Indigenous languages: An interpreting need yet to be properly addressed.

October 2, 2014 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

There is no doubt that globalization has brought us together in ways we could have never imagined just a few decades ago. A smaller world means innumerable benefits for earth’s population and interpreters and translators play a key role in this new world order that needs communication and understanding among all cultures and languages.

Although we see progress and modernization on a daily basis, we can also perceive that there are certain groups that are staying behind; not because they decided to do so, not because they are not valuable to the world community, but because of the language they speak. It is a fact that most people on earth speak the same few languages. We all know that Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, and everyone is aware of the fact that, geographically speaking, English and Spanish are by far the most widely spoken languages. The problem is that there are many languages in the world that are spoken by smaller groups of people, even though some of them are very old, and despite the fact that some of them were widely spoken and even lingua franca in the past.

I am referring to the so-called indigenous languages of the world. A reality faced by humankind in every continent: The Americas, Asia, Australia, the Pacific islands, and Africa have a serious problem. Once acknowledged that this is a universal issue, today I will talk about the Americas because that is my field.

It is no mystery that these languages have always existed and even co-existed with the more widely-spoken languages of the Americas. Native American tribes and nations have spoken their language in Canada and the United States while using English and French as a business tool and an academic gate to universal knowledge.

Presently, there are between 900 and 1,500 indigenous languages spoken in the Americas (depending on whose study you believe) and regardless of the real number, and without considering that many of them may be spoken by a handful of people, the reality is that there are many widely spoken Indigenous languages that are in need of interpreters and translators in order to guarantee access to modernity and legal security to many people in all countries in the Americas. There are some efforts that are bringing accessibility to these native populations, and there is legislation in the process of being enacted and implemented in many places. The United States government is making sure that State-level government agencies comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and provide interpreting services to all those who need to use public transportation, or go to court, to a public hospital, or to a public school. There is a federal court interpreter certification in Navajo as well. The Mexican Constitution was amended to guarantee the right of a Native-Mexican to have an interpreter when he is charged with committing a crime; through the protection and promotion of Mexican indigenous languages, the National Indigenous Languages Institute (INALI) empowers these communities in Mexico. INALI was created to make sure that the Mexican native population is able to participate in society like every other member, without any restrictions due to the language they speak. The current project to produce legislation and regulations for court interpreting in the new oral trial process recently adopted by Mexico, includes the Indigenous languages interpreters, who are collaborating with foreign language and Sign Language interpreters to achieve this very important goal.

Let’s be honest, the need is enormous and the resources, human and monetary, are limited. Acknowledging this reality, and agreeing on the importance of this issue, we need to look for a solution; we need many ideas, many proposals, the problem is difficult, but there is no way to avoid it. We must forge ahead towards a solution to this problem. On this post I do my share by presenting you the ideas I propose to get a solution off the ground, and at the minimum, to start a serious dialogue.

Part of the problem is the lack of enough fluent speakers of English or Spanish, and the Indigenous language. In part, this is because the language is not widely spoken, and because there are very few interpreters who speak the Indigenous language due to profitability issues. This is understandable, the interpreter needs to make a living. Another part of the problem is the lack of access for non-native speakers to learn the indigenous language and to have it as one of their language combinations. Unfortunately, from all the obstacles to overcome if we want to have enough Indigenous language interpreters, the stigma of speaking an Indigenous language is probably the biggest. Education is needed in order to bring Indigenous languages into the mainstream of interpreting, and I already addressed this issue on a separate post.

Many interpreters could say that although they would like to learn an Indigenous language, and even work as an interpreter to and from that language, how will they get work as interpreters? How will it be possible for them to make a living? It would be difficult to convince a top conference or diplomatic interpreter to drop his clients and go to work as a healthcare or court interpreter making very little money. That is not what I propose. First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to make them attractive for the new interpreter.

If the new interpreters and translators understand what these languages really are, and they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them in the mainstream business world is because of lack of opportunities for those who speak them, they will understand that these Indigenous language speakers should be at the same level of opportunity as those who speak a widely spoken language.

The idea would be that those who study languages to become interpreters or translators, be required to learn, on top of the traditional language combination of their choice, an Indigenous language that they would select from a variety of options. This way, they would enter the professional world with the same skills and language combinations they had always envisioned, and an additional language that no doubt will widen their professional horizon and fatten their wallet a bit more. My idea would be to pair them with a native speaker of the Indigenous language to work together in the booth, or as a team in court, and elsewhere. This way the empiric interpreter will benefit from the academic skills and knowledge of the formally educated interpreter, and the latter will benefit and learn traditions and cultural nuances, that just cannot be learned in the classroom, from the empiric interpreter. Of course, because the market will notice a good thing, many already established interpreters will rush to learn an Indigenous language to stay competitive; Náhuatl, Quechua, K’iché, Mixtec, Otomí, and many other versions of Rosetta Stone will sell like there is no tomorrow.

Dear friends and colleagues, I know that this proposal may seem fantastic and unrealistic to many of you, but I ask you to please, before you rush to sell me a bridge you have in Brooklyn, to kindly consider what I propose, and then perhaps offer other possible ways to address this problem; I only ask you to offer global ideas, that is, possible solutions to this problem that may work not just in the United States but all over the Americas, and maybe all over the world.

Why are the interpreters of Indigenous languages treated differently?

August 5, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my professional career I have noticed how the interpreters of Indigenous Languages are often treated differently and separately from the rest of us. Whether it is their service fees, labor conditions, or even the way they are addressed by the client, I am often left with this aftertaste that I dislike. I am sure many of you have observed and felt the same way at one time or another. Although this is a universal problem that afflicts interpreters all over the world, I will concentrate on the indigenous languages spoken in the Americas: From Alaska to Patagonia.

I believe that the main reason, and often unconsciously motivated, why Indigenous Languages interpreters are perceived as different, perhaps even less professional than the rest of us, or even as belonging to a “not-so-important” language, is pure ignorance; a complete lack of cultural knowledge of the way society functions in many places around the world, not being familiar with world history, and the oversight of how these two elements should be combined in order to acquire the appreciation for these languages that is so much needed. Let me explain:

First the social aspect: For centuries, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans have lived in a world where many speak Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese; many speak a native language with no fluency in the European predominant language, and a minority has been able to reconcile and master the use of both: a European language and one or more Indigenous Languages. It has been part of the Latin American culture to have a household where the family speaks Spanish (it could be Portuguese or some other European language, but to save some time, on this blog I will refer to Spanish and it will mean all European languages spoken in the Americas) and the domestic help speak Náhuatl, or Quiché, or Zapotec, or perhaps Quechua. Nobody living in Latin America would be shocked to hear people within their own household speaking a language they do not understand. That is how it has been for centuries. It is also part of Latin American reality that many of these people stay in the shadows, relegated to a second tier; not because of their intelligence, not due to their work ethic, but because they have been systematically denied access to knowledge and opportunity for the simple fact that they do not speak Spanish fluently. This problem has generated social unrest from the moment the conquistadors landed in the so-called new world, and it has finally caught the attention of government officials, society, and the media, causing changes in the legislation, and in the way society opens its doors to these segment of their citizenry.

Because of modern immigration trends, the problem also exists in the United States where many of these indigenous groups have an important physical presence. Once in the United States, they face some of the same obstacles that their fellow Spanish-speaking citizens must deal with; among them: their lack of English language skills. Fortunately for their Spanish-speaking fellow countrymen, there are many more instances where they will find a Spanish interpreter who will assist them in courts, hospitals, churches, public schools, and even stores and restaurants. Unfortunately for those Latin American citizens who do not speak Spanish, or even if they do, their command of the language is far from being fluent, there are very few linguistic resources to assist them, and in many cases, depending on their geographic location or the language they speak, there are none. As a consequence, service providers are often frustrated before the reality that finding a Spanish interpreter will not solve their problem, because of the (for them) hard-to believe reality that these individuals, despite being citizens from a Spanish-speaking country, have a different native language and do not know Spanish. The result: We have three segments of the population at odds who do not talk to each other, and for that reason they are incapable of understanding the new reality in their hometowns and communities: (1) The Spanish speaker immigrant who is used to Indigenous Languages speakers because he lived with them, side by side, back in their common home country; he knows of their linguistic limitations in Spanish, and he also knows that they are proud hard-working people who speak centuries-old languages, and not ignorant second-class citizens who do not speak Spanish. (2) The American who speaks English and no other language, and sometimes even the bilingual English-Spanish Latino who was born in the U.S. to Latin American parents but ignores this part of his parents’ homeland’s social culture. (3) The Indigenous Language speaker who usually comes from a poor community, and is an honest, hard-working, decent individual who grew up in an Indigenous culture within a Spanish-speaking country, and had very little or no contact with Spanish speakers. If these three segments of the population were to sit down and talk to each other, they would understand their different realities and work out common solutions without putting another group down because of cultural ignorance. Once we have established this common ground, it is important to learn who these Indigenous groups and nations really are. Because language is a very important part of who we are, this will get them to where they should be: An even field of opportunity.

First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to unveil them so that they go from “exotic” and “mysterious” to simply a “foreign language.” The best way to do it is to let history speak. Many people do not know, or forgot, that one of the greatest mythologies about creation is called the Popol Vuh, that it comes from the Mayan Post-classic K’iché kingdom in Guatemala, and that just like the Chilam Balam, it was written in K’iché (Mayan).

But K’iché was not just a language of mythology writers and historians, it was the language of scientists. The Mayan civilization knew and used the zero before many other civilizations. They were great mathematicians and astronomers, and they did it all in K’iché (Mayan). If science is not your cup of tea, we can then talk about the Lord of Texcoco: Nezahualcóyotl, one of the greatest poets in history, whose famous “Flower Songs” were composed in Náhuatl. He turned his Acolhua nation into what historian Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci called “The Athens of the Western World” where the “tlamatini,” poets, musicians, sculptors, philosophers, and others gathered to create and learn. And of course, we have to mention Malintzin or Doña Marina, the first Spanish interpreter in the Americas, who was instrumental in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, and Felipillo, Pizarro’s Quechua interpreter (I have written about both, Malintzin and Felipillo on separate posts that you can access in this blog) We cannot forget that a Native-Mexican, who spoke Zapotec as his first language at home, grew up to lead and defend his country and became universally known as Benito Juárez. Finally, if we want to bring this to a more contemporary setting, we need to remember that a big part of the reason why the United States and its allies won World War II in the Pacific was because of the Navajo code talkers; a group of military interpreters and translators who interpreted and translated military communications from English into Navajo and vice versa in order to avoid Japanese detection. All of these examples show Indigenous people doing extraordinary things using Indigenous Languages. You see, these are not second-class languages, they are first class languages that have been abandoned to a certain degree, and for that reason, they have not received the acknowledgement they deserve in the pantheon of languages.

If interpretation agencies, event-organizers, government officials, and the rest of the interpreter and translator community understand what these languages really are, and if they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them for world trade, advertisement, modern science, or any other mainstream use of language, is because they have been denied access to opportunity by the mere fact of what they speak, then they would value and treat them both: the interpreter and the Indigenous Language as their equal. It will be then that all of our colleagues will be welcomed to the great community of interpreters and translators. From that point on, we will all realize that our job is the same and we will all make sure that these colleagues are treated the same way all other spoken language and sign language interpreters are treated. I invite you to share with us other stories of this linguistic/cultural coexistence back in your home countries, or if you prefer, to tell us about another historic character who emphasizes the importance of Indigenous Languages.

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