The Words We ChooseSubmitted by Spam at 2014-01-20 18:32:22 EST
Rating: 1.84 on 20 ratings (24 reviews) (Review this item) (V)
5 years ago. Shit Job, shitty call centre. Again. Or still, even. Difficult to tell which really.
You probably guessed a long time ago that I’ve long since abandoned any attempt to connect with people and now every phone call with a client is a challenge to avoid the writhing tentacles of idiocy that flail around in the corridors of any conversation I am forced to have with them.
“Rapport is the grease that lubricates The Sale”
So says the poster on the wall but fuck that shit, I’ve got nothing to say to you, the General Public. I couldn’t give a fuck about where you’re going for your holiday or how many kids you’ve got, don’t care about your pets or any of that other sales-manual ubiquity - the same conversation with the same people, day after day, all of it meaningless. Familiarity breeds contempt and a conservative estimate says that I probably speak to 50 folks a day so after ten years, that’s a hundred thousand reasons to lose faith. Yeah, we’re familiar, I’ve done the maths.
So I try and keep things brief on the phone. Anytime somebody tries to engage me in conversation I ignore it, ride over it roughshod, plough on. Stick to the facts, be professional. Yeah, my days in sales are numbered.
Of course it’s entirely my fault. I’ve wasted every opportunity that was ever given to me and so now I grind my way through the day secure in the knowledge that I’m better than everybody else around me but that’ll only get you so far really and to be sure, my friends, if you’re better than everybody else around you, what the fuck are you even doing there anyway?
Occasionally though, the training kicks in. Or maybe the second brandy from lunch. Whichever, every now and then, for some inexplicable reason, I’ll dip my toe in the river of sewage that is the human race and pray to god that when I pull out it doesn’t stink of shit.
“Oh,” I say, “That’s an unusual name, where does that come from?”
“Latvia.” Is the reply “But my parents were Russian and I’ve spent most of my life in the UK.”
I flounder, desolate with cynicism, this is the most I’ve gotten to know a customer in months and I regret it already.
“That’s unusual” I say again. Weakly.
He chuckles at my awkwardness but continues the small talk nonetheless. People do that.
“Yes, but it is something of an advantage in my line of work.”
Naturally I can’t help it. The Lubrication.
“And what job is that?”
He’s old, has the clipped tones of the well educated upper class with the vaguest hint of an accent. And now it’s his turn to be uncomfortable in that way people are when they don’t think that you’ll really understand what it is they actually do for a living.
“Um… I translate books into English.”
It’s a new one for me and now he’s got my attention. My Genuine Interest.
“What sort of books?”
That brief uncomfortable pause again.
“Russian literature mainly. Classics. Most probably you won’t have heard of them.”
You read a sentence like that on the page, in all it’s uncompromising Helvetican harshness, and it sounds patronising, even insulting but you’ll have to take my word for it my friends, when I tell you that’s not how it sounded. He was embarrassed for me.
“You mean Dostoyevsky and such?”
I don’t know why, but I take a genuine pleasure in the astonishment that riddles his reply.
“You’ve read Dostoyevsky?”
Turns out Dostoyevsky is his specialty.
So we talk. He tells me about his role as a translator, how under-rated it is as a profession. How, in his view, they should be given as much credit as the original author – a statement which garners a derisive snort in response from me which, I probably shouldn’t do, seeing as it’s his career and all.
“Think about it Sam. How easy it is to get things wrong, the decisions that we have to make. Take The Karamazov Brothers for example…”
“Don’t you mean The Brothers Karamazov?” I interrupt cheekily.
“Exactly. Who talks like that? If you met two brothers called Jack and John Smith, you would refer to them as ‘The Smith Brothers’ wouldn’t you? Never in your right mind would you call them ‘The Brothers Smith’ people would think you an idiot. But 60 or so years ago, somebody translated the book’s title literally rather than adjust it to fit the syntax of the target language and now here I am, decades later, complaining about the mistake it to a guy in call centre.”
We talk for two hours. He’s witty and erudite and eager to hear my unqualified and ill-educated views on a subject that he’s made his life’s work but which I only picked up recently out of boredom. I tell him that I am currently reading The Idiot when he almost yelps with joy. It’s the book he’s working on currently, he tells me, due out soon. I am enjoying it immensely and love the irony that everybody in the book seems so far to be an idiot apart from the eponymous Idiot himself who is actually just seeing things the way they are. He laughs and asks if he can use that as a quote on the jacket when it is published. He won’t, of course, but it’s nice all the same.
Eventually, my boss stands behind me tapping his foot and asking what’s taking so long and I know my new Russian friend hears this because he reluctantly moves the conversation back to business, which frankly, I stopped caring about a long while back.
We exchange e-mail addresses and he promises to let me know when his version of The Idiot is published.
“I hope you don’t mind reading it twice.” He says, wrapping up our chat.
“Ignat, It would be my genuine pleasure.”
We never spoke again of course, I quit my job soon after and never bothered e-mailing him on the grounds that it would’ve felt strange. Forced. I didn’t even finish reading The Idiot, having left my copy in the office when I walked.
5 years later, however, this conversation stays with me, always will. This brief encounter with a total stranger 40 years my senior completely changed the way I enjoy literature. Changed the way I talk to people at work. He may, in some small measure, have been one of the reasons I quit working unfulfilling sales jobs as a whole.
I always wanted to contact him and let him know that. This man, Mr Ignat Avsey. It seemed weird to me that he could have such an impact on me in such a short time and never even know about it.
For Christmas this year, having been told this story a while ago, my wife bought me a fresh copy of The Idiot to finally finish and the whole thing came flooding back. I read it with a smile, laughing at some of the more awkward sentence structuring which I know now is the work of a poor translator, a rushed job, mistakes passed through the ages.
Yesterday, it struck me that I should contact Mr Avsey and let him know that I’m still reading Dostoyevsky. Let him know that I appreciate the work he does, work that I’d never really thought about before. To apologise that my wife’s copy of The Idiot isn’t his version, but that, true to my word I will re-read his translation at the earliest opportunity.
So I Google to see where I can get a copy:
Ignat Avsey obituary | Education | The Guardian
www.theguardian.com › News › Education › Languages
9 Dec 2013 - Other lives: Russian teacher and distinguished translator.
5 years I kept that e-mail address only to dust it off 5 weeks too late.
And you’d think that this story, dull as it is, would end with some cookie-cutter nonsense moral about making the most of the time you have with the people you meet because you never know when you won’t have the opportunity to speak to them again but seriously, fuck all that because it’s just saccharine Carpe Diem bullshit really.
I guess the real moral is this:
The words we use, the way we use them, ALWAYS matter. Just like Ignat said. This man, this well respected and distinguished scholar had a brief, entirely unremarkable chat with some mid twenties waster slowly dying inside one phone call at a time. Ignat Avsey was simply making small talk while buying insurance but I left work that day happy for the first time in months. He wouldn’t have remembered it 10 minutes later but I carried it with me for 5 years.
And so I think: How many times have we done that, you and I? What if that happened here, on this very site? I was only ever here purely to waste time and have fun but what if somebody, somewhere, once read something on here and something inside them just clicked. Changed them. like I did with Ignat?
One Hundred thousand phone conversations. How much impact could I have had on those people, on the world, if I had just been a little more interested?
All I know is that I’m off to buy Ignat’s book to see if my quote made the jacket. And when I read it and notice the subtle differences in the translations, the word choices, the effort, I know I’ll smile for my friend, even though nobody else really cares.
Rest easy Ignat.