Early on in The Interpreter, a series of coincidences befalls the title character, Dominique Green: While working at an international pharmaceutical conference, she overhears that a researcher is under pressure to postpone a revolutionary HIV treatment; she unknowingly meets and falls for the researcher; she discovers that a friend is dying of AIDS. As a simultaneous interpreter, Dominique mechanically transforms languages into other languages, leaving no trace of herself in the meaning of what she translates. There’s no room for self-expression outside of the interpreter’s booth, either: Up until now, her personal life has been as solitary as her career.
Voice, or vox, as it is first introduced, the sacred instrument of interpreters, is a major theme of the novel, and the plot builds to Dominique’s decision about whether or not to speak out about her knowledge. Hints of her psychological development—flashbacks to childhood indicate an emotionally abusive mother—don’t explain where her “voice” went in the first place. When her mother yells at her father, “You can never get it right,” the child Dominique whispers to her younger sister, “She says it will all be all right soon.” The scene is supposed to explain why Dominique becomes an interpreter, but what she in fact does—insert her own wishful fantasy into the message—is the opposite of the adult Dominique’s voicelessness. Ultimately, the novel is as emotionally mute as its protagonist: We’re not privy to how her present dilemma brings her to voice, or if it genuinely does; instead, the first-person narration reflects on Tchaikovsky, Prevert, pain au chocolat, and some newly colorful accessorizing.
Nicholas, her crinkly-eyed Italian researcher, is similarly inert; together they are mopey, laconic café-dwellers, less mysterious than boring. Leaden dialogue and flights of pretension further weaken the novel. The interesting parts—Dominique, sick in a taxi, on her way to perform a stressful form of translation; Nicholas, reflecting on the timbre of Dominique’s voice—are those intimate to the strange business of interpreting. I had hoped for more of these moments: revelations of subtle variations in meaning, ironic miscommunications between Dominique and Nicholas. But this novel isn’t about language or communication. With its short, fade-out chapters and attention to set detail, The Interpreter garbles the translation.