Who were the real diners at the first Thanksgiving?

November 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

November marks the beginning of the holiday season in the United States with its most important, and uniquely American, event: Thanksgiving.  Interpreters worldwide will interpret speeches by Americans that will include Thanksgiving stories, dinner recipes, family traditions, and Black Friday shopping. Every year I try to share a different part of this celebration that, familiar to all my American colleagues, could be foreign and little-known to others.

This year I picked a topic even unknown to many Americans: The true story of those who gathered over four centuries ago in what we now know as the State of Massachusetts. We all know to a degree the traditional story of a British settlement in what Europeans called the new world; we have heard or read how these individuals who fled the old continent looking for religious freedom had to endure terrible weather, and were on the brink of starvation when a benevolent Native American tribe helped them by teaching them how to grow corn, and where to fish. It all culminated in a peaceful, joint celebration where food was shared. As you probably imagine, things were different in the real world.

The Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims were the English settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth Colony in what we today know as Plymouth Massachusetts. They gave this name to the settlement to honor the port from where they departed England: Plymouth, Devon. While in Europe, they were part of the Puritan separatist congregation known as the Brownists, who separated from the traditional Puritan Calvinists in the 17th century, arguing their congregations should separate from the state church, and fled religious persecution based on the Act of Uniformity of 1559 in Nottinghamshire, England. They first emigrated to The Netherlands, finding tolerance among the population of Holland where they followed the teachings of Robert Browne who argued true churches were voluntary democratic congregations, not whole Christian nations. They stayed in Leyden, The Netherlands, for several years until they secured the means to emigrate to America, frustrated by the Language barrier and uncomfortable with the “libertine” ways of the Dutch.

The decision to sail to America was not an easy one, there were fears that native people would be violent, there would be no source of food or water, that they may encounter unknown diseases, and that sailing across the ocean was very dangerous. They weighed their options and considered the Dutch settlement of Essequibo, now Guiana, but it was discarded for the same reasons they were leaving Holland. Another option was the Virginia Colony which was attractive because its population was British, they shared language, culture, and it was an established colony. It was discarded because they feared it would produce the same English environment they fled. They thought of the mouth of the Hudson River as a possible settlement, but the land was claimed by the Dutch who founded New Netherland. Finally, a royal patent was secured with the condition that the religion of the Leiden Group, as the Puritans were known in the British Court, were not to receive official recognition. They were told that a land grant north of the Virginia territory had been granted, and the new territory must be called New England. There were other concessions to the investors sponsoring the trip, and they finally left The Netherlands on board a small ship named the Speedwell. They arrived in Southampton where the ship was met by a second, larger vessel: The Mayflower. Unfortunately, by the time they reached Plymouth the Speedwell was deemed unfit to travel, so the Puritans left harbor with only one ship: the Mayflower. 102 passengers made the trip: 73 men and 29 women. There were 19 male servants, 3 female servants, and some sailors and craftsmen who would stay temporarily and then go back to England.

Once on land, the Puritans had several encounters with Native Americans who were familiar with Europeans as they had traded with other French and British Europeans in the past. Only 47 colonists survived the diseases contracted on the Mayflower. Half of the crew also died. The winter of 1619 was devastating. Bad weather ruined their crops and food was scarce. Survival of the settlement required drastic measures such as to request the help of these lands’ original residents: the Wampanoags. These Native Americans, motivated by their own schemes, agreed to help the Puritans providing needed food, water, and teaching them how to grow corn. The following year a good harvest saved the colonists and consolidated the colony. To commemorate the harsh winter of the year before, and to celebrate the brighter future, colonists and Wampanoags feasted together.

The name “Pilgrims.”

The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” He used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13-16 about Old Testament’s “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, unless quoting him. The Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used his word pilgrims. The first documented use of the term was at a December 22, 1798 celebration of Forefathers’ Day in Boston. Daniel Webster repeatedly referred to “the Pilgrims” in his December 22, 1820 address for Plymouth’s bicentennial which was widely read. Harriet Vaughan Cheney used it in her 1824 novel “A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Thirty-Six”, and the term also gained popularity with the 1825 publication of Felicia Heman’s poem “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers”.

The Wampanoag.

Though meetings between European explorers and Native Americans tended to degenerate into bloodshed, the lure of trade was too enticing for either party to resist. Europeans sought furs, particularly beaver pelts, to sell back home. The Wampanoags, a nation living in what we now know as Massachusetts, wanted to pick through the strangers’ merchandise of metal tools, jewelry, and cloth. A number of them, including a man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, went to Europe when the vessels returned.

Wampanoags and other nations fell victim of disadvantageous deals with the colonists, sometimes were killed during hostilities or simple differences of opinion, and many died from diseases brought from the old world for which Native Americans’ lacked immunity. In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt had double-crossed them and took 16 of them to Europe by force, among them an individual destined to play a major role as an interpreter during the First Thanksgiving in later years: Squanto. First, he was taken to Málaga where he spent some time, and probably learned functional Spanish, before convincing a merchant to take him to London where in 1618 he ran into Captain Thomas Dermer. By then Squanto spoke English and convinced Dermer to take him back to America on his next trip.

The Wampanoags were deeply divided over what to do, given the enslavement, murder, and disease that Europeans had inflicted on them. Chief Ousamequin favored cultivating the English as military allies and sources of metal weaponry to fend off the Narragansett nation to the west, who had escaped the epidemic and were using their newfound advantage in strength to reduce the Wampanoags to tributaries. In later years, Ousamequin acknowledged that he would have peace with the English because “he has a potent adversary in the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be of some strength to him, for our pieces (guns) are terrible to them.” Ousamequin also seems to have believed that the English had weaponized disease, which he hoped to put to Wampanoag use. At one point he asked the English to send the plague against another Narragansett leader whose territories bordered the Wampanoags’.

Many Wampanoags disagreed with Ousamequin. Some attributed the epidemic to a curse put on them by a shipwrecked Frenchman whom they had held as a slave. This Frenchman had admonished the Indians “that God was angry with them for their wickedness, and would destroy them, and give their country to another people.” Several Wampanoags feared that the Pilgrims were conquerors of this prophecy and therefore favored cutting them off. Others saw the Pilgrims as belonging to the same class of men slaving and slaughtering their way along the coast.

A noble Wampanoag named Corbitant conspired with the Narragansetts to unseat Ousamequin and destroy Plymouth. It took an English military strike orchestrated by Ousamequin to snuff out this fire. A year later, Ousamequin warned Plymouth that Wampanoags from the Vineyard and Cape Cod were plotting with the Massachusett nation to attack Plymouth. He stopped these plans by directing an English attack, this time against the Massachusett. It was his way of warning Wampanoag dissidents they would be next if they continued to undermine his leadership.

The First Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Frenchman’s curse had augured and just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.

Despite all good and all terrible consequences of the colonization of Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day, as we understand it now, four centuries later, has become a day of peace, family, and sharing. Because it is a lay celebration, it is the most democratic holiday in the United States, held universally across all cultures in all 50 States. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

The scariest movies in all languages.

October 31, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, we discussed monsters and ghouls, and we told ghost stories from around the world. This time I decided to share with you my fifteen scariest movies of all time.  Contrary to what many think because of the enormous amount of films produced in the United States, my favorite horror movies of all time come from many continents and are in many languages. I think that we as interpreters should look for opportunities to practice our languages and improve our skills, and what a better way to live the Halloween experience than watching some foreign language films. There are plenty more movies, and my list may not include some of your favorites; if that is the case, please contribute to our list by posting a comment at the end, but for now, please let me tell you about the movies, in many languages, that kept me awake at night. I list them in chronological order, but I leave it up to you to decide which one is the scariest. Go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Nosferatu (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau. Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach. A wonderful silent movie about vampire Count Orlok who expresses interest in a new residence and a real estate agent’s wife. A classic based on the story of “Dracula.”

Dracula (1931) Director: Tod Browning. Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye. The legend of vampire Count Dracula begins here with this original 1931 Dracula film from Bela Lugosi. This is the film by Universal Studios that has inspired so many others, even more than Bram Stoker’s own novel. The movie is in English, but Bela Lugosi was Hungarian and had trouble with the English pronunciation, so the director decided that the vampire should speak very slowly and deliberately, giving Dracula, inadvertently, his unmistakable speech style.

Psycho (1960) Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh. When larcenous real estate clerk Marion Crane goes on the lam with a wad of cash and hopes of starting a new life, she ends up at the notorious Bates Motel, where manager Norman Bates cares for his housebound mother. The place seems quirky, but fine… until Marion decides to take a shower in this Hitchcock classic American film in English.

Even the Wind is Afraid (1967) Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada. Cast: Marga López, Maricruz Olivier, Alicia Bonet, Norma Lazareno. The film is about a group of students in an exclusive boarding school, where a student decides to investigate a local tower that has figured prominently in disturbing her recurring dreams of a hanged woman. She learns from the staff that the person in the dream is a student who killed herself years before, and that others have seen her ghost. This is a suspenseful Mexican movie in Spanish. (“Hasta el viento tiene miedo”)

Kuroneko (1968) Director: Kaneto Shindo. Cast: KIchiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, KIwako Taichi. Kuroneko (The Black Cat) is the tale of a band of marauding samurai who rape and kill two women in the countryside. Awoken by the titular feline, the spirit women vow their revenge on the samurai. Things get complicated when one of their intended victims turns out to be the son of one of the women and the husband of the other, long thought lost in battle. This is an engaging black and white movie in Japanese.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer. The movie tells us the story of a young couple that moves into an infamous New York apartment building to start a family. Things become frightening as Rosemary begins to suspect her unborn baby isn’t safe around their strange neighbors, and the child’s paternity is questioned. One of the greatest American horror films of all time. It is in English.

Hour of the Wolf (1968) Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin. In this, his only horror film, the Swedish master brings us the story of renowned painter Johan Borg who is recuperating on an isolated island with his wife when they are invited to the nearby castle and discover that the lady of the house owns one of Borg’s paintings (which we never see), of Veronika, the woman he loved and lost and whose memory begins to obsess him all over again, despite his wife’s steady, practical devotion. This is a great movie in Swedish, although not an easy one to follow, that is full of surrealism in Bergman’s style. (“Vargtimmen”)

The Exorcist (1973) Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller. This is a well-known American blockbuster about 12-year-old Regan MacNeil who begins to adapt an explicit new personality as strange events befall the local area of Georgetown. Her mother becomes torn between science and superstition in a desperate bid to save her daughter, and ultimately turns to her last hope: Father Damien Karras, a troubled priest who is struggling with his own faith. This film, in English, is a must see for all horror film fans.

Suspiria (1977) Director: Dario Argento. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé. A true nightmare from Italian terror genius Dario Argento, Suspiria brings us a menacing tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry. From the moment she arrives in Germany, to attend a prestigious dace academy, American ballet-dancer Suzy Bannion senses that something horribly evil lurks within the walls of the age-old institution. Besides all of its artistic and clever qualities, this Italian movie has another unique characteristic: Because the cast is multinational, and the actors spoke their lines in their native languages, the movie is dubbed into English, and sometimes the dubbing quality is less than top-notch.

Ring (1998) Director: Hideo Nakata. Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yūko Takeuchi. This original Japanese version of the movie is about a mysterious video that has been linked to a number of deaths, when an inquisitive journalist finds the tape and views it setting in motion a chain of events that puts her own life in danger. Nakata executes the film in an incredibly smart way, and brings the traditional ghost story firmly into the modern day by melding folklore and technology. There have been several imitations in Japan and elsewhere, but the original, in Japanese, is by far the best. (“Ringu”)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) Director: Kim Jee-woon. Cast: Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yeom Jeong-ah. Based on a famous Korean folk story, the film centers on a pair of sisters who become suspicious of their new stepmother, when one of them starts to have some terrifying visions. From there, things get complicated. This is a true Korean horror movie with Korean actors speaking their language, and it is superior to the American remake released under the name “The Uninvited”. (“Hangul”)

Inside (2007) Directed by: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Cast: Aymen Saïdi, Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Nathalie Roussel, Nicolas Duvauchelle, François-Régis Marchasson. This French movie is about a grieving woman set to give birth at any minute, who is interrupted by a mysterious intruder who wants the unborn child for herself. The movie is cruel, sadistic and full of violence, including the scene where the pregnant woman accidentally stabs her mother to death, but it keeps you in suspense and very scared. The film is in French. (“Á l’intérieur”)

The Orphanage (2007) Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Andres Gertrúdix, Edgar Vivar, Geraldine Chaplin. It is the tale of a mother and wife returning to the house where she was raised as an orphan, but she now brings her son who starts to see a little boy in a terrifying sackcloth mask, whom he befriends before mysteriously disappearing. The movie is really creepy, but it is also very sad because it deals with a ghost story in which the ghosts are as real as the grief they leave behind. I personally think that this is Spain’s scariest movie ever. In Spanish. (“El orfanato”)

Annabelle (2014) Director: John R. Leonetti. Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard. The movie is a sequel to “The Conjuring”, but in this one, by far scarier than the first on the series (there are more of them now) a couple is expecting their first child, and the husband gives his wife an antique doll she has been trying to find. At night, the wife hears a murder occurring at their neighbors’, and when she calls the police, she is attacked by a woman holding the doll and a male accomplice. The police arrives and kills the man while the woman kills herself by slitting her own throat. A drop of her blood falls on the face of the doll in her arms. Later, a news report shows that the assailants were Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend who were part of a satanic cult in which they worship a demon with horns. Since Annabelle was holding the doll while dying, the couple tries to get rid of the doll, but this is the moment when all their troubles begin. I personally think this is an extremely scary movie. In English.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnó, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains. This is a Farsi (Persian) language, American horror film about a young hardworking Iranian man who takes care of his drug-addict father who falls in love with a lonesome hijab-wearing vampire. The movie is in black and white, it was filmed in California, but the story takes place in a fictional Iranian city. Although not as scary as the other movies on the list, it is an interesting and different vampire tale. (“Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad”)

There you have it, dear friends and colleagues. This is my list of scary movies. I hope you find some of them interesting enough to watch on Halloween; and I also invite you to share with the rest of us some of the titles that you think are very scary, and hopefully you will include some interesting films because of their language.

The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

When the speaker has a heavy accent.

October 23, 2013 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that the title to this article immediately brought some memories to each one of you. A speaker’s heavy accent is one of the most common, yet toughest, problems that a professional interpreter has to overcome in order to provide a high quality service.

A few years ago I was hired to interpret for a medical conference where the main speaker was a very well-known scientist whose research had put him on the run for a Nobel Prize.  The topic was complex and the event was very important. Several hundred physicians, chemists, nurses, and other health professionals had paid a hefty ticket to attend this presentation.  Going by the book, the moment I took the assignment I began my research and studied for the assignment. I worked alone and I worked with the colleague who was going to be my partner in the booth for this job. I should mention that my partner was also a very good and experienced conference interpreter.

The date of the conference finally arrived and I traveled to the city where it was going to take place.  The presentation was going to be on a Monday starting early in the morning, and there was a scheduled reception for all attendees on Sunday evening. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes you get invited to these events, so my colleague and I went to the reception. It is hard to pass on champagne and good caviar!

The following morning I got to the booth with plenty of time to check the equipment and put out any fires if any. My colleague arrived at the same time I did. Everything seemed to be alright. This was before the I-pad/ laptop days and the booths were upstairs in a mezzanine above the conference floor. We had to carry all of our materials upstairs.

The program started and the president of the professional association hosting the workshop came on stage to welcome everybody and introduce the main speaker: Dr. John Doe (real name withheld for obvious reasons) I started the interpretation session that morning, so by the time Dr. Doe was due to appear on stage it was time to switch in the booth. My colleague took over, and as he was adjusting his headphones we saw an oriental man walk on the stage. This was Dr. Doe! “…But…it can be…” I said. He has an American western name.  Well, that was he.  As some of you may know, in the United States anybody can change his name to any name he chooses, and as long as you don’t defraud your creditors, from that point on you are that person. We had studied the speaker’s research work, academic history, every single piece of paper that had his name on it. There was nothing about his place of birth anywhere. There was no way we could have known that he was not a native speaker; and frankly, we never even thought of that possibility.

Dr. Doe took the microphone and started to speak.  You couldn’t understand a thing of what he was saying!!! Absolutely nothing!!! His accent was that thick.  My colleague turned towards me and gestured that he didn’t understand any of Dr. Doe’s speech. I didn’t either.

To this day I don’t know why, but at that point I looked into the conference room as if looking for I don’t know what, and I saw this blonde woman sitting to the side in the very back of the auditorium.  I immediately remembered that I had seen her the night before at the reception next to the oriental man now known to me as Dr. Doe.  I figured that she had to be his wife, girlfriend, assistant, agent, or something similar.  In other words, I thought that she must understand his English.  I signaled to my colleague, who was struggling with the rendition, that I would be right back and I left the booth.

When I approached the blonde lady and I explained our predicament she laughed really hard. I learned that she was Dr. Doe’s wife, she was American by birth, spoke English clearly, and she was able to understand her husband’s English.  I asked for her help.

I went back to the booth accompanied by Mrs. John Doe.  We put a third chair in the booth so she could have a seat. Because of the size of the both we had to leave the door open. We gave her a set of headphones and asked her to repeat everything her husband said. In fact we asked her to interpret from her husband’s English into regular English.  We did relay interpreting from her English into Spanish.  We also used her rendition for the other booths (Portuguese and French as I recall) Very soon the only people who couldn’t understand Dr. Doe were the English speakers as they didn’t have the benefit of a booth. It was funny to see those English speakers looking around and realizing that everybody else was getting the presentation but them.   After much suffering, at the end of the day the Spanish booth was the “hero” that saved the day.  Of course, it was due to my experience and ability to think quickly and to solve a problem. Had I not attended the reception the day before, or had I not remembered the blonde lady by Dr. Doe’s side, we would have had a very difficult experience instead of an anecdote that has been repeated hundreds of times. I would love to hear some of your stories telling us how you were able to overcome an obstacle during a rendition.

Hispanic, Latino, or None of the Above?

August 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I saw a poll by the Gallup polling agency stating that most people from Latin America couldn’t care less whether they get called “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The survey indicated that most of them identify primarily by their country of origin rather than by one of these terms. Of those surveyed, 70 percent answered that it didn’t matter; about 10 percent preferred “Latino” and 19 percent opted for “Hispanic.” Men cared less than woman and young people didn’t pay much attention to these labels. The study went on to conclude that the terms were really interchangeable and therefore politicians and social scientists could select either one of these two terms.  The results of the poll, and specially the conclusions, worried me as I know that these two terms don’t mean the same.

Hispanic.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives its origin from the Latin hispanicus: From Hispania Iberian Peninsula, Spain, indicates that it was first used in 1584, and defines “Hispanic” as a noun and an adjective of or relating to the people, speech, or culture of Spain or of Spain and Portugal. A second meaning is as a noun or an adjective of or relating to, or being a person of Latin American descent living in the United States “…especially: one of Cuban, Mexican, or Puerto Rican origin.”   

The Oxford dictionary gives the same origin, and defines it as an adjective relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Central and South America; relating to Spanish-speaking people or their culture, especially in the United States. It also defines it as a noun that indicates a Spanish-speaking person, especially one of Latin American descent living in the U.S.

The Real Academia Española de la Lengua dictionary defines “hispano,” in Spanish, as “español” (Spanish) Adjective relating to something or someone of Hispania, Hispano-American nations, or the population of Hispanic-American origin, living in the United States.

Maria Moliner’s Diccionario de uso del español defines the term “hispano” as an adjective relating to old Hispania or the Spanish cultura, specifically to those Spanish-speakers living in the United States.

Finally, the Urban Dictionary states that Hispanic is an ancient adjective and noun that was mainstreamed as a political label in the United States in the early 1970’s. The purpose for the introduction of such an ancient adjective by the Nixon administration was ostensibly to create a political label solely for the purpose of applying the constitutional anti-discrimination standard of “strict scrutiny” to anyone who was labeled Hispanic. The label had the immediate effect of linking the entire population of the 19 nations that comprise Latin America, as well as, distinguishing the “Hispanic” colonial heritage of Latin American Countries from the “Anglo Saxon” colonial heritage of the United States.

Before the colonization of the Americas, a person had to be solely from Hispania-Spain and Portugal together- in order to be called Hispanic. Today, Hispania has 21 progenies: two in Europe (Spain and Portugal), and nineteen in the Americas (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela)

The dictionary leaves out Equatorial Guinea and continues:

“But there is more to think about: America is a country where one would not consider mislabeling a Scotsman an Irishman, for such would be an insult to the Scotsman, and vice versa; where one would not describe Canadian culture as being the same as Australian culture because such would be an insult to Canadians and vice versa.”

Latino.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary traces its origin to American Spanish, probably short for Latin American (latinoamericano) and gives as the date when it was first used 1946. It defines it as a noun for a native or inhabitant of Latin America, or a person of Latin American origin living in the United States.

The Oxford dictionary gives its origin from Latin American Spanish, and defines it as a noun chiefly North American relating to a Latin American inhabitant of the United States or a person of Latin American or Spanish-speaking descent.

The Real Academia Española de la Lengua dictionary defines “latino,” in Spanish, as an adjective that describes a person from Lazio (Italy) or relating to the Latin language, the cities ruled according to Latin Law, to the Western Church, and to the people from Europe and the Americas who speak a language that comes from Latin.   

Maria Moliner’s Diccionario de uso del español defines the term “latino” from the Latin “Latinus” as an adjective and noun applied to the people and things from Lazio, to the people who speak a language that comes from Latin, and to the Western Church.

The Urban Dictionary states that Latino is an ethnicity of people who have origins in one or more of the following countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

From the definitions above we clearly notice that “Hispanic” and “Latino” are two very different concepts that encompass two different groups of individuals and cultures. You cannot refer to a Brazilian as Hispanic, and you cannot include the original people of the Americas in the Latino concept. Many of them don’t even speak a Romance language. They continue to speak Náhuatl, Quiché, Mixtec, Zapotec, Huichol, and many other languages native to the Americas.

In the United States Latino is often used interchangeably with the word “Hispanic”, although they are not the same. The term “Hispanic” refers to a person from any Spanish-speaking country, whereas “Latino” refers to a person from a country in Latin America.  A Latino can be of any race. For example, an Argentine can be Caucasian, and a Dominican can be Black. But they are both Latino.

In the US the word Latino is misused to name only people from Latin America. The Latin America was a term first created to mean “the part of America ruled by Latino countries, Spain and Portugal” in opposition to the Anglo-Saxon America, ruled by the British (now Eastern United States). In this sense, some parts of the United States are part of the Latin America because they were ruled by Spain and France at some point: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and portions of other States. I also wonder why they ignored French-Canada as it is not Anglo-Saxon. They speak French!

Latino is a person who speaks a romance language: French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Aragonese, Aranese, Aromanian, Arpitan, Asturian, Auvergnat, Calo, Catalan, Corsican, Dolomite, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Extremaduran, Fala, Franco-Provençal, Friulan, Galician, Gascon, Istro-Rumanian, Ladino, Languedocien, Leonese, Ligurian, Limousin, Lombard, Megleno-Rumanian, Mirandese, Mozarabic, Neapolitan, Occitan, Piedmontese, Romansh, Sardinian, Shuadit, Sicilian, Venetian, Walloon, and Zarphatic; or those whose cultural heritage comes from any country that speaks any of those languages.  Therefore, the term Latino is inappropriate and wrongly misused as it excludes many and includes some it shouldn’t.

The term Hispanic was an attempt to label a racial group created by the U.S. government to put all people who descend from Spanish speaking countries into one meaningless group. Hispanic is NOT a racial group. They can be white, black, Native-American, Asian, or any combination of these peoples. Hispanic countries are just as racially diverse as the United States, thus this term has no real meaning.

Next time you see one of those polls take your time and try to educate all people as to the absurdity of those terms and the way they are mishandled by the establishment.  Please share your thoughts with the rest of us.

As interpreters we must remain at the table of our largest professional association.

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

Next week we will meet in San Diego during the American Translators Association annual conference. We will attend interesting presentations, establish new contacts, greet old friends, buy books, and we will have a lot of fun.  However, we will also gather to do something else that is particularly important for all interpreters: we will vote for three directors to the ATA Board. These new officials will represent our interests before the Board for the next three years.

As a professional association, ATA has thirteen officials that make policy and decide issues that affect us all as an organization. We have a President, a President-elect, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and 9 directors.  Being a board member is a hard job, it requires a lot of time and effort and the reward is usually the satisfaction of a job well-done.  We are very fortunate to have very capable and dedicated people at the top of ATA.

The number of translators and interpreters in the organization’s membership are pretty similar, but only two of these thirteen officials are interpreters.   They all do a magnificent job, but it is these interpreters that really voice our perspective in the boardroom. We are two professions united by the word, written and spoken.  I am writing this piece because those two spaces where we as interpreters are represented in the boardroom are up for reelection.  In other words, if we lose one of those two seats we will end up with nothing as it used to be in the past.  In the pursuit of a more balanced organization we should strive to bring our representation up. To do that we cannot afford to lose these two seats. We just can’t.

Cristina D. Helmerichs is a veteran of our profession. She has a professional and administrative resume better than most. She has been an honest and measured voice for all ATA interpreters during the last three years. She was instrumental in the change of the organization’s tag that for the first time included us, the interpreters, as part of the association’s identity.  She presently chairs the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, and a couple of years ago she played a significant role on an effort to understand and include many more of our colleagues who were frankly on the verge of leaving ATA and other professional organizations because they felt excluded and ignored. Cristina was Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors from 1996 to 2004. During her tenure NAJIT saw unprecedented growth in membership; she is also a founder of the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) and an active member of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association.

Cristina complements these impressive administrative credentials with her professional trajectory as an interpreter. She has worked in the federal court system nationwide, she has been a pillar to the court interpreter scene in the state of Texas for many years, and she has been a conference interpreter all over the country.  Cristina is a regular interpreter trainer, a workshop instructor, and a rater of the federal court interpreter examination.  I know all these things because I have been a member of these organizations when Cristina has been in charge; I have worked with her all over the country interpreting, teaching, and rating federal exams. I have traveled half way across the world with Cristina. I have pet her dogs at her home, and I have been her classmate when we studied diplomatic conference interpretation in Argentina together.  Cristina has been a great friend and she is a spectacular human being. Anybody in Austin will agree with this statement.  I invite you to vote for her next week because we need her at the table.

I also encourage you to reelect Odile J. Legeay, the other interpreter on the board.  Odile is another great professional and very capable board member. During the last three years she has been instrumental in the development of tools that have come to aide all freelancers, such as the standard agreement she developed. Odile is also a great human being. I know all these things because just as in Cristina’s case, I have seen it first-hand. I have worked with her, attended conferences and activities with her, and I have been to her home in Houston where I have seen how well-liked and loved by her peers she is. Together with Cristina, Odile is a voice that we as interpreters must keep at the top of ATA’s decision-making structure. We need their representation. In fact we cannot afford to do without either one of them.

It is also relevant to mention that Cristina and Odile are two of only three Spanish linguists on the board. This is also important when we think that ATA is the most important professional association in the United States, and the U.S. is the number two country with the most Spanish speakers in the world just behind Mexico.  Voting to reelect Cristina and Odile will continue to allow all ATA interpreters to have a voice on a Board of Directors where an overwhelming majority of the members are translators, and it will also help ATA to be more representative of its community (The United States of America) and its membership (Spanish interpreters and translators) by keeping two of the Spanish linguists as part of the Board. The other Spanish linguist, a translator, is not up for reelection this time.

Finally, because this election day we can vote for three directors, I would like to invite you to also vote for Corinne McKay. She is not an interpreter, she is a French<>English translator (and a very good one) who has been instrumental to our joint profession. I know Corinne as a person and she is a great human being, she is responsible and committed. I had a chance to observe her up-close when she was President of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA). At the time I was living in Colorado and I was Chair of the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters (CAPI). I have seen Corinne present at professional conferences, I saw the key role she played during the ATA annual conference in Denver two years ago, and I know that although not an interpreter, she has tried to bridge that gap in Colorado organizing events to bring the professions closer. I know this because a few years back she invited me to do a presentation on conference interpretation before CTA.

Dear friends and colleagues. I appreciate all of our colleagues that are running, I am sure they are all honorable and capable professionals and human beings, but this time I invite you to keep our voice at the table by reelecting Cristina Helmerichs and Odile Legeay, and I invite you to cast your third vote for a great translator who has proven to be capable as an administrator and will no doubt be a friend to the interpreter community. Please cast these three votes.

The American Founding Fathers and their Foreign Languages.

July 4, 2012 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

On this Fourth of July all Americans celebrate our independence.  We know that on this day we recognize the immense wisdom and unlimited courage of a group of men who lived in the same right place at the same right time.  Although most of us will spend the better part of the day watching baseball, having a hot dog, and attending some local fireworks tonight, I thought it would be interesting to talk about a little known aspect of the founding fathers’ lives: Their knowledge of foreign languages.

It is undisputable that they were all bright, well-educated, and visionary heroes who crafted an idea and implemented a concept never attempted before: a country with no monarch where the people were in charge.  We have read about their political, diplomatic, scientific, and military qualities, about how gifted they were. It is time to review their knowledge of foreign languages.  George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat and well-known genius spoke English, French and Italian.   Our second President: John Adams spoke English, French and Latin. President James Madison spoke English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew.  James Monroe spoke English and French.

Although Samuel Adams and John Hancock did not speak any foreign languages, Hancock, the wealthiest of our founding fathers, and perhaps the most generous, founded a Professorship of Oriental Languages and Hebrew in Massachusetts.  All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language.

This may not be the most relevant aspect of a hero’s life, but it is a good way for a linguist to wish all of my friends and colleagues, together with their families, a happy Fourth of July!

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