When being politically correct hurts your rendition.
August 5, 2013 § 17 Comments
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.