This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:


September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.


These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.


The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.


Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.


Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.


This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.


Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.

Interpreting during the holidays: Santa Claus in other cultures.

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 24, 2014 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning into a better and more successful interpreter in the new year.

January 6, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

2013 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible price.  The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service?  The answer is complex and it includes many different issues that have to be addressed.  Today we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpretation and state-of-the-art technology.  In other words we need to be better interpreters.  We need to study, we have to practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client or grammar) and we need to attend professional conferences.

I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out what is happening out there in the very tough world of interpretation.  Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world.  Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries.  Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event even if you wanted to be there.  I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2014 conferences that I am determined to attend:

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada (May 16-18) Although I am still undecided about going to Istanbul Turkey in March with InterpretAmerica because of scheduling reasons, I am determined to be in Las Vegas in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world.  This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States.  It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences.

The International Federation of Translators (FIT) Conference in Berlin, Germany (August 4-6). This is an event that cannot be missed because it does not happen every year, because it attracts a different set of colleagues, and because it has a more European flavor than the other huge event in our profession: The ATA conference.  Presentations are usually different from other conferences because of the topics that are discussed and the presenters’ style, and in my opinion it gives you a better picture of the European and Asian market than any other event.

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Athens, Greece (September 20-21).  I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that I consider priceless.  It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you.  Some of the results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other conferences because they are bothered by the corporate presence.  This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue.  You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year.

American Translators Association (ATA) Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois (November 5-8).  This is the “mother” of all conferences. If you have attended one you know what I am talking about; if you have not, be prepared to be among an overwhelming number of colleagues from all over the world who gather once a year to share experiences, attend workshops and presentations, do networking, buy books, dictionaries, software, hardware, and even apply for a job as an interpreter or translator with one of the many government and private sector agencies and corporations that also attend the event.  This is the conference that all language professionals have to attend at least once during their lifetime.  As an added bonus, the conference will be held in beautiful breath-taking Chicago with all of its architecture and big city life.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above.  Remember, the world of interpretation is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition.  That advantage might be what you learned at one of these conferences, or whom you met while at the convention.  Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2014.

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