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010 Foreign language interpreter Eva Hussain helps you understand how to listen to emotion and get beyond the words

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In this episode of Deep Listening, we have the opportunity to listen to Eva Hussain who is an accredited NAATI translator and foreign interpreter. She is also the founder and CEO of Polaron a language services provider. The mission of Polaron is to transform the language services sector and be the leading authority on European citizenship worldwide. The company has seen steady growth since Eva has been managing it.

Eva’s voluntary roles include founding member of Australasian Association of Language Companies, deputy president of the Australian Society of Polish Jews and secretary of Polish Community Services of Victoria. Eva is originally from Poland and wants to solve complex communication problems between different cultures and geographical areas. She speaks 6 or 7 languages, but English and Polish are her strongest languages. Listen in as Eva shares her story and communication philosophy.

Today’s Topics:

  • Eva always wanted to immigrate to Australia, but started out in France first.
  • Her first few years in Australia were incredibly difficult even though it was her desire to integrate.
  • Interpreters are actors who act out other people’s words. What comes out of the mouth of an interpreter needs to represent the intent and meaning.
  • It’s like a loop where the language is stored on the interpreter’s brain and then transformed into a different language and conveyed to the listener.
  • There are no opinions. To practice interpreting watch the news and pause it for 30 seconds and then repeat what was just said.
  • Preparation for interpreting includes self care and preparing oneself on an emotional level.
  • Some interpretation jobs can be quite difficult emotionally, such as when someone is in a life and death situation.
  • Acting professionally at all times no matter how difficult it is.
  • Breathing techniques can be used to calm the interpreter down.
  • Being assertive and asking for breaks is also important.
  • The importance of understanding context and getting what is unsaid.
  • In difficult situations the best thing that an interpreter can do is to do justice to the words. Be very conscious of not being judgemental.
  • The four villains of listening are the lost listener, the interrupting listener, the shrewd listener, and the dramatic listener. For Eva, the interrupter is the worst.
  • Give people from other cultures space to get their point across.

Transcript

Episode 10: Deep Listening with Eva Hussain 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

Eva Hussain:  

People that come to Australia from different context, don’t know how to listen to Australians because we’re hearing words, we’re seeing smiling faces, but we don’t understand what they mean. So, for example, Eastern Europeans in my experience are seen as negative sometimes, not all the time, negative, pragmatic, very direct, but we think of ourselves as being realistic. With English and with Australia, we don’t quite understand the context. And that takes a long time to actually get what’s being unsaid, if that makes sense?

Oscar Trimboli: 

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we have the opportunity to listen to Eva. A foreign language interpreter, and learn from her own experience spanning multiple cultures. Originally from Poland in Eastern Europe, her intersection with a local Australian manager who didn’t understand her cultural context propelled her to create a global organisation that spans Poland, United Kingdom, New York, and Australia. She bridges complex communication problems from court rooms to community halls. Let’s listen in as Eva brings her insight into how cultures can come together to solve complex communication problems.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Welcome, Eva! How many languages do you speak?

Eva Hussain: 

Probably about six about six or seven, but two of them really well. So that’s Polish and English.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Great! And after Polish, what would be your third most strongest language?

Eva Hussain:  

Probably Russian and French on par.

Oscar Trimboli: 

And then? Keep going.

Eva Hussain: 

Ukrainian and little other bits and pieces, Turkish, Hindi, I understand a lot of languages but I have only a passive knowledge.

Oscar Trimboli:

Let’s tell them the story of Eva, right back from where you were born and how you came to be where you are today.

Eva Hussain:

Oh dear! I am turning 50 this year, so it’s a bit of a milestone. I was born in Poland in a small town of about 60,000 people, where I went to school until I was 18. So, we’re talking about communist Poland with food shortages. It was a very restrictive place except that we didn’t know that it was. When you don’t know any better, you just put up with whatever you have. But I’ve always had a desire to immigrate to Australia because we have family here who came here just after the war. So, when I turned 18, I went to France with my father. And in those days, we couldn’t get a passport as a family, so my mum and my brother stayed back and we didn’t actually see them for four years before coming to Australia.

In France, I spent about 12 months and then I came to Australia. And I have to say that whole journey was just so incredibly irresponsible on my part because we had this vision of the west as everything is going to be okay once we get there, you’ll be fine. And I didn’t speak a word of English when I came here. I had no money and I was also seven months pregnant, but that’s another story. At the age of 18.

Two months after I have arrived, my son who is now nearly 31 was born. But yeah the first few years were incredibly difficult and again we didn’t know that they were difficult but we just had to put up with stuff and kind of integrate. My desire was always to integrate in Australia to the point where I tried very hard to neutralise my accent, I still sound foreign even though I’ve lived here for 32 years.

I’ve worked with Psycholinguistics to try and make me sound more Australian, and gave up after about six months because I think after the age of 12 or 13 you can’t necessarily fix it.

When I was about 21, I went back to school, to college. I got myself educated and got a job and worked for various corporations for local governments. And in 2000, I opened my own company that deals with interpreting and translating.

 

Oscar Trimboli: 

Okay. So, Eva, let’s explain how interpreting works in a foreign language to those people who aren’t familiar?

Eva Hussain: 

Interpreters are really actors, so we act out other people’s words. In other words, we never know what comes out of people’s mouths before they say it and what comes out of our mouths has to represent not just the words but the intent and the culture all kinds of other things.

The way that an interpreters head works is that we hear things, we store them in a section of our brain where short term memory is stored, we convert it into another language and we spit it out in that language, and it goes on a loop. It’s a very intense and complex process, and it can never be 100% accurate because unlike translation, when you see the text in front of you, with interpreting you don’t know what people are going to say.

Sometimes there are and most of the time actually there are emotions attached to what people say, they might be saying too much for our brains to retain. It’s a very unique task I guess where we cannot present our opinion or we can’t judge what people say, we just have to stick to acting out other people’s words.

It’s quite a difficult and complex task I guess. But if anybody wants to try interpreting even if they don’t speak another language, I have a little tip. And that is tonight at home turn on the news, sit there with your remote, turn the news on for 30 seconds, turn it off and try and repeat what the news readers just said. And I think…In other words, to be able to repeat 30 seconds of somebody’s speech is actually really quite challenging without taking notes and being 100% accurate.

The other point I wanted to make is that languages are not linear. In other words, when we translate, we translate concepts not words. Often people don’t understand that and they’ll say things like, “Make sure you translate it word for word.” Well, that doesn’t work. For example, if you say, paint the town red in English, or if I say to you, put the light out, I’m not saying get a brush and paint the town red and I’m not saying take the light and put it outside. I’m saying whatever the meaning is, so I have to find an equivalent in that language that means the same thing but the words might be quite different.

Eva Hussain: 

Okay. Interpreters are really actors, so we act out other people’s words. In other words, we never know what comes out of people’s mouths before they say it and what comes out of our mouths has to represent not just the words but the intent and the culture all kinds of other things.

The way that an interpreters head works is that we hear things, we store them in a section of our brain where short term memory is stored, we convert it into another language and we spit it out in that language, and it goes on a loop. It’s a very intense and complex process, and it can never be 100% accurate because unlike translation, when you see the text in front of you, with interpreting you don’t know what people are going to say.

Sometimes there are and most of the time actually there are emotions attached to what people say, they might be saying too much for our brains to retain. It’s a very unique task I guess where we cannot present our opinion or we can’t judge what people say, we just have to stick to acting out other people’s words.

It’s quite a difficult and complex task I guess. But if anybody wants to try interpreting even if they don’t speak another language, I have a little tip. And that is tonight at home turn on the news, sit there with your remote, turn the news on for 30 seconds, turn it off and try and repeat what the news readers just said. And I think…In other words, to be able to repeat 30 seconds of somebody’s speech is actually really quite challenging without taking notes and being 100% accurate.

The other point I wanted to make is that languages are not linear. In other words, when we translate, we translate concepts not words. Often people don’t understand that and they’ll say things like, “Make sure you translate it word for word.” Well, that doesn’t work. For example, if you say, paint the town red in English, or if I say to you, put the light out, I’m not saying get a brush and paint the town red and I’m not saying take the light and put it outside. I’m saying whatever the meaning is, so I have to find an equivalent in that language that means the same thing but the words might be quite different.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Eva help our audience, if you just say the last 30 seconds of that or any other phrase in Polish or Russian, so that the audience can spend 30 seconds in your shoes.

Eva Hussain: 

So maybe what I’ll do I’ll just repeat what you’ve said in Polish, which was a bit less than 30 seconds but Eva [Polish 00:13:34]… I don’t know if you heard, when I speak English I don’t speak as fast, I kind of become a different person when I speak Polish. It’s really quite difficult to explain, but you won’t be able to see me because it’s a podcast but if you were to see my body language you’d see that I become more animated, I really become a different person when I speak another language.

And also of course because I’m repeating your words just in another language, so there is a disconnect there where I am not responsible for what you say. In other words, if you were to swear or say something that I don’t agree with, I still don’t have the right to change that message, my job is to be impartial to what you say and to translate it into another language accurately with no judgement.

Oscar Trimboli:  

Eva, talk us through the preparation you do as an interpreter when it literally in some situations is ad-hoc some situations it’s not. How do you prepare yourself both physically and mentally as you prepare to go into a situation where you have to solve communication problems?

Eva Hussain: 

Often one of the misconceptions that people that are not interpreters have is that terminology is the biggest problem for interpreters, and it isn’t. Firstly, because most of them are very experienced and they’re exposed to all kinds of topics, issues. That is why we have a lot of very extensive knowledge about a lot of things. The biggest issue I guess is self-care and preparing yourself at an emotional level because in the community context you will have people dying on you or having to interpret for someone whose switch off life support, or imperative care context, or dementia context, so that can be really quite difficult.

The terminology aspect of it is something that interpreters do prepare for, but I would say that if we were to give a percentage, that would be only be about 10% of what we have to do. So, let’s say it’s a conference and a topic that we’re not familiar with, then of course we need to read up on briefing notes, see the PowerPoint presentation that someone is going to present etc cetera.

Oscar Trimboli: 

And apart from preparing with the content, you talked about self-care and being prepared outside of the context of life and death. How do you prepare yourself, how do you get your mind set right to come into those situations?

Eva Hussain: 

I try and act professional at all times. As difficult as this context the situation can be, if I break down… And let me tell you at times we do working in situations that are massively upsetting, then I’m not doing my job, so it’s a frame of mind. I take notes during interpreting and that helps me kind of disconnect a little bit from what happens. And it also helps people that I’m there to help communicate talk to each other. So, interpreting happens in the first person, I don’t say he said she said, everything is I, I, I. And when I take notes I look down and people necessarily have to look at each other, so that helps communication in the first place but it also helps me remove myself a little from what’s happening and what might be upsetting.

 

That’s one technique that I use. Checking just half a minute before I walk into a session just realigning my mindset, reminding myself that I am to be impartial and professional that everything is going to be kept confidential. And then walking in making sure that the sitting arrangements work and taking notes so that first of all I can be accurate and secondly people can talk to each other and see me as a conduit to the exchange rather than a participant, if that makes sense.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Yes. What role does breathing play in your preparation?

Eva Hussain: 

If I’m nervous, if I am concerned about what’s about to happen, then I use breathing techniques to calm myself down. It’s just something I’ve developed over the years and it happens without any thinking on my part. So, my breathing sort of slows down and I walk in with a hat of being a consummate professional interpreter.

Preparing to listen. I read a lot, and that maybe… If it’s a high-level interpreting for a head of state, then you do need to come prepared and informed and also you need to be really flexible because people say things that… They might give you their speech but it’s not necessary what’s going to happen on the day. And there are stories of interpreters of course that saved the world by not interpreting what the head of state said, which can be amusing but really there are a couple of examples where interpreters actually censored what was said.

The preparation is to be always prepared. You really have to be on your toes. You have to manage people like where they sit. You have to do things like ask for breaks, which sounds strange but people think that for some reason that you can keep going for two hours without a break. You kind of have to be assertive and you need to make people understand that they need to trust you in managing the interpreting that’s about to happen. And the preparation even includes clothes that you wear.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What drew you to your profession? You’ve been in your own business now for many decades and making big impact in solving communications problems and listening. What was it that you wanted to achieve through your profession?

Eva Hussain: 

I don’t know, is the answer. All of this happened kind of accidentally. I worked for local government where I had a running with my boss who despite all my efforts of trying to integrate, he called me in one day and said, you know what, you don’t belong… These were her very words, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, you’re not a team player.” And I was like, “Really, how come?” I couldn’t understand it. And at that point I thought… I was very hurt, but I thought I’m going to take my toys and go to my own playground and make my own story.

That was really something I didn’t quite understand. And I think it’s really interesting when we talk about listening. People that come to Australia from different context, don’t know how to listen to Australians because we’re hearing words, we’re seeing smiling faces, but we don’t understand what they mean. So, for example, Eastern Europeans in my experience are seen as negative sometimes, not all the time, negative, pragmatic, very direct, but we think of ourselves as being realistic. With English and with Australia, we don’t quite understand the context. And that takes a long time to actually get what’s being unsaid, if that makes sense?

And some people just never get it. I still worry about how people perceive me because of that background that I have where if you talk to me about anything, the first thing I see is the problem and I want to talk about the problem and I don’t necessarily want to talk about how to solve it, whereas I see in Australia we see… We don’t even call them problems, we call them challenges here, and then we focus on solutions. And that’s something really valuable that I’ve learned here that I need to shift my thinking and sort of read between the lines a lot about what’s being said.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think Australians can learn from the Polish way of listening, or what do you think Australians can learn from the Russian way of listening?

Eva Hussain: 

We talk less than other people I think. We give people room and space to say what they think. We try not to interrupt. I mean, whatever I’m saying here is pretty general but generally speaking we’re less wordy, we’re more formal, so if we don’t know people sort of on a first names basis, so that the initial contact is quite formal and it might appear a bit cold. But we’ll sit back and let people talk if we don’t know them. But we don’t suffer fools gladly, so we sort of give people an opportunity to prove themselves and we’ll sit back and listen and then want to maybe contribute.

But I think it takes maybe longer to develop relationships in a business context. So, what Australians could learn is yeah, listen more and speak less. That’s what do we say? That we have one mouth and two ears, that is helpful to maybe sizing up your opposition or just understanding the context. Perhaps living in Australia we’re even more removed because we might worry how we’re going to be perceived, how we’re going to be understood.

I think Australians are already pretty good I would say anyway. I think they give people a go, which is something I really love about Australia. They give you space as well to talk and explain what you do for example. But they’re a little bit less patient and less direct I guess. And there is a lot of smiling that we don’t always understand.

Oscar Trimboli:

I’m curious, in your work in your work in the community sector do you work with children and what does listening mean as an interpreter in that context?

Eva Hussain: 

Okay. Working with children is a very interesting area because most children actually do speak English, so often we work with their parents and their children are there. And they’re Polish or Russian or whatever language skills might not be really good because they were born in Australia, so they kind of speak a kitchen variety. And often they resent speaking Polish because they don’t understand the context of… They really want to belong in Australia.

The children I have interpreted for and I can give you one example and it was a pretty harrowing case because it was to do with child abuse in a church setting. It was really difficult because on one hand I had to act professionally and the child was with the mother they were being interviewed by the police. On another hand, I was just mortified by the whole situation and the fact that I was part of that community and like without wanting to be judgemental I was just petrified of the whole thing.

The best I can do in that sort of a situation is just do justice to the words to make sure that I’m interpreting really accurately, I’m listening, just give justice to the communication on the day.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How do you catch yourself in that moment to stay out of judgement, how do you notice it, and how do you stay away from it?

Eva Hussain: 

I very early in my career I had a situation that has taught me a lifetime lesson, so since then I’ve been very conscious of not being judgemental. And this was in a tribunal situation where I was interpreting for a couple of people that looked in a certain away, so they kind of looked like uneducated peasants, for lack of a better word. And the situation got very quickly out of hand, there was a lot of anger in the room so the hearing was stopped and I felt really quite bad for this elderly parent because I read the situation in a particular way.

Anyway, we left the tribunal hearing room and in fact we were told to leave through a separate entrance because it was such a volatile situation. And I did see the parents driving off in a silver Mercedes from the car park. I guess the shock value of that was don’t you ever, ever to myself, ever, ever judge a situation because you just don’t know. You don’t know what people are thinking, you don’t know where people have come from, you don’t know anything, and you don’t need to know anything. All you need to know is to do a good interpreting job on the day.

Oscar Trimboli:

And how has that informed you going forward then when you catch yourself in judgement what’s the mental tricks you play to get yourself back out of judgement? Because one of the things people struggle with in their listening is being judgmental. In fact, one of the four villains of listening, the shrewd listener, spends a lot of their time in judgement, and what it stops them from doing is actually listening to what’s happening in front of them. How do you get back in the game so to speak without judgement?

Eva Hussain:

I have a mantra and I do a lot of self-talk, so it’d be don’t judge, these are not your words, you’ve got to say what these people have said, you have to act it out, it’s not your problem, you’re not part of this conversation other than facilitating communication. It kind of happens in your head unconsciously, but I’m very aware of it and I couldn’t do this job if I was judgemental because you do deal with all kinds of situations that you might not agree with or be aligned with. For me, it’s a mantra, it’s the self-talk kind of technique where I just say don’t judge, it’s not your problem, you’re here to interpret.

Oscar Trimboli:

Okay. So let’s take you out of your interpreting context and put you in everyday life.

Eva Hussain:

Yes.

 

Oscar Trimboli: 

And let’s talk about the four villains of listening, the lost listener, the interrupting listener, the shrewd listener, and the dramatic listener. Which one of those frustrate you the most when somebody is listening to you?

Eva Hussain: 

By far, the interrupting. I hate it so much when people haven’t let you finish your sentence and they already know what you’re going to say, or they switch off. You can see their eyes glazing over, they switch off halfway through the point you’re trying to make because they already think they know what you’re going to say. It’s annoying. And it happens a lot to women… Sorry, I think. In my experience, anyway. And I think also because I give people a lot of space when I listen to them they mistake that for… Because people want to fill up that space with chatter, whereas I’m happy to say less but better. That would be the most frustrating type of listener for me I think.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What do you think the cost is to you and to the interrupting listener?

Eva Hussain: 

The cost is that I think less of them. I’m not an equal partner in their conversation if people don’t give me enough space and time to explain, express myself, then I’m at a disadvantage. How that then translate to a transaction let’s say, I don’t know, I haven’t measured it, but it annoys me. I don’t I guess appreciate the exchange, the conversation as much as I would if I was given equal footing.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Thinking about the four villains and thinking about you as a listener, which one do you think you’re guilty of?

Eva Hussain: 

Probably shrewd listener I think.

Oscar Trimboli: 

How does that show up in your personal situation?

Eva Hussain: 

Yeah, I want to size people up I guess. I want to always, always, always blend in and not ever stand out especially if it’s in a context that I don’t know well or in a business kind of situation or networking. And I prefer for people to talk and me to listen, but it’s not always acting active listening, I have to say. Sometimes I kind of let them talk because it’s easier for me to listen than make conversation.

Oscar Trimboli: 

And for those of you listening who weren’t able to see it the minute Eva said she was not actively listening, her face tightened up a bit again and that’s another number or signal except for me what I’m looking for while I’m listening to Eva is the congruency between what’s on her face and what’s coming out of her mouth, and she’s so congruent, she’s so transparent, everything she says aligns beautifully and that makes listening to her such pleasure and so easy to do. I thank you for that transparency Eva.

Let’s just dance with the concept, the 125-400 rule says, we speak at a 125 words a minute and we can listen between 400 and 900, and some people nearly up to 1250 words a minute. But what that means for the speaker is there are thinking about 400 to 600 words a minute but they can only say 125 words a minute as well. What it means is, the most powerful thing in listening is level four, what’s unsaid. And what’s unsaid is all the ideas in your mind, 400 of them. 400 words that you’re trying to get out but you can only get out 125 to 150 if you’re a really fast speaker. So, Eva, how do you explore what’s unsaid with others when you’re listening?

Eva Hussain: 

It would certainly be the tone voice because you can say anything but depending on your tone voice the receiver will take it differently. It’ll be the silences, the pauses. It’ll be facial expressions, when they’re looking impatient or… Loudness of voices, these are some of the things I look out for.

And in my professional life that’s actually quite difficult to translate or interpret because worry is… let’s say somebody is really angry, do I amplify that message by interpreting in a really angry tone of voice or do I remain neutral and professional because whoever I’m interpreting for can already see that the person is angry or sad?

Different interpreters will have a different approach to that. Mine is that I… My tone of voice is pretty even and levelled and I try not to introduce extra elements.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Well, let’s put Eva the interpreter and the actor off stage and lets just focus on Eva, how do you explore unsaid in everyday dialogue?

Eva Hussain: 

I look at it, I analyse it, I try and understand the context, I try and look into myself and work out whether what I’m seeing, what I’m hearing, or what I’m not hearing or seeing, how do I translate that into what I understand given that I am from a different culture and context and situations. I’m always watchful, kind of aware, and I try to learn lessons from it. Every time I see somebody or speak to them and I’ve assessed them, I think to myself, okay what lesson am I learning from this, what can I take away to enrich my own communication, my own listening skills, my own professional practise on my own personal lives. Yeah, I’ve got one. I don’t know if it’s particularly pertinent but I think when you’re dealing with people from other cultures, give them the benefit of the doubt because they come from a different context, which may not be aligned with yours. Give them space to explain. Give them an opportunity. That would be sort of final words from Eva.

Oscar Trimboli: 

And they’re great final words to leave us on, Eva!

Oscar Trimboli: 

I love the way that Eva has brought her passion for listening into every conversation she has each day. The way she brings that passion in her personal and professional life is quite powerful. I hope you took away the fact that although we may live in modern, multicultural, and secular societies, the opportunities for misunderstanding in everyday conversation are literally everywhere. But by taking a bit of extra time to understand what people are actually expressing and meaning by listening more deeply, we can remove chaos, confusion, and conflict. And Eva did a great job of this.

Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words.

 

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