Draško Drak Nikodijević was the first bass player and the vocalist of the iconic ‘80s band ‘Igra Staklenih Perli’ (“The Glass Bead Game”). After leaving the band, he formed The White Rabbit Band and in the late 1980s moved to the US where he worked as an interpreter for USAID, the State Department and many others, while at the same time pursuing his first love – music, and discovering others, like meditation and reiki.
While interviews about his music career are easily found, this one is about the most memorable moments of his interpreting career.
- How did you get started in the translation business?
D: When I was a college student in Belgrade, I gave English lessons to kids and picked up translation jobs for pocket money. Apparently, they liked my translations, so by the time I reached my senior year in college, I was already working full time as a freelance translator.
- Why did you become an interpreter and what path did you take to get to this point in your career?
D: I never thought about working as an interpreter. I didn’t think I could do it. I was scared shitless of simultaneous, too. But being a musician, I needed a “day job”, and there was a job opening at the State Department in Washington, DC. They paid well, and I needed the money. So I went to DC, got tested, and got the job. It was a job that involved interpreting for and traveling with individuals and groups from Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia around the United States. Also, at the time, I was living in New York City, and they needed interpreters in the courts.
I never had a business plan or anything. I rarely advertise, and I don’t even carry business cards. But, apparently, clients like my work and they keep calling me back.
- How did you land your first translating/interpreting job?
D: I don’t remember my first translating job. I remember translating “Garfield” comics, while I was still in college. I liked that. And my first interpreting job ever was interpreting for a Chinese delegation (accompanied by an English/Chinese interpreter) in Novi Sad. My uncle happened to be drinking in Novi Sad one day, and he overheard someone saying they needed an English interpreter, so he volunteered his nephew (me). That’s how I got my first big job. That job was so frustrating. I was so young and inexperienced, half the time I had no idea what they were talking about, so I improvised a lot. I felt embarrassed. A sheer nightmare!
- What has been your biggest professional challenge?
D: Probably being in the booth for simultaneous interpreting for the first time. My first simultaneous job was at the State Department in Washington, DC. It was the “Washington Agreement” made between the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Muslims about the formation of the “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina” in 1995 (I think). Stipe Mesić, Silajdžič… Lots of important political figures were present there.
I was shaking. I had no prior training and absolutely no experience in simultaneous interpreting. My Serbian pronunciation (ekavica) rang out among all the Croats and Bosnians. I had no idea what was going on. I was trembling. Fortunately, my partner was Maja Popović, a State Department veteran, who helped me enormously. Before we started, our supervisor came to the booth, he gave me some brief instructions, and then he said, “Ok, here we go. Don’t fuck it up now!” and he turned my mic on for me. I was sweating bullets that day. I realized history was in the making, and I was so nervous about doing it right. Fortunately, Maja was there. Nobody complained about me. I was in!
- What has been your biggest professional reward?
D: My biggest professional reward is that I survived. That I made it. When I started translating and interpreting I never thought of it as a career. I thought it was a temporary “day job” until my music career picked up, or something else happened. And 40 plus years later I am still surviving, I am doing well financially. I’ve never ever had a “regular” job. And for that I do feel grateful.
D: Also, in the capacity of a “State Department representative”, I had many opportunities to meet in person Native American chiefs, medicine men, judges, and tribal activists from many different tribes. Tourists don’t get to meet any of them. I’ve always found American Indians fascinating in many different ways. Indians have a deep respect for interpreters. I remember one time, I was visiting an Indian nation in Arizona with a group of people from Kosovo, with several interpreters for Serbian and Albanian, and the Chief of the tribe offered special respects to all the interpreters first, and then he greeted everyone else. A-howgh!
D: Another time I was with this marketing guy from Belgrade; we were in North Dakota, and we managed to get on a Dakota Sioux Spirits Lake reservation and we stayed with the Medicine Man and his family for several days. We also participated in their tribal ceremonies in underground chambers, which we were asked not to talk about.
- What type of ethical dilemmas have you encountered as an interpreter and how did you deal with those?
D: Well, working for the State Department, most of the work is done with high-level professionals, so there are very few surprises there. However, working as a local court interpreter in New York and New Jersey, some of those cases were a trip.
You see, most of the ex-Yugoslav immigrants in New York City are Dalmatians, coming from very poor remote islands in the Adriatic. Many of them work as construction workers, and they never learn to speak much English, but – for communication purposes – they develop an entire vocabulary of made-up “English” words. It took me a while to understand that “kampan” means “compound mixture” and “šidrag” is actually “sheetrock”, etc. Also, attorneys, in their questions, like to use “legalese” terms in order to deliberately confuse the witness…. but the witness would think the interpreter is using terms they do not understand, and they would complain about the “interpretation”. So, I quickly learned that, in order to keep working as court interpreter, I had to sort-of “modify” the attorneys’ questions, using the terms I knew Croatian witnesses understood.
- What did you do if you were interpreting and a person said something that you did not agree with or found upsetting?
D: Oh, in my line of work I have to deal with interpreting untruths a lot. Politicians often lie, or deliberately misconstrue facts. But, in those situations, I think of myself as an “interpreting machine”; I focus on the quality of the interpretation and I ignore the content.
OK, so once these Albanians from Kosovo couldn’t get an Albanian interpreter, so I volunteered to step in, as long as they didn’t mind speaking Serbian. They were a little hesitant. I said to them, “you can say whatever you want to the Americans. I will interpret everything fairly and accurately, but please don’t expect me to believe what you are saying. Are we OK on that?” So, they spoke about the Albanians being the oldest nation on the Balkans, they spoke of the Albanian dynasty “Nemanjići”, who built monasteries, before the Serbs came and destroyed everything, etc., etc. As I had agreed to, I interpreted everything accurately, and I didn’t offer any comments.
- How do you prepare for an interpretation session?
D: In ideal situations, I get all the materials in advance. In less ideal situations, I try to get the name of the client, so I can go to their website and get acquainted with their business, or trade, or whatever. Often, I get nothing in advance. Well, that’s tough! I do what I can. After all, I am only human.
- Which job are you most proud of and why?
This is a long, bitter-sweet story. It really happened. It happened in NYC in the early ‘90s and at the time Serbia was at war with Croatia. The war affected the immigrant community in New York, too.
So, one day I got a call from this interpreting agency. They told me it was an unusual job: I was to go to Brooklyn, to the office of a “Mr. White” and Mr. White would explain to me what the job was about.
The following day I was in Brooklyn in front of an office with a glass door. It said “Reginald White, Attorney-At-Law” on it. I knocked.
A black, well-dressed gentleman opened the door.
“I am looking for Mr. White,” I said politely.
“Errrr… That would be me,” he said with a broad smile. “Surprised?” he asked, still keeping that smile.
“Well, frankly… yes,” I admitted. We both looked at each other and we laughed out loud.
So, Mr. White explained to me that his client, this Croatian gentleman from Slavonia, had suffered work-related injuries at the railroad yards, and Mr. White had prepared a document describing how the accident happened for the workers’ compensation board. We were to go to his client’s house, since he is injured, and my job was to read the document to his client in Croatian, and – if he agreed with the contents of the document – I was to ask him to sign it, and we’d be done.
Piece of cake, we can do that. Let’s go!
“Also, he told me his brother was killed by the Serbs, and he hates Serbs,” added Mr. White. My heart sank.
“I am Serbian,” I said.
“Shit! What are we gonna do now? He told me he does not allow Serbs into his house!”
I didn’t want to lose the gig, so I said to him: “Let’s just go there and we’ll improvise, adapt, overcome.”
We took his car to Astoria, an area of Queens where most of the Croatian immigrants live. It took a while, but eventually we got there. The Croatian guy was limping, moving with difficulties. I looked at the walls of the place. Covered with Croatian flags and pictures of the Croatian army. There were pictures of Jesus and Virgin Mary, too. I thought that was a good sign.
So, I interpreted the document to the guy in Serbian, using the phrases easily understood by the Croatian-speaking folks. But I could tell he had a nervous tick every time I said “hiljadu” instead of “tisuću”.
After a while, we were done, and Mr. White and I were ready to leave. As we were about to say goodbye, he dropped the bomb on me, “And which part of Croatia are you from?”
“I am from Belgrade”, I said.
“Aaaaaaaaah,” he started yelling, “My brother was killed by the Serbs, and who’s gonna bring my brother back, aaaaaaaaah?!” I listened to him, without interrupting. He was extremely upset.
“I am very sorry to hear that, sir,” I said slowly. “You see, I lost my cousin in Vukovar, too. We grew up together, she got married in Croatia, in Vukovar, and she died there. Who killed her, who knows? She is dead now. We’re all victims of this war.”
“So, what are we going to do about that?” he said, still angry. It seemed like, for the first time, he became aware that Serbian civilians, too, were dying in that war.
“The only thing we can do is pray to Jesus Christ, asking for this war to end soon. That’s the only thing us mortals can do, sir!” He just stood there. I continued, “So, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and let’s pray for this war to end soon.” I allowed my pain to show.
“Oh, yes, you guys are Christians, too? Well, have a Merry Christmas, too!” he said with a tearful smile, and we almost hugged. He walked us down the hallway, all the way to the street, limping in pain all the time, and when Mr. White and I got in the car, he just stood there, in front of the building waving goodbye to us.
“What did you say to him?” asked Mr. White, as we set off. “At one point he was so mad I thought he was going to hit you, and then you said something to him, and the next thing, you guys are almost hugging each other! WHAT DID YOU SAY TO HIM?” I thought about it, and suddenly it dawned on me. It wasn’t what I said; it was how I said it that brought about the change of heart for the better. The guy had a go at me as a Croat to a Serb and, had I responded in the same manner, he would probably slug me. Instead, I spoke to him from my heart, on a human-to-human level. Fortunately, he took it and a near tragedy ended on a good note. Mr. White liked the explanation, and said we needed more of that sort of inter-racial communication around the world. I think all three of us learned an important lesson that day.
- What was the worst job you were ever asked to do?
D: It was a “do-it-yourself” manual on how to build furniture. It was badly written, full of terms I did not understand, so I had to put my tail between my legs, and call the client and say, “Sorry, I cannot do this!” That was the only time I did not complete a job I had accepted.
- What is the best and the worst thing about being an interpreter?
D: The best thing is traveling, getting to meet people in many different walks of life, etc. And the worst thing for me is having to repeat what others have to say. Most of my colleagues do not have the same problem, but that’s the worst part for me.
- As an interpreter you have to understand at least two cultures well. Do you have any interesting experience of where those cultures clash/see things differently and can you give us any examples?
D: Yes, understanding different cultures is a responsibility. For instance, once I was interpreting for this Bosnian politician. He was in a meeting with this lady in Portland, Oregon. At one point in the conversation, he goes, “In my country, a fat old woman, such as yourself, would never get a job.” I turned to him and I said in Serbian “I am not going to interpret this, please rephrase your thoughts. I will explain later.” Fortunately, he agreed, and a major cultural disaster was thereby avoided.
Or, this Montenegrin journalist telling me to ask the waiter for bread – in a Chinese restaurant! I refused.
- What are your thoughts on being handed the speaker’s text just minutes before you have to start interpreting his speech? How do you approach it?
D: I feel grateful. Most often I don’t get the text at all.
- What’s your funniest interpreting story?
D: Life is brutally expensive in NYC, so, as a rule, you never turn down a paying job. I sometimes even took offers for court depositions in Macedonian (hoping they would understand Serbian). I never killed a job. It is “improvise, adapt, overcome”, and before you know it, the deposition is over.
So, once I went to Staten Island to interpret for this lady in Macedonian. Most Macedonians understand Serbian a little, while some speak it fluently. This lady, on the contrary, did not speak a single word of Serbian, and I only understand a few words in Macedonian. Houston, we have a problem! I explained to the attorneys that we have “slight linguistic differences”, but everyone wanted to get that deposition done that day, so we went ahead. This Macedonian lady had had a traffic accident, driving without a license, and on top of that, she was illegal in the US. So, the prosecutor asked, “How did the accident happen?” and the lady went on to explain how this “trokot” came out of nowhere. What the hell is a “trokot?” I was thinking. It occurred to me that “ot” is probably an article in Macedonian, but what is “trok” then? My mind was racing for a solution. Suddenly, it dawned on me that “trok” is probably a derivative of “truck”, so I decided to give it a shot. “A truck came out of nowhere”, I said. “What kind of a truck?” the prosecutor asked. “Kakav trokot?” I translated the question back to the Macedonian lady. She looked at me, dead serious, and said, “eden golem trokot”. I thought it was very funny, but I had to keep a poker face.
- Any memorable interpreting jobs you might want to share with us?
D: Once, around the turn of the century, I had a job escorting a group of people from Serbia, who were on a cultural mission. Since they all spoke English, my job was to drive them from one meeting to the other, and we visited museums, opera houses, performance spaces, concerts, etc., all over the United States. And I was getting paid for it.
- Where do music and interpretation meet? Can they co-exist together?
D: In my life, music and interpreting balance each other out. As a musician, a stage performer, I ride on my own ego, and I allow my creative side to manifest itself. At the same time, as an interpreter, I have to put my ego in the back seat. I swallow my pride and keep on repeating what others have to say.
But, in both roles I am also a shaman. A shaman’s job is to interpret the “other” world to those who do not see it or understand it. As a musician, I interpret the world of the invisible, and as an interpreter I interpret cultures (and political opinions).
- What advice would you give to an up and coming interpreter?
D: The same advice my supervisor gave to me on my first day of work. He said, there are two types of interpreters in this world: amateurs and professionals. Both make mistakes. But amateurs, when they make their first mistake, they fall apart, they are done. Professionals, on the other hand, also make mistakes, they also fall apart sometimes…. but they pick up at the beginning of the next sentence and move on. No big deal. Just keep going, don’t stop, and you’ll do fine.