The interpreter who played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.

November 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

On Thursday the people of the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays.  Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.

Distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day.  The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. Documented ceremonies were held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.

The first Thanksgiving holiday can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621.  During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe.  Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved insufficient.  Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons.  The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region.  This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed.  The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had little in common.  The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man.  During his years in Europe, this man learned English and could communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe.  His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures.  He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers.  There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead.  His work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. Ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event.  They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, maybe they also had wild turkeys as they existed in the region.  Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.

We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays.  Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas.  We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday.  We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades.  This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American.  Happy turkey day!

Remote interpreting. The way it should be.

November 9, 2017 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We live in an environment where everybody is finally acknowledging the technological and economic changes that have disrupted the world of professional interpreting. About half of our colleagues are singing the praises of the innovations while the other half are opposing them. The truth is: Nobody is right and no one is wrong. Many of those who jumped on the bandwagon of video and audio remote interpreting did it with ulterior motives with nothing to do with the quality of the interpreters and therefore with their remuneration as professionals. Their concern was to get there first, and to do it quickly to make a lot of money with little consideration of the side effects of their actions. These call themselves the “industry”: Multinational agencies who sell interpreting services as a used car salesman sells you a lemon, and individuals who rushed to position themselves as intermediaries between these agencies, stingy uneducated end-users, and that group of paraprofessionals who are glad to work as “interpreters” for a handful of crumbs.

You have many capable, seasoned interpreters who refuse to work remotely because of their lack of knowledge about the technology and fearing performing below their well-known widely recognized professional level, not because they cannot interpret, but because they may have a hard time learning how to use the equipment, and even to do the simple things now required in the booth, like typing and searching the web.

There are many others who refuse to work remotely for a good reason: Because the quality of the equipment proposed for the event is subpar, because they are asked to provide a professional service for an insulting amount of money, or due to the deplorable working conditions offered by those who try to equate us with laborers instead of professionals.

For years, I have made my position known to those who care to hear it: I am all for technology if it is of excellent quality and the interpreters who use it are true professionals, making a professional fee and under working conditions that do not differ from those available in live in-person or on-site interpreting. Some of you have heard me praise the tremendous opportunities we have now as interpreters, and how we can now get more interesting assignments and make more money by eliminating travel days (usually paid as half of the full-day fee) and replacing them with more interpreting days where we can make our full-day fee.

Today I will share with you my experience with remote simultaneous interpretation and how this is working out fine for me.

I will be talking about conference interpreting, and what I say will probably be inapplicable to other types of interpreting because of the way multinational agencies and unscrupulous intermediaries have already polluted the environment.  At any rate, what you read here may help your efforts to demand better conditions in court and healthcare interpreting, and to refuse all work offered under such denigrating conditions.

The conference interpreting system I am working with is a cloud-based platform named Interprefy, by a company from Zurich, Switzerland. They are not an agency and they do not retain the interpreters. My business relationship is with their U.S. office: Interprefy USA in Chicago.

When I interpret with them, I physically go to their office in downtown Chicago by the Sears Tower where they have some booths/studios (more about this later) where I work with a live expert technician with me in Chicago. My booth-mate is usually sitting next to me in Chicago, but sometimes she is interpreting from another city or continent from the booth/studio of the company. A second (or third, fourth, etc.) expert technician, who also works for the company, is at the venue to coordinate and if needed fix any glitches at that end. If the interpreter is technologically very savvy, or daring, she can even work from her own home, after the equipment has been set up and tested. For this she must have at least 2 computers and a high speed internet connection.

The set up in my booth is similar to the one we have for our in situ assignments. There is a table with a computer, a very good headset, and a state-of-the-art microphone. If you prefer, you can use your own headset, just like an in-person conference. Your partner sits next to you and he also has a computer, headset and broadcast-style microphone.  Both interpreters have the same equipment. The computer on your desk lets you watch the speaker at the venue, and you can switch to another camera to see the screen on the stage of the people asking questions. There is a giant screen in front of both interpreters where we can watch the power point presentations and videos that the audience sees at the event. This is synchronized so that every time the speaker changes the slide, our screen will display the new one. If we want to see something else, or we want the volume at the podium higher, we can ask our technician at the venue and he will take care. There is a desk full of computers and other equipment behind the interpreters; this is where the main technician sits. We can talk to the main technician by turning around and speaking directly with him, or we can address him, and all other technicians by typing our questions, comments, and requests in the chatroom we all have through the platform. This is how we as interpreters can communicate with our virtual booth-mate when she is somewhere else, or to the other booths if we need something from another language, or for a relay.

The audience at the venue can listen to the interpretation by using traditional receivers and headphones, or by using their laptop, tablet, or phone, if they do so. Finally, if there is a problem with the internet connection, the service can immediately change from the cable or satellite provider, to an over-the-phone connection. This makes for a smooth service where the audience and speaker soon forget that the interpreters are thousands of miles and many time zones away from them.

Now, this is a sophisticated and at the same time, simple way to work a conference remotely; we are not talking about an Ipad on wheels, and from beginning to end, we are working under the watchful eye of expert technicians, not a jailer, court clerk, or nurse “operating” the technology.

We as interpreters can get used to this service because the quality of the product we deliver to the audience is top-notch, and because we work under the same conditions and pay as we do when physically at the conference. We get full dates and half dates, not that per-hour and even per-minute nonsense that the “industry” has imposed on court and healthcare interpreters. The company that runs the platform proudly announces that they only work with top quality conference interpreters in all languages needed. Their business model suggests that the savings are on the booths and travel expenses, not the interpreters.

This service has proven itself in big conferences with several booths from different locations, where there is no room to physically install a booth at the venue, and for less common languages in conferences where widely used languages are interpreted from a booth physically at the conference. Because of the company’s local partners, we as interpreters can easily drive downtown in most major cities and work from their location.

This is how remote interpreting must be, dear friends and colleagues. We cannot compromise quality, working conditions or remuneration just because some of the usual predators have taken over a market. I suggest you demand professional fees and conditions regardless of what type of remote interpreting you do.  Always remember: The end-user is already saving money in booth and travel expenses, do not let them fool you by convincing you that the service will not be profitable unless they pay you by the minute, and nurse Ratched is in charge with the dolly and the tablet.

Remote Simultaneous Interpreters (RSIs) cannot get a fee lower than in-person conference interpreters. Our work as RSIs is more complicated because we must know broadcast interpreting to deal with the voice latency (lag) that could be as much as 5 to 10 milliseconds, and to have extreme concentration and deep knowledge of the subject if gaps or blackouts keep us from hearing a syllable or even a word. Not all conference interpreters can sound seamless under these conditions. This is one reason why the RSI booth looks a little like a broadcast studio. I am convinced that Remote Simultaneous Interpreting is a new and different type of interpreting: A hybrid between broadcast and conference interpreting that requires training and preparation only a professional can embrace.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this very trendy subject in our profession, and please remember that I have no experience with those other less-sophisticated devices hospitals, detention centers and courthouses are using to save a quick buck.

The 15 scariest books ever written.

October 30, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This time of the year brings all aspects of our reverence, fear, and fascination for the culture of death to the spotlight. Whether you call it Halloween, Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, Obon, Ghost Festival, Baekjung, Sat Thai, Mataka Danes, or any other name; even if you do not observe or commemorate the day, festival or event during the month of October, and regardless of your religious, spiritual, or commercial motivation to do so, at this time of the year, most people think of their mortality and manifest it. This blog deals with the subject every year.

Because the topic is very appealing for a blog about language and culture, in past years I have written about horror movies, cultural observances and traditions around the world, and even ghostly legends. This time I decided to share with you my all-time top fifteen scariest books or novels. A big fan of macabre literature, it was no easy task to narrow it down to fifteen. I assure you many horror stories stayed out of the list even though they could be part without any argument. Some of the ones that did not make my top fifteen are probably among your preferred scary tales.

These are my top fifteen:

Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s master piece cannot be left out. The grandmother of all horror stories keeps you involved in the lives of Jonathan Harker, and Van Helsing as they fight against the formidable vampire from Transylvania in a magnificent Victorian Britain. The description of Dracula’s lifestyle in his castle never fails to scare me. Crawling up and down the walls, turning into a wolf, and his power over Lucy will give you some sleepless nights.

The Exorcist.

The 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, that became the movie of a generation, narrates the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil and her exorcism by Father Merrin and Father Karras. Based on a story that Blatty heard about as a student at Georgetown University, the story describes the conduct of the possessed girl and the struggle to save her soul from the demon Pazuzu that culminates with Karras’ surrender of his own life in exchange from Regan’s. A very popular novel with past generations that should be suggested to all new fans of the horror genre.

El Panteón del Gótico Español (Pantheon of Spanish Gothic).

An anthology of gothic stories by famed Spanish authors such as Benito Pérez Galdós with his tale “Una Industria que vive de la muerte” (An industry that makes its living from the death); “Tristán, el sepulturero” (Tristan the gravedigger) by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez; Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s “El Miserere” (Misericord); Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Eximente” (Exculpatory circumstances); “El Castillo del espectro” (The specter’s castle) by Eugenio de Ochoa; “Los tesoros de la Alhambra” (The treasures of Alhambra) and many more. Fifteen stories that live between the gothic and fantasy worlds, bringing us ghosts and other supernatural beings that accompany us from the moment we begin to read this compilation magnificently written by these 19th and 20th century superstars of the Spanish language.

Salem’s Lot.

Stephen King’s second published novel about Ben Mears, a writer who returns to the little town of Jerusalem’s Lot (Salem’s Lot) in the American State of Maine, only to discover that the residents are becoming vampires, and it can all be tracked down to the Marsten House, and old mansion he feared since childhood, now inhabited by the mysterious Kurt Barlow, who is never seen in public. The story begins with the disappearance of a young boy: Ralphie Glick, and the death of his brother Danny, who becomes the first vampire. The novel is full of suspense as everybody in town turns into a vampire. King himself has asserted on different interviews that Salem’s Lot is his favorite novel. In a world swamped with vampire novels, this one is a most read because of its implicit logic as people become vampires after a vampire attacks and kills them. It is uncommon to read a story where all victims end up as offenders.

1Q84

An interesting dystopian novel by Japanese great Haruki Murakami that takes place in Tokyo during a fictionalized year 1984. After Aomame, posing as a hotel maid, kills one guest, she has bizarre experiences that lead her to believe that she has entered an alternative reality inhabited by characters like the dyslexic writer Fuka-Eri and school teacher Tengo. Eventually Aomame’s and Tengo’s alternative worlds intersect as they are both investigated for the murder. Murakami keeps you involved with the fantastic characters throughout the story from its unique beginning until the reader understands the reason for this strange world to exist. Great reading for both, horror and science-fiction lovers.

The Silence of the Lambs.

This 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, a sequel to his 1981 novel “Red Dragon”, feature scary cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his interaction with FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling ordered to present a questionnaire to Lecter, a brilliant forensic Psychiatrist, and is serving nine consecutive life sentences in a Maryland mental institution for serial killers. The novel is full of suspense and intellectual content as Starling and Lecter get into a macabre intellectual dance of questions, requests, and answers, while the young FBI agent is trying to solve the murders of serial killer “Buffalo Bill”.  Full of interesting characters, and surprises, this novel is guaranteed to keep you reading until the end.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

A delightful collection of the works of one greatest and earliest pioneer of the short story. Poe was the poet who perfected the tale of psychological horror, and we as his admirers, can savor his main works of satires, fables, fantasies, drama, and poetry in this anthology, including: “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “Annabel Lee’, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”, and his masterpiece: “The Raven”, where he tells us of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, showing us how the man slowly falls into madness because of losing his love: Leonore, as he listens to the raven who constantly repeats, to the lover’s distress, the word: “nevermore”.  All those who call themselves literature lovers must read the works of Poe.

Interview with the Vampire.

This gothic vampire horror story by Anne Rice cannot be left out of this list.  The reader “listens” to Louis as he conveys his 200-year-long life story to a reporter, starting with his days as a plantation owner near New Orleans, in the American State of Louisiana, and his search for death motivated death of his dear brother, that takes him to a vampire named Lestat de Lioncourt who turns him into a vampire and gives him immortality.  Even though Louis comes to terms with he killing to survive, he becomes increasingly repulsed by Lestat’s lack of compassion for the humans he preys upon. The interview covers the fantastic adventures of Louis in Europe, including his romances, and moves on to one last encounter he had with Lestat I n New Orleans in the 1920s. At the end of the story, the listener begs Louis to turn him into a vampire so he can also live forever; but Louis, frustrated and disgusted by this young man’s doing not learn anything from his story, attacks him and vanishes without a trace, and the interviewer decides to track down Lestat hoping to get immortality. This is a perfect story for a city like New Orleans, and it shows the values and “humanity” of a vampire in a way that neither Bram Stoker nor Stephen King ever do.

Dracula’s Guest.

This tale is apparently the deleted first chapter from the original “Dracula” manuscript, which the publisher eliminated from the final work as he considered it superfluous. After Bram Stoker’s death, his widow Florence published the chapter as a short story in the book: “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories” by Bram Stoker.  The story, as published, can stand alone. It follows a nameless Englishman (because we read Dracula we know it is Jonathan Harker) on a visit to Munich before leaving for Transylvania on Walpurgis Night. The Englishman, against all warnings by the hotelier and the carriage driver, makes it to a desolated “unholy” place where he takes shelter from a snowstorm in a cave. He soon realizes that he is in a cemetery and that his shelter is a tomb where he is met by a beautiful vampire woman who attacks him until he realizes that it is a gigantic red-eyed wolf licking at his throat. The English man is later found by the locals who rescue him and take him back to his hotel where he learns that a note had arrived during his absence. It was from his host, Dracula, warning him from the dangers of the snow and wolves at night. This gets your imagination going once you learned that Harker’s first encounter with a vampire was in Germany, not Transylvania.

Aura.

This short novel by Mexican author Carlos Fuentes deals with dreamlike themes of double identity, as unemployed young historian Felipe Montero reads an add on the paper for a job to perform secretarial duties as a live-in for Consuelo Llorente, to help her organize and finish the memories of her late husband General Llorente. Montero goes for a job interview to Consuelo’s dark old mansion in downtown Mexico City where he finds her lying in bed with all lights off. She addresses him as she was already expecting him and hires him. Montero soon meets Aura, Consuelo’s beautiful young niece who lives in the house, speaks little, and mimics all movements and gestures of Consuelo. As his work progresses, Montero learns of Consuelo’s love story with her late husband, and about her infertility. He becomes more attracted to mysterious Aura until he falls madly in love with her. One day, Montero enters Aura’s room and finds her in bed. He holds her, and suddenly Aura transforms into the old widow, Consuelo, as he himself transforms into the old General Llorente. The story depicts the progression of the transformation of Felipe Montero into the General, and Aura’s transformation into Consuelo. This is a very original plot and it is wonderfully written by Fuentes.

Dark Water.

This is a collection of short stories by Japanese writer Koji Suzuki, originally published in Japan as “Honogurai mizu no soko kara” (From the depths of the black water). It includes seven stories: “Floating Water” about a mother and her young daughter who move into a run-down apartment after her messy divorce, and discover that another girl vanished from the building a year earlier, and that the disappearance was surrounded by terrifying events in the building; “Solitary Isle”, about a man who investigates the unusual circumstances of his friend’s death and an artificial island in the middle of Tokyo Bay; “The Hold”, about a fisherman who abuses his wife, and how their son tries to uncover the reason for the woman’s disappearance; “Dream Cruise”, “Adrift”, “Watercolors”, and “Forest Under the Sea”, complete the anthology. As horror and science-fiction novel aficionados read these stories, they will find out that some have been made into movies under other names.

Carrie.

This was Stephen King’s first published novel, and it deals with Carrie White, a misfit high school who uses her telekinetic powers to avenge from those who bullied her., causing one worst local disaster in American history, destroying most of the town on prom night. After learning she was conceived because of marital rape, and that she was the subject of a huge prom prank, a mortally wounded, but still alive, Carrie destroys the house where she was conceived, kills her bullies, and after forgiving her innocent girlfriend, she dies crying out for her mother. This is a classic novel taken to the big screen twice, but I believe that even for those who have seen the movies, the novel is a good read because of King’s terrific style, and to see how he was writing at the very beginning.

Ghost Story.

Peter Straub’s fascinating story of the “Chowder Society” of the fictional town of Milburn, New York. The characters are five lifelong friends who meet periodically to share ghost stories until one of them dies suddenly and the surviving four find themselves haunted by dreams of their own death. The story takes us back to a time when the protagonists were young and they all were involved in the death of a young woman whom they believe has come back to take revenge upon them. This is a novel we must read. Even Stephen King has included it among the finest horror novels of the 20th century.

Rebecca.

This novel by English writer Dame Daphne du Maurier tells the story of how a young woman, while working as companion to a rich American woman on vacation in Monte Carlo, meets Maximilian, de Winter, a British middle-aged widower who she marries after a short courtship. She moves into his beautiful estate Manderley where she meets Mrs. Danvers, the enigmatic housekeeper who had been a devote companion to the first Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident about a year before she met her now husband Maximilian. The sinister housekeeper drives the new wife to madness by constantly talking about the first wife’s beauty and intelligence, until the young wife is convinced that her husband regrets his decision to marry her as he must be deeply in love with the deceased Mrs. De Winter. Through Mrs. Danvers’ manipulation, the young wife attends the annual costume ball dressed like a woman in a portrait that hangs from one wall of the estate. This turns out to be the same dress Rebecca was famous for, and when her entrance to the ballroom is announced as “Caroline de Winter”, the name of the woman in the portrait, Maximilian gets very angry and orders her to change. Mrs. Danvers continues her campaign against the young wife and tries to get her to commit suicide, but at the last moment there is a shipwreck and a diver investigating the scene of the accident also discovers the remains of Rebecca’s boat with her body still on board. After some turmoil, Maximilian tells her he loves her; that Rebecca was a mean and selfish human who told him, on the night she died, that she was cheating on him and was pregnant with a child that was not his. In a moment of rage, Maximilian shot her and she died.  Later on he learned that Rebecca was told on the same day she would die of an incurable disease and she could have no children. Maximilian assumed that Rebecca, knowing she would die soon, manipulated him into killing her quickly. After coming to terms with these facts, Maximilian drives back to Manderley, but as he gets closer to the mansion, it becomes clear that the house was ablaze.  This is truly a suspense novel that will give you many reasons not to go near a boat or a masquerade.

Dear friends and colleagues, this is my list. I am sure that many of you will agree with some of my picks and disagree with others. I could have continued up to 50 or 100 novels, but I had to end the post at some point. For that reason, and hoping that you help me enhance the list, I now ask you to share some of your favorite horror novels, and please make sure that you talk about novels, short stories, or plays; I am not interested in horror movies this time around.

The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.

There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.

There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico.  This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.

Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).

Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.

Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.

Malinalli.

Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).

Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.

As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.

When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.

Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single.  He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.

Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.

Marina and Jerónimo.

It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.

There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate.  These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.

Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself.  As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.

Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire.   This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.

These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.

The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.

Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.

Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”.  Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.

Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.

Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.

Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.

The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing.  Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.

We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.

After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.

Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.

The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.

What assignments should interpreters take?

October 12, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes, after turning down a job offer from an individual who had contacted me by email or phone, I wonder if my life would be easier if I turned into a “yes man” and accepted many offers that come my way. It would save me the time I spend explaining why I cannot work under the circumstances proposed, or avoiding all those baseless arguments and laughable excuses from ignorant prospective clients and greedy multinational agencies. No doubt it would be good for my health.  I would have more clients, interpret every day, and turn into the darling of all agencies and professional associations. I would probably be “Tony the Yes Man”, “the one who does not make any waves.” “Mr. Takes it in the chin”.

Unfortunately, I immediately remember that I am a professional; that acquiring my set of skills and knowledge has been difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. At this point I always decide not to be the “lovable loser”.

I understand there are many interpreters; government agencies are looking for ways to save money, and private corporations want to be profitable. This only means it is harder to get an assignment; that we must put a bigger effort into finding good clients and well-paid assignments. Professional interpreting is not a hobby; it is a business, and in that world worthwhile things are not free. We must behave like businesspeople; we cannot make everybody happy by accepting any assignment that comes across our table, and we cannot make the agency recruiter’s life easier by giving in to unspeakable working conditions.

We must never forget who we are and what we do. We must protect our profession even when facing a human tragedy. I saw how some of my colleagues, well-intentioned, gave in to the indiscriminate use of bilinguals instead of interpreters during the Mexican earthquakes and Caribbean hurricanes. Some considered that demanding interpreters was inappropriate because of the urgent need for interpreting services. I think they wasted an opportunity to showcase the interpreters’ work to many people who had never heard of interpreting in their lives. I applaud those colleagues who held their ground and defended the use of professional interpreter services.

Recently, I turned down a job offer to interpret for some Spanish speakers, members of another country’s armed forces, because the assignment did not pay for the days off between sessions when interpreting was not required, and because I got no assurance that during the flying lessons there would be a flight instructor on board with direct access to the aircraft instruments if a mistake by the student occurs.  The agency recruiter could not understand why I was not willing to risk my life for an assignment that cared so little for the interpreter they had not even bother to check and see if there would be a licensed pilot on board.

I also declined an offer from a small agency to interpret simultaneously non-stop for three hours by myself. The agency rep thought I was a prima donna, and even offered me more money to take the job. I did not.  Another agency’s “project manager” got mad because after she booked me (and a colleague) for a conference, two weeks went by and we got no materials from her. When asked on the status of the assignment, she replied that the event organizer had selected a different agency, and for that reason she had not contacted the interpreters. She even said that it was the interpreters’ duty to call the agency to see if an event had been cancelled or not!

When you add these incidents to the many times when the agency coordinator argues with you because you want too much money and the agency is offering an “…amount that many would love to make at work…” ; when they reply with sarcastic emails insinuating that you must be out of your mind to ask for the money you quoted for your services; or those occasions when after they explain the assignment for hours, you finally get to say a word, and let them know your fee and they reply with a simple: “oh, thank you” and hang up.

I am sure that I just described another day at the office for many of you, so the question is: What assignments should I take?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to such a complex question. Part of the answer must do with experience, language combination, the type of interpreting you do, and the part of the world where you live. I will let you figure out that part of the question by yourself or jointly with colleagues in similar circumstances as yours.

The part I can answer, because it has universal application is straight forward: Develop a portfolio of direct clients and take very good care of them. It is difficult to find these clients but they exist. I know because I am fortunate enough to work with many. The important thing is to know where to look for them and how to spot them from a mile away.

The best clients come from referrals from other satisfied clients, colleagues, and technicians. A good story starts like this: “I am contacting you because I was referred to you by…” or “…I want to retain your services because I attended an event you interpreted in the past…”

These people looked for you because of your skills and the quality of your service. They value what you do and want YOU to interpret.

A bad story generally begins with: “…I got your name from the ATA (or any other association) directory and I was wondering if you are still a translator…”

Screen these individuals for only sixty seconds and politely end the conversation if they do not look promising.  These prospective clients do not understand who you are. To them, you are just another name on a directory under the language they need and from the location they want. They do not know what you do, and they value your profession so little they even wonder if you are still “translating” because, since you are bilingual, this must be a thing you were doing “in between jobs”.  I know some people think that you can get some good clients this way, but it depends on what you consider a good client. So far, I have never found one top client this way.

The other thing to consider, because of its universal application, is the place where you are in the world.  Unlike translation, good interpreting assignments do not happen in small towns or mid-size cities. They are in the big cities and not in all of them.  If you live in a rural area or a small city, and you want to take the best assignments, you must consider moving to a bigger city. You may need to decide between a certain lifestyle, including few professional competitors and life in the big city where you will be swimming with the sharks. Do your research, and when you do it, make sure there is a market for your language combination in the big market you are targeting. Nothing is worse than moving to another place to find out that your languages are not in demand.

Finally, think of what you want to do. People find certain things very important, even if there is not a lot of money in that field. Do not fool yourself, you will never make a lot of money working as a community interpreter or practicing in a small city, but maybe that is not a crucial factor to you. Some colleagues find working in the community assisting people with little or no money more rewarding than a high-profile wealthy client in the big city.  Some interpreters prefer less money and not so famous clients over constant traveling and spending most of the time away from home.

In conclusion, we should all seek clients that will appreciate our work, who select us for who we are as individuals, offer us professional working conditions (treat us with respect, provide materials, understands the need for team interpreting and good technology in a comfortable booth, etc.) and pay professional fees. We should protect the profession and reject prospective clients looking for anybody on a list, disrespect us, want to pay us as laborers, and do not offer the appropriate working conditions mentioned above. The rest are personal judgments we all need to make depending on the lifestyle we want to have and the service we want to provide. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this topic.

Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.

Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.

Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise.  I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.

Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.

The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement.  The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.

I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.

Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish.  There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in.  Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.

Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe.  There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up).  There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.

What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation.  They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.

They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely.  I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.

Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe.  Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area.  I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.

My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help.  With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.

My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish.  Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.

It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.

Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.

Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.

The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.

Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society.  The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.

I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.

Is being a capable, good individual enough to lead a professional association?

September 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have written about the benefits of belonging to professional interpreter and translator associations in the past. Sometimes I have praised and criticized some, but I have never questioned the need to have them around, ready to defend and advance the profession through professional development of their members, advocacy, lobbying, education, forging alliances, and so on.

Today we need them more than ever before. In a globalized economy, where we are the constant target of greedy agencies, ignorant government officials, shrinking budgets and growing intolerance, solid professional associations are essential to our profession. Because we are not all equal nor we live in the same environment, in my opinion, interpreters and translators should belong to at least one international, one regional, one local, and one specialized association.

Unlike other posts, today I will not question the intentions of some associations’ disturbing agenda centered on corporate memberships, I will not talk about the good or bad practices of some others regarding public relations, advocacy, or the planning of a conference. My concern in such matters remains unchanged.

My motivation behind this post comes from deep concern and historically supported fear about the immediate future of one of the largest and most popular professional association in the United States. Even though this entry centers on issues that happened in America, many of this association’s members live in other countries, and this situation could easily happen somewhere else.   I encourage all readers to continue to the end, even if you live somewhere else.

After many years of struggle, and a long fight for its survival, this association reestablished itself. It grew and the quality of its membership improved. For the past two years it has grown tremendously and has held its two most successful conferences in history, not just because of the people attending the events, but due to the quality of its content.  As a veteran member of the association who experienced the good old days, the horrible years of decay, and this rebirth, I can confidently say this historical recovery happened because of the experience, prestige, knowledge, honesty and vision of two of its Board members, the hard work of all five people part of the Board, and the professionalism, skills, and work of the two individuals who have been in charge of the administration for the last couple of years.  Sadly, the members of the association learned last week these two Board members resigned to their positions.

By looking at the composition of the Board, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, would see a well-respected professor from one of the more renowned interpreting and translation institutions worldwide, a pioneer and innovator on a note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting, a trainer and conference presenter in all continents, a United States Department of State interpreter, one of the most respected (beloved by the interpreters who worked with him) and capable managing interpreter for one of the busiest federal district courts in the United States, including courthouses in four cities, and perhaps the one of the few districts to have staff certified interpreters in a language other than Spanish, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from the state with the largest non-English speaking population in the United States, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from one of the busiest federal judicial districts in the country due to its proximity to Mexico, a well-known and widely respected authority on legal transcriptions and translations, a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.  These credentials explain the reason many of the most capable and better known court interpreters who left the association during the dark era came back. It also gave many of us an important tool to promote the association and encourage new interpreters to join.

Unfortunately, after last week’s resignations, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, will see a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.

I have no intention to criticize, offend, or disrespect the colleagues who remain as Board members. I have no reason to doubt their skills and dedication; I am not questioning their honesty or integrity either. They appear to be capable, and many of you trusted them when you voted for them.

I think it is important for me to mention that the two Board members who resigned, and the two individuals in charge of the administration, are all good friends of mine whom I have known for many years. I have had very limited contact with the current directors. I have dealt with one of them more than the others because of the conference in the Washington, D.C. area, but we have no relationship beyond saying hi at the conferences or being Facebook friends.

This post is not about those directors who stayed, but about the ones who left; the missed opportunities due to their absence, the uncertain future of the organization, and my concerns about the reasons that pushed courageous, capable veterans of the profession, full of ideas and plans for the association’s future, to resign.  Every time that a non-quitter quits we must worry and find out what happened.

Dear friends and colleagues, for a professional association to thrive it must gain access to many places, many inaccessible to the common folk. Effectively arguing for the interests of the profession before government authorities, establishing professional practice positions before clients, and protecting our profession from the predators of the “industry”, are difficult. Many of those we must talk to will only listen when the voice addressing them has the credibility backed by name recognition, reputation, professional trajectory, and personal network that the now missing directors have.

Many of you reading this post, members of this association or not, are too new to remember the dark years.  They started with a Board lacking experienced federally certified court interpreters, world-renowned freelance practitioners admired and respected by other veterans who trusted them, and could be role models to the new interpreters.  The Board of those years had good intentions, I think they wanted to make the association better, but a Board of university professors and non-certified interpreters shrank the organization. For years our conferences were poorly attended, made no money, and could make no decisions because with so few members attending the conferences we did not have quorum to vote for or against anything.  On that occasion, just like today, capable, experienced, well-known and respected Board members left; some just came back in the last couple of years when they recognized a Board like the ones in the past. Many of our most valuable members never came back. Many of my colleagues and I do not want to go back to the dark years.

I understand that many of you are friends of the current members of the Board, I get that many of you voted for them. Nothing is wrong with that. What troubles me is the emotional part. There is no reason to be offended or angry when people question the credentials of the current Board compared to the ones of the Board we just lost last week. I have seen how some of you are wishing good luck to the remaining Board. I wish them a long and happy life, but I am not on the well-wisher column. I prefer to remain on the skeptical, scrutinizing every move and decision.  I want to know what caused the two resignations. Not the light version or the excuses. I know the ones who resign and they could not possibly resign over one decision. It had to include other issues, perhaps even the way the Board members interacted.

I have also read how many of you are demanding an audit of the performance by the company retained to manage the financial and day-to-day operations. I think that should not be necessary as I trust the professionalism of the two individuals who run said company (and as I said, they are my friends) but I welcome the suggestion as a needed step to erase the uneasiness of many members. I know the administrators will not like this, I know it will hurt their feelings, but I also know that they have nothing to hide and will understand the need for this audit which should be expanded to go beyond a mere examination of the books. Like I said, the real cause of the resignations came not from the accounting books, it came from some repeated interaction among Board members.

I also believe that to avoid going back to the failed years of the past, we must let people speak up. If the members want to vent their frustration with the way things turned starting last week, they should be allowed to post anything on the Facebook group (as far as I know there are no complains about censoring it so far) and also to use the List Serve. At this point it is irrelevant what the guidelines say about who or what can be expressed there. It is absurd to defend a decision splitting hairs because somebody was censored, banned, moderated of whatever. These are extraordinary times and they require of flexibility and total freedom of expression to all members. We all know that everybody will say what they must say, if not through the association’s official outlets, then through another social media vehicle.

This is a time to listen to the members, have an independent auditor and perhaps a committee to investigate what happened so we can have transparent and complete information we can trust. Self-serving statements by Board members, and providing some financial and corporate information on line will not be enough.

Finally, we all must understand that it will be difficult to fill the two vacancies on the Board with colleagues of similar caliber to the ones who left. Serving in any professional association is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time, requires of many personal and professional sacrifices, and it does not make you any money.  Getting anybody to serve is hard, I for one would not do it, but getting somebody with the same characteristics as the ones of our two dear colleagues who quit will be a titanic effort.  Hints by the current Board indicating that they will move fast worry me.  It will take some time to get people that can take the Board’s collective resume back to where it was last week. Other decisions can be postponed if needed, there are no contracts or deadlines that justify a rushed decision. Many of us are serious about it. We will be watching closely this nomination process, because this time it will be even more complicated to get the ideal people on the Board. These two new members must have another characteristic: They must be independent, they must be of a different persuasion from the one of the three members left. You may think this does not matter, that regardless of their ideology they will be in the minority 3-2. This is true, but having such diversity of ideas and opinions will assure us as members that even in losing a vote, they will let us know why the majority voted the way they did.  As you can clearly see, we will need two extraordinary professionals who can play the role of the extraordinary professionals who just left, people not close friends of the current Board members so we can be sure the Board is not marching in lockstep without anyone questioning their decisions.

As those of you who assiduously read my blog know, my only interest is the betterment of the profession and protecting my colleagues; I contribute to the profession as much as I can, and I do it all over the world. I have many ideas and projects in mind; I have recently discussed many with one colleague who left the Board. I am not a teenager anymore and I will not sit and wait to see how a Board that looks different from what I proposed above turns out. I will take my projects somewhere else, and work with others who think like me, perhaps even the Board members who quit. I want to be clear: I am not quitting the association at this time. I am going to be vigilant and question every move and decision by this and future Boards; I will continue to demand transparency and diversity of opinions in Boards that are not elected by the membership (like in this case) and I withhold judgement until I am satisfied one way or another. In the meantime I will behave just like I did during the dark years: I will not praise or attack the association and I will not encourage anybody to leave or join the organization until I see what the Board does.  I now ask you to please share your thoughts on the composition of the Board, be brief and concise, and please do not write emotional comments attacking or defending past or present Board members.

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