Cat interpreter

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 20, 2016

Wills, our willful orange tabby who just turned ten, has an interspecies interpreter at home. That would be me. I am the language specialist who delivers in English what this feline is “thinking” — or whatever crazy, mixed-up thing it is they do with their 30 grams of gray matter, which is, actually, organized quite a lot like the human brain

I come by the genes honestly, as my mother worked intermittently for the French Consulate in Seattle doing both written translation and simultaneous interpreting. It was superb job for her: She probably had the most academic brain of anyone in the family despite a schooling career cut short by the financial necessities of her family. She joined the Paris workforce in 1936 at the age of 15 and never looked back.

Though she flunked English in secondary school (bad teacher chemistry), she was meticulous and had a natural command of the language, which turned her into a really good translator. She’d also had the first 10 years of married life in the States to practice her writing skills, since she was writing to my father — who was in large part away, on tours of duty — nearly every night. Those who have learned a foreign language know that writing is an ocean away from conversation.

Besides all that, she could think like a lawyer, carry on like a diplomat and pull things off (she successfully presented herself in court as an attorney in her twenties while working for an insurance company in Paris). I remember her telling me later in life that for the sake of the meetings she was facilitating, sometimes she would soften or bend the translation to make sure that those speaking had the best opportunity for success.

At the time, I thought it was dishonest, that the clients were being cheated, misled. Now, of course, I think it was brilliant: the idea that relationships need mediation in the real world. How about when two people actually do speak the same language? Or how about when the two in the relationship are from different species? All brilliant!

Yes, I do realize I’ve written about this particular cat before. The cat from hell, the princess, the boss. The one who gets cream in the morning. And housemade cat food. The cat sitters I’ve had to cajole into caring for her. The long explanations about how her hissing is an everyday sort of sound. The one who can’t be down for the night unless she’s in her own room, with the door closed. The one who will stand at the top of the stairs waiting for her bedtime escort, preferably the man of the house, to take her down, but only after nice words are spoken and in the correct tone.

Sure, there are plenty of cues that are easy to interpret. She stands at the sink if she wants the water turned on. She actually hangs on the ledge of the door if she wants out (sometimes continuing to hang as it swings open). Putting her paw on your lap if she is going to attempt blessing a human lap with her kneading paws and an eventual plop-down.

But what about the more subtle things, things maybe only a person who has served her continuously for ten years could know? A short while ago, after some slightly erratic but not unfamiliar behavior, I tell my husband the cat is embarrassed.


-Yeah, she’s embarrassed. Because she asked you to open the door but then couldn’t make herself go out. So now she’s pretending to go nuts, but it’s just a cover. She’s mad at herself. Embarrassed at being such a wimp.

This elicits a delighted sort of snort. Weeks later he works cat embarrassment back into the conversation.

How I can overlay my human emotions on this eight-pound whack job in a cat suit? Whatever I’m doing, I seem to be doing it more the older she gets, maybe as her curlicue tendrils of thought become more familiar. Maybe as my mind is cat-melded into deeper comprehension. Or maybe it just makes all her ridiculous behavior somehow more acceptable to me, if I parse it out into a Henry James or Jane Austen version.

Ten years after going to pick her up in Norwood (on account of my daughter’s 13th birthday and her desperate need of an orange cat and a notice in the paper that very day that said “Free orange tabbies”), I am still trying to get a handle on this redheaded dictator who showed up without an interpreter.  I’m doing whatever I can, and as I know my mother would have had it, to make sure we have the best opportunities for success.


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