Trick or treat and America’s own monsters.

October 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Every year the Halloween season reaches more countries, adapts to its people, and becomes part of their culture. In the United States, a country where the decorations of our homes for this event are only second to Christmas, the main activity is called “trick or treating.”  Americans decorate their homes with fake spider webs, plastic monsters, and Jack-O’-Lanterns. That evening in every city and town in the United States children of all ages dressed as scary creatures, fantastic heroes, and beautiful princesses, go door to door asking the same question: “trick or treat?”  The adults answering the door respond by giving away candy to the little monsters.

Much of the American Halloween comes from old English and Irish traditions. Much is one hundred percent American.  Something is American (as from the United States) when it comes from somewhere else, it is accepted, it is assimilated, and then it is molded to the American taste and culture.  That is exactly what happened to our very own Halloween.  Let’s take the term Jack-O’-Lantern for example: It comes from East Anglia’s “foolish fire” known as “will-o’-the-wisp” or “Will-of-the-torch.” Will was replaced by Jack and it became “Jack of the lantern.”  “Trick or treating” comes from the old country’s “guising.”  Back in Great Britain and Ireland during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, children and the poor would go “souling”: Singing and paying for the dead in exchange for cakes.

Since the 1950s on October 31 American kids go trick or treating from around 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm.  This tradition has been exported to some countries. Kids in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland also “trick or treat.” Kids in many parts of Mexico ask for their “calaverita.”

The Halloween tradition in the United States includes costumes of some very American creatures whose job is to scare our kids all year long.  Of course, universal monsters also show their face on Halloween.  Although Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the wolf man and the mummy are popular characters, we have our home-grown, and sometimes home-adopted, favorites.  These are some of our monsters:

The ghoul: A folkloric monster or spirit that roams in graveyards and eats human flesh.

The boogeyman: A mythical creature with no specific aspect that was created by adults to frighten children.

Matchemonedo: An invisible bear-god that congeals the plasma of those who are unlucky enough to run into this beast in downtown Chicago where it lives.

The headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow: the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was shot off by a cannonball during the American War of Independence. A creation of Washington Irving, this creature rides tirelessly in search of his head.

Michael Myers:  A hellish creature created by filmmaker John Carpenter. As a child, Michael killed his older sister and now every Halloween he returns home to murder more teenagers.

El cucuy: A mythical ghost-monster from Hispanic heritage that hides in closets and under beds and eats children that misbehave or refuse to go to bed when they are told to do so.

The creature from the Black Lagoon: An American-conceived amphibious humanoid that lives in a lagoon of the Amazon Jungle where time has stopped. He preys on pretty young woman who dare to swim in his pond.

La llorona: A Mexican legend of a weeping female specter trapped in between the living world and the spirit world that ceaselessly looks for the children that she drowned. She takes those kids who resemble her dead children and those who disobey their parents.  La llorona is now a very well known creature and her tale is shared with all kids in the United States’ southwest.

These are some of the most popular characters who will undoubtedly show up on your driveway on Halloween asking for some candy.  I now invite you to have some fun and tell us about your favorite Halloween creatures from the United States or anywhere else in the world… unless you are afraid to do so…

When the speaker has a heavy accent.

October 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that the title to this article immediately brought some memories to each one of you. A speaker’s heavy accent is one of the most common, yet toughest, problems that a professional interpreter has to overcome in order to provide a high quality service.

A few years ago I was hired to interpret for a medical conference where the main speaker was a very well-known scientist whose research had put him on the run for a Nobel Prize.  The topic was complex and the event was very important. Several hundred physicians, chemists, nurses, and other health professionals had paid a hefty ticket to attend this presentation.  Going by the book, the moment I took the assignment I began my research and studied for the assignment. I worked alone and I worked with the colleague who was going to be my partner in the booth for this job. I should mention that my partner was also a very good and experienced conference interpreter.

The date of the conference finally arrived and I traveled to the city where it was going to take place.  The presentation was going to be on a Monday starting early in the morning, and there was a scheduled reception for all attendees on Sunday evening. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes you get invited to these events, so my colleague and I went to the reception. It is hard to pass on champagne and good caviar!

The following morning I got to the booth with plenty of time to check the equipment and put out any fires if any. My colleague arrived at the same time I did. Everything seemed to be alright. This was before the I-pad/ laptop days and the booths were upstairs in a mezzanine above the conference floor. We had to carry all of our materials upstairs.

The program started and the president of the professional association hosting the workshop came on stage to welcome everybody and introduce the main speaker: Dr. John Doe (real name withheld for obvious reasons) I started the interpretation session that morning, so by the time Dr. Doe was due to appear on stage it was time to switch in the booth. My colleague took over, and as he was adjusting his headphones we saw an oriental man walk on the stage. This was Dr. Doe! “…But…it can be…” I said. He has an American western name.  Well, that was he.  As some of you may know, in the United States anybody can change his name to any name he chooses, and as long as you don’t defraud your creditors, from that point on you are that person. We had studied the speaker’s research work, academic history, every single piece of paper that had his name on it. There was nothing about his place of birth anywhere. There was no way we could have known that he was not a native speaker; and frankly, we never even thought of that possibility.

Dr. Doe took the microphone and started to speak.  You couldn’t understand a thing of what he was saying!!! Absolutely nothing!!! His accent was that thick.  My colleague turned towards me and gestured that he didn’t understand any of Dr. Doe’s speech. I didn’t either.

To this day I don’t know why, but at that point I looked into the conference room as if looking for I don’t know what, and I saw this blonde woman sitting to the side in the very back of the auditorium.  I immediately remembered that I had seen her the night before at the reception next to the oriental man now known to me as Dr. Doe.  I figured that she had to be his wife, girlfriend, assistant, agent, or something similar.  In other words, I thought that she must understand his English.  I signaled to my colleague, who was struggling with the rendition, that I would be right back and I left the booth.

When I approached the blonde lady and I explained our predicament she laughed really hard. I learned that she was Dr. Doe’s wife, she was American by birth, spoke English clearly, and she was able to understand her husband’s English.  I asked for her help.

I went back to the booth accompanied by Mrs. John Doe.  We put a third chair in the booth so she could have a seat. Because of the size of the both we had to leave the door open. We gave her a set of headphones and asked her to repeat everything her husband said. In fact we asked her to interpret from her husband’s English into regular English.  We did relay interpreting from her English into Spanish.  We also used her rendition for the other booths (Portuguese and French as I recall) Very soon the only people who couldn’t understand Dr. Doe were the English speakers as they didn’t have the benefit of a booth. It was funny to see those English speakers looking around and realizing that everybody else was getting the presentation but them.   After much suffering, at the end of the day the Spanish booth was the “hero” that saved the day.  Of course, it was due to my experience and ability to think quickly and to solve a problem. Had I not attended the reception the day before, or had I not remembered the blonde lady by Dr. Doe’s side, we would have had a very difficult experience instead of an anecdote that has been repeated hundreds of times. I would love to hear some of your stories telling us how you were able to overcome an obstacle during a rendition.

Limpia, fija y da esplendor. Unidos por la misma lengua.

October 20, 2013 § 4 Comments

Queridos colegas,

Hace unas semanas visité la exposición que se presenta en la Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid con motivo de los trescientos años de la Real Academia Española de la Lengua (RAE) y que permanecerá abierta al público hasta el 26 de enero de 2014.  Esta riquísima exposición es, sin duda, algo que todo amante del español debe celebrar y de ser posible visitar.  Se trata de la historia, de los orígenes de todo aquello que se comunica en nuestra lengua por casi quinientos millones de personas hispanohablantes en todo el mundo.  En mi caso, siendo intérprete y traductor en los Estados Unidos, un país donde casi treinta y cuatro millones de personas tienen al español como su primer idioma a pesar de no ser el idioma más empleado, visitar la exposición tuvo un significado importantísimo.

Como profesionales del idioma en los Estados Unidos, los intérpretes, traductores y transcripcionistas que trabajamos con el español como una de nuestras lenguas, enfrentamos cotidianamente una cultura en la que nuestra lengua de trabajo es frecuentemente considerada inferior y poco culta debido a un gran número de los hispanohablantes que viven en los Estados Unidos y requieren de nuestros servicios, especialmente en áreas del sector público como las interpretaciones judicial, médica y comunitaria, y la traducción de documentos y avisos gubernamentales básicos.  En más de una ocasión se me ha pedido que ‘…traduzca un documento del inglés al español, pero (a diferencia de mis colegas a quienes se les ha pedido la misma traducción pero a otros idiomas) utilizando un vocabulario menos sofisticado que el empleado en el texto original para que lo entiendan los hispanohablantes…’ Son muchas las veces en mi vida profesional que se me ha felicitado por ‘… trabajar al español a pesar de que el hispanoparlante no entiende tan fácilmente como los otros extranjeros…’  Francamente es difícil no hartarse de escuchar el ‘español’ que se utiliza en los medios de comunicación estadounidenses y no frustrarse cuando ves cómo periodistas y políticos norteamericanos elogian y aclaman a los políticos que ‘hablan español’ como el ex-alcalde de Los Ángeles: Antonio Villaraigosa, que la verdad habla un español deplorable.

Desde luego, cabe aclarar que viven en los Estados Unidos y viajan a este país muchísimas personas de habla hispana, poseedoras de una cultura y conocimientos académicos envidiables, a quienes les interpretamos en conferencias científicas, encuentros diplomáticos y negociaciones comerciales, pero la mayoría de los habitantes del país desconoce esta circunstancia, y desgraciadamente la mayoría de los intérpretes normalmente no tratan con individuos a este nivel.


Por eso, cuando me encontraba planeando mi viaje a Toledo para asistir al Congreso de Asetrad X (del que trataré en otro artículo por separado) decidí incluir una breve estancia en Madrid para visitar la exposición: ‘La lengua y la palabra’ en la Biblioteca Nacional.

Inicié mi jornada dirigiéndome a pie a la biblioteca ya que primero quería, como aperitivo, disfrutar de la Feria de otoño del libro viejo y antiguo que se presentaba en esas fechas sobre el Paseo del Prado.  Ahí pude recrearme con títulos y ediciones interesantes de todo tipo de libros escritos en español y traducidos a este, mientras platicaba con vendedores que habían llegado de toda España y con compradores jóvenes y viejos que buscaban un libro en especial o que simplemente exploraban los puestos para ver si algo les apetecía.

Al llegar al final de los puestos de las librerías, seguí caminando hasta llegar a la biblioteca donde varios cartelones anunciaban la exposición y ondeaban junto a las eternas estatuas, entre otras, de Alfonso X el sabio y de Machado con la conmovedora inscripción: ‘se hace camino al andar.’

En vez de entrar a la biblioteca por la puerta principal, seguí los letreros que me llevaron a una puerta en la planta baja donde comienza la exposición.  Al ingresar, el visitante es inmediatamente recibido por el árbol de las lenguas indo-europeas y por citas de los gigantes de la lengua: Gabriel García Márquez y Octavio Paz. Me pareció interesante y muy significativo que la bienvenida a la academia corra a cargo de un colombiano y un mexicano que con su palabra escrita nos recuerdan que el español es un idioma mundial.  Una vez dentro de la exhibición puede verse la historia de la academia desde su fundación por cédula real de Felipe V, cuando los fundadores encabezados por el primer director: don Juan Manuel Fernández Pacheco, marqués de Villena, ya tenían casi un año de reunirse en su primer inmueble en la Plaza de las Descalzas, donde ahora se encuentra la Caja de Ahorro de Madrid y el Monte de Piedad.  Ahí pude ver el acta constitutiva de la RAE fechada 3 de agosto de 1713, la cédula real de Felipe V, los estatutos originales y la oración agradeciendo al rey por la cédula real.  Durante mi recorrido por esta magnífica colección de arte y documentos pude leer en las paredes los nombres de todos los académicos pasados y presentes. A cada paso surgen nombres como Niceto Alcalá Zamora, Menéndez Pidal, Vargas Llosa, José Zorrilla, Unamuno y Benito Pérez Galdós.


Las magníficas pinturas de grandes maestros españoles están por doquier. Desde un cuadro inédito de doña María Isidra Quintana de Guzmán quien a los 17 años de edad se convirtiera en la primera mujer académica, hasta la pintura: ‘Mis amigos’ donde Ignacio Zuloaga inmortalizó a la famosa generación del 27, pasando por obras maestras de Goya como su retrato del poeta  Juan Antonio Meléndez Valdés y los dibujos de Antonio Mingote. A mí me interesó mucho un dibujo en tinta de Goya donde plasma el alfabeto de señas ya que en lo personal desconocía su existencia.  El visitante se pasará un buen rato admirando este y muchos otros retratos y mapas que se encuentran por toda la exhibición. Pero lo principal era ver los libros.

Desde luego impacta ver el primer diccionario de la RAE creado gracias a decreto de Felipe V en 1723 y ejemplares de los primeros diccionarios de las academias francesa e italiana. Se puede admirar la primera edición del Quijote en español, francés e italiano, la primera edición del primer diccionario bilingüe que fue español-latín. También pude apreciar valiosísimos manuscritos como el Tenorio de Zorrilla, el Libro del Buen Amor de Juan Ruíz arcipreste de Hita; las siete partidas de Alfonso X el sabio, el Conde Lucanor de puño y letra de don Juan Manuel, así como varios manuscritos de Lope de Vega y Rubén Darío.  Debo mencionar el sitio importantísimo que tienen en la exposición los manuscritos y diccionarios de los pueblos mesoamericanos como los aztecas y mayas entre otros. También las academias de toda Latinoamérica están representadas con una exhibición de sus respectivos medallones comenzando con Colombia que fue la primera academia fuera de España.  Aquí se encuentra el diccionario de español-español latinoamericano, así como manuscritos de misioneros españoles con dibujos de ceremonias religiosas y vida cotidiana de los aztecas.

La exposición dedica un pabellón a María Moliner, la académica sin sillón o número que fue rechazada por la RAE en 1972 simplemente por ser mujer. La muestra describe claramente el esfuerzo enorme de Moliner para escribir su diccionario de uso del español, mismo que le llevó 15 años de su vida durante los que tuvo que trabajar por las noches, sola y en su casa después de llegar de su trabajo regular necesario para poder ganarse la vida.  Un testimonio a la calidad de su obra y a su tenacidad se evidencia en los videos y fotografías de las sesiones de los académicos, pues se puede apreciar el diccionario de uso del español en todos los escritorios.


La muestra también incluye videos de la historia de España y el mundo durante los 300 años de la academia; desde su fundación hasta llegar al franquismo, y del franquismo al rey.  Por lo que toca al futuro de la RAE, queda claro que la modernización es clave. El nuevo diccionario que se publicará en este mes seguramente será el último que se publique en papel. La exhibición nos muestra los ficheros de la antigüedad (en los que algunos de nosotros estudiamos todavía) y los nuevos ficheros digitales. Asimismo, pueden verse videos de las sesiones de la RAE donde se observan los libros y diccionarios que cada académico tiene frente a su sillón; y uno puede contemplar de cerca varios premios Nobel con sus respectivas medallas, entre ellos el de Vargas Llosa, y también varios premios Príncipe de Asturias.

La exhibición concluye con las palabras de Unamuno en ‘La sangre de mi espíritu’ que despiden al visitante a un costado de la puerta de salida:

‘La sangre de mi espíritu es mi lengua,

y mi patria es allí donde resuene

soberano su verbo, que no amengua

su voz por mucho que ambos mundos llene.


Ya Séneca la preludió aún no nacida

y en su austero latín ella se encierra;

Alfonso a Europa dio con ella vida.

Colón con ella redobló la Tierra.

Y esta mi lengua flota como el arca

de cien pueblos contrarios y distantes,

que las flores en ella hallaron brote,


de Juárez y Rizal, pues ella abarca

legión de razas, lengua en que a Cervantes

Dios le dio el evangelio del Quijote.’

Queridos colegas y amigos, si es posible, les invito a que visiten esta exhibición y que confirmen o recuperen, según sea el caso, su compromiso con el buen español a pesar del lugar donde vivan o trabajen.  Igualmente me gustaría pedirles a quienes han visitado esta exposición que compartan su experiencia con nosotros, o que comenten alguna otra experiencia similar que les haya ayudado a fortalecer su compromiso con el buen idioma.

Your Honor, the interpreter cannot hear.

October 14, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Court interpreting can be exciting, interesting, and well remunerated, at times it can be challenging and even frustrating.  It is all part of the job and I accept it as it comes; however, the thing I cannot accept is the noise, poor sound system, bad manners of many attorneys who just won’t stop talking, and the lack of understanding, by many officers of the court, of our need to hear what is being said.

There is a very simple rule: you cannot interpret what you don’t understand and what you can’t hear. It is that simple. Yet, many courthouses have turned into some of the worst possible environments to work.  Many times this happens because of ignorance and lack of will to help improve the court services (which include interpretation for those who do not speak the language used in the courtroom) and on other occasions the courts just turn a blind eye to the problem even though they perfectly know that it is essential for the interpreter to hear what the parties are saying during the hearing.

Among these nightmarish environments to work as an interpreter, we have the attorneys who never stop talking in the courtroom; it seems that they have never thought of taking their conversations to the hallway.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I have overheard conversations about dates from hell, complaints about bosses, stories about spoiled children, and opinions about judges, all while I sat in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called.

Of course I couldn’t leave out of this piece the cheap, old, poorly-kept, and obsolete sound systems that are waiting for all of us at many courthouses.  These artifacts have outlived their useful life and instead of an asset, they constitute an obstacle to our work.  It is very frustrating to try to do your job while the receiver keeps skipping forty percent of your rendition, or when the batteries are so low that you are not sure they will last the entire hearing.  I would like to meet the person who thought that changing batteries, plugging and unplugging equipment, and running around looking for a better transmitter was part of interpreting; and if we are on the “mood” for meeting some of these “pillars of the court interpreting profession,” I would love to meet those who first dared to ask the interpreter to CLEAN THE EQUIPMENT after using it! I have never done it and I sure hope you haven’t either.

We must include all those attorneys who move away from the microphones as they speak, and we couldn’t forget the lawyers who talk so low that nobody can hear them.  Somehow they don’t understand that the interpreter sits behind them (or to the side) and this makes it very difficult to hear them because their voice is projecting the opposite way: towards the judge, witness or jury.  This group’s main characteristic is that after being reminded to speak into the microphone or to speak louder, they do it for about two minutes and then they go back to the old ways.  I guess some of them are just following the lead of that judge who turns away from the microphone when she speaks, or the one who talks so softly that it’s easier to hear when a pin drops in the courtroom even though she is speaking.

Finally, my “favorite”: In some lower courts there is no place for the interpreter to sit in the courtroom.  Interpreters are supposed to sit “wherever” as long as they are not “bothering” anybody else with their work. Often times, the interpreter ends up in the back of a courtroom, behind an easel or a screen, or sitting among the audience.  How can anybody expect you to hear anything under these circumstances?

Of course, it is important to educate the courts. It is necessary to explain that we have to be able to hear what is being said by the judge and the parties over our own voice.  All of this is crucial. We have been “educating” the bench and bar for many years.

Unfortunately, after years of “educating” judges and lawyers, many colleagues and administrators still believe that the solution is to continue. To do the same over and over again until they all finally get it. I disagree.

I think somebody has to say out loud that we have been “educating” them for a long time and it is time for the courts to set the appropriate conditions for us to do our work.  It is time to stop solely “educating” and to start demanding that court administrators and chief judges do their job. We are officers of the court and an essential part to the system. We are not an inconvenience; we are an important step in the administration of justice.

It is true that most federal courthouses now have appropriate equipment, a place for the interpreter, and a noise level adequate for us to do our job, but there is much to be done at the state and lower levels.  It is time for the state judges to start controlling their courtrooms so that people who “need” to talk exit the courtroom, those who need to be heard use the microphones, and those who are in the courtroom to interpret have a place where they can sit, use their computers or tablets, and more importantly, listen to what is being said during a hearing.  We are not mind-readers. We are court interpreters.  Always remember: you can’t interpret what you can’t hear.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this essential issue turned into a nightmare by many courts.

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