Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?

November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday in the United States, it is universally celebrated by all cultures and ethnic groups, and yet, when I travel outside of the United States I see that this very American holiday remains a mystery to many.  In the past, I have dedicated this annual entry to the history and meaning of Thanksgiving; today, I will talk about the traditions that bind all Americans on this last Thursday of November.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day? Why do they gather around the television set to watch a football game even if their team is not even playing? For what reason did pumpkin pie become the preferred dessert over the all-American apple pie? Do all Americans really go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving? I believe that the answers to these questions will make it easier to understand the big deal that Thanksgiving is for all Americans.

More Americans celebrate Thanksgiving than any other date on the Holiday Season.  This may seem difficult to understand in those countries where Christmas is the number one holiday celebration, but when you think about the people of the United States and its diversity, you soon realize that Thanksgiving perfectly matches the American cultural landscape.  Without getting into the controversy of the first Thanksgiving, and regardless of the version Americans decided to believe, the fact is that the original Thanksgiving involved very different people, from cultures and backgrounds as foreign to the others as you can possibly imagine; yet, they got together for a shared celebration and feasting. In all cultures eating together is a sign of unity. Christmas on the other hand is a religious celebration for part of the population who has certain beliefs that are not universal in American society.  The truth is that, although Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, it can be treated as a religious celebration by all who opt to do so, regardless of their religion, because Thanksgiving is about certain principles treasured by all faiths: gratitude, peace, sharing, giving thanks.

The universal appeal of Thanksgiving has to do with other very important elements of this celebration: family and lack of expectations. Because of its secular nature and the universally embraced values Thanksgiving is based on, it is the family oriented event of the year.  Americans travel on this weekend more than at any other time during the year, and they do not travel to go to college or to close a business deal. They travel to be with their loved ones. This is the day when a mobile society like ours comes together around the family table and share stories and laughter with their relatives.  Americans gather on Thanksgiving to be together, there are no other expectations. Unlike Christmas, there is no added pressure to spend beyond your means as there are no presents. People gift their company to each other. That is all.  The American culture is very informal and Thanksgiving is an informal event. People eat, come and go as they please, some watch football on TV, others catch up on their personal lives, and they all eat as much as they want. No apologies, no dinner schedule; just grab a plate and eat as much and as many times as you want, and when you eat, you are uniting with the rest of your fellow countrymen and women, because on this day, an American society that cherishes individuality and praises self-identity, a country where children do not wear school uniforms because it cuts on their individual identities, all Americans eat the same meal. This is how special Thanksgiving is for our country.  These are the reasons why tradition is paramount on this day of celebration.

Why do millions of Americans throughout the continent eat turkey on this day?

The side dishes vary from house to house depending on the family’s cultural heritage, the region of the country where they live, and their own family traditions. Some will have mashed potatoes, others will eat sweet potatoes, and in some parts of the country people will eat rice, pasta, beans, seafood, poi, dinner rolls or tortillas. This is the part of the meal where Americans assert their individuality and cultural identity, this is perhaps, the part of the meal that makes it possible for the American people to give up a little individuality, and for one day every year eat the same: turkey.

The history of the Thanksgiving turkey is shrouded in mystery. Letters from the early settlers, known as pilgrims, indicate that the first Thanksgiving menu that they shared with the Wampanoag people included lobster, oysters, beef and fowl. The only mention of a turkey comes from a writing by Edward Winslow who mentions a wild turkey hunting trip before the meal.  There is also a legend which states that England’s Queen Elizabeth I received this news during dinner, and she was so happy that she ordered another goose to be served. When the pilgrims heard of the Queen’s reaction, it inspired them to roast a turkey instead of a goose and that became the traditional meal. You see, wild turkeys are native to the United States so they were plenty available, In fact, this bird became such an important part of colonial identity, that after the birth of the United States, Benjamin Franklin argued that the turkey would be a more suitable national bird instead of the bald eagle.  Although Franklin did not succeed, every year since 1947 all U.S. presidents, from Truman to Obama, have issue a presidential pardon to a turkey who then retires to live the rest of its natural life in a farm.

Why do Americans gather around the television set to watch a football game on Thanksgiving?

This is another tradition that makes Thanksgiving the most American of all holidays. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and the Thanksgiving football tradition started only a few years later when Yale and Princeton first played on Thanksgiving in 1876. Soon after, the holiday became the traditional date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game. The Universities of Chicago and Michigan also developed a holiday rivalry, and by the late 1890s thousands of football games were taking place on Thanksgiving. Some of the original matchups still continue to this day. When professional football began in the twentieth century, it was just natural that a game be played on Thanksgiving, and in the 1920s there were many games on Turkey Day.  Today, the National Football League (NFL) holds two games on Thanksgiving: An early one that always features the Detroit Lions, played since 1934 when the Lions lost that first encounter to the Chicago Bears. Since 1966 there is another game later on the day that always includes the Dallas Cowboys. Football is a sport played in very few countries around the world (most countries refer to it as “American Football”) but it is the most popular sport in America, so it was a perfect fit to the Thanksgiving celebration. Nowadays people congregate around the home’s TV set to watch the games even if they do not root for any of the teams playing in Detroit or in Dallas. On this holiday, football is also used as a time reference: many Americans will announce their estimated time of arrival to a Thanksgiving dinner by saying that they “will get there by the first game’s halftime”. Many households keep the TV set on, showing the game, even if nobody is watching. Football “noise” is part of the traditional sounds of Thanksgiving.

How did pumpkin pie become the preferred Thanksgiving dessert over the all-American apple pie?

Pumpkin pie was not part of the menu at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The pilgrims most likely lacked the butter and flour needed to make the pie crust. We do not even know if they had an oven at their settlement. This however, does not mean that pumpkins were not present on that occasion. They probably ate baked and stewed pumpkin as it was a common part of their diet. With pumpkin as part of the Thanksgiving meal from the beginning, it was natural that the baked and stewed pumpkins gave their place at the table to the pumpkin pie when it first became popular later in the 17th century. Since it substituted the already established pumpkins as part of the traditional meal, instead of entering the menu as an addition, it never competed against the apple pie for a spot on the menu, and it became the delicious, tasty dessert we now eat, accompanied of some whipped cream, as part of the holiday tradition,

Do all Americans go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?     

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Friday after Thanksgiving has been regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season in the U.S. and for that reason, most retailers open their doors very early, even during overnight hours to lure shoppers to come and take advantage of special sales. This day is now known as Black Friday, a name it first got in Philadelphia, and it is not an official national holiday in the United States, but some states like California and New Mexico among others observe the “Day after Thanksgiving” as a state-government holiday. Many schools do not open on Black Friday either.  For years, this was systematically the busiest shopping day of the year, but that has changed recently.  Now many more people do their shopping online and this has created what Ellen Davis coined as “Cyber Monday”. Since 2005 the Monday after Thanksgiving is when most people in America do their Christmas shopping online to allow for plenty of time for the presents to arrive to their recipients’ destination.  The truth is that not all Americans go shopping on Black Friday. Many Americans do not even observe Christmas, so giving presents is not even on their radar screen. It is a fact that many people will do their holiday shopping after Thanksgiving; a lot of them will visit the shopping malls on Black Friday, many will place their orders online on Cyber Monday, and many others will continue to shop right until Christmas. The important thing to keep in mind is that for many Americans, of many cultures and religions, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a holiday season when they will share their fortunes and happiness with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and the needy, and that is after all the true meaning and the best tradition of Thanksgiving.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us some of your Thanksgiving traditions, and if you are outside the United States, please tell us your opinion about this very American holiday and share some of your family or country holiday traditions. I now want to thank all of you, my friends and colleagues, for following the blog. Happy Thanksgiving to all!

A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?

November 17, 2015 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I started a controversial debate among interpreters and translators that made me think of one of the bigger challenges that we will ever face on our quest for professionalization: To think, act, and react as individual professionals who are trying to advance recognition, remuneration, and understanding of what we do for living.

When a colleague who works for the government suggested that the American Translators’ Association (ATA) should start a “government division” for interpreter and translator members to have a place to communicate, and learn from government agencies what they want from us in order to get work, I immediately got this extremely uncomfortable feeling that we were about to sell ourselves cheap once again; that the hated premise that we are under the client (turned employer, turned master) was going to be the basis of a debate where individual colleagues would decide not if they were going to jump or not, but just how high.

As fast as I could, I went on social media to point out this enormous danger, and from all my concerns, the only thing that most people picked up was the matter of the name that the new division would get: Instead of debating (and rejecting) the notion of having a government division, our colleagues discussed a name for a division that apparently was instantaneously accepted as a reality.  Agreeing with my rationale, those participating in the discussion saw the absurdity of vanishing all interpreters and translators from the name-description of the group by naming this entity “government division” and seemed more inclined to go with a “more inclusive” name. (I learned later that ATA bylaws will not even allow for a vote against the creation of such a monstrosity: To reject the idea we would need to amend the bylaws).

Unfortunately, the fundamental principle that makes such a division an absurdity went undetected. Let me explain:

ATA, like all interpreter and translator associations, are professional groups for the benefit of individual members to protect, disseminate, and advance the profession and the individuals providing the service.  As such, a professional association must clearly define who is one of us (a member), and who is not (clients, third parties, government officials). Once this has been established, the organization can do its work looking after the quality of the professional service, promoting educational opportunities, and defending the interests of its members.

The process above puts the professional association, and its members, in an advantageous position to sit down, individually or collectively depending on each situation, to negotiate professional services’ conditions with the counterpart: clients, agencies, government officials, and others.  All of these actors are active participants in the process, but none of them share the same interests or perspective of the professional interpreter or translator.  This is the purpose of a professional association. This is the only way that interpreters and translators can be considered, viewed, and treated as professionals instead of laborers.  An association with an organizational model where interpreters and translators commingle with the people who sit across the table can be many things, but it will never be a professional association.

For years I have defended our services as the type that only professionals can provide. I have fought for recognition at the level of an attorney, a physician and an engineer.  All of these professions have professional associations that follow the model I described above. None of them would even dream of having a format which included their counterpart in their organization.  Medical doctors deal with pharmaceuticals, government officials, and insurance companies every day; yet, none of these entities are part of the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama.page?)  Attorneys work with court systems everywhere, they deal with government agencies and police departments, credit institutions, and many others. Nobody, unless that person is an attorney, can be part of the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org/about_the_aba.html) Our very own AIIC groups professional conference interpreters worldwide and it does not include agencies, government officials, or international organizations as members (http://aiic.net/page/6757/about-aiic/lang/1)  By the way, none of them allows “corporate memberships” either. A corporation cannot be a professional, it does not go to college or pass a certification exam. By definition, only human beings can be professionals. Other membership categories can be explained away by associations, but never justified. A professional association cannot become a place where young professionals go to be indoctrinated on the principles of being a good “language service provider to the industry”. We are a profession, not an industry. Professional organizations work to protect their members, profession, working conditions, ethics and quality of the service. They are never job fairs where people play a dating game with multinational agencies who want your services in exchange for rock-bottom fees and humiliating conditions far from the minimum standards acceptable for a profession.

The “government (or whatever the final name may be) division” is a serious blow to the professional recognition of interpreters and translators by clients and intermediaries because it perpetuates the idea that we are subservient to a specific entity; that we do not view the government as a client.  That we are willing, and eager, to fulfill all of their conditions so they can give us some work, regardless of the shameful terms and awful fees.  I fully reject this mindset. Dealing from weakness devaluates us as individuals and diminishes the profession. If we want to be government contractors, let’s have a special group of interpreters and translators where we can brainstorm and exchange experiences. This would be a place where professionals get stronger before going out there to negotiate with government officials. The time and place to deal with government agencies is across the table as counterparts, not within the organization as fellow members. We do not need them to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. We must let them know what are the minimum conditions we are willing to negotiate from, and let’s treat them as clients, respectfully but firmly. Always as equals.  Until we are ready to adopt this attitude, we will stay where we are, and we will quickly move to the place where the counterpart wants us to be: a hole full of blind obedience and compliance.  Some of us will never walk down that pathway, but many will. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this crucial subject that could impact the rest of your careers.

Video Remote Interpreting: Agencies do not see what I see.

November 9, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Video remote interpreting, or VRI as it is widely known, is one of those topics that are difficult to discuss because some multinational agencies have turned it into an emotionally charged subject.  Those of you who know me personally, and the friends and colleagues who read the blog, know that I have always been a pro-technology individual, that as an interpreter I embrace technological changes and the benefits that come with modernization; and as a person who loves to study history, I recognize that technology has come to the interpreting profession, including VRI, and it is not going anywhere.

In the past, I have written about the benefits of working remotely by video, about how this change is helping us, the interpreters, to work more and better assignments that we could not do before because of the limitations of time and space. I have also told many of you, and I repeat it right here, right now, that even with its deficiencies and set-backs, VRI technology is getting better every day.  I have no doubt in my mind that the day when we don’t worry about VRI technology more than we presently worry about conventional technology in the traditional booth is just around the corner.

To this point everything looks good and promising. It is when you begin to factor in all the other sideshows that generally accompany VRI interpreting that we see the dark side of this issue.

There are some good and honest agencies all over the world; we interpreters know who they are and wish to continue our mutually beneficial collaboration with them; however, during the last two or three years we have been bombarded by these multinational interpreting agencies, and some others not quite as big, who have undertaken the task of proselytizing all the interpreters and all the students of interpretation they can find. It seems that you cannot attend a professional conference anymore without having to sit through a presentation by an executive or an administrator of one of these entities, who almost never is or was an interpreter, and listen to their interpretation of the new reality in our profession. They skillfully present an extremely one-sided view of the changes created by VRI, and launch their efforts to convince the individual interpreter to blindly accept their conclusions and conditions as the only truth.  Dear friends and colleagues, I see things very differently from my perspective as an individual independent interpreter. Let me explain:

The multinationals and the smaller agencies that from now on I will respectfully refer to as their “junior partners” want me to believe that there is this great new technology that is being provided by these huge agencies and their junior partners, that they know how it works and that for this reason they are entitled to be the ones offering this technology to the client (who they often refer to as customer because they see interpreting as an “industry” not a profession). While they are telling me this, I see that they never mention the inventors and researchers, that these individuals are not invited to the conferences and seminars because it is not in the multinationals’ best interest that we, as mere interpreters, meet them and start a direct relationship with the creative talent, thus bypassing the middleman in this equation also known as the agency.

They tell us again and again that VRI changed the old rules and that from now on interpreters better get used to the idea that they will make less money because, by eliminating the need to travel to the site of the event, it will be cheaper to deliver interpreting services. It is just a consequence of modernization. The problem is that what I see are multinational agencies and their junior partners generating all-time high profits because, despite of the savings in travel and other logistics that VRI eliminates and therefore the end-client would not be willing to pay anymore, by reducing the interpreters’ fees because the service is now rendered remotely, they now keep a bigger share of the professional fees paid by the client for interpreter services. I see that an event covered remotely will eliminate travel-related costs, but the professional service of the interpreter is exactly the same. The fact that the interpreter is working from home or from a facility near home instead of from a booth on the other side of the world is irrelevant for the rendition.  There is no logic, there is no reason, and there is no moral justification to demand that a professional interpreter work for less because of his physical location.

They tell us that VRI interpreting for these multinational agencies and their junior partners benefits the interpreter because she will not have to “waste” two days traveling to and from an event. Instead, she will be able to take a second assignment for those “traveling” days; therefore, she will have a higher income.  The problem is that I see a professional independent interpreter, who owns her time, deciding to work one assignment, two, or none. This is a personal decision that has nothing to do with the multinational agency or its junior partner as it does not impact the interpreter’s performance during the assignment with said entity.  There is a good chance that there may not be other assignments available for those days, and in that case, you could argue that the interpreter would actually make less money because she will not be paid the travel fee anymore. I do not include this in my judgment because it is part of the risk of being an independent professional interpreter. It has nothing to do with the multinational entity.

They tell us that healthcare and court interpreters will be better off with VRI because instead of spending hours getting ready to go to work, traveling to the assignment, and waiting for their medical appointment or court hearing to take place, they can stay home and play with their kids, do some gardening or work in their car. It is a win-win situation!  Unfortunately, what I see is an interpreter who goes to the hospital, clinic, courthouse or jail because that is his job, being forced to accept one or two hours of work paid by the minute, instead of a full day of paid work. People go to work because they need to make money. Many would love to stay with their children, plant a tree or fix the attic; unfortunately you don’t get paid for any of those things. That is what vacation is for.

These entities tell us that thanks to VRI many indigenous language interpreters are now working with hospitals and emergency rooms; they brag about this. They are helping these generally ignored and forgotten interpreters. That is not what I observe. When I look at these indigenous colleagues, I see rare and exotic language interpreters providing professional services for a very low fee. We all know that our colleagues in rare and exotic languages command a higher fee than those of us who have a more conventional language combination.

The multinational agencies and their partners tell us that they are the ones who know the market, that as interpreters, we may know how to provide the service, but it is the agency that can get the clients. What I see is that we as interpreters know many people that they do not know. We are in the trenches with those who make an event successful. These are the players that we can go to and keep the interpreter service a reality. They do not know many of them.

These agencies tell us that they are the ones who make sure that interpreters provide their services ethically and professionally. Unfortunately for those who believe this idea, I cannot see how one of their employees, somebody less experienced and with less formal education than the interpreters she “coordinates” by micromanaging and setting demeaning practices used in unskilled labor markets, can do a better job than a professional who will still be around a year from now. Most of these agency employees will not.

The multinational agencies and their junior partners often say that there are many interpreters who are very happy working for them under the existing conditions. What I see is a group of individuals who are scared to death of losing that rock-bottom income that together with their spouse’s wages makes it possible for them to survive. They are too afraid to speak up. Of course, I would not doubt that there may be some who are suffering of the Stockholm syndrome.

They tell us that they are training interpreters, that they are helping them to improve their skills. In reality, what I see is, in my opinion, no more than a bunch of laughable tests and online courses claiming to help you become an interpreter.

These multinational entities constantly say that there are not enough interpreters in the market to meet the current demand. That they are working on training more people to fulfill these need. Unfortunately, all I see is many good interpreters sitting at home without work because they refuse to work under such insulting conditions as the ones often contained in these agencies’ contracts.

Multinational entities and their junior associates tell us that it is them who know the technology; that we do not, that many interpreters are reluctant to learn how to work with VRI technology because they are afraid of the new tools. The truth is that every day more interpreters are getting tired of the middle guy who adds no value to the service and can be replaced at the blink of an eye. Interpreters, inventors and researchers can work together directly.  As far as learning the technology, do not worry. All I can say is that there are many more college degrees on this side of the table. Interpreters will learn.

These are my opinions, it is my perception of what is going on. I truly believe that we as interpreters need to develop a direct relationship with innovators to be in a position where we provide VRI services in a professional dignified way that includes the most essential part of this profession (because it is not an industry): the individual interpreter, embracing those honest agencies who understand their role in this profession and do not try to go beyond, and eliminating all those prone to abuse their position and willing to impose their personal insatiable desires over the professional services they claim to provide.  I now ask you to share your comments on this issue, and to refrain from coming in here to defend the philosophy and practices of the multinational agencies and their junior partners I refer to throughout this entry.  They have plenty of spaces where they can continue to serve the Kool-Aid. We have very limited venues to express our opinion.

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