Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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