Freedom from Torture - Richard McKane - Interpreting torture

Richard McKane - Interpreting torture

Richard McKane is a survivor. Once a ferocious schoolboy squash champion, he now walks with a pronounced limp following an injury he sustained while in the grip of a mental breakdown after leaving university.

The demons that he battled are long behind him, but the legacy they left, a profound sympathy for those whose lives are suddenly altered in unpleasant and unexpected ways, has shaped his adult life.

A keen linguist, fluent in both Turkish and Russian, Richard has for the last 16 years been an interpreter at the Medical Foundation, a job requiring both empathy and sensitivity, and much else besides.

A poet in his own right, he is also a translator of international renown, who through his own understanding of the strengths and frailties of the human spirit, and its fears and desires, has long been drawn to the work of Turkish and Russian poets and writers who have fallen foul of officialdom and suffered imprisonment, exile and even death.

His efforts to bring the work of such people to the attention of the English-speaking world reached their zenith in 2003 when three books of his translations appeared, along with a book of his own verse.

Ten Russian Poets - Surviving the 20th Century is an anthology of verse in which Richard chose a Russian poet to represent each decade of the last century, the common theme being survival. In some cases the poets had been completely ignored in their own life times, in others the defiance of their poetry had quickly brought them to the attention of the authorities.

Another of the books, Osip Mandelstam: Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks jointly translated by Richard and his former wife Elizabeth is the work of a lyric poet who in verse compared Stalin to a cockroach and was sent to a labour camp for his temerity, where he soon died.

Richard's third book of poetry last year, Coffeehouse Poems, is his own work in English, as well as translated into Turkish, with most of the poems written in the coffee shops of Kentish Town to which Richard repaired between interpreting sessions at the Medical Foundation. Unsurprisingly, human rights issues and the work of the foundation are themes throughout.

The fourth book to appear was Asiye's Story, Richard's translation from Turkish of leftwing journalist Asiye Zeybek Guzel's account of her ongoing battle against the feelings of shame, trauma and violation, coupled with a burning desire for retribution, after she was raped and subjected to other tortures when arrested in Turkey and sent to prison for five years.

On her release in 2003, she travelled to Sweden to collect a human rights prize for her writing and was promptly sentenced in her absence to another 12 years imprisonment for alleged membership of an illegal organisation. A permanent exile ever since, she last year appeared at the Royal Festival Hall where actress Juliet Stevenson, a Medical Foundation patron, read from Richard's translation of her work.

"I was introduced to Russian while at school and took it in a big way, going on to read it at Oxford" said Richard. Turkish came a little later when I was invited there by a friend in the mid 1960s. I fell in love with the landscapes and the sea scapes. In many ways it was the cradle of my poetry. It was the Turkish landscape that inspired my first poems."

An earlier book of Richard's poems and translations, Poet for Poet, was chosen by Medical Foundation founder Helen Bamber as the one book she would like to be marooned with on BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs several years ago.

At the Medical Foundation, Richard is one of 70 interpreters who offer more than 50 languages. Those most in demand offer Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi (for Iranian and some Afghan clients), French (for Francophone Africans), Amharic (Ethiopia), Tigrinyan (Eritrea), Arabic, Lingala (a language from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Albanian (Albania and Kosovo).

Jill Gander, Head of the Interpreting Team, says Richard's ability to empathise and his sensitivity are only two of the qualities that an interpreter must have. We also look for a recognised qualification in interpreting and an ability to engender trust. Resilience and maturity are also essential: the stories related by clients who have seen unimaginable horrors and atrocities perpetrated on them and their families could have a devastating impact on an inexperienced interpreter.

"Medical Foundation interpreters must also be willing to develop through training, as there is no training out there specifically aimed at people working in mental health, or with the traumatised."

In many cases, she added, the interpreter, in addition to translating, can have a crucial non-linguistic role in explaining to clinicians and caseworkers the cultural customs of the countries in which they specialise, as well as the religious beliefs, sexual taboos, and social conventions. They may also help explain the family hierarchy in specific communities, and issues such as shame and pride in a particular society.



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