When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

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§ 11 Responses to When the interpreter faces a bigot.

  • Jeff Alfonso says:

    An incident occurred several years old that I haven’t forgotten. To this day, it bothers me, because I feel I should have done something more. It must be a guilty conscience, I guess.

    I was interpreting at an independent medical exam. The patient had a back injury and almost could not stand. The doctor walked into the room and asked, “Are you a citizen of these United States of America?” Internally, it disturbed me, but this is not an uncommon question. The patient very humbly said, “No sir, but I am a legal resident and have a green card.” The doctor stayed quiet for a few moments and then asked, “Are you Mexican?” I am thinking, what business is it of yours? I was wishing the patient would tell him off so that I could repeat it! Instead, the patient once again very humbly said, “No sir, I am from Guatemala.” The doctor then muttered, “The same thing!”

    At this point I was highly offended but maintained my neutral position and only interpreted what was being said. The doctor next asked the patient to stand up. The patient did, but it took him a while to just do that simple act. Next the doctor told him to stand on his toes. The patient, replied, ” I’m sorry doctor, but I can’t. At this point the doctor said “ok, this exam is over. I will write down that you refused to cooperate and that I don’t see why you should have any medical restrictions.” The doctor walked out the room and the patient quietly walked out as well.

    I sent a report of what happened to the agency which contracted me and did nothing more. I never returned to that doctor’s office again because I know I can no longer be unbiased when it comes to him. I always send other interpreters. Seeing as a number of years have passed and it is still a sore subject for me, I feel I should have done more, perhaps report him to some medical authority.

    I don’t know, what do you think?

  • Hartmut says:

    You were doing more as an escort, than as an interpreter. You have dealt all the interaction problems with the boarding airline representative as an escort. You were doing a good job there. I find it very interesting that you decided to use Twitter with success to solve the problem. Lucky you!

    However, in this particular situation at the airport for boarding a foreign client, you could give the clerk “hard time” of dealing with him without your help. Why should the clerk be deprived of dealing with passengers speaking broken English? Why should you spare your client this unpleasant encounter? There are only a few items that need to be resolved communicatively in this situation: boarding pass, passport, luggage, gate number and time of boarding and whatever amenities offered during the flight.

    It is my position, an escort/interpreter will reduce his escort involvement, once the client is capable of asserting himself. Then this will help you to reduce your role to just being an interpreter, when called for.

    In other situations, where an interpreter is not expected to play the escort function at the same time. He may be placed in the dilemma, when he finds, the client is not capable to assert himself and “allows” himself to be taken advantage of or even abused.

    ASL-English interpreters encounters such disparaging situations often, where Deaf clients are victimized by their hearing counterparts due to their disadvantaged education. These interpreters, sometimes with the aid of a second interpreters who are Deaf themselves, meanwhile developed subtle techniques to overcome those problems. Every unpleasant situation calls for a different response. Sometimes on-the spot-creativity is called for, like your resorting to Twitter. In your airport situation, I would leave the nasty clerk deal with him communicating painfully writing notes back and forth, or if he refuses, call the supervisor.


  • Rosemary Rodriguez says:

    Bigotry will continue, even in the 21st century amigo. Assertiveness on the part of the interpreter is so key, not aggressiveness. You did the right thing.

  • Ana Maria says:

    Wonderful text and solution. To tweet using the airline hashtag was just brilliant! Congratulations!

  • I have almost never done what would be considered escort interpreting, so my frame of reference is different. I have encountered bigotry as an ASL-English interpreter, but I must stress that this has come from both hearing and Deaf clients.

    There is a sort of well-meaning paternalism in some Hearing people, but I usually gloss over it, especially if the interaction is brief and I sense that what is being communicated is more important than how it is being communicated. Also, many of the Deaf people I interpreter for are familiar with this paternalism, which sometimes borders on oppression and bigotry. Often, they can handle it themselves. If they don’t handle it, it is usually because they don’t want to waste their time. One of the common errors I see among people who use interpreters is saying, “Ask/tell him/her.” This is a fairly innocent mistake. I will usually interpret it the first time, and see if the Deaf client corrects their hearing interlocutor or not. If they don’t, I usually just change the third person address to second person address in my interpretation.

    Here are two situations of unbearable bigotry that stick out in my mind:

    A hearing boy in a high school class bullying another boy (not the Deaf client) by calling him a faggot and carrying on in that vein deliberately and relentlessly
    A Deaf client who used deprecated signs for Chinese and American Indian (including pantomimes of mockery) and carried on about hating faggots

    In both cases, my longterm solution was to no longer interpret for those people. My short term solutions to cases like these vary. The first situation was the last straw after hearing occasional homophobia from this student over the previous few months. I went to the vice-principal, and when the classroom teacher and vice-principal would neither support the bullied student nor me, I walked off the job because I was too fuming mad to carry on. The second situation, I didn’t bother to waste my time saying anything; I just let the interpreting agency who sent me know that I would no longer interpret for this person because I could not tolerate their bigotry.

    Yes, the people I interpret for sometimes display bigotry toward each other, but the worst bigotry I have encountered has nothing to do with the cultures and languages I am mediating, and is instead a kind of “environmental” bigotry I just can’t stand.

  • […] When the interpreter faces a bigot. […]

  • Grace Vega says:

    Bravo — I think you made great choices on how to respond in this particular situation and role. Thanks for the tip on a great use of Twitter! Like the first commenter I allowed some bigoted behavior to transpire and am very sorry for that to this day. It also took place in a medical setting with a physician who asked every LEP patient how long they had been in the US and why they didn’t speak English. I was the language access coordinator at the time and faced bigoted responses to interpreter provision almost daily. Decided not to take on this behavior myself, nor to report it to my supervisor and ask he for help. The mans eventually retired but to this day I feel guilty for forcing patients and interpreters to put up with this inappropriate behavior.

  • Rafael Trinidad-Rios says:

    Right now I’m out of a job Because of a bigot in a hospital Enviroment.

  • […] scrolling down updates on your profiles. Today, two articles inspired me: the first one is about bigotry in interpretation, and the second one is about clients’ requests to lower our tariffs. Now, here are some of my […]

  • Franco Gamero Llosa says:

    These persons and these circumstances can be successfully controlled all the time: it’s called DIPLOMACY.
    The master of diplomacy: Jesus Christ.
    You were recently treated to a masterful diplomatic check mate by Pope Francisco.
    Who am I to judge?
    When a bigot tried to trip him and corner him, he answered this.
    Now everybody is praising him and quoting him as if this was a highly philosophical corollary. And I, and probably him, continue to laugh, well, at least smile.
    Let me explain. He is Argentinean, therefore super street smart.
    In Argentina, Spain, Peru, et al, whenever you are being criticized or judged, or somebody is criticizing or judging somebody else, What is the first thing immediately coming out of your mouth?:
    ¿Y quién #$&@ sos vos (eres tú, es Ud.) para juzgar?
    And who the $@&# are you to judge?
    You now can see that by him saying what he said, completely disarms anybody waiting for him to say anything that would trigger the feared question.
    Plus he complies with the commandment not to judge.
    And the examples given are ill behaved kids compared to the ones I had to deal with: UAW union stewards.
    Diplomacy 9
    Bigotry, etc. 0

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