June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments
September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.
These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.
The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.
Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.
Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.
This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.
Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.
November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments
Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.
Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.
Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?
Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.
Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).
How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?
The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.
There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.
The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.
In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.
Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji” and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!
Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!
September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments
Imagine having to support a family when you are unemployed, poor, desperate, living in a country torn by war, ruled by a despot. Then one day, somebody tells you that, because you speak a foreign language, you can become an interpreter for a foreign army. You are told that you will be paid for that service, and after the war, this foreign government will take you and your family to their country where you will be safe from retaliation, and will live a better life. Those of us living in a western nation cannot even imagine that situation, much less the ray of hope it means to many humans who live in that reality. This is the story, and the dilemma, of a conflict-zone interpreter.
You just noticed that today’s post is about interpreters in conflict zones. Please do not go away! I know most of you access this blog to read and debate topics related to conference, court, healthcare or community interpreting. Today please read this post from beginning to end, show your determination to defend the profession, and do something that will make you feel good as a human.
Throughout history, explorers, conquerors, traders, religious missionaries, and all others who found themselves in a foreign land where they did not understand the local language have used interpreters to accomplish their mission. Often, these interpreters have been local individuals who spoke both, the foreign and domestic languages, and with no formal training, but armed with their natural skills, and some powerful motivation, provided their able services even when it meant risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From Malintzin to Squanto, Boubou Penda to Luis de Torres, these interpreters, our colleagues, have contributed to the history of civilization providing a bridge that made communication possible when peoples did not speak the same language.
These interpreters have been essential in all armed conflicts: invasions, liberations, occupations, and peace negotiations. Many in recent history, like the Navajo Code-Talkers who serve the United States armed forces during World War II. Others, anonymously participating in conflict zones like Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and the Bosnian War.
Western nations have benefited, and still do, of the services of interpreters in conflict zones who assist military forces and civilian contractors in places like Africa and the Middle East.
From the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, western nations participating in those conflicts scouted those two countries looking for local women and men who spoke the local language and that of the western country. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and others, recruited bilingual individuals, often with a professional education background (doctors, teachers, engineers) who had no employment due to the armed conflict or because of their political opinions, ethnic group, or religious beliefs. Some had openly opposed the local regimes and were personae non gratae in the eyes of the despot in charge of government, others quietly disagreed with the way their countries were governed, afraid to say anything the authorities could perceive as treacherous. Others’ sole motivation was to feed their families.
All these courageous humans knew what they were risking by helping the West. Besides the tremendous danger of being in a theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where they could be killed during a fire exchange, and ambush, or by an improvised explosive device (IED), they knew the consequences if caught. Their execution, and that of their immediate family members was a reality they faced every day the worked with the foreign armed forces and independent defense contractors in their countries. These were (and are) brave and courageous individuals. They also knew that all armed conflicts have a beginning and an end. They recognized the dangers they would face after the foreign troops left their countries. They knew their families, even if not involved in the armed conflict, would face the same consequences. To stay behind after the Western armed forces left would be a death sentence.
The United States and all of its allies were aware of this reality. They knew the only way to recruit much needed interpreters and translators was promising they would not be left behind. These conflict zone interpreters got assurances from the western governments they served that when the time to withdraw their troops came, they, and their immediate families would be taken to their countries to start a new life free from death threats and other retaliatory actions. In other words: conflict zone interpreters agreed to provide their services and the western nations promised they would take them to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and all other countries to use interpreting services for military and civilian personnel. As we know, the troops withdrew from these countries, but many interpreters continue to wait for an entry visa to the country that promised to take them. Interpreters have been admitted to these western countries, but it has been a fraction. Many of those who have moved to their new countries endured a lengthy and cumbersome process. During this time, as expected, many conflict zones interpreters, and their family members, have been executed as traitors back home while waiting for a visa.
These interpreters, our colleagues, did their part, they rendered the service facing tremendous risk and unimaginable working conditions. They were essential to accomplish a mission; through their work they saved many western and local lives. The West has not honored its word.
This is not a political post, and I am not arguing for or against the admission of refugees in any country. I understand there are very solid arguments for and against admitting refugees. I am not endorsing or condemning the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq either. Solely this post invites you all, interpreters and translators worldwide, regardless of your political persuasion, religious beliefs, or immigration stands, to join to protect the profession by supporting our conflict zone colleagues, just like attorneys help each other, as Marines leave no one behind. We need to raise our voice and tell the governments of those western nations who made a promise to these interpreters when they needed them, to walk the walk and deliver. We need them to know that we know, and we need to push for an expedient visa issuance system for these colleagues. Countries who break promises look bad and lose credibility. Interpreters who believed their promise continue to die while government authorities drag their feet motivated by politics instead of integrity.
Through my work as a civilian interpreter with the armed forces and defense contractors, and as an interpreter trainer, I have met several military and conflict zone interpreters who have served in different places. I have heard from them some horror stories of killings, kidnappings, rapes, and beatings. I have gotten to know many as friends and colleagues. I have met their families. I have also heard the tales of those less-fortunate still risking their lives while they wait for an answer from the West.
I also recognize the amazing, tireless, work of Red T, its compassionate and courageous CEO Maya Hess who I have the privilege to know personally, and the professional associations that support its efforts and share its values: The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) The International Federation of Translators (FIT) and many of its member organizations; The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI); Critical Link International, The International Council for the Development of Community Interpreting (CLI); and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). Some time ago during the IAPTI Congress in Bordeaux France, I had the opportunity to hear Maya’s passionate description of their efforts to raise awareness and to get a United Nations declaration of legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. On that occasion, she was joined by another fighter for protecting these colleagues: Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, AIIC. Just this Spring I had the opportunity to hear Maya once again, this time in Zaragoza Spain during ASETRAD Congress where she spoke before a big crowd of interpreters and translators, and was joined by some conflict zone interpreters for a round table discussion. On that occasion, ASETRAD conferred honorary membership to Red T. To learn more about Red T and to support their campaigns, please visit: www.red-t.org
My motivation to write this post at this time has to do with the Congressional elections in the United States this November. On November 6, Americans will vote to elect one third of the members of the U.S. Senate (according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate renews its membership one-third at a time every two years) and for all the members of the House of Representatives. Political campaigns just started last week and all candidates will visit your hometown, attend townhall meetings, debate their opponents, pay attention to your phone calls, and read your mail.
This is the time to tell your senators and representatives running for office that as a professional interpreter or translator, and as an American who values your country’s word and promises, that you want them to pass an increase on Special Immigrant Visa numbers (SIV) for conflict zone interpreters and their families, and to expedite the visa processing times, at least to comply with the nine-month limit in the books which has not been observed. During the last 2 years the number of SIV approvals has declined and the process has seen considerable delays. The official argument is the security background checks. It is understandable and desirable that the government carefully review case by case, but it is also necessary that authorities consider previous background checks and past performance. Remember, these interpreters already worked with members of the U.S. Armed Forces and risked their lives to do their job. Please call the candidates’ campaign headquarters, your Senate and Congressional Offices back home and in Washington, D.C., and support our colleagues. I guarantee you will feel better afterwards.
Regardless of where you live, contact your U.S. Representative. Remember: They are all up for reelection. Please contact your Senate candidates if you live in these States:
To contact the U.S. House of Representatives, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives
To contact the U.S. Senate, visit: https://www.senate.gov/reference/
If you do not leave in the United States, please contact the office of your President, Prime Minister, or Head of Government. You can also visit Red T to sign the petitions.
Remembering that no political debate will be allowed, I now invite you to share with you your experiences as a conflict zone interpreter, or your ideas on how to press Congress and foreign governments to live up to their promise to our colleagues: the conflict zone interpreters.
December 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not. Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.
The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions. With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.
Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year. Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries. Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:
In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.
Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures. As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business. Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.
The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree. These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve. Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning. As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.
Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.
Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year. With the presents exchanged, people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before. Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake. They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet egg nog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV. Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.
I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us. Happy holidays to all!
January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments
We are in award season again!
This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.
The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.
As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.
Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)
Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.
This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.
Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.
I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.
November 10, 2014 § 14 Comments
The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) recently published an article I wrote on military interpreting in its official publication “Proteus.”
Military interpreting has always inspired me. I have the greatest respect and admiration for all those language professionals who serve their countries in harm’s way. For this reason, and motivated by my desire to share something about this part of our profession with all those who live abroad and maybe did not see the article, I have decided to post a version of this article with the needed changes to fit a blog format and honor my commitment to NAJIT. On this Veteran’s Day, I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts with the rest of us.
The conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58 BC, Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BC, the defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, the Mongol invasion of China in 1279 AD and Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition in 1805 have at least two things in common: They are among the greatest military campaigns in the history of the world, and they all involved two or more nations that spoke different languages. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at a small courthouse to meet with General Robert E. Lee. After four years of war Lee had come to Grant to bring the American Civil War to an end. The two generals had a quick chat about a time they met each other in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, politely negotiated the terms of surrender, signed the agreement, and then waved each other off. The whole thing was over in just a couple of hours. Surrenders can be much easier when both parties speak the same language.
The first interpreter appears in history some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens first met the Neanderthals and realized that they could not communicate. That first interpreter could have been a commercial/trade interpreter (unlikely) or a military interpreter that helped negotiate territorial borders, travel rights, and other related matters; perhaps a surrender, maybe a declaration of war. We all know what is the oldest profession, but unlike translation that appears when humans develop a writing system, I am convinced that interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession in the world. Ever since that time, human groups have made war and they have used the services of soldiers and sailors who spoke the enemy’s language. Military interpreting is as old as humans.
What is military interpreting?
military interpreter is a commissioned officer of an armed force who interprets and/or translates to facilitate military operations. According to the United States Army careers and jobs description, a military interpreter is an individual primarily responsible for interpreting and sight translating between English and a foreign language who will first require nine weeks of basic combat training followed by advanced individual training to learn the skills that are required to perform interpreter support in several areas such as checkpoints, medical support, training host nation armed forces, VIP escort, and cultural awareness. Interpreter officers are used extensively in multinational operations in which two or more countries do not share the same language, or in expeditionary missions where communication with the local population is crucial. Interpreter officers also work in the intelligence gathering and analysis together with civilian interpreters, translators, and analysts. In other words, military interpreting is an essential activity within a country’s armed forces during war and peace times.
A military organization’s demand for interpreters and translators changes according to the location of the military conflict. During the Cold War years the United States military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on Russian, German, and other languages spokes behind the iron curtain. After September 11, 2001 the demand shifted to Arabic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. In recent years there has been a resurgence of the need for French interpreters and translators because of the developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
The armed forces need for interpreters and translators also changes depending on the type of war being fought. During World War II the orders were to shoot all soldiers wearing an enemy uniform and interpreters were needed to interrogate prisoners of war, sight translate intercepted messages, and negotiate with enemy commanders. During the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan things were quite different, U.S. personnel were fighting against guerilla armies with no identifiable uniforms; for this type of military action interpreters are required to develop a close and trusting relationship with the locals; this requires a certain knowledge of the culture and social structure of those whose trust the interpreter needs to gain. In a war zone an interpreter could mean the difference between life and death for soldiers and sailors. The interpreter could overhear, as it has happened, part of a conversation about an ambush or an assassination. Spanish language military interpreters are generally used for natural disaster relief operations and for security checkpoints. Although the United States has no armed conflict with any Spanish speaking country, the fact that there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States who do not speak English, and its geographical location, make of Spanish a very important language for military interpreting and translating.
Behind the lines interpreters play an important role in logistics and diplomacy. When an elected official visits a military base, military interpreters serve as escort interpreters for said dignitaries. They also participate in media relations with local news agencies, and in the acquisition of supplies from local merchants. Interpreters also listen to radio reports, watch local TV stations, and skim newspapers to gather information about local issues.
Who are the military interpreters?
Military interpreters have been essential to most historical events in the world. Besides the examples mentioned above, we can think of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru where interpreters like Malintzin and Felipillo played a prominent role during the conquest. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first met Malintzin after he defeated the Maya-Chontal forces in what is now the western part of the Yucatan peninsula. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation. After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors got to the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires.
Military interpreters come from all walks of life. In the United States they mainly come from three different places: The military officers and regular members of the armed forces; civilians who have some foreign experience and language skills such as former foreign service officers who have spent time abroad working in embassies and consular offices; and local foreigner civilians from the conflict area who speak the required language as their mother tongue and have proficiency in English.
In the United States the 223rd. Military Intelligence Battalion provides interpreting, translating, counter-intelligence, and interrogation services, supporting the Army and the rest of the intelligence community. Many of the civilian and military officers who want to become interpreters attend the Defense Language Institute, a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution which provides linguistic and cultural instruction. The Defense Language Institute’s (DLI) primary foreign language school and training of trainers center are at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and it issues Associate of Arts in Foreign Language degrees to those students who come from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and law enforcement agencies to study one of over 40 languages that are taught at this facility. DLI (through the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State) has a facility in the Washington, D.C. area where it provides training in languages not taught at the Presidio of Monterey, and a location al Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years the United States Department of Defense has held some innovative courses like the Military Translation and Interpretation Training Pilot Program developed by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute. The United States Army currently has 14,000 “soldier-linguists” stationed around the globe. Compare this figure to the mere 1,000 interpreters who are certified to work in the United States Federal Court system in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo. Of late, the U.S. Armed Forces have been relying more on outsourcing these services to private contractors. This is big business if you consider that in 2007 one of the largest language services contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 interpreters and translators. Many of these interpreters are excellent and their language pairs are in high demand, so it is expected that once they leave the Armed Forces they will definitely impact the civilian language services market in the United States and abroad
What do military interpreters do?
Like all interpreters, military interpreters do consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation; however, the way the services are rendered and the environment where they are provided are very different from other types of interpreting. Sight translation is a very important part of their work. There are two kinds of sight translation: The “traditional sight translation” used primarily for strategic and intelligence purposes, and the more widely used summary sight translation. This type of sight translation is used during house searches, enemy searches and searches of local civilian population. The interpreter looks at the document, skins through it, and summarizes its contents for his superior officer. Then the superior officer decides, based on the information provided by the interpreter, if the document merits a more detailed sight translation or even a written translation. Keep in mind that many times during a search soldiers may come across a foreign document written in a language that does not use the Roman alphabet; summary sight translation helps the officer to differentiate a laundry ticket from the directions to build a bomb.
The most commonly used interpretation is a combination of simultaneous and consecutive rendition. When negotiating with the local elders or with enemy forces, interpreters often simultaneously interpret to their superior officer what the counterpart is saying. They do this by whispering into the superior officer’s ear; next, they interpret the superior officer’s words (questions and answers) to the counterpart using a consecutive rendition. Of course, this can vary depending on the number of officers the interpreter is interpreting for; if there are several, then the interpreter will do everything consecutively. The interpreter’s courage and skill are admirable as very often they perform the work under adverse circumstances such as choppers flying over their heads, shots being fired at them, or being surrounded by wounded people crying for help. All of it as they try to interpret and carry a weapon at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the role of the military interpreter throughout the film. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.
Essential principles of military interpretation (Ethical considerations)
Because of their function, military interpreters work under a different code of professional responsibility. Yes, they are ethically bound to do a professional job, to interpret with accuracy, to prepare for the assignment and to interpret to the best of their ability. They are also ruled by a different set of values and constraints: A military interpreter’s top priority and obligation is to his country and to his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. His rendition can and should suffer when he must take care of other priorities such as cover a fellow soldier, take cover himself, assist a wounded soldier, or comply with an order from a superior officer. Their loyalty is to their platoon or battalion. They are not neutral communicators; they are partial and serve one side: their armed forces. Military interpreters are required to interpret everything that the enemy or counterpart says, but they should only interpret back what they are told to interpret. If a superior officer tells them not to interpret to the counterpart either a portion of a speech or a paragraph of a letter, they must remain silent. They are always on duty as they may come across valuable intelligence at any time. It is important to understand that military interpreters are the only interpreters who work in an environment where one of the parties may be the enemy, and may want to kill him. Other interpreters, even court and diplomatic interpreters work in scenarios where there is an adversarial situation, but never with an enemy. Military interpreters are the only ones who hold a weapon while doing their rendition, and the only ones who, if necessary, have to be prepared to shoot one of the persons they are interpreting for. Military interpreters are motivated and moved by the highest principles of love of country and protection of their fellow citizens. This is important because the ethical justification to their job comes from this top values that most societies embrace. Military interpreters go to work every day ready to give their life for their country, and indeed this is common occurrence. Native military interpreters work under tremendous pressure and face incredible danger. They are repudiated by a big chunk of their communities, and are considered traitors by many. American military interpreter officers and enlisted personnel are at constant risk of fire and roadside bombs. Not long ago State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and her escort military interpreter were killed in Afghanistan while participating in a book give-away to local Afghan kids. She was 25.
The future of military interpreting.
A very pressing issue about the future of military interpreting has to do with another ethical and moral question: Should the nations who hire local military interpreters protect them after the conflict is over, and should these governments take the interpreters with them when they leave? This is a question that many military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking and to this day they have not received a clear answer. Countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Australia need to decide how they are going to handle this delicate situation. A negative or an affirmative answer that comes too late could have an impact on the recruitment of local military interpreters in the future.
As already stated, military interpreting has always been around and it is expected to continue to be an essential component of the armed forces. Languages may change and tactics could differ, but the profession as such will remain basically the same. One day military interpreters may not need to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. military already has automated airplanes and it is working on the development of a robot interpreter. In April 2011 the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a robot interpreter that must be able to perform sight translations and interpret local gestures as well. It is unlikely that the armed forces will turn over their military duties to a machine, especially in the near future, but maybe space travel will be a place where robotic military interpreters will star their careers as the new “rookies” in the profession.
Although the Pentagon will not turn over its military interpreting and translation services to a machine or to a computer programmer in the near future, military interpreters will have an unprecedented impact on our profession during peacetime. Every day very capable military interpreters are coming back to civilian life, and they are joining civil society with language pair combinations that not long ago were next to impossible to get. These professional interpreters will flood the market with a new kind of interpreter: one who is used to work under a lot of stress and in very tough conditions, one that will bring to the table language skills and the cultural knowledge of their clients; if the government lives up to its promise and does not abandon those local military interpreters who served during the war, we may be able to choose native speakers for these assignments. That would certainly be a wonderful way to write the final page on the armed conflicts that we have lived now for over a decade, and a way to thank our military servicemen and women who worked as military interpreters, and at the same time render tribute to this little known but vital part of our profession. Now I invite you to share your thoughts on military interpreting with the rest of us.
October 30, 2014 § 3 Comments
Every year the Halloween season reaches more countries, adapts to its people, and becomes part of their culture. In the United States, a country where the decorations of our homes for this event are only second to Christmas, the main activity is called “trick or treating.” Americans decorate their homes with fake spider webs, plastic monsters, and Jack-O’-Lanterns. That evening in every city and town in the United States children of all ages dressed as scary creatures, fantastic heroes, and beautiful princesses, go door to door asking the same question: “trick or treat?” The adults answering the door respond by giving away candy to the little monsters.
Much of the American Halloween comes from old English and Irish traditions. Much is one hundred percent American. Something is American (as from the United States) when it comes from somewhere else, it is accepted, it is assimilated, and then it is molded to the American taste and culture. That is exactly what happened to our very own Halloween. Let’s take the term Jack-O’-Lantern for example: It comes from East Anglia’s “foolish fire” known as “will-o’-the-wisp” or “Will-of-the-torch.” Will was replaced by Jack and it became “Jack of the lantern.” “Trick or treating” comes from the old country’s “guising.” Back in Great Britain and Ireland during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, children and the poor would go “souling”: Singing and paying for the dead in exchange for cakes.
Since the 1950s on October 31 American kids go trick or treating from around 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm. This tradition has been exported to some countries. Kids in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland also “trick or treat.” Kids in many parts of Mexico ask for their “calaverita.”
The Halloween tradition in the United States includes costumes of some very American creatures whose job is to scare our kids all year long. Of course, universal monsters also show their face on Halloween. Although Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the wolf man and the mummy are popular characters, we have our home-grown, and sometimes home-adopted, favorites. These are some of our monsters:
The ghoul: A folkloric monster or spirit that roams in graveyards and eats human flesh.
The boogeyman: A mythical creature with no specific aspect that was created by adults to frighten children.
Matchemonedo: An invisible bear-god that congeals the plasma of those who are unlucky enough to run into this beast in downtown Chicago where it lives.
The headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow: the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was shot off by a cannonball during the American War of Independence. A creation of Washington Irving, this creature rides tirelessly in search of his head.
Michael Myers: A hellish creature created by filmmaker John Carpenter. As a child, Michael killed his older sister and now every Halloween he returns home to murder more teenagers.
El cucuy: A mythical ghost-monster from Hispanic heritage that hides in closets and under beds and eats children that misbehave or refuse to go to bed when they are told to do so.
The creature from the Black Lagoon: An American amphibious humanoid that lives in a lagoon of the Amazon Jungle where time has stopped. He preys on pretty young woman who dare to swim in his pond.
La llorona: A Mexican legend of a weeping female specter trapped in between the living world and the spirit world that ceaselessly looks for the children that she drowned. She takes those kids who resemble her dead children and those who disobey their parents. La llorona is now a very well known creature and her tale is shared with all kids in the United States’ southwest.
These are some of the most popular characters who will undoubtedly show up on your driveway on Halloween asking for some candy. I now invite you to have some fun and tell us about your favorite Halloween creatures from the United States or anywhere else in the world… unless you are afraid to do so…
October 2, 2014 § 12 Comments
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.