Indigenous languages: An interpreting need yet to be properly addressed.

October 2, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There is no doubt that globalization has brought us together in ways we could have never imagined just a few decades ago. A smaller world means innumerable benefits for earth’s population and interpreters and translators play a key role in this new world order that needs communication and understanding among all cultures and languages.

Although we see progress and modernization on a daily basis, we can also perceive that there are certain groups that are staying behind; not because they decided to do so, not because they are not valuable to the world community, but because of the language they speak. It is a fact that most people on earth speak the same few languages. We all know that Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, and everyone is aware of the fact that, geographically speaking, English and Spanish are by far the most widely spoken languages. The problem is that there are many languages in the world that are spoken by smaller groups of people, even though some of them are very old, and despite the fact that some of them were widely spoken and even lingua franca in the past.

I am referring to the so-called indigenous languages of the world. A reality faced by humankind in every continent: The Americas, Asia, Australia, the Pacific islands, and Africa have a serious problem. Once acknowledged that this is a universal issue, today I will talk about the Americas because that is my field.

It is no mystery that these languages have always existed and even co-existed with the more widely-spoken languages of the Americas. Native American tribes and nations have spoken their language in Canada and the United States while using English and French as a business tool and an academic gate to universal knowledge.

Presently, there are between 900 and 1,500 indigenous languages spoken in the Americas (depending on whose study you believe) and regardless of the real number, and without considering that many of them may be spoken by a handful of people, the reality is that there are many widely spoken Indigenous languages that are in need of interpreters and translators in order to guarantee access to modernity and legal security to many people in all countries in the Americas. There are some efforts that are bringing accessibility to these native populations, and there is legislation in the process of being enacted and implemented in many places. The United States government is making sure that State-level government agencies comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and provide interpreting services to all those who need to use public transportation, or go to court, to a public hospital, or to a public school. There is a federal court interpreter certification in Navajo as well. The Mexican Constitution was amended to guarantee the right of a Native-Mexican to have an interpreter when he is charged with committing a crime; through the protection and promotion of Mexican indigenous languages, the National Indigenous Languages Institute (INALI) empowers these communities in Mexico. INALI was created to make sure that the Mexican native population is able to participate in society like every other member, without any restrictions due to the language they speak. The current project to produce legislation and regulations for court interpreting in the new oral trial process recently adopted by Mexico, includes the Indigenous languages interpreters, who are collaborating with foreign language and Sign Language interpreters to achieve this very important goal.

Let’s be honest, the need is enormous and the resources, human and monetary, are limited. Acknowledging this reality, and agreeing on the importance of this issue, we need to look for a solution; we need many ideas, many proposals, the problem is difficult, but there is no way to avoid it. We must forge ahead towards a solution to this problem. On this post I do my share by presenting you the ideas I propose to get a solution off the ground, and at the minimum, to start a serious dialogue.

Part of the problem is the lack of enough fluent speakers of English or Spanish, and the Indigenous language. In part, this is because the language is not widely spoken, and because there are very few interpreters who speak the Indigenous language due to profitability issues. This is understandable, the interpreter needs to make a living. Another part of the problem is the lack of access for non-native speakers to learn the indigenous language and to have it as one of their language combinations. Unfortunately, from all the obstacles to overcome if we want to have enough Indigenous language interpreters, the stigma of speaking an Indigenous language is probably the biggest. Education is needed in order to bring Indigenous languages into the mainstream of interpreting, and I already addressed this issue on a separate post.

Many interpreters could say that although they would like to learn an Indigenous language, and even work as an interpreter to and from that language, how will they get work as interpreters? How will it be possible for them to make a living? It would be difficult to convince a top conference or diplomatic interpreter to drop his clients and go to work as a healthcare or court interpreter making very little money. That is not what I propose. First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to make them attractive for the new interpreter.

If the new interpreters and translators understand what these languages really are, and they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them in the mainstream business world is because of lack of opportunities for those who speak them, they will understand that these Indigenous language speakers should be at the same level of opportunity as those who speak a widely spoken language.

The idea would be that those who study languages to become interpreters or translators, be required to learn, on top of the traditional language combination of their choice, an Indigenous language that they would select from a variety of options. This way, they would enter the professional world with the same skills and language combinations they had always envisioned, and an additional language that no doubt will widen their professional horizon and fatten their wallet a bit more. My idea would be to pair them with a native speaker of the Indigenous language to work together in the booth, or as a team in court, and elsewhere. This way the empiric interpreter will benefit from the academic skills and knowledge of the formally educated interpreter, and the latter will benefit and learn traditions and cultural nuances, that just cannot be learned in the classroom, from the empiric interpreter. Of course, because the market will notice a good thing, many already established interpreters will rush to learn an Indigenous language to stay competitive; Náhuatl, Quechua, K’iché, Mixtec, Otomí, and many other versions of Rosetta Stone will sell like there is no tomorrow.

Dear friends and colleagues, I know that this proposal may seem fantastic and unrealistic to many of you, but I ask you to please, before you rush to sell me a bridge you have in Brooklyn, to kindly consider what I propose, and then perhaps offer other possible ways to address this problem; I only ask you to offer global ideas, that is, possible solutions to this problem that may work not just in the United States but all over the Americas, and maybe all over the world.

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§ 12 Responses to Indigenous languages: An interpreting need yet to be properly addressed.

  • Hola, Tony,

    Como siempre, me encanta el blog. En Costa Rica, de donde vengo, esto no es un gran problema ya que la mayoría de la población, al contrario del resto de Centroamérica y México, es hispanohablante y una gran parte caucásica. Hay varias lenguas indígenas ( Cabécar y Bribrí), pero la mayoría de los indígenas hablan español. Dicho eso, hubo hace poco un «caso muy sonado» en los medios en CR en el que una indígena fue indultada del asesinato de otro indígena porque no contó con un *traductor durante el juicio. Acá les dejó el enlace:

    Aparte, sé muchos idiomas y en algún momento traté de aprender Cabécar, pero debo decir que se me hizo dificilísimo… estaba muy ocupado en ese momento con mi segunda MA, pero el idioma exigía bastante. También hay que tomar en cuenta eso, que no todos tendrán la habilidad de aprender el idioma.


  • Franco Gamero Llosa says:

    As I mentioned in a previous comment, the civil and penal codes of different countries MUST be studied. In the case of Mexico, and after much research, I found they address the issue of interpreters of indigenous languages/dialects. It it’s not the same as I read here.
    The goal of the perfect interpreter is unattainable. Knowledge of the language is not sufficient. Not even at the PhD level. Expertise requires total knowledge. In our case for all fields, disciplines, venues, etc.
    Although we might think of ourselves as greatest interpreters, the most humble witness might makes touch the ground again.
    In addition to this we need to be aware of the CULTURE of those involved. In most Latin American countries, by personal experience, the abuse of the poor and destitute is the usual MO. Suffice to say that one’s job might have to be a combination of interpreter and paralegal. Be glad that you are working in the US.
    My respects if you work in Latin American courts, etc.
    This is homework for any interested interpreter/translator.

  • Take a look at this effort: indigenous interpreters trained for the healthcare setting in Salinas, CA. They have support from the Natividad Medical Foundation, but to make it sustainable in the long run, they need work.

  • […] Dear colleagues: There is no doubt that globalization has brought us together in ways we could have never imagined just a few decades ago. A smaller world means innumerable benefits for earth’s pop…  […]

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Hello again, Tony!

    Unfortunately, and as the saying goes: “You can’t be all things to all people”.

    Back in the 1880’s Esperanto was launched in the hopes of —no pun intended— creating a universal mode of communication to break down the linguistic barriers. As we well know, albeit the most widely spoken international constructed language, it didn’t achieve its intended goal.

    The languages that seem to have staying power are those universally accepted and learned for use in the financial, manufacturing and technical disciplines. The sheer volume of people speaking the same language dictates its global acceptance and therefore it’s importance with the potential mantra being: If it help us make money, let’s talk money!

    A good bit of the world today speaks English, which has in fact become the “universal language”, so much so, that in many places it’s one of the requirements to get a job. Ironically, Mandarin Chinese has the greatest number of speakers, yet it doesn’t enjoy the globality of Spanish which is second in ranking, or that of English in third place.

    From my personal experience, I’m also fluent in Hungarian, yet it frankly does me no good —except when speaking to relatives— because of its extraterrestrial complexity and very reduced linguistic presence at the global scale. If I had the power to do so, I’d much rather exchange all of my Hungarian language knowledge for that of either Arabic, French or Mandarin because I could really take advantage of those languages that are more universally spoken.

    My recommendation would be to learn as many languages as possible as early in life as possible so that we can become as multi-cultural as possible.


    André Csihás, FCCI

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    My apologies: Where it says: “therefore it’s importance…” should’ve been “its importance”

  • I think we should seek out young people who already speak Spanish and a Native American language, as well as English, and encourage them to get their state certification in Spanish. In this manner, they could earn a high enough income and fill the other needs. They would have an understanding of the three cultures involved and be more able to bridge the differences than someone already interpreting who would decide to learn an additional language. I have had the pleasure of getting to know these individuals on some occasions and think that we under value the importance of the Native American language they speak. Because of this, they are unlikely to see the value of the Native American language and likely to focus on English and, possibly, Spanish. Most of the time they don’t even consider the possibility of becoming interpreters.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:


    A colleague of mine, also a Federally Certified Court Interpreter, made the comment that I’d be easier for the native individual to learn Spanish and then be trained as an interpreter. I think my colleague’s comments make perfect sense. After all, not everyone will attempt to learn a native language that only a handful of people speak and attempt to convert it in a broadly-spoken language. Any thoughts?


    André Csihás, FCCI

  • […] und kann daher gut verstehen, was es ist, das Anagnori stört. Als nächstes ein neuerer Artikel [en] zu einem völlig anderen Thema. Was für eine Rolle spielen Minderheitensprachen für die […]

  • Paula Arturo says:

    Great post and comments! Someone in the comments section said: “the civil and penal codes of different countries MUST be studied.” I agree, but to be perfectly honest, what’s even more important than domestic law is the State’s international obligation to ensure the right to an interpreter to guarantee due process as a human right. Domestic or municipal law may be limited in terms of due process or the right to language, but international law is not, and States cannot invoke their civil or penal codes to violate these rights in any way. So when looking at the law, you need to go beyond statute and codes, and look at Constitutions or International Law.

  • lalydia says:

    I, personally, love this challenge that you’ve set forth for interpreters. I would love to learn an indigenous language. I’m an interpreter because I love to communicate cross-linguistically. I love the feeling of putting a newly learned language into action. I’m sorry, I think I used the word “love” to much. 🙂 I totally believe that one can learn a new language as an adult well enough to function as an interpreter in that language. I did it!

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