When being politically correct hurts your rendition.

August 5, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I was on a plane from Atlanta to Chicago. We were ready to take off and I planned to prepare during the flight for an assignment I had that very same evening at my destination.  Then, as we were turning our telephones off to pull back from the gate, the voice of the pilot came over the speakers.  He informed us that there would be a delay because we had to wait for a last-minute passenger who had just booked a seat on our flight.  At that point I thought that we would probably be there for another ten or fifteen minutes so I turned on my phone and began to answer emails. About thirty minutes later the pilot informed us that it would take a little longer. By now some passengers started to question the rationale behind the delay; after all there were at least another ten flights from Atlanta to Chicago later that same day.  About fifteen minutes later the pilot announced that they were asking for volunteers to move from the front to the back of the plane because the last-minute passenger was in a wheelchair.  Some passengers volunteered and moved to the back, a couple of the airline’s ground crew members helped the passenger, who turned out to be an elderly woman, onto the aircraft and into her seat. We assumed we were ready to go.  Unfortunately, at this time the pilot announced that there was some bad weather over Indiana and our flight plan had been altered. The problem: because we had been sitting at the gate for more than an hour, we now did not have enough fuel to go through the new route we had been assigned, so the plane had to refill before take-off.  Re-fueling was going to take about thirty minutes so we deplaned. As I was exiting the plane, I overheard a couple of guys saying that although there were plenty of flights to Chicago, the delay was due to the fact that this elderly woman was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and therefore, the airline had decided not to offend her by asking her to wait until the next plane where she would board before the rest of the passengers. The second person remarked: “it’s just that nowadays everything is decided based on its political correctness.”  I don’t know if these passengers were right or not, but that made me think of what we, as interpreters, face sometimes when somebody wants us to say, do, or omit something that should be said, omitted or done as part of the interpretation, just because it is not politically correct.

Some years ago, but already within this era of political correctness, I was working as a court interpreter in a criminal trial where a person was accused of murder. It involved Hispanic gang members and that meant that it involved plenty of nicknames.  As the trial progressed, and many witnesses testified before the jury, it became clear that a key player in this murder was a gang member known as “el negro” (the black one) who apparently had witnessed the killing.  All witnesses, one after another, kept referring, in Spanish, to “el negro” as a key witness for the prosecution.

Eventually, there was a recess for I don’t remember what reason, and during the break, one of the prosecuting attorneys, an Anglo woman who was not the lead prosecutor and did not speak Spanish, approached me and told me: “You know, I’d much appreciate it if you stopped referring to Mr. Sánchez (I made up the name for this posting) as <el negro> It would be better if you refer to him as the <African-American> so please do it. I don’t want to offend anybody” I looked at her in amazement. In all my years as an interpreter nobody had asked me to do such a bizarre thing before.  I explained to her that nicknames, just like proper names stay in their original language.  I even explained that it is common for Hispanics to give a nickname to an individual as an expression of sarcasm, thus, the tallest guy could be nicknamed “chiquilín” the fattest man could be called “el flaco” and so on. I even told her that as a prosecutor she should be concerned about the identity issue, and that the correct nickname could be the difference between acquittal and conviction. She understood that I was not to honor her request, but did not like my answer, and so we continued with the trial after the break.

After other two or three witnesses, the bailiff called the name of another witness who entered the courtroom. This was a tall young white man. He was ushered to the witness stand, placed under oath, and asked to have a seat. Next, the prosecutor asked the first question: “Can you please tell us your name and spell your last name for the record.” The witness complied and I interpreted for the jury. Second, the attorney asked: “Sir, do you go by any other name?” The white young man answered in Spanish: “Si, me dicen el negro” (Yes, they call me “el negro”) I interpreted for the jury as I looked at the prosecutor who had requested I be politically correct and refer to the witness nicknamed “el negro” as the “African-American” and with an inner sense of satisfaction I looked at him and then back at her as if telling her: “you see, I did the right thing. Referring to this man as the “African-American” would have been ridiculous and odd.”  From that day I always question political correctness in those situations. My belief is that when someone wants to have a politically correct event, they should talk to the speaker, not to the interpreter; after all, we interpret what others say. We are not the ones who are speaking.  I would like to hear your comments regarding this issue. Please feel free to share any stories you may have that are similar to the one I just told you about.

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§ 17 Responses to When being politically correct hurts your rendition.

  • arnaldo b says:

    I agree with you 100%, Tony. It’s not up to the interpreter to edit, embellish, or “sanitize” discourse.

  • Teresa Allen says:

    I fully agree with you. Interpreters are mere “vehicles” of someone else’s message, therefore we should just interpret. I was once asked by a town councillor, during a meeting where a certain city was being rated by an international rating agency, not to interpret the Mayor’s words if he referred to a controversial topic… 🙂

  • Vladimir says:

    I am with you also, Tony.
    In my 40+year practice, there was nothing worse than clients with an imperfect (to call it mildly) knowledge of other languadge trying to amend a translator.
    Once, a Russian military engineer constantly expecting dirty tricks from American counterparts asked me to translate his proud statement “I am a Russian orthodox”. When it was done by the letter, he exclaimed indignantly: “Don’t you know who is called orthodox?” (It has more negative meaning like stubborn or opinionated in Russian). When presenting with an entry in a Russian-English dictionary, he did not give up saying: “But this dictionary was printed in America.”

  • Carolyn says:

    A colleague and I had a funny experience regarding more or less the same thing.
    We were interpreting for some work groups. They were supposed to make a model using styrofoam, tongue depressors, modeling clay and plastic figures. In the group was one English speaker and the rest were Spanish speakers. My colleague proceeded to interpret what the English speaker was contributing to the project.
    “we should use modeling clay there….I don’t like the use of cows on that side…maybe we should use red instead of blue…use glue instead of tape..” and so on.
    There was a Spanish speaker in the group who kept making faces at my interpreter colleague. AFter a few minutes she turned to the interpreter and said “Would you stop making suggestions. You’re here to work, not give your opinion.” A co-worker corrected her by telling her that the interpreter was giving the opinions of the co-worker who spoke English.
    Needless to say, she was very embarrassed, but never gave an apology.

    Just a funny anecdote for the more serious entry you posted here!!

  • Moises Hernandez says:

    I had a similar experience myself when I started out as a translator. Once upon a time there was this cop whose nickname was El Negro. While off duty he entered a diner and someone approached him to ask if he was a “camaron” (the noun for shrimp but meaning “undercover” in this context). El Negro told the person to buzz off and stop bothering. Leaving El Negro, he began to say out loud that the special of the day was “ensalada de camarones” (shrimp salad) because they had to finish off with all the shrimp (meaning, finish off with the undercover cop). Shortly after a fist fight broke out and a waitress, speaking to the cop in civvies, told him “vete Negro, que te matan.” The problem that this phrase posed is that the term “negro” can be one of endearment, or it could mean that the waitress knew the cop by his nickname, El Negro. Because the written text did not provide supporting context, it could never be clarified if the waitress knew El Negro personally, or if she was just saying, “get out, honey, or they’re going to kill you.”
    Oddly enough, this same cop, in another, separate episode, engaged in a fistfight with a civilian and when asked to explain why, responded that the other party “called me “negro” [me dijo negro] (meaning, he called me a nigger).
    It’s all in the intonation.

  • Moises Hernandez says:

    Speaking of political correctness, how do you go about translating “pescadores?” For former firemen, we have firefighters and in Spanish bomberos y bomberas, and for mailmen we have mail carriers, and “carteros y carteras” [not handbags], but we don’t have anything in English for “pescadores and pescadoras” except, perhaps, fishing people, I venture… Please comment and thank you.

  • marzolian says:

    Tony, great story. Most of my interpreting experience has been in business, where the participants are mainly interested in how much money is involved, or technical, where they want is to know how things work. Thanks.

  • Lionel says:

    Although a very serious topic, I must say that this blog entry has brought out some humorous anecdotes. Allow me to add my own:
    A few years ago while working in a murder case I was interpreting for one of the witnesses.
    The DA asked: ” So, Mr. X, Who was walking with you when you returned from the party?”
    Mr X; (in Spanish) “I was with Pablo, el Toby, Juan, el muerto y Ricky”
    The interpreter (me) ” I was with Pablo, el Toby, Juan, the deceased, and Ricky”
    There was a loud objection by the DA and quickly called a bench conference. I also thought that there was something wrong. The decased was suppossedely a member of the rival gang. How could he have been walking with the witness, a rival.
    Turns out, that unbeknownst to me, El muerto was the nickname of one of the witnesses’ companions.
    The record was corrected and the trial moved on.

  • Reminds me of a book I translated, where the narrator becomes more and more politically incorrect when describing a character who is a lesbian: “A María le gustaban las mujeres, o sea, era lesbiana… tortillera…” (I forget the 4th term, but there was one.) I translated as “María liked women, that is, she was a lesbian … a lezzie … a dyke…” I got back the pages from my editor that said (I swear this is true) “She was a lesbian… a lesbian … a lesbian …”

  • Monica says:

    I worked at a Spanish school in my country, where I would translate conferences weekly. Since this was not a legal event and I was not being paid specifically as a translator, sometimes I would slip up with things like using the word “land” instead of “earth” for tierra. I remember being severely reprimanded by an American who was offended by me translating evangelicos as Protestants, since she seemed to think that the word in Spanish had the same connotation as Evangelicals. Talk about walking in a minefield! And don’t even get me started about having to translate political conferences.

  • Andy Tooms says:

    In my experience there are few things more annoying and troublesome than someone completely unqualifiied telling you how to do your job or just generally interfering, whether for written translation or interpreting.

    One particular instance comes to mind. I was interpreting consecutively at an international conference, for a guest speaker. I was sitting next to him, in a row of speakers, with the conference organiser (i.e. the client) sitting at the end of the row. As part of his answer to a question from the audience this speaker made a disparaging remark about the World Bank which caused much laughter. Just as I was about to translate into English, the conference organiser jumped to his feet and came to stand in front of me, desperately whispering “Cut, Cut!” (the World Bank was one of the event’s sponsors). In the heat of the moment I presumed he didn’t want me to interpret the disparaging remark, and so left it out of my interpretation, leading to scattered booing and whistling from audience members who understood French and English.

    The most galling thing was that the next day the client came up to me and claimed he just wanted me to shorten the interpretation of the speaker’s answer and wasn’t trying to censor me!

  • I found out that, even though you have the credentials, the referees and the experience to be pretending to work as a translator, you cannot work without a NAATI accreditation.

  • 1. Correctly handled, with the attorney.
    2. BUT, “El Negro” should have not been translated and one should pronounce it as in Spanish.
    Why? It has become a Proper Noun, a Name, a nickNAME in fact.
    Just like El Zorro.
    Agree with everybody on the political correctness issue.

  • Franco Gamero says:

    LOL! A great friend at my high school, San José in Arequipa, Jaime Talavera de Romaña, was nicknamed El Muerto.
    Again, and to be on the safe side, one should interpret “as is” and let the attorneys argue about it.
    The DA was awake.

  • Thank you Tony! I’ll use this for my students, we discuss a lot about how to deal with political correctness, swear words and so on. This is a very good anecdote reinforcing the importance of sticking to what the client actually says 🙂

  • Paula says:

    Tengo que reconocer que hasta hace poco noo me molaba mucho estesitio, sin embargo ultimamente estoy visitandolo regularmente y me esta interesando bastante.


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