Why are the interpreters of Indigenous languages treated differently?

August 5, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my professional career I have noticed how the interpreters of Indigenous Languages are often treated differently and separately from the rest of us. Whether it is their service fees, labor conditions, or even the way they are addressed by the client, I am often left with this aftertaste that I dislike. I am sure many of you have observed and felt the same way at one time or another. Although this is a universal problem that afflicts interpreters all over the world, I will concentrate on the indigenous languages spoken in the Americas: From Alaska to Patagonia.

I believe that the main reason, and often unconsciously motivated, why Indigenous Languages interpreters are perceived as different, perhaps even less professional than the rest of us, or even as belonging to a “not-so-important” language, is pure ignorance; a complete lack of cultural knowledge of the way society functions in many places around the world, not being familiar with world history, and the oversight of how these two elements should be combined in order to acquire the appreciation for these languages that is so much needed. Let me explain:

First the social aspect: For centuries, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans have lived in a world where many speak Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese; many speak a native language with no fluency in the European predominant language, and a minority has been able to reconcile and master the use of both: a European language and one or more Indigenous Languages. It has been part of the Latin American culture to have a household where the family speaks Spanish (it could be Portuguese or some other European language, but to save some time, on this blog I will refer to Spanish and it will mean all European languages spoken in the Americas) and the domestic help speak Náhuatl, or Quiché, or Zapotec, or perhaps Quechua. Nobody living in Latin America would be shocked to hear people within their own household speaking a language they do not understand. That is how it has been for centuries. It is also part of Latin American reality that many of these people stay in the shadows, relegated to a second tier; not because of their intelligence, not due to their work ethic, but because they have been systematically denied access to knowledge and opportunity for the simple fact that they do not speak Spanish fluently. This problem has generated social unrest from the moment the conquistadors landed in the so-called new world, and it has finally caught the attention of government officials, society, and the media, causing changes in the legislation, and in the way society opens its doors to these segment of their citizenry.

Because of modern immigration trends, the problem also exists in the United States where many of these indigenous groups have an important physical presence. Once in the United States, they face some of the same obstacles that their fellow Spanish-speaking citizens must deal with; among them: their lack of English language skills. Fortunately for their Spanish-speaking fellow countrymen, there are many more instances where they will find a Spanish interpreter who will assist them in courts, hospitals, churches, public schools, and even stores and restaurants. Unfortunately for those Latin American citizens who do not speak Spanish, or even if they do, their command of the language is far from being fluent, there are very few linguistic resources to assist them, and in many cases, depending on their geographic location or the language they speak, there are none. As a consequence, service providers are often frustrated before the reality that finding a Spanish interpreter will not solve their problem, because of the (for them) hard-to believe reality that these individuals, despite being citizens from a Spanish-speaking country, have a different native language and do not know Spanish. The result: We have three segments of the population at odds who do not talk to each other, and for that reason they are incapable of understanding the new reality in their hometowns and communities: (1) The Spanish speaker immigrant who is used to Indigenous Languages speakers because he lived with them, side by side, back in their common home country; he knows of their linguistic limitations in Spanish, and he also knows that they are proud hard-working people who speak centuries-old languages, and not ignorant second-class citizens who do not speak Spanish. (2) The American who speaks English and no other language, and sometimes even the bilingual English-Spanish Latino who was born in the U.S. to Latin American parents but ignores this part of his parents’ homeland’s social culture. (3) The Indigenous Language speaker who usually comes from a poor community, and is an honest, hard-working, decent individual who grew up in an Indigenous culture within a Spanish-speaking country, and had very little or no contact with Spanish speakers. If these three segments of the population were to sit down and talk to each other, they would understand their different realities and work out common solutions without putting another group down because of cultural ignorance. Once we have established this common ground, it is important to learn who these Indigenous groups and nations really are. Because language is a very important part of who we are, this will get them to where they should be: An even field of opportunity.

First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to unveil them so that they go from “exotic” and “mysterious” to simply a “foreign language.” The best way to do it is to let history speak. Many people do not know, or forgot, that one of the greatest mythologies about creation is called the Popol Vuh, that it comes from the Mayan Post-classic K’iché kingdom in Guatemala, and that just like the Chilam Balam, it was written in K’iché (Mayan).

But K’iché was not just a language of mythology writers and historians, it was the language of scientists. The Mayan civilization knew and used the zero before many other civilizations. They were great mathematicians and astronomers, and they did it all in K’iché (Mayan). If science is not your cup of tea, we can then talk about the Lord of Texcoco: Nezahualcóyotl, one of the greatest poets in history, whose famous “Flower Songs” were composed in Náhuatl. He turned his Acolhua nation into what historian Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci called “The Athens of the Western World” where the “tlamatini,” poets, musicians, sculptors, philosophers, and others gathered to create and learn. And of course, we have to mention Malintzin or Doña Marina, the first Spanish interpreter in the Americas, who was instrumental in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, and Felipillo, Pizarro’s Quechua interpreter (I have written about both, Malintzin and Felipillo on separate posts that you can access in this blog) We cannot forget that a Native-Mexican, who spoke Zapotec as his first language at home, grew up to lead and defend his country and became universally known as Benito Juárez. Finally, if we want to bring this to a more contemporary setting, we need to remember that a big part of the reason why the United States and its allies won World War II in the Pacific was because of the Navajo code talkers; a group of military interpreters and translators who interpreted and translated military communications from English into Navajo and vice versa in order to avoid Japanese detection. All of these examples show Indigenous people doing extraordinary things using Indigenous Languages. You see, these are not second-class languages, they are first class languages that have been abandoned to a certain degree, and for that reason, they have not received the acknowledgement they deserve in the pantheon of languages.

If interpretation agencies, event-organizers, government officials, and the rest of the interpreter and translator community understand what these languages really are, and if they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them for world trade, advertisement, modern science, or any other mainstream use of language, is because they have been denied access to opportunity by the mere fact of what they speak, then they would value and treat them both: the interpreter and the Indigenous Language as their equal. It will be then that all of our colleagues will be welcomed to the great community of interpreters and translators. From that point on, we will all realize that our job is the same and we will all make sure that these colleagues are treated the same way all other spoken language and sign language interpreters are treated. I invite you to share with us other stories of this linguistic/cultural coexistence back in your home countries, or if you prefer, to tell us about another historic character who emphasizes the importance of Indigenous Languages.

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§ 7 Responses to Why are the interpreters of Indigenous languages treated differently?

  • a very interesting post! Languages are languages. It does not matter how many people can speak it. They have the same value.

  • André Csihás says:

    Hi Tony,

    All this is the product of stereotyping because in the traditional way of thinking, we’re practically forced to blindly accept that Spanish is only spoken in Spain and South America (of course, forgetting that Brazil speaks Portuguese, although quickly acquiring Spanish as well); that English is only spoken in England and North America (forgetting that Mexico is part of North America), and so on.

    The languages you mention are very ancient tools of learning and communication that were around long before the modern languages developed, but since we’re taught that only English, Spanish and other major European and Asian languages are “hip”, we’re almost mandated to “forget” that these other languages exist because they simply don’t enjoy the popularity (perhaps due to lack of enough speakers and therefore unable to compete on a global scale), and consequently that language as well as its speakers fall between the cracks of linguistic prejudice.

    Personally speaking, I’m a European, full-blooded Hungarian born in France, raised by full-blooded Hungarian parents who forced me very early on the importance and the value of the mother tongue. Later on, my education took place in South America (Colombia) where I was taught serious Spanish and the rudiments of English, Latin and a little Greek. Once I came to the United States, I began learning English in earnest and to this day I use, practice and cultivate my proficiency in English, Spanish, Hungarian (and an occasional sprinkling of Latin), continually and thanks to that tenacity, I’m fluent in all.

    It’s downright unthinkable that these ancient, beautiful and glorious languages from these magical kingdoms be sidelined and relegated to anything less than the top tier: Perish the thought!

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • Franco Gamero Llosa says:

    Very good post and replies.
    The Código Penal/Civil de Méjico, no recuerdo el título exacto, especifica claramente la necesidad y los requisitos para intérpretes de otros idiomas. Se sorprenderán de dichos requisitos. ¿Cómo los amalgamarán con los nuevos requisitos?
    Datos adicionales:
    – Existen 50 dialectos indígenas en Méjico.
    – Los idiomas oficiales del Peru son el Quechua y el Castellano.
    – Los idiomas oficiales de Bolivia son el Aymara y el Castellano.
    – Todos los países que comparten la Amazonía comparten infinidad de dialectos independientes. Gracias a los misioneros jesuitas, etc. muchos de estos idiomas/dialectos han sido conservados en forma de diccionarios, o en formas sintácticas para la enseñanza de la escritura.
    – Como corolario de lo arriba mencionado existe el problema de interpretación de estos dialectos en los EE.UU. de NA. Tuve muchas ocasiones en las cuales el LEPP tenía el Castellano como segunda-lengua. Obviamente se hizo de conocimiento de todas las personas involucradas.
    – Y no hablemos de etnia. ¿Qué hacen mis estimados colegas cuando el LEPP pertenece a una etnia aborigen, sabiendo que existen excepciones especiales para los “native americans”?
    S.E. ú O.
    Franco Gamero Llosa

  • Here in the California Courts we have relay interpreting for the different Mayan dialects and for the different native American languages spoken in Mexico. I have participated a number of times in this relay interpreting. I don’t think these interpreters are treated very differently. They shouldn’t be.
    Sometimes we Spanish intepreters tend to stick together. That probably shouldn’t be.

  • Matt Brown says:

    For myself as a UK sign language interpreter, the case of indigenous sign languages are a classic example of “difference”. I recently wrote about it here: http://signspace.co.uk/blog/why-do-we-discriminate-between-signed-and-spoken-language-interpreters/

  • […] Dear colleagues: During my professional career I have noticed how the interpreters of Indigenous Languages are often treated differently and separately from the rest of us. Whether it is their serv…  […]

  • Good thoughts. Mahalo nui loa.

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