The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.

November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.

Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.

Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?

Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.

Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).

How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?

The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.

The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.

In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.

Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji”  and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!

Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!

Negotiating a contract with a client who does not know what we do, or the culture of its counterpart.

July 26, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Not long ago I met a potential client from a European country who wanted to hire the services of several interpreters for an event that was to take place in a big city in the United States.  The client explained their needs and the agenda, and I asked the usual questions necessary to determine competency in the subject matter, and our professional interpretation fee.  The client explained that they needed all interpreters from 8:00 am to 11:30 pm. The agenda of this event included presentations, business negotiations, field inspections, and social events, specifically two formal dinners.

I prepared a written estimate that included information about the top-level interpreters to be used during the event, a description of the way we would provide our services, and our daily fee, including overtime charges.  Because of the time difference between Europe and America, I had to wait until the following day to get an answer from Europe.

The client stated in her response that the fee was excessive because there were “…several hours during the day when no interpretation services would be required…” and the two dinners were “…gourmet food that the interpreters would eat…” and because of this “…wonderful meal…” they expected the interpreters to work for free during the two dinners, as they would be “…eating and will only interpret when needed…”  The client ended her letter emphasizing the fact that it would be during these dinners that most of the commercial deals with the American counterparts would be closed, as it “…is common practice among businessmen to close a deal late in the evening over a nice glass of brandy…”

In responding to the client, I pointed out several facts that were obvious to me, but apparently were not part of the decision-making process of this client.  I explained that when an interpreter is hired from 8:00 am to 11:30 pm, the interpreter is on the clock all the time as he or she is available to the client for the duration of the event.  I explained that the interpreter would have to decline other jobs during the days of the event, and therefore, even if she was not in the booth during “down time”, she was still there, incapacitated to make money working somewhere else during those hours.  Furthermore, I explained that interpreters cannot sit down and enjoy a meal during the event, because we have to talk to work, and you cannot eat and interpret at the same time.  I stated that working those crucial dinners after a full day of interpreting would be extremely difficult, as the interpreters would be exhausted by dinner time, and for that reason, they needed to be compensated at our overtime rate.  Finally, I also mentioned that we could probably adjust the overtime fee not by lowering our rate, but by restructuring the agenda based on the culture of the American counterpart.  Basically, I told the client that the schedule would probably be adjusted by the Americans anyway, because they would want to eat dinner earlier, and in fact, there would not even be a restaurant open for dinner at the time the client wanted to schedule the meal.

After the client talked to the American counterpart, she realized that indeed, the Americans wanted to end the day much earlier than the original European plan, and she learned that restaurants do not serve dinner that late in most cities in the United States.  Because of this explanation and suggestions, I was able to keep the contract, get paid what we deserved, and the event was successful.  My strategy worked; however, talking to some colleagues just a few days ago, I heard how some of them would have just lowered their fee, or worked the dinners at their regular rate instead of overtime rate, some of them stated that sometimes you have to make concessions to keep a good client or a big event.  I disagree with this way of thinking, and I would like to hear what you would do in a similar situation.

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