Interpreting during the holidays: Santa Claus in other cultures.

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes when interpreting during the holiday season, getting acquainted with the subject and terminology of the assignment is not enough. Speakers often bring up the holiday spirit and mention phrases, tell stories, share anecdotes, and convey best wishes to their audience. Sometimes, these names, stories, or traditions are unknown to the interpreters because they are not part of their culture, and to prevent those situations, we must incorporate them to our study materials. Often when we begin our research, we recognize the story or tradition, it just goes by a different name, or the characters are slightly different because they have been adapted to the foreign country. Speakers include this “holiday talk” in their speech because their goal is to project a sense of caring, to convey their well wishes. We must do the same in the target language.

As I was interpreting one of these holiday stories involving Santa Claus a few days ago, I thought it would help to compile some names and portrayals of the jolly bearded man in different cultures. It is true that, thanks to Hollywood, Disney, and Coca Cola, everybody knows the American version of Santa Claus as the white bearded guy in a red suit who leaves his home in the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and travels the world in a slay pulled by flying reindeer, enters your home through the chimney, leaves presents for nice kids and coal for the naughty ones, eats the cookies, drinks the milk, and off he goes, laughing out loud, and yelling “Merry Christmas.” Most Americans know nothing about Santa in foreign culture. These are some of the better-known traditions involving a gift-giving character, or characters, sometimes very similar to out Santa, sometimes very different.

Argentina and Peru. Like most Latin American countries, Argentina and Peru have adopted the American Santa Claus in image and deed, but they call him Papá Noel. He brings presents to those kids who behave, and co-exists with the Día de Reyes tradition Latin Americans inherited from Spain. To read more about this tradition, please read under Spain in this post.

China. During the “Holy Birth Festival” (Sheng Dan Jieh) children hang their stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) leaves them a present. In some parts of China, they refer to him as Lan Khoong-Khoong (Nice Old Father).

Chile. Chilean children are visited by el Viejito Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) on Christmas Eve. He leaves presents to those kids well-behaved during the year. The tradition is a mixture of the American Santa Claus, Colonial influence, and Chile’s culture and traditions.

Colombia, Bolivia and Costa Rica. On Christmas Eve, good kids get presents from “El Niño Jesús” (Baby Jesus). The Niño looks like most images of an infant Jesus, but his role is the same as Santa’s: To reward those children who behaved during the year.

Finland. Here, Joulupukki, a nice man, goes door to door delivering presents to all children, but it was not always like that. Before Christianity, there was another character: During the mid-winter festival, Nuuttipukki, a not-so-nice young man, would visit people’s homes demanding food and alcohol, scaring the children when he did not get what he wanted.

France. French children have Père Noël, or Papa Noël (Father Christmas) who wears a long, red cloak, and on Christmas Eve leaves presents in good children’s shoes. Unfortunately, he does not travel alone, he comes with Père Fouettard (the Whipping Father) who spanks those children who misbehaved during the year.

Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On Christmas Eve, Christkind (the Christ Child) visits all homes of Lutheran children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, leaving presents for those who were good during the year. His appearance resembles that of Baby Jesus, with long, blonde, curly hair. Because of the required “angelical look,” this character is often portrayed by females. There is another character in Austria and other Alpine countries: Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure in Alpine traditions who scares bad children during the Christmas season.

Greece. On New Year’s Day, Greek children are visited by Agios Vasilios (Saint Basil) who, in his Greek Orthodox Church tradition of generosity, leaves them presents. Notice how Greek kids know Saint Basil, not Saint Nicholas, as non-Orthodox Christian children do.

Iceland. During the thirteen days before Christmas, Icelandic children are visited by 13 gnomes called Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) who leave candy in good children’s shoes, and rotten potatoes in the shoes of the naughty ones. These gang of 13 trolls do many tricks during those thirteen days, such as stealing food, slamming doors, and peeking through windows.

Italy. Italian kids have to wait until the eve of January 5 when La Befana, a friendly witch comes to their homes on her flying broomstick and leaves toys and candy to the good ones, and coal to those who were naughty. She flies around on January 5 because she is looking for the Three Wise Men to join them to see baby Jesus, as she cannot find Bethlehem on her own.

Japan. On New Year’s Eve, Japanese children good during the year get presents from Hoteiosho, a jolly fat Buddhist Monk who has eyes in the back of his head to see those kids who were naughty. Because of the big American influence over Japanese culture in the last half a century, Japanese added their version of the American Santa Claus to their festivities. His Japanese name is Santa Kurohsu, and he is part of this acquired celebration in a non-Christian country with no turkeys, where the Christmas tradition is to have KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), which Japanese simply call “Kentucky” for Christmas dinner, and they often confuse Santa Claus with the image of Colonel Sanders.

Mexico. Mexican kids are neighbors to the United States and as such, they observe the same traditions as American children. They are visited by Santa Claus who looks exactly as the American version, lives in the North Pole, and has the same reindeer. He even gets inside Mexican homes through the chimney, although most Mexican homes do not have a fireplace. Maybe for this reason, Mexican Santa leaves the presents under the Christmas Tree instead of the stockings hanging from the fireplace. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexican children are also visited by the “Reyes Magos” from the Spanish tradition.

The Netherlands. The Dutch name for the Christmas visitor is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and if you recognize the name, it is because the American Santa Claus took his name from this Dutch Bishop, the patron saint of children and sailors, who arrives from Spain by boat on December 5 every year, and makes his way to the homes of Dutch children to leave them a present. The Sinterklaas tradition was taken to the United States by Dutch sailors, and in recent times the American Santa Claus has entered Dutch culture as Kerstman (Christmas Man) so well-behaved kids in The Netherlands now get two presents from two different characters who started as one.

Norway. On Christmas (Jul) a mischievous gnome with a long beard and a red hat named Julenissen visits the children and plays pranks and leaves presents. He is said to be the protector of all superstitious farmers. A similar character exists in Sweden and Denmark, where he’s known as Jultomte and Julemand, respectively. In Sweden, an adult man wearing a mask goes to kids’ homes and asks: “are there any good children who live here?” before distributing his sack of presents.

Russia and Ukraine. Children in these countries are visited on New Year’s Day by a tall, slender character dressed in blue who arrives in a wagon pulled by horses and goes by the name of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He now gives presents to good children, and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snegurochka, but he was not always that nice. A descendant of Morozko, a Pagan Ice Demon, long ago, he used to freeze his enemies and kidnap children, but that is all in the past.

Spain. On the eve of January 6, children in Spain (and most Latin American countries) expect a visit from the Reyes Magos (the Wise Men) Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, who will visit their home on the date when they got to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus, and leave presents by the shoes of those nice kids who wrote them a letter. That night, before they go to sleep, children leave sweets for the Reyes Magos and hay for the camels they ride on.

United Kingdom. British kids’ Father Christmas, and American children’s Santa Claus may be almost the same, but they have a different origin. While Santa Claus comes from a Dutch tradition (see The Netherlands in this post), Father Christmas results from a merger of a Germanic-Saxon character: King Frost, and a Viking tradition: Odin, the Norse father of all gods who had a long white beard and distributed presents and privileges among those who deserved them in his judgement. Father Christmas, born from those two characters, brings presents to nice children all over the United Kingdom on Christmas eve.

I hope this list will help you prepare for your assignments during the holiday season, just in case, somebody brings up one of these characters when you are in the booth, or at this time, working remotely. I also invite you to share with us other countries’ traditions around Santa-like characters, or to give more details about the characters mentioned in this post. I wish you all a restful holiday season, and a healthy, plentiful, and in-person New Year.

This is a historical moment for the interpreting profession.

June 11, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

It is not very often that we as humans get an opportunity to witness first-hand a truly historical development. The Mexican interpreter community is presently experiencing just that. For a few years now, the Mexican government has been moving towards an administration of justice that is fair, transparent and accountable. The first step was to amend the Mexican constitution and switch from a written trial system to an oral system like the one followed by the United States, the United Kingdom and many other countries whose legal tradition comes from the Common Law System. Globalization has played an important part on these changes, and Mexico is not the only country moving away from a written system inspired by Roman and Napoleonic Law; countries like Chile and Costa Rica decided to adopt the oral system as well, and others are in the process.

In March 2014 Mexico took another significant step when the new National Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Nacional de Procedimientos Penales) was enacted. The next stage of the process calls for the development of a series of precepts and legislation that will cover in detail the various angles of the judicial process and its participants. One of these participants is the court interpreter.

This is the time for the Mexican interpreter community to provide their experience, knowledge, and wisdom to those in government charged with the task of regulating court interpreting services. It seems that the Mexican interpreters listened and answered the call, because there was a round table discussion at the National Institute of Criminal Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Penales or INACIPE) a few weeks ago, and the auditorium was full of interpreters and many other legal professionals, including attorneys, administrators and activists. This was a forum where the interpreters contributed their voice to the task of overcoming the communication and language-related problems that come with an oral system of justice.

Some essential elements of the interpreting services, working conditions, and requirements to become a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) were established to make sure that all interpreting services throughout Mexico are provided by prepared professional individuals who will have all the needed work conditions to do a first-class job. Team interpreting, booths, interpreter location in the courtroom, advanced materials, and an 8-hour maximum work day, were set as the basic requirements; for the first time ever an agreement by all interpreters to work united was reached. It was decided that foreign language, Indigenous language, and Sign language interpreters will cooperate and pursue the same working conditions. There is much to do in the near future, but the foundation has been established. Some of the next steps will include an outreach to the federal and state-level judicial authorities such as the Mexican Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación) and the State Supreme Courts (Tribunales Superiores de Justicia) an information campaign using different media such as blogs like “The Professional Interpreter,” websites like the Mexican Conference Interpreters College (Colegio Mexicano de Intérpretes de Conferencia) website, TV on the Judiciary Channel (Canal Judicial) direct e-mailings, videos on YouTube, and more public forums like the one at INACIPE. Some of the main issues to be discussed in the near future include the qualifications to become a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) both: academic and personal; the requirements to work as a certified court interpreter (perito intérprete) such as continuing education and legal authority to work in México.

Some people are working very hard to advance and achieve this goal: From INACIPE Director Rafael Estrada and the coordinator of this project Sofía Cobo Téllez, and from the interpreter side Georganne Weller, Hilda Tejada and Lucila Christen. I have had the privilege to closely work with all of them in this project and I have been inspired by their determination to succeed.

Because the world is changing, and I know that many of my colleagues in countries other than Mexico are facing similar situations at different stages, I decided to include this post with the hope that it may motivate, inspire, or encourage somebody else in our interpreting community to step up and do something to improve the quality of the interpreting services in his or her country. I now invite you all to share some of your stories about the changes and professional accomplishments that you have experienced in your country.

The biggest change in English-Spanish court interpreting ever.

May 12, 2014 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

With the new National Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Nacional de Procedimientos Penales) just enacted in Mexico this past March 2014, the country with the largest Spanish speaking population in the world took one of the most dramatic steps on the implementation of their new oral legal proceedings. As many of you know, for the past few years Mexico has been moving towards a new judicial system that resembles the adversarial procedure followed by Common Law countries, and distancing itself from the more formalistic written inquisitorial system that comes from the Roman/French legal tradition. There have been constitutional amendments, training programs for judges and attorneys, and they are currently in the middle of an important legislative overhaul to match all legal precepts to the new process. These changes have brought two significant changes to our profession as court interpreters in both, Mexico and the United States. The first one is the obvious greater need for court interpreters as the new system will require services that the old written procedural rules did not. The second fundamental change, and the one that will impact the profession in the United States more than anything in the past, is the creation of new terminology and vocabulary by the Mexican legislator that will mirror very closely the criminal (and later the civil) procedure followed by the United States. In other words, for the first time ever, we will have a catalog of legal terms in Spanish that will be the law of the land in a country with close to 115 million Spanish speakers. Add to this reality the fact that Mexican society has an intense interaction with American society, and that most of the Spanish speakers in the United States are Mexican, and you get a combination of trade, crime, cultural exchanges, and family matters in Spanish that involve the two largest Spanish speaking countries in the world.

For the Mexican court interpreter, living in Mexico or in the United States, this will translate in a tremendous workload increase on the Mexican side of the border; for the Spanish language court interpreters who work in the United States (with the exception of some areas of the country where non-Mexican Spanish, particularly from Central America and the Caribbean, is broadly spoken) this means the emerging of a new culture where people who recently moved from Mexico to the U.S., Mexican citizens who live in the United States but get their news from the Mexican media, and their relatives who continue to reside in Mexico, will need and demand an accurate interpretation employing the official legal terminology in the Mexican legislation. Many of you work, as I do, with Mexican attorneys, and you know how they are always looking for interpreters and translators who can work with Mexican legal terms instead of “homemade” terminology generated out of necessity when there was no adversarial legal system in any Spanish speaking country. My friends, I suggest that there will be an even greater need for Spanish interpreters as the involvement of Mexican attorneys and Law Firms increase and their lawyers retain the services of court interpreters who know Mexican legal Spanish. By the way, the same comments apply to those court interpreters with knowledge of legal terminology from other Spanish speaking countries where the oral system is being implemented; Chile and Costa Rica are pioneers of this change. I emphasize the Mexican changes because they are the most recent and impact a much larger number of people. At this time the big question on the table for us as interpreters, particularly those who live in the United States, will be: how do we react to this irreversible change? I know I will embrace it, learn the new terminology, and apply it to my work. I hope most of you will do the same.

To those colleagues who might say that there is already a terminology used by many interpreters in the United States, and that it is the Spanish speaker who needs to realize this fact and get used to this current vocabulary, I ask you to consider two factors: (1) the language used by many court interpreters in the United States has been helpful and even useful in its attempt to provide an equivalent term that non-English speakers could understand. It was a great accomplishment in times when there were no official sources in the Spanish-speaking countries; but it is not official and in many instances it uses non-legal or lay terms that are not catalogued in any legislation; and (2) Mexican attorneys want to understand what the interpreter says and at the same time they want to devote their attention and energy to the legal problems of the case, they do not want to spend their energy trying to understand the vocabulary the interpreter is using and they never heard before; in other words: from the interpreter’s perspective adapting to the change is also a business decision.

On May 16 I will take some of the first steps by offering a preconference workshop during the NAJIT Annual Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Those who join me will be exposed to the most recent legislative changes by the Mexican government, will hear of the policies that Mexico is adopting to forge ahead with the adversarial system, and will see first-hand how these oral proceedings are conducted over there. I invite you to please share your thoughts on this huge change, and to tell us how you plan to adjust to it; or, if you do not think that you have to change anything you are doing right now, please do not just say that you will continue to do the same, instead, I invite you to explain why you will not adjust to these changes, and how they will not impact the place where you work as a court interpreter.

Great news: Awaited changes for Spanish court interpreting are finally here!

March 24, 2014 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As many of you know, over the last few years there has been a tendency among Latin American countries to switch from their traditional, and much slower, inquisitorial written procedural legal system, based on Roman and Napoleonic Law, to the quicker adversarial oral Common Law system followed by many Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States. These changes have been difficult and have required a long time. For many decades, and more so within the last twenty five years, many Spanish speaking individuals have been forced to seek the protection and advantages of the American adversarial legal system to assert their rights, exercise their defenses, and create brand new legal obligations. Differences in the two types of systems, and specialized terminology exclusive to them, made it difficult to communicate with accuracy and legal precision complex concepts that are essential to prevail in a contractual situation and in court. It was then that many concepts and terminology were created out of necessity by translators and interpreters in the United States and Latin America. In many cases with plenty of good intentions and in good faith, but without even considering legal figures and concepts. This is how we got the “first generation” of bilingual “legal terminology” born from a linguistic conception without a legal perspective.

Globalization, immigration, and the exchange of goods and services between the United States and Latin America, especially Mexico, brought us a more coherent and consistent terminology and legal doctrine based on comparative law. This made it possible for interpreters and translators (in the United States and Latin America) to work with attorneys and law firms that required an interpreter/translator with a more sophisticated knowledge of the subject matter and correct terminology than a defendant in a criminal case with no formal legal or business background. It is from this point in time that we see translations and hear renditions that make sense to the legally-trained individual, and use the same language and terminology that lay individuals used to hear back in their country of origin.  These terms and legal figures were correct and they could be found in the law; however, they still required of a legal expert interpretation to be correctly matched to their legal counterpart in the other legal system.

Finally this all changed. Due to the tremendous judicial backlog and the need for more transparency in the administration of justice, several Latin American countries decided to reform their procedural legal systems shedding the old written inquisitorial system and replacing it with the faster and more transparent adversarial system where proceedings are oral and open to the public.

There were many that debated the change but Chile and Mexico undertook the greater changes. Chile decided to create a new system based in part on the German legal system. Mexico decided to base its reforms on the legal system of the United States.

Dear friends and colleagues, the journey to an acceptable, accurate and coherent translation and rendition is finally over: On March 5, 2014 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law the new Federal Code of Criminal Proceedings applicable throughout Mexico.  This new legislation will apply to all criminal proceedings at all levels: local, state, and federal. This new system embraces an adversarial system similar to the one applied in the United States with public and oral hearings, rules of evidence taken from the American legislation and adapted to the Mexican culture, and a sentencing system based on the one used in America. The biggest differences between the Mexican and American systems are found in the trials. Mexico will only have court trials, the U.S. has both: court and jury trials.

These new legislation gives us the equivalent legal figures, procedural stages and terminology necessary to do a precise rendition and an accurate translation. Moreover, by integration, reference and interpretation, all substantive terminology contained in the criminal, civil, constitutional, and administrative legislation will now make it easier for any interpreter or translator to use the correct terminology and legal concepts. This legislation has been analyzed and drafted by legal professionals; it contains all required legal concepts and structures needed to have a coherent product, and creates, just like American legislation, a separate but precise legal terminology derived from legal concepts and not linguistic considerations. Remember, this is not English, this is not Spanish. We are talking about legal English and legal Spanish. In fact, we are referring to American legal English and Mexican legal Spanish. Translators and interpreters will be able to communicate the legal message to their clients without any ambiguities. No more “agreement/ contract/convenio/acuerdo/contrato salad.” We now have the correct legal figures for each situation. This new terminology is the one that the brand new Mexican court interpreters and legal translators are learning and will use during the proceedings down there.

Some of our colleagues may resist this change but it is inevitable. Arguments that the terminology is too technical and their clients will not understand it do not apply anymore. This is the same terminology they will hear in their own countries, at least the overwhelming majority of the litigants who are from Mexico, or have a connection with Mexico.  We have to keep in mind that we have been using a combination of terminology that was never correct and some valid terms that are now obsolete. You cannot continue to say something wrong and make it right by mere repetition. It is also important to remember that good court interpreters should widen their practice, and only those who can be understood will work with Mexican attorneys. Even attorneys and judges from other Spanish speaking countries will favor the Mexican terminology as it is legal terminology and not just a translation with no legal foundation. Those of you who may consider taking the Mexican court interpreter certification (not in place yet) in order to work in court south of the border, and even those of you who may want to do depositions in Mexico will need these new legal terms. This is the time to learn and grow. This is the time to be ahead of the rest and find your place in the new market. Unfortunately, this is also the time to become obsolete and irrelevant.

Although the law is already gone into effect, the new legal system will be fully implemented by 2016 so there is time for all of us to learn and be ready.

For all of these reasons I have been studying the new legislation, and because of my unique position as an attorney who knows both, the American and the Mexican systems, and as an interpreter who has plenty of experience in both systems, I have designed a series of workshops on this subject. I will teach the first two workshops based on this brand-new Mexican legal system in Mexico City on March 29 & 30, and in Guadalajara Mexico on April 5. In the United States I will teach these legal changes for the first time on May 16 as an all-day pre-conference workshop within NAJIT’s annual conference in Las Vegas Nevada. I invite you to attend these or other workshops that I will be teaching on this subject, and I invite your participation and comments on this issue right here on the blog.

Is it Spanish or Castilian?

June 18, 2013 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all know and many of us are sick and tired of: The eternal question that we as interpreters are constantly asked by the agency, the client, and the lay person: Is it Spanish or is it Castilian?

If you are a Spanish interpreter, translator, or even a native Speaker you will understand either term as one that is used to refer to the language spoken by the majority of the people who live in Spain, Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, and some parts of North America.  Of course, you will have a preference for one or the other depending where you grew up or learned the language, but you will understand (and occasionally use) both terms.  The problem is that when we are working as Spanish interpreters, sometimes we are asked by the agency or by the client to “speak Castilian instead of Spanish” or we may even be rejected from an assignment because we are Spanish interpreters and they are looking for a “Castilian interpreter.”

To set the record straight we should tell our inquisitor or prospective client that historically Spanish is a Romance language that comes from Latin, and it is called Spanish as it comes from españón in Old Spanish, which most likely comes from the Vulgar Latin hispani­ōne or hispaniolus, because the Romans referred to Spain as Hispania.  Then we explain that Castile is a word derived from the Latin castella (castle-land) that comes from the also Latin term castrum (fortress or castle) That it was a border region of Spain next to the Moorish territories. That at the end of the Middle Ages, with the assistance of the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Castile expelled these Moorish rulers from the peninsula. In those days, before Spain was a single country, the people from this kingdom were called Castilians and the language they spoke, which evolves from the old Castilian, was known as Castilian. With time, and the expansion of the Spanish crown in the world, including the Americas, the entire region was called Spain in England, Espagne in France, and the non-Portuguese people from the peninsular region and their language became known as Spanish.  In the Americas the native speakers picked their favorite term to refer to the same language as well.  Some regions, like the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present Mexico and parts of the United States) preferred the term Spanish as they were part of the Spanish monarchy; others, like the Captaincy General de Guatemala (present Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico) chose Castilian thinking of the original rulers who sponsored the first expeditions and their representatives in the new world, who were from Castile.

In Spain, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) used the term Castilian in the past, but since 1923 its dictionary has used the term Spanish when referring to the language spoken by more than 300 million people around the world. In fact, its dictionary is called Dictionary of the Spanish Language (diccionario de la lengua española) The language academies from the other Spanish-speaking countries, including the United States, are grouped under the Association of Spanish Language Academies, which participated in the creation of the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas, a dictionary that encompasses mistakes and doubts in Spanish whose production was agreed upon by all 22 national language academies.  The dictionary states the following: “…it is preferable to keep the term Castilian to refer to the Romance language born in the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages, or to the dialect of Spanish currently spoken in that region…” (Diccionario panhispánico de dudas. 2005)

Therefore, the official recommendation is to use Spanish over Castilian.

In Spain, the constitution states that “Castilian is the official language of the State…” In reality, multilingual regions tend to refer to the language as Castilian to tell it apart from their own native languages. Monolingual regions tend to use the term Spanish when referring to the language they speak.  In Latin America and elsewhere, the constitutions of these countries use the term Castilian: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. These other nations use the term Spanish in their constitution: Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. No term is mentioned in the constitution of: Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay.

The reality is that it really does not matter which term is used to refer to the third most spoken language in the world, and the second most widely spoken on earth. The important issue we need to understand is that when non-Spanish speakers ask us to interpret Castilian instead of Spanish, they are not talking about the language we speak because they do not know that there is only one Spanish (or Castilian) They are trying to tell us that they want a “universal” more general Spanish (although some of us do not believe there is such a thing and I will address it on another blog entry) They are trying to reach more people and they do not know how. It can also mean that they want the interpreter to stay away from Spanglish (a mix of Spanish and English) and Portuñol (a mix of Portuguese and Spanish) and because of the people they have worked with in the past, they do not know that by hiring a professional capable interpreter they do not need to worry about these issues. So the next time somebody asks you to interpret in Castilian or rejects you from speaking Spanish instead of Castilian, take a deep breath, explain as much, or as little, as you think necessary, and assure the client that you will interpret in Castilian.  I ask you to please share your ideas as to what to do to educate the client about this topic while taking the appropriate business measures and steps to keep the client.  Please do not write about why it is better to call it Spanish or Castilian.

The role of the 16th. Century interpreters in the newly discovered world.

January 17, 2013 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

My posting about Malintzin, the first interpreter of the new world, a few months ago was very welcomed in Mexico and other countries, but some people, mostly from countries other than Mexico, did not like what I said and attacked her and other interpreters who assisted the Spanish conquistadors during the conquest of the newly discovered world.  I welcome the debate as I think it is fruitful and helpful; it is interesting that some interpreters posted comments criticizing the role of Malintzin in Mexico and Felipillo in Peru and other South American countries as bad interpreters due to their lack of impartiality. These comments motivated me to write this post as I believe that their role is being misunderstood and therefore wrongly criticized.

Malintzin, Felipillo, and all other interpreters used by the conquistadors were military interpreters.   I understand that many of my colleagues come from a court interpreting background where they have been told that the interpreter must be impartial. That is true in a court setting, but it does not apply to all fields of interpretation.  As a military interpreter instructor at the Defense Language Institute I can tell you that the role of the military interpreter is very different. When interpreting for the armed forces, the interpreter needs to be loyal to the platoon that he or she belongs to. A crucial part of a military interpreter’s job is to do everything possible to assure the success of the mission.   The military interpreter interprets for the party he works for, not for both parties. He conveys to the enemy what his side needs him and wants him to know, nothing else.  A military interpreter brings up to his commander his impressions and suspicions about the enemy’s words, attitudes, and everything else he may consider important and relevant to his side. There is not such a thing as impartiality in military interpreting as the parties are not equal; one of them is called enemy.  After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. Century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 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. In other words: They had no duty of loyalty to their tyrants; in fact, they had a very understandable resentment and perhaps hatred for their oppressors.

Felipillo is shown in color

There were big differences between Malintzin and Felipillo, the two best-known interpreters of the new world.  Malintzin was, by all accounts, an extremely capable interpreter, very effective, talented, and hard-working.  During the conquest of Tenochtitlan she got the respect and maybe the admiration of many Spaniards. Considering all circumstances, she had a good life.  On the other hand, there are many reports that describe Felipillo, who appears on the records as an interpreter almost a decade after Malintzin, as a mediocre interpreter; he did not command any of his working languages as he should, apparently he had a problem with alcohol and found himself entangled in intrigue and gossip involving women.  As part of the criticism to Felipillo, most historians argue that he misinterpreted for Pizarro, conspired with the natives, used religion to advance his own interests, and when in Chile he sided with the locals against Diego de Almagro committing a capital sin for the military interpreter: to be partial towards the enemy. This sole act that has been considered by some as his vindication with the indigenous cause, and maybe that is true and correct from a moral point of view, was his worse professional and ethical act as an interpreter, and ultimately cost him his life. In other words: There were good and bad interpreters during the conquest of the new world.

The last issue that has been raised by many begs for an answer to the question: Were the native interpreters a bunch of traitors?  We know that at least the better-known ones were not fellow citizens of the empires to be conquered (Aztecs and Incas) We also know that their job was to do military interpretation, and their faults and mistakes came from their mediocrity as interpreters, personal problems, their own ambition, and perhaps a change of heart after they realized what the Spanish armies were doing to the peoples of other native nations. Then, why is it that some people view them as traitors anyway? This is a very difficult question. Most of those who attack these interpreters, particularly Malintzin, because she did a good professional job, believe that they had to side with the other local natives and not the Spaniards. To arrive to this conclusion we have to ignore the reality of the times: The Aztecs and Incas were oppressors to these people; the Spanish conquistadors had done nothing against them. The topic is even more complex when we realize that most who complain and criticize Malintzin and the others are not indigenous people, they are the result of the fusion of the two cultures and races, and most of them have Spanish last names, speak Spanish, and follow one of the European religions. One could say that to attack Malintzin and the others is to attack their very origin. There is a verb “malinchismo” in the Dictionary, but it does not mean to betray anybody. It means “Attitude of attachment to the foreign and contempt for one’s own.”  Malintzin was not a member of the Aztec Empire. I would like to read your comments and opinions about the professional duties of military interpreters as it is applicable to many who are currently interpreting for our military forces in conflict zones around the world.

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