Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)
September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments
The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.
Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.
Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise. I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.
Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.
The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement. The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.
I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.
Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes. The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish. There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in. Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.
Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe. There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up). There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.
What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation. They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.
They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely. I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.
Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe. Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area. I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.
My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help. With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.
My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.
While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish. Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.
It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.
Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.
Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.
The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.
Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society. The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.
I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.
Is being a capable, good individual enough to lead a professional association?
September 4, 2017 § 3 Comments
I have written about the benefits of belonging to professional interpreter and translator associations in the past. Sometimes I have praised and criticized some, but I have never questioned the need to have them around, ready to defend and advance the profession through professional development of their members, advocacy, lobbying, education, forging alliances, and so on.
Today we need them more than ever before. In a globalized economy, where we are the constant target of greedy agencies, ignorant government officials, shrinking budgets and growing intolerance, solid professional associations are essential to our profession. Because we are not all equal nor we live in the same environment, in my opinion, interpreters and translators should belong to at least one international, one regional, one local, and one specialized association.
Unlike other posts, today I will not question the intentions of some associations’ disturbing agenda centered on corporate memberships, I will not talk about the good or bad practices of some others regarding public relations, advocacy, or the planning of a conference. My concern in such matters remains unchanged.
My motivation behind this post comes from deep concern and historically supported fear about the immediate future of one of the largest and most popular professional association in the United States. Even though this entry centers on issues that happened in America, many of this association’s members live in other countries, and this situation could easily happen somewhere else. I encourage all readers to continue to the end, even if you live somewhere else.
After many years of struggle, and a long fight for its survival, this association reestablished itself. It grew and the quality of its membership improved. For the past two years it has grown tremendously and has held its two most successful conferences in history, not just because of the people attending the events, but due to the quality of its content. As a veteran member of the association who experienced the good old days, the horrible years of decay, and this rebirth, I can confidently say this historical recovery happened because of the experience, prestige, knowledge, honesty and vision of two of its Board members, the hard work of all five people part of the Board, and the professionalism, skills, and work of the two individuals who have been in charge of the administration for the last couple of years. Sadly, the members of the association learned last week these two Board members resigned to their positions.
By looking at the composition of the Board, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, would see a well-respected professor from one of the more renowned interpreting and translation institutions worldwide, a pioneer and innovator on a note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting, a trainer and conference presenter in all continents, a United States Department of State interpreter, one of the most respected (beloved by the interpreters who worked with him) and capable managing interpreter for one of the busiest federal district courts in the United States, including courthouses in four cities, and perhaps the one of the few districts to have staff certified interpreters in a language other than Spanish, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from the state with the largest non-English speaking population in the United States, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from one of the busiest federal judicial districts in the country due to its proximity to Mexico, a well-known and widely respected authority on legal transcriptions and translations, a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States. These credentials explain the reason many of the most capable and better known court interpreters who left the association during the dark era came back. It also gave many of us an important tool to promote the association and encourage new interpreters to join.
Unfortunately, after last week’s resignations, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, will see a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.
I have no intention to criticize, offend, or disrespect the colleagues who remain as Board members. I have no reason to doubt their skills and dedication; I am not questioning their honesty or integrity either. They appear to be capable, and many of you trusted them when you voted for them.
I think it is important for me to mention that the two Board members who resigned, and the two individuals in charge of the administration, are all good friends of mine whom I have known for many years. I have had very limited contact with the current directors. I have dealt with one of them more than the others because of the conference in the Washington, D.C. area, but we have no relationship beyond saying hi at the conferences or being Facebook friends.
This post is not about those directors who stayed, but about the ones who left; the missed opportunities due to their absence, the uncertain future of the organization, and my concerns about the reasons that pushed courageous, capable veterans of the profession, full of ideas and plans for the association’s future, to resign. Every time that a non-quitter quits we must worry and find out what happened.
Dear friends and colleagues, for a professional association to thrive it must gain access to many places, many inaccessible to the common folk. Effectively arguing for the interests of the profession before government authorities, establishing professional practice positions before clients, and protecting our profession from the predators of the “industry”, are difficult. Many of those we must talk to will only listen when the voice addressing them has the credibility backed by name recognition, reputation, professional trajectory, and personal network that the now missing directors have.
Many of you reading this post, members of this association or not, are too new to remember the dark years. They started with a Board lacking experienced federally certified court interpreters, world-renowned freelance practitioners admired and respected by other veterans who trusted them, and could be role models to the new interpreters. The Board of those years had good intentions, I think they wanted to make the association better, but a Board of university professors and non-certified interpreters shrank the organization. For years our conferences were poorly attended, made no money, and could make no decisions because with so few members attending the conferences we did not have quorum to vote for or against anything. On that occasion, just like today, capable, experienced, well-known and respected Board members left; some just came back in the last couple of years when they recognized a Board like the ones in the past. Many of our most valuable members never came back. Many of my colleagues and I do not want to go back to the dark years.
I understand that many of you are friends of the current members of the Board, I get that many of you voted for them. Nothing is wrong with that. What troubles me is the emotional part. There is no reason to be offended or angry when people question the credentials of the current Board compared to the ones of the Board we just lost last week. I have seen how some of you are wishing good luck to the remaining Board. I wish them a long and happy life, but I am not on the well-wisher column. I prefer to remain on the skeptical, scrutinizing every move and decision. I want to know what caused the two resignations. Not the light version or the excuses. I know the ones who resign and they could not possibly resign over one decision. It had to include other issues, perhaps even the way the Board members interacted.
I have also read how many of you are demanding an audit of the performance by the company retained to manage the financial and day-to-day operations. I think that should not be necessary as I trust the professionalism of the two individuals who run said company (and as I said, they are my friends) but I welcome the suggestion as a needed step to erase the uneasiness of many members. I know the administrators will not like this, I know it will hurt their feelings, but I also know that they have nothing to hide and will understand the need for this audit which should be expanded to go beyond a mere examination of the books. Like I said, the real cause of the resignations came not from the accounting books, it came from some repeated interaction among Board members.
I also believe that to avoid going back to the failed years of the past, we must let people speak up. If the members want to vent their frustration with the way things turned starting last week, they should be allowed to post anything on the Facebook group (as far as I know there are no complains about censoring it so far) and also to use the List Serve. At this point it is irrelevant what the guidelines say about who or what can be expressed there. It is absurd to defend a decision splitting hairs because somebody was censored, banned, moderated of whatever. These are extraordinary times and they require of flexibility and total freedom of expression to all members. We all know that everybody will say what they must say, if not through the association’s official outlets, then through another social media vehicle.
This is a time to listen to the members, have an independent auditor and perhaps a committee to investigate what happened so we can have transparent and complete information we can trust. Self-serving statements by Board members, and providing some financial and corporate information on line will not be enough.
Finally, we all must understand that it will be difficult to fill the two vacancies on the Board with colleagues of similar caliber to the ones who left. Serving in any professional association is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time, requires of many personal and professional sacrifices, and it does not make you any money. Getting anybody to serve is hard, I for one would not do it, but getting somebody with the same characteristics as the ones of our two dear colleagues who quit will be a titanic effort. Hints by the current Board indicating that they will move fast worry me. It will take some time to get people that can take the Board’s collective resume back to where it was last week. Other decisions can be postponed if needed, there are no contracts or deadlines that justify a rushed decision. Many of us are serious about it. We will be watching closely this nomination process, because this time it will be even more complicated to get the ideal people on the Board. These two new members must have another characteristic: They must be independent, they must be of a different persuasion from the one of the three members left. You may think this does not matter, that regardless of their ideology they will be in the minority 3-2. This is true, but having such diversity of ideas and opinions will assure us as members that even in losing a vote, they will let us know why the majority voted the way they did. As you can clearly see, we will need two extraordinary professionals who can play the role of the extraordinary professionals who just left, people not close friends of the current Board members so we can be sure the Board is not marching in lockstep without anyone questioning their decisions.
As those of you who assiduously read my blog know, my only interest is the betterment of the profession and protecting my colleagues; I contribute to the profession as much as I can, and I do it all over the world. I have many ideas and projects in mind; I have recently discussed many with one colleague who left the Board. I am not a teenager anymore and I will not sit and wait to see how a Board that looks different from what I proposed above turns out. I will take my projects somewhere else, and work with others who think like me, perhaps even the Board members who quit. I want to be clear: I am not quitting the association at this time. I am going to be vigilant and question every move and decision by this and future Boards; I will continue to demand transparency and diversity of opinions in Boards that are not elected by the membership (like in this case) and I withhold judgement until I am satisfied one way or another. In the meantime I will behave just like I did during the dark years: I will not praise or attack the association and I will not encourage anybody to leave or join the organization until I see what the Board does. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on the composition of the Board, be brief and concise, and please do not write emotional comments attacking or defending past or present Board members.