen but whose family was living in Laos near the Cambodian border was my guide and translator.
He had been a member of the Khmer Rouge - involuntary and a long, long time ago as he asserted many times - and he and I communicated in a combination of French and sign language.
In this area of the world, borders and nationality don't have any real meaning as you may know."
I took another zip of coffee, an unspeakably bad mixture of instant coffee, instant dry milk, and artificial sugar, causing instant nausea and a limited lubrication of my throat.
The officer looked at me as if I were a terrorist or something.
I took a deep breath, cleared my throat again, and continued:
"Now, all of the major hill tribes in the mountains
there have their own language. You know, the name 'hill tribe' can be somewhat
misleading - the 'hills' are steep and high mountains
in a jungle region that is difficult to enter except on elephants.
Anyway, I do not know and do not ever wish to know what our lunch was made of since people there eat whatever the seem fit to eat and spiders and snakes are considered special treats.
The chief of the tribe was amused and bewildered by the softness and the smoothness of my hands and absolutely wanted to know how I was providing food for my family. Obviously, as a computer nerd, the only time I need my hands other than for typing e-mail messages is to exchange a hard drive and, again, compared to their hands, mine looked smooth like silk and were clearly unfit to strangle a snake of any size.
In short, the question boiled down to the crude-French phrase: "Comment tu chasse des betes pour ta femme de faire dejeuner pour to toi et tes enfants?" Or, in plain English "How do you catch animals for your wife to make lunch for you and your children?"
Now, as you seemed to be aware of quite well,
I am not married and I do not have children but I have a housemate and
two dogs and the fish in the pond. I drive 40 minutes on the freeway
get to work at a University, fiddle with computers, algorithms, and wild theories of all kinds, and, to my continuing surprise, get even paid for all this, spend the money before I get it, and eat either out in a restaurant or the in Campus deli, or I open a can and warm it out on a gas stove.
So, my translator has seen cars other than military trucks only in the crosshair of his AK-47 and he had never heard of a computer.
But he was familiar with all kinds of electronics like radios, and triggers for explosives, light switches, and the like, and in the end my explanations of what I'm doing for a living boiled down to something like this:
"JD rides for one tenth of a day on a very, very fast kind of elephant (which feeds on stinking water) to a manmade mountain with many caves in it in which there shines a light all day and night; he makes dead things play music and say words and fixed these magic things for other people; he talks to people who are many, many hours of elephant-riding away, and he draws symbols that other people in totally different places instantly recognize; he gets some kind of perls to exchange for things which he gets now but for which he hands over the real perls much later, eats animals and plants (except insects, rodents, and snakes) that were caught, killed and prepared by other people or he lights a fire to warm up dead animals or plants (except insects, rodents, or snakes) in his home, which basically is a cave with two small lakes in front of it, one for swimming, the other one containing fish; he feeds two dogs and two dozens of fish, all of which he never intends to have for dinner."
Now, the chief thought I must be a hell of a sorcerer. But he didn't quite understand how I could be so stupid to have dogs and fish and not eating them.
So he was very sceptical and asked me to point
out a tree with 'durus' in it. A 'duru', as my translator explained to
me, is a white, giant ant that lives inside certain gum trees and that
is very tasty and crunchy when eaten alive but becomes deadly poison within minutes after its death. Now, if I would be truly the strange kind of sorcerer that I claimed to be, according to
my translator's translation, of course, then I would have no problems whatsoever to find a tree with 'durus'.
After explaining that I had no idea whatsoever
about the subject at hand, the chief went about to show me how to look
for them. The technique to find out if 'durus' are in a gum tree is to
at the stem, wait about 10 seconds and then knock again. If there are 'durus' in the tree, they would scratch at the wood from inside the tree and one could then go about to cut the tree apart (which is a work of several hours with the tools of the tribe). Needless to say that I was incredibly reliefed when he didn't find a tree with 'durus' and gave up.
He then decided to have me sing a song as a farewell and I sang 'Silent Night' because it's the only song I remembered. Everybody laughed at me and couldn't believe how silly I was..."
The officer interrupted me, "So, what's the f**ing point, Dr.Flora? Why don't you just translate this f**ing text and get it over with?"
"Don't you see," I tried for another time, "one can translate between two different languages only then with any fair amount of accuracy and/or responsibility if a minimal contextual congruency of the involved environments can be reliably evolved to such a degree that the yielded certainty about the correctness of the resulting correlations clearly and unmistakingly exceeds the uncertainty about any occurences of invalid associations and/or structural interpretations.
Especially so in the total absence of solid physical objects that could potentially be employed as referents to establish relationships between both limited and unlimited abstractional constructs in either one of the involved linguistical frameworks.
Even then, any ambiguities or nuances of implied emotional or rhetorical emphases will invariably have to be worked out in a developing, dialectical scenario which..."
"Tomorrow, 9am, Dr.Flora," the officer said, raised his right hand slowly, stretched out the digit and pointed into the direction of the door.
A non-verbal hint, not even I could ignore..