Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

June 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

If you know me personally, you know how much I like going to the theater. I enjoy musicals, drama, comedy, classic and contemporary, big and small productions; I watch anything and everything: from the biggest names on stage to community theater.  For professional reasons, I am presently in New York City, and I have taken this opportunity, as I always do, to see as many plays and musicals as allowed by my busy agenda.  This past weekend, I saw “On Your Feet!” the musical that tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the world famous musician/producer and songwriter/musician/performer respectively.

The play is full of beautiful music, with top-notch singers and dancers in a production second to none, but the most relevant aspect of the musical is the story.  The performance takes you by the hand through the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Fajardo, with all of the highs and lows they have experienced in life. From Emilio’s childhood when a little boy had to say goodbye to his family in Cuba in order to escape the atrocities of the Castro regime, to little Gloria’s life in Miami as part of an immigrant family that faced all obstacles encountered by those who move to another country, with a different culture that is expressed in an unknown language, as well as the devastating Multiple Sclerosis that her father suffered during Gloria’s youth.  The play shows us how a strong will, ambition, determination, and hard work (and huge talent), were key to their success.  The musical is in English, but it is culturally and linguistically permeated by a Cuban atmosphere at every step.  It does not hide or minimize the struggle to be accepted when you look, speak, and sound different.

During (in my opinion) the most important scene of the play, already successful Gloria and Emilio meet their record producer to convince him to back an album in English. By then, they were famous and recognized in the Hispanic world and culture everywhere, but they lived in the United States and wanted to reach everybody with their music. The producer tells them that their music is popular with those who share a Hispanic taste, that their style is for latinos, that their work would never make it in the wider English speaking American society. He suggests they stick to their culture and stay Cuban. At this point, a very angry Emilio approaches the producer, and within a paper-thin distance from the producer’s face tells him: “look at my face up close, and take a good look, because this is how Americans look”.

At that point, the audience reacted with a huge applause. It was extremely moving, and very telling. In a few words, Emilio had summarized the reality that we are currently facing in the United States as a nation, and in the rest of the world as the human species.  Emilio’s face is the face of all immigrants, refugees, political and economic, who leave everything, and sometimes everyone, behind to pursue an opportunity to contribute to society at large.  As interpreters we are constantly exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of earth. We interact with them on a daily basis and we see first- hand their flaws and their qualities. This is our reality, but it is not everyone’s; In fact, most people, especially those who do not live in the big urban areas in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, spend a big part of their life around people who look like them, act like them, think like them, and speak a common language with a familiar accent.  This is the rule around the world; we, and some other professionals who work with different cultures, are the exception.

As interpreters, we hear different languages spoken with different accents every day, it is part of our “normal”; but we need plays like “On Your Feet!” for the rest of the people who are too quick to form an opinion and disqualify others a priori, just because they do not share their language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food. This is the true value of the play: one that goes beyond the challenges that the Estefans had to overcome to get to the top and stay there. Given the current environment generated by the U.S. presidential campaign, the brexit vote in the U.K., and people’s attitude towards war refugees, and indigenous immigrants all over the world, artistic manifestations like this one give us an opportunity to reflect and talk to others about what is really important.

I believe that theater and our profession are connected.  In both cases we are only successful when our message is understood by others. Plays and musicals are written in a particular language, and they cannot reach a universal audience unless they are translated. Can you imagine a world where only English speakers knew Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers were the only ones enjoying the works of Lope de Vega? It seems impossible, but it is only possible because of the work of many translators who have taken these and many other works to the masses for centuries.

As a theater lover, I try to see plays and musicals everywhere I go, particularly in those cities famous for their theater.  Every time I am in New York City, London, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, I make a deliberate effort to attend a play. I enjoy musicals and plays in their original language, but as an interpreter, I am always fascinated by a good translation and localization of a play.

Although the success or failure of a foreign play rests on the shoulders of the translator, it is rare to see a program, or a marquee that credits the translator. I have examined many programs to discover at the end of the booklet that the people who provided the lightbulbs for the stage are credited on the program, but the translator is usually missing.

It is for this reason that I was in shock when I saw that a translator was given a very well-deserved credit for a very difficult play.

I was in Madrid about two years ago. It was late in the afternoon after a very exhausting job. I really needed something to lift my spirits and at the same time take my mind away from more work waiting for me the next day. Of course, I immediately thought about going to the theater, and before I knew it, I found myself at the steps of Teatro Lope de Vega on the Gran Vía. I looked up and saw that they were showing “El Rey León”. By then, I had already seen The Lion King many times in New York City, London, and Mexico City, so I hesitated for a minute. Another theater was showing “Chicago” a couple of blocks down the street, but after a quick reflection, I decided to buy a ticket for the Spanish version of The Lion King.

It turns out that I made the right choice, the play was excellent, actors, musicians, costume designers.  Everybody did a first-class job; but the best part in my opinion, was the translation and adaptation of the play. Dialogues, lyrics, and cultural references were all impeccable. I had seen the musical in Spanish before in Mexico City, but humor is very different in Madrid, and the localization was excellent. Moreover, translating a play with some dialogues and lyrics in Swahili, leaving those portions untouched, but making them fit the Spanish version, despite the fact that they had been originally conceived with English in mind, was an enormous task. The translation was very good.

Everything I have shared with you resulted on a memorable experience that I still bring up to my friends and colleagues more than two years after the fact, but the highlight of the evening happened when, as I was reading the program, I found the translator. There he was: Jordi Galceran, from Barcelona, getting a well-deserved credit for his work. I never forgot that moment, and since that night, I continue to look for the translator on every program; unfortunately, for the most part, I cannot find any names. For this reason, I have taken the opportunity that this blog entry, on diversity and tolerance in a Broadway musical gave me, to advocate for the respect and recognition that our translator friends and colleagues deserve. I now invite you to share your stories on diversity and tolerance of foreign groups and cultures, and to write down the names of any translators of plays or musicals that you may want to honor by mentioning them here.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.

The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world.  First, a word of caution:  The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet.  It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.

This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States.  Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.

For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system.  The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas.  New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.

Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters.  Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size.  In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost.  New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country.  It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.

The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.

The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically.  From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change.  There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state.  Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.

I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again.  I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification.  It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets

I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.

Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States.  Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances.  Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state.  I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.

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