The Dragoman

1 Oct

The United Nations buildings in Manhattan had become like a second home for linguistically talented Paul Kirby.

Every working day, he marched through the main entrance at 46th St. and 1st Avenue. The security guards had grown familiar with his tall, slender body, his long face, large head, and dark green eyes.

His staff position was that of a multiple interpreter, what those involved in the profession called a “dragoman”, using the Middle-Eastern term for those who once utilized their knowledge and skills with Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Greek, and French, among the most utilized tongues in trade and diplomacy.

Paul never forgot that a dragoman could serve as a guide, an active advisor of those with important responsibilities. He saw himself as an important participant, not a passive instrument or medium.

Of all the U.N. linguists and interpreters, I am the only one who exercises psychic capacities, the handsome young American said to himself in secret. His facility in a multiplicity of languages resulted from his unique mental skill to penetrate beyond differences to the core meaning of what was being said or written, and render it in one of the major languages that he had mastered through formal and self-education in languages.

I can operate in many languages because of my unique ability to transcend lingual barriers and differences through psionic powers, the admired dragoman would frequently tell himself with a concealed smile.

The chief of the Translation Bureau was an Arabic-Chinese specialist, a middle-aged former academic named Leila el-Zaman. She was a short, vigorous woman of boundless energy. Her slender, still attractive figure darted about overseeing the large linguistic staff of the world organization.

There were few translators or interpreters that Leila valued or depended upon as much as Paul Kirby. She seemed to sense a unique and extraordinary talent for languages in the American. He could be depended upon for diligent work and total accuracy as a dragoman. When there were stormy sessions full of verbal conflict in the Security Council or the General Assembly, Paul was a mainstay or trustworthy service. Neither of them realized how important his personal contribution was to the successes taken for granted by the multitude of member nations and their representatives.

Leila walked into Paul’s tiny office one afternoon with an announcement that was a surprise to him.

“We have a new reforming program going into effect in the near future. It looks like the new General Secretary has the intention of reorganizing our department, like most of the rest of the Secretariat.
There is going to be an expert coming here to design a better system of translation, one more sophisticated and efficient than we are now using. He is going to make a direct study of our language programs, then decide on what changes can improve how we function.”

Paul gave her a look of surprise. “Is an all-out, radical reforming of our work here envisioned?” he asked his boss.

“Who knows?” shrugged Leila. “It depends on the character and background of the man appointed to inspect and reformulate our department. He is a professor from Germany, and his name is Kurt Wahn, and he has studied language translation for several decades. It is believed that there are few persons anywhere with his knowledge and experience in our area.

“We shall have to wait and find out what he may have in store for us.”

It was at a very early hour, before any sessions or meetings had begun. The entire Translation Department was present in the staff conference hall to see and hear the man from Germany who had been hired to remodel and improve U.N. translation and interpreting.

Wahn was a soft, fat, rotund figure with coal black hair and eyes of woody hazel. He addressed the small group in a deep bass voice, standing behind a metal podium.

“I am happy to have been called here by the United Nations to help perfect the organization and functioning of language translation.

“There can be no doubt that your ranks must deal with a worldwide spectrum of languages. What can be more difficult than serving as the mediators of international communication? Both the major and the major tongues spoken on our planet fall under your scope. The accuracy of how nations understand each other depends upon your skills and talents. Your work keeps the wheels of peace and progress in motion.

“As we all know, recent years have brought about great jumps forward in all areas of philology. Language study has experienced a virtual revolution. This means that translation work has had to absorb and adjust to new methods and advanced technologies. Such changes are not at all easy to effect, but they pay off in results and savings.

“I shall try to draw every one of you into my efforts to modernize the operations of your department. It will be absolutely necessary for all of us to work together in harmony in order to bring modern science into U.N. translation and interpretation.

“If any problems should arise in your daily work, do not fail to come and confer with me. I shall need your assistance and advice so that we can cooperate in the days ahead. Thank all of you.”

With that, the overweight philologist strode out of the conference hall. Among the assembled translators, hardly a whisper was heard.

Dr. Kurt Wahn appeared at the personal office of Paul Kirby late in the afternoon the following day. He was smiling with confidence, asking the translator if he had the time to answer some important questions connected with the survey being made of the department’s system of operation.

“Of course,” answered Paul. “I have my time free at this time. What would you like to know about?”

Wahn sat down and peered with curiosity at the translator.

“It was interesting to me that you are working in three different languages simultaneously, and that your evaluations have been very good. Your languages are Russian, German, and Swedish. That is a strange, fascinating combination. How did you happen to come to it? Why these particular tongues? And how do you succeed in keeping separate the work that you do in this trio of languages? I would like to know what might understand about the width of your knowledge, your multiplicity of subjects and areas. What do you think lies behind this unusual capacity that you possess?”

Paul felt unsettled and endangered. This investigator of U.N. interpreting seemed to be threatening to enter his way of working, his method of handling such disparate language areas. What was he to say now? He did not want to lie. But was it possible for him to disguise the truth about his unusual, abnormal method of operating in languages?

One day after his encounter with Dr. Wahn, he received a intercom message summoning to the office being used by the Inspector-Reformer of the Translation Department. What could this be about? wondered Paul.

“Please, be seated, Mr. Kirby,” said the language specialist as soon as he saw the latter enter his personal domain. “There is an important matter that I want to discuss with you. It could have an enormous effect on the future course of your professional activity.”

Wondering what the German was referring to, Paul sat down facing the other across a desk piled high with papers and portfolios.

“Recent years have witnessed marvelous advances in neurological technology, until today science is able to shape and increase the natural, inherited mental capacities of the human mind. You are surely aware of the progress that has been made in developing enhancing inserts, as small as a nano-ribbon or single fiber that can be surgically placed inside a human brain in order to multiply its skills and powers. There have been great strides in increasing mathematical and logical abilities in individual cases. Artistic and aesthetic sensibilities have also gone through such treatment with great positive results attained.

“Now, though, it will be the area of the brain engaged in language and translation that shall be augmented. In other words, electronic surgery permits the implantation of enhancing brain inserts specially fitted with a number of language systems. These tiny strands and ribbons will add new tongues to one’s mental treasury. The memory will be made fabulously rich in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and lingual manipulation. Any translator with such inserts will instantly become master of new language skills, multiplying the ability to use these systems as wished.

“Can you imagine the possibilities here at the United Nations, my friend? The prospects ahead are breathtaking, believe me.” He paused for a moment. “Because of the abilities that you have already displayed in your work, Mr. Kirby, I have chosen you to be the first person in your department to receive such enhancement with a nano-insert. The experts assure me that the surgery is quick and simple, without pain or danger of any sort.

“It is a voluntary operation, of course. There is no formal obligation on your part. You yourself shall voluntarily choose to undergo the insertion into the area of the brain.

“But I assure you, it will make you the central star of your profession. The entire world of translators and interpreters will become aware of your amazing achievements. You shall become a renowned person in your field of endeavor. I can foresee great advances for you in rank and compensation in days to come, once you have been given the benefit of language enhancement through the planting of language fibers in your brain system.

“What do you say? Take a few days to think the matter over, if you need. By the end of this week, I hope that I have an answer from you. An affirmative one, of course.”

Wahn gave the confused translator a weak, almost meaningless smile.

Paul replied with a nod, then excused himself and left the office, already knowing that he was going to accept the offered insert in his brain. He was too dedicated a translator to turn it down.

Leila had been told about the plan previously and now came to his tiny office to confer about it with Paul Kirby.

“It will be a big step forward for all of us,” she admitted to him. “The United Nations will become the world center for electronic-computer enhanced language work. We shall become able to add new skills to our staff through neurological empowerment, so to speak. That will be like a miraculous addition to all that we now possess.”

The mind of Paul kept returning to his own abilities to read other minds through psychic gifts that he had been born with.

Was he to become the pioneer in combining nano-electronics with the psionic? This looked like becoming an experiment whose boundaries he alone could perceive or measure. Dr. Wahn, surely, had no idea of what sort of invisible mixture he was going to produce within the brain of this single translator.

Did brain implantation go along with extrasensory sensitivity? How would either one of them affect the other? he wondered, but could find no answer. At this stage, his thoughts were totally speculative, Paul told himself. He was unable to see what his future might hold.

I have to trust that this will all come out fine, in the end. I must take the risk of having a ribbon placed into my brain, Paul decided.

Leila had a number of discussions with him about what languages should be set into the particular nano-fiber to be placed in him.

“I recommend that you request that the electronic specialists include Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in the package that you receive,” she told him as they discussed the subject in her office in the Secretariat Building.

He gave her a wry smile. “I was considering a group of Romance languages. For instance, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French. That would give me an entire family of Indo-European tongues that I would be able to handle in future work. What do you think?”

She thought for a short time. “The decision, of course, is basically yours to make. But let me suggest this: combine both groups of languages into one united ribbon. The Far Eastern together with the European Romance tongues. Why not? Dr. Wahn said to me that there is no conceivable limit to how many or which languages might be miniaturized and located on the same insert nano-fiber. Two kinds of systems could be placed into your brain simultaneously, I believe.

“Would that be satisfactory to you, Paul?”

The latter grinned and gave a nod. “More than satisfactory,” he declared positively, but with unanswered questions in the back of his mind.

The surgery occurred at Sanai Hospital and did not take too long to carry out. An hour and a half in the recovery room allowed Paul to leave for home and privacy there in his own apartment.

His first visitor was Leila, who brought an entire meal for him to enjoy.

“Thank you,” he said, “lying on the soft sofa in his living room. “I did not sense any pain, during or after the implantation was made. It is amazing how well I feel. This is not at all what I expected to happen.”

Leila sat down on a chair close to the sofa. “You are aware, of course, that Dr. Wahn plans to carry out practice testing on the results of what was inserted in you. That means there will be translation exercises ahead for you.”

“I am ready for anything that he might wish to throw at me,” said the resting subject of surgery. “We shall find out how much improvement has happened in my brain.”

Dr. Wahn arranged for complex technical apparatuses to be set up in a special studio for the examination and testing of Paul’s condition as a translator. After several days of rest, the subject of the experiment arrived at the Secretariat Building for his scheduled session under observation and measurement. It was Kurt Wahn who explained the procedure that was going to be followed. Leila stood beside him, her eyes on Paul, sitting in front of a computer screen on which video tapes of speakers using the designated languages inserted into his brain were to be displayed. Could this augmented, enhanced translator deal with tongues that he had not taken any time to study in an academic sense?

“The first presentation will be of a native user of Mandarin Chinese. It will be followed by speakers using Japanese and Korean. Then, will shall all take a break for rest and lunch. When we return here for our afternoon meeting, the tapes being shown can go on to the European Romance languages of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French.

“There will then be sufficient data for an objective evaluation of the effects of having implanted these specially designed brain ribbons.”

He gave a signal with his right hand to an assistant at the control desk at the opposite end of the room and the experiment commenced.

Operations started to go wrong immediately.

The Mandarin Chinese words and sentences spoken by the Chinese announcer entered the ears of the enhanced translator with audibility and clarity, but became mangled and distorted in the process of processing within the brain of Paul Kirby.

Dr. Wahn, Leila, and the technical assistant in charge of transmitting the video tape to Paul recognized at once, in a few seconds, that a strange catastrophe was occurring in front of them.

Leila turned in panic to the man in charge of the insert project and saw that the lips of Wahn were trembling in an odd manner.

The experiment was becoming immediately a disaster.

Kurt Wahn suddenly shouted a command to his petrified assistant. “Change it over at once. Let him hear the Japanese announcer and see how it comes out then.”

The video and audio images coming from the computer screen in front of Paul instantly changed from Chinese to Japanese.

Paul had to adjust somehow, his brain had to make a switch to a different in-coming language signal. How would he now perform his translating task into English?

Leila watched and listened with bated breath. Her eyes peered at Paul, her ears sought and caught what he was saying.

She grimaced in pain as she perceived what approached nonsense coming out of the mouth and throat of the operated-upon translator.

They were facing obvious failure and defeat with the entire program of ribbon insertion into a brain. This fiasco was not at all what anyone had anticipated when the project was planned and begun.

Dr. Wahn made a second change in less than a minute. “Change the tape again,” he yelled out to his assistant. “Let him hear the Korean.”

Once more, a new announcer speaking in a new language appeared on Paul’s screen. Korean words and sentences flowed forth from his lips.

Any hopes for altered results collapsed again.

A jumble of disorganized gibberish issued from Paul as before, with the two previous attempts at translation.

Something unforeseen had happened, but no one could say what.

Kurt Wahn made an instantaneous decision, turning to his assistant and muttering in a defeated tone of confused surrender. “Turn it all off. We are going to halt the whole thing at once. No more transmissions at this time. This man must go back to the hospital immediately.”

The computer screen that Paul had been watching went blank, his eyes still glued to it.

As Wahn picked up a phone to summon an ambulance, Leila stepped up to where the man with the implant sat in sad confusion. She reached down and took his right hand in hers, holding it with the intention of assuring him that someone felt sympathy for what he had had to endure in this weird program that had tampered with his mind.

Paul lay in a placid stupor for several days before he could answer anyone’s questions.

No, he had no idea what may have occurred during the test.

It had been a dreamlike experience, but he was unable to remember any of the details.

None of the physicians or psychologists who examined him could give any kind of explanation for the failure of the program.

After a week and a half, the medics decided to release him.

It was Leila who informed him that the project had ended, canceled by superiors in the U.N. Secretariat.

“As soon as possible, they want the insert ribbon removed, Paul,” she told him with a sad smile. “You should be able, in a short while, to return to your regular translating tasks, just as before.”

All of a sudden, the man in the hospital bed realized a stark, painful reality.

The insertion of a nano-fiber into his brain had in some way erased his inborn psychic foundation.

He would never again be the star translator he had once been.

Neurological interference of some sort had changed his mental structure irreparably.

“I think it best if I retire from the profession,” he murmured to Leila as he began to make plans for an unanticipated future.

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