When being politically correct hurts your rendition.

August 5, 2013 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I was on a plane from Atlanta to Chicago. We were ready to take off and I planned to prepare during the flight for an assignment I had that very same evening at my destination.  Then, as we were turning our telephones off to pull back from the gate, the voice of the pilot came over the speakers.  He informed us that there would be a delay because we had to wait for a last-minute passenger who had just booked a seat on our flight.  At that point I thought that we would probably be there for another ten or fifteen minutes so I turned on my phone and began to answer emails. About thirty minutes later the pilot informed us that it would take a little longer. By now some passengers started to question the rationale behind the delay; after all there were at least another ten flights from Atlanta to Chicago later that same day.  About fifteen minutes later the pilot announced that they were asking for volunteers to move from the front to the back of the plane because the last-minute passenger was in a wheelchair.  Some passengers volunteered and moved to the back, a couple of the airline’s ground crew members helped the passenger, who turned out to be an elderly woman, onto the aircraft and into her seat. We assumed we were ready to go.  Unfortunately, at this time the pilot announced that there was some bad weather over Indiana and our flight plan had been altered. The problem: because we had been sitting at the gate for more than an hour, we now did not have enough fuel to go through the new route we had been assigned, so the plane had to refill before take-off.  Re-fueling was going to take about thirty minutes so we deplaned. As I was exiting the plane, I overheard a couple of guys saying that although there were plenty of flights to Chicago, the delay was due to the fact that this elderly woman was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and therefore, the airline had decided not to offend her by asking her to wait until the next plane where she would board before the rest of the passengers. The second person remarked: “it’s just that nowadays everything is decided based on its political correctness.”  I don’t know if these passengers were right or not, but that made me think of what we, as interpreters, face sometimes when somebody wants us to say, do, or omit something that should be said, omitted or done as part of the interpretation, just because it is not politically correct.

Some years ago, but already within this era of political correctness, I was working as a court interpreter in a criminal trial where a person was accused of murder. It involved Hispanic gang members and that meant that it involved plenty of nicknames.  As the trial progressed, and many witnesses testified before the jury, it became clear that a key player in this murder was a gang member known as “el negro” (the black one) who apparently had witnessed the killing.  All witnesses, one after another, kept referring, in Spanish, to “el negro” as a key witness for the prosecution.

Eventually, there was a recess for I don’t remember what reason, and during the break, one of the prosecuting attorneys, an Anglo woman who was not the lead prosecutor and did not speak Spanish, approached me and told me: “You know, I’d much appreciate it if you stopped referring to Mr. Sánchez (I made up the name for this posting) as <el negro> It would be better if you refer to him as the <African-American> so please do it. I don’t want to offend anybody” I looked at her in amazement. In all my years as an interpreter nobody had asked me to do such a bizarre thing before.  I explained to her that nicknames, just like proper names stay in their original language.  I even explained that it is common for Hispanics to give a nickname to an individual as an expression of sarcasm, thus, the tallest guy could be nicknamed “chiquilín” the fattest man could be called “el flaco” and so on. I even told her that as a prosecutor she should be concerned about the identity issue, and that the correct nickname could be the difference between acquittal and conviction. She understood that I was not to honor her request, but did not like my answer, and so we continued with the trial after the break.

After other two or three witnesses, the bailiff called the name of another witness who entered the courtroom. This was a tall young white man. He was ushered to the witness stand, placed under oath, and asked to have a seat. Next, the prosecutor asked the first question: “Can you please tell us your name and spell your last name for the record.” The witness complied and I interpreted for the jury. Second, the attorney asked: “Sir, do you go by any other name?” The white young man answered in Spanish: “Si, me dicen el negro” (Yes, they call me “el negro”) I interpreted for the jury as I looked at the prosecutor who had requested I be politically correct and refer to the witness nicknamed “el negro” as the “African-American” and with an inner sense of satisfaction I looked at him and then back at her as if telling her: “you see, I did the right thing. Referring to this man as the “African-American” would have been ridiculous and odd.”  From that day I always question political correctness in those situations. My belief is that when someone wants to have a politically correct event, they should talk to the speaker, not to the interpreter; after all, we interpret what others say. We are not the ones who are speaking.  I would like to hear your comments regarding this issue. Please feel free to share any stories you may have that are similar to the one I just told you about.

Interpreting near the border: Not necessarily a pleasant experience.

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As a veteran interpreter I have seen many things, faced numerous obstacles, and solved hundreds of situations such as bad equipment, poor booth location and lack of research materials, noisy courtrooms, difficult accents, and rotten clients.  I am sure you had your fair share as well.  However, I came to a realization a few weeks ago when I was teaching a seminar in the great State of Texas.  I lived in a border state for many years and I had to face the bilingualism problem on a daily basis, but nothing I ever went through compares to the story I am about to tell you:

There is a judge in Houston Criminal Court who has very little regard for her interpreters, this combined with her colossal ignorance of the interpreter profession, of who the officers of the court are , and her self-centered goal of only caring for the next election (because state judges are elected by the voters in Texas) have resulted in a very uncomfortable work environment for our good colleagues.

I lived in New Mexico for many years and I experienced first-hand the constant struggle of interpreting from and into Spanish in a place where most people have an idea of the language and many of them speak it at an average level.  It is very difficult to work under these circumstances, especially as a court interpreter because in an environment where the judge, attorneys, clerks, police officers, witnesses, and jurors understand, or think they understand, at least some of what was said in Spanish, puts the interpreter in a place where he or she is constantly on the spot, been “corrected”, receiving unwanted “suggestions”, and sometimes being challenged by one of this so-called Spanish speakers.

There was a case in another state some years ago where a member of the jury, who supposedly spoke Spanish, disapproved of the official interpretation of a witness during a trial and during deliberations informed the other jurors that she spoke Spanish, that she understood what the witness said in Spanish, and that the interpretation had been incorrect. She then told them what in her opinion the witness really said, and that swayed the jury.  Because of that comment by the bilingual juror there was a conviction that otherwise would have never existed.  Once the circumstances during deliberation were known by the judge and attorneys, the defense filed an appeal that made it all the way up to the State Supreme Court where the conviction was overturned.  The reality was that the interpreter had been right all along. The juror did not have the necessary knowledge of the Spanish language to really comprehend what was said and then interpret it into English accordingly (like the interpreter did)  In their decision, the Justices clearly indicated that the court, including the jury, has to abide by the official interpretation into English provided by the certified professional court interpreter. That is the record in the case, it is not there to be doubted or debated by other bilingual speakers.  As a result of that case judges in that state now read an instruction to the members of the jury clearly telling them to rely on the interpretation and not in what they may believe was said as they are not professionally trained to interpret.

The absolute opposite of what this court decision stated happens every day in this Houston Texas Criminal courtroom.  Whenever there is a trial before this judge that requires Spanish interpretation, from the beginning of the proceedings the judge asks the Spanish-speaking jurors to “…let (her) know if something that the interpreter said was wrong… Because (in that case) we’ll try to figure it out, and if we can’t come to an agreement (of what was said) then we’ll get an expert…”

This is what she says with the licensed interpreter (in Texas there are no certified interpreters, they are licensed) present and interpreting to the defendant!  Of course, most freelancers now refuse to work for this ignorant “judge”, but the staff interpreters are stuck with her, at least until the next election.  Once I heard the story I concluded that no matter how bad we think we have it when doing our job, there is always somebody who has it worse.  I would like to see what you think about this situation, and I would love to hear any suggestions you may have for the Houston interpreters who deal with this individual on a daily basis.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with conviction at The Professional Interpreter.