Interpreting the Big City

I worked as an interpreter in Berlin – here’s what I heard

For a number of years, I had a (sometimes) fascinating job interpreting between the German and English languages for the Berlin police and courts, as well as other official offices. I was so intrigued about the people I got to know, stories I would not have otherwise encountered in my rather protected life, that I captured many of them in prose. Always changing a few crucial details, like names and places, but nonetheless working to capture the original flavor of the encounter and the individuals I met. This is a selection of some of those stories.
One of the most haunting jobs was a series of appointments I interpreted for an African woman forced into sex work in Frankfurt. In this piece published in Novelty in Dec. 2017, I both told Anna’s story and brought myself in: Bearing witness to Anna

The cases revolving around sexual and emotional abuse were the most unsettling:
Pink Hair– first performed at This Berlin Life
Two Hours Every Two Weeks (first published in the online magazine Pure Slush, Nov. 2014)


Pink Hair

“Hey, Pink Hair … hey, would you like a beer?” Four guys were standing in front of a scruffy little bar on a warm night in June, plastic tables on artificial grass, passing around a joint. The name Pink Hair fit Leila, as she has coarse, thick, Koolaid pink tresses down to her waist. She was walking home. She’d had a few beers—“maybe five big Hefeweizen”—at a bar deep in Berlin’s Kreuzberg.

The word ‘home’ is not precise in her case. Leila has been in Berlin for just three months, travelling around Europe for maybe nine, carrying her guitar with her, living as a street musician. She sleeps wherever she finds a place. Just that afternoon she’d moved into a squat where she’d been given a key and assigned a mattress. She didn’t yet know the people living there, nor their routines. As she had a feeling that the squat was quite a distance from the bar, she thought she’d really better get a move on. She’d had her friend Annie draw her a map of how to walk there, said goodbye to Annie and the others at the bar, and set out.

The blocks were stretching out interminably. She had no sense yet of how far it was. And the beer was hitting her. She gratefully accepted the guys’ invitation—“Hey, join us for a joint and a beer!”—interrupting her trek back to that unfamiliar mattress. But again, it felt like she should get ‘home’, so she set off a second time. (

A car pulled up, silver, big, relatively new—“a lot newer than any car I ever had.” Leila smiled a one-sided smile at me, and I translated her words into German, “ein ganzes Stück neuer als irgendeins, was ich je hatte.”

I get called in occasionally to work as an interpreter for Berlin’s cops when the suspect or the victim doesn’t speak German and their testimony needs to be captured. The questions are posed in German, which I translate into English. And then I translate the answers back into German. There are always two cops doing the questioning, and they really do play good cop / bad cop: one asks the nitty-gritty physical details, the other is more conciliatory. The dominant cop, a small wiry lesbian with glasses, kept reminding me that it was imperative I translate everything the witness said just as she said it, “You left something out: didn’t she say the guy had brown eyes?” staring sternly at me. I tried—after all, I was being paid by the German state to help capture the witness’s testimony.

But I also felt Leila reaching for my understanding. And for an American solidarity. You see … according to her passport she’s 23 and from Kansas originally. Fair or not: we Americans associate the state of Kansas with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz saying to her little black terrier, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Implying that the rules have been turned upside-down, and nothing will ever be the same again, whereas Kansas, in contrast, is the epicenter of normalcy.

The guy driving the big silver car pulled over, opened his window, and asked Pink Hair if she wanted a ride. She named the street she was heading for, asking whether it was on his way. “Did the conversation take place in German or English?” the cop asked. “Well, if he asked me first in German, I didn’t get it. I can’t understand a thing!” The police had already asked her what she subsisted on: “A scholarship I was getting to take courses online recently ran out. So from my music.” She’d brought the guitar along to the police station.

“Do you have a special street, a particular corner you tend to play at?”

“Well, mostly just on the subway, basically on the U1.”

“What did you talk about in the car on the drive home? Can you remember anything in particular? Did he tell you anything about himself?”

“You know,” she said, reaching into her cloth handbag to pull something out, “You know, I hitchhike quite a lot.” Though the bag itself seemed very light, almost empty, it took her a while to find a crumpled piece of paper among other scraps. Someone had written ‘RICHTUNG HAMBURG’ for her in big black capital letters. She smiled a bit apologetically, “I know I really shouldn’t hitchhike, but it’s how I get around. And the drivers always tell you something about themselves, what they do for a job, where they’re from. You know: it really doesn’t interest me; it’s all the same. I’ve stopped listening to what they tell me. … His English was broken but clear enough. He must have said, ‘You want ride?’”

En route the driver didn’t behave in any way that unsettled Leila. But, as she said with a rueful smile to both me and the cop, “I guess I was pretty drunk.”

“Very drunk, more like,” the cop said laconically.

She pointed to the house, gesturing “up there on the left”, and he double parked. As she got out, she was surprised to see him getting out on the driver’s side as well. “No thank you, that won’t be necessary,” she said, thinking he intended to see her to the door in a gentlemanly way. Close on her heels, he followed her up to the front door. Leila doesn’t like anyone invading her personal space that way, and she again tried to make him disappear, “No, no, just go. Please go!” But he stayed close as she fumbled with the key in the lock, and he then pushed his way in the front entrance. In no time he was feeling her up, reaching for her breasts under the halter dress “in some kind of black and green leopard pattern,” she said, again smiling in a self-deprecating manner as if to say it was just a cheap dress off the rack.

The cops took her twice through every physical detail of what had happened—how he pulled her by the arm down the stairs into the basement, kept squeezing and touching her. “He focussed on the lady bits”, she said with an embarrassed smile. He removed her underwear and raped her, first standing against a wall, then pushing her onto her back on the stairs.

“What exactly did he do? Where was he standing then?”

She repeated what she said to him as it was happening: “no, no, please God no, please stop,” in a dozen different pleading, hurt shades. I cringed, torn up by the pain she was feeling then, the shame and discomfort she was feeling of recounting it again … twice … only 36 hours after the deed.

She had not put up much of a physical fight: “I was somehow frozen.”

They returned to that repeatedly. “Did you call for help? Were you resisting?” I could see her body language expressing embarrassment—she was new in the squat, she hardly knew anyone by name, she didn’t want to impose, she hadn’t imagined the situation would go from bad to worse. And she hadn’t thought that a ride like so many she’d taken in the years before could slip into a nightmare, a man forcing himself on her in an unknown basement.

He abruptly broke off the act of sex. I hated translating the cop’s question, “Did he ejaculate?” could see it would hurt her.

The lesbian cop returned to the moment when he removed his cock from his pants: “Was he erect?” “I didn’t want to see.” “That’s no answer. Was he?”

Her piteous way about her—like a doused cat—hasn’t let me go since. How vulnerable is she, travelling through Europe, living on tourist visas that run out all too quickly, her only money what she collects that day on the subway? Did something terrible happen in her childhood, some abuse or extreme neglect that caused her to run away? What about her extreme politeness, always pardoning herself if she bumped into my leg, excusing herself when her tears slowed down her ability to provide answers? She wasn’t raw, wasn’t tough, she was no street urchin brought up in a rough and tumble environment. She’d learned her manners, I could tell. Why did she become a drifter?


Two Hours Every Two Weeks

Daniela can tell us the day, practically the minute she met Jan: on the first of January in the year 2011, walking on a Miami beach. She can tell us how Jan courted her after he returned to Berlin—“we Skyped every day for three hours!” She can describe her move to Berlin, their wedding, the birth of their son (she got pregnant just two months after the marriage). And then how cracks started appearing in the fairy tale facade he’d created for her.

But she cannot tell us who Jan is—because she no longer knows. She doesn’t know why, three and a half years later, he has exclusive custody of their son Leo while she lives in a women’s shelter, permitted to see Leo only once every two weeks.

When I work as an interpreter, I have no personal flesh in the game. Here, I was a conduit, creating a bridge of language between the slender blonde 30-year old American and the court-appointed German psychologist. When the questions grew multi-layered, the explanations tricky, both were glad I was there.

“It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hinde,” she said to me as we left the psychologist’s office. I excused her for not knowing his name was Hyde. Originally from Slovakia, she ended up in the US when she was fourteen.

Her English is fine, though. It’s German grammar and sentence structure that give her headaches. Nonetheless, she can express herself clearly and correctly when she concentrates.

Perhaps her mother moved from Slovakia to the US to bring up her daughter in an environment with more stability and opportunities. At any rate, Daniela did well in school, attending college and majoring in political science. She dreamed—vaguely, it seemed—of returning some day to Europe, using her education for work. When she got a job with the US Department of Defense, she moved from Washington DC to Miami. There she rented a nice apartment and bought furniture and a new car. Jan “discovered” her on the Florida beach just a few weeks later.

She had not dated much over the years. She told us she was waiting for the right man to come along. When Jan took her out in style that January in Miami, she brought along a girlfriend as chaperone. After all, she wasn’t sure she could trust him.

He soon invested all his considerable persuasive power to get her to become his wife and move to Berlin, where he runs several businesses.

“He was like no one I’d ever met. Strong, eccentric, full of energy. A very intelligent man. On his shelves lots of books about psychology and sociology.”

Daniela told us that Jan said: “Once you come to Berlin, there’ll be no need for you to work! I will take care of you. You can help me develop my business ideas—a smart, educated girl like you. But it’s just servitude to work for a boss who’s using your labor to get richer! We have family businesses—you can help me with them.”

Though Jan, too, has Slovakian parents, he grew up in Germany. He works in premium real estate. He’s fond of eating out, of travelling in style. In fact, he insisted on buying Daniela a completely new wardrobe—and on throwing out all the clothes she’d brought with her, she told us in a bemused voice, still in a way admiring his chutzpah.

“Soon after Leo was born, he told me that he couldn’t stand how I smelled, he found me disgusting. He stopped sleeping with me. Almost always he slept on the couch. Before we were married, in the early months—he was so passionate. It was such a huge difference.

“When we fought, he’d sometimes take his ring off and head into the night. Sometimes he came back a few hours later, sometimes not at all.

“I learned only after we got married that he’s been seeing a therapist for aggression issues for eight years. Eight years ...”

The psychologist said, thumbing through the many pages of testimony and court papers, “But you only reported him to the police once, in the files there’s only one incident of domestic violence.”

“The last incident, the one at the pediatrician’s,” Daniela said, “the one you’ve got in your files—that’s the only time he was violent in public. And even then he found an out-of-the-way corner of the waiting room to stamp on my foot. He’s a big guy and he stamped with all his might—it really hurt! And to turn to the police ... I wasn’t sure I could trust them. My German’s not good—I didn’t know if I could make myself understood,” Daniela said.

Though not in tears, she was incredulous about her situation: “I’ve got poor German. I’m in a city with high unemployment. I have no money of my own—everything is in his name. There’s no way to get an apartment without a job. My parents spent everything they had to get me a German lawyer—and then the lawyer said she could do nothing more for me.” Leo, just 18 months old, now lives completely with his father, Jan.

“You talk about your husband as if he were magical,” the psychologist said, wrapping up the three-hour session. (She was drafting an expert opinion for the court.) “You sound like you have no say in the whole matter.” I heard disdain in her voice, as if a modern woman must know how to control her own life.

“Magical?” she asked the psychologist. “I don’t understand what you mean. Until now he’s gotten everything he wants, step by step by step.”

Daniela walked slowly to the underground train to return to the shelter deep in East Berlin where she now lives.

She won’t be travelling anywhere soon. If she does, she wouldn’t be able to see her son. Even for just two hours every two weeks.



Margaret arrived two hours early to give her witness statement at the police station. She was confused about the numbers “8 point 11 point” on the piece of paper someone at the Frauenhaus pressed into her hand—she thought it might mean from 8 to 11 am. Both victim and accused, it’s no wonder that she’s nervous.

The Kenyan woman first attempted to enter Germany via Poland in 2009. She was detained at the Frankfurt Airport and sent back to Poland. Her second attempt shortly thereafter worked. She’d been given a passport to use – by whom she doesn’t say – and advised to throw it out once she had made it. Which explains why she was without official documents.

At first it appeared that Gordon, a white German man, would be her rescuer. Her friend’s apartment, where she stayed when she first arrived, was too small. Somehow, Margaret and Gordon became acquainted, and he took to calling her. So when her friend told her she’d have to move on, she asked Gordon whether she could live with him. Three months after moving in, she was pregnant.

Margaret is about 30 – though the information on the temporary document issued by the German authorities need not accord precisely with the truth. Her skin is a light milk chocolate brown, her chin has a determined set to it. Her English is fluent, and she’s comfortable with my American accent. In Kenya, she tells me and the two police officers, she worked as house cleaner and nursery school worker.

“Gordon beat me very bad.”

“With his fists? Or did he slap you with his open hand? Or did he use objects to hit you?” The cop’s questions themselves feel like large blunt objects, unwieldy and disproportionate.

“He put his hands around my neck and strangled me, simply because I’d been out with a girlfriend until 10 one night.”

“Was that the same incident as when he hit your right eye?”

“I loved him. He helped me in my moment of greatest distress. I truly loved him.” He beat her severely, and on at least four occasions, the screams were so intense that the neighbors called the police. What kind of “love” did she feel for Gordon? It was a neighbor who told her about the women’s shelter, and pressed on her the need to get away from her abusive boyfriend.

He insisted on their inequality: “You are to just stay in the apartment. There’s no need for you to go out with friends.”

She tells us that he sometimes played with the tiny baby, but alternatively shook her or bopped her on the head or squeezed her cheek, saying, “This is a nigger baby—it’s not my baby. Who says it’s my baby? Who’s to say you didn’t sleep with someone else?” She suggested softly he could get a DNA test if he doubted his paternity. He brushed her off.

At the beginning of the questioning, the cop tells her, “He has filed a criminal complaint against you for beating him. He claims you hit him.” She pulls out a piece of paper where someone has printed clearly “Self-defence / Notwehr”. Practical advice, I think. She describes how she took a picture frame from the wall, or perhaps it was leaning against the wall, baby still on her arm, and held it up as he tried to hit her face, “as if I were a man, like he was boxing.” When he came towards them again, she threw it at him.

She tells the two police officials that he called her the previous day and threatened to have her deported, to have the baby taken away from her if she dared to say anything against him, if she spoke about anything whatsoever other than corroborating the complaint he had filed.

“You need to get your phone number changed as soon as possible. No one needs to put up with that kind of treatment,” the cop says, not looking her in the eyes empathetically as a woman might. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head and looks away. “Do you wish to file a criminal complaint against him?”

Margaret sets off on a tirade: “When I was seven months pregnant, he chased me out of the apartment. Literally! That time he drove me to the shelter himself. He wanted me out. When he comes home from work, the first thing he does is put on loud music. The neighbors complain about it constantly. And it can’t be good for the baby. Sometimes I just take the baby and go into the bedroom and lock the door, just to get away from him and get some sleep. He says it’s his apartment and he can do what he wants. He goes to prostitutes. I ask him for money for my seven-year old daughter—she’s still in Kenya. To pay her school fees. But he refuses. He has money—but he uses it for prostitutes!”

The cop asks again, “Do you wish to file a criminal complaint against him?”

“Yes,” she says, determined and serious.

“You simply need to make sure you stay clear of him,” he repeats.

“I will, I’m never going back. Definitely not. Never.”

The cop says to me, “Das habe ich schon so viel mal gehört!” (“I’ve heard that so many times.”)

Gordon hit Margaret’s eye so hard that she needed stitches. That night, her baby was taken into child protective services. “I haven’t seen my baby in three weeks. Can you help me see her?” she asks piteously.

“That’s not a matter for the police. That’s determined by the youth office. Normally, they should want you to be able to be together.”

Margaret will be getting a small apartment of her own. The youth welfare office has told her that when she is settled in a place she will get her daughter back.