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.

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.

How creativity saved the interpretation.

November 21, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will talk about two topics you are all very familiar with: Creativity and quick thinking. Two necessary elements in every interpreter’s repertoire that are used to solve problems and avoid catastrophes in the complex business of communication among those who do not speak or understand the same language. An individual must possess a series of characteristics to be a professional interpreter; among them: the ability to take a concept or idea in one language, understand it and process it, and then render it into another language with the appropriate cultural context necessary for the listener to comprehend the message without any effort, therefore freeing him to concentrate on the content of the message the orator is delivering in the foreign language. This multitasking requires of a quick and agile mind. The interpreter cannot be slow in thinking, processing, or delivering the message. It is impossible.

Just as important as a quick mind is the capacity and resolve to act when needed, and in the interpreting world where many times we encounter a reality where some of the cultural concepts of the parties are at odds, the interpreter needs to resort to his creativity and sense of improvisation.

I am sure that you all have had your chance to apply these two skills during your professional career. In my case there have been too many instances when my interpreting partner or I have acted with great speed and creativity to avoid a problem; this made it difficult to decide which one I should use for this post. After a long rewind of some memorable experiences, I picked an instance where creativity and quick thinking were enhanced by the interpreters’ teamwork.

Sometime ago I was working the Spanish booth at a conference in a European country. I cannot remember the exact topic, but it had to do with the environment. There were delegates from many countries and there were interpreters with many language combinations. During the fourth day of the event the morning session was uneventful. My booth partner and I finished our shift in the Spanish booth and went to get some lunch. That afternoon the second speaker was from an English-speaking country where people have a very distinctive accent and way of talking. In the speaker’s particular case the accent was very heavy and it took a few minutes to get used to his speech. Some thirty minutes into the presentation, right after I had handed the microphone to my partner, I heard a knock on the door of the booth. It was one of the Italian booth interpreters. She looked frazzled and frustrated when she told me that her booth was having a very hard time understanding the speaker, and from the questions she asked me about the speech, it became apparent that they were really missing a good portion of the presentation. These interpreters were fairly new, I had never seen either one of them before, but from my observations during the first three days of the conference I could see that they were good, dedicated, and professional. I immediately empathized with them as I recalled the many occasions in the past when a speaker with a heavy accent, weak voice, or bad public speaking habits had made me suffer throughout a rendition. It was clear that they were not going to understand much more during the rest of the presentation that still had about two hours to go; it was also obvious that we needed to do something about it.

After some brainstorming with the Italian interpreter, while our respective colleagues worked in the booth, (the second Italian interpreter no-doubt sweating bullets throughout the speech) certain things became apparent: The two colleagues in the Italian booth were professionally trained interpreters with great command of the booth, and with excellent delivery skills. It was also very noticeable that they both spoke Spanish very well. After these facts were spelled out, we both concluded that the solution to the “heavy accent” issue was a relay interpreting rendition. We decided that the Spanish booth would take the feed from the floor in English, interpret the source in that very heavy accent into Spanish, and then the Italian booth would pick up the feed from our booth in Spanish and deliver it into their target language, in this case: Italian. Because of the teamwork, camaraderie, and will to help on the part of all four interpreters, and due to the experience and skill of the Spanish booth, and the great command of the booth and pleasant delivery of the Italian booth, we were able to deliver our service to both: the Spanish and Italian speakers seamlessly. This would have never happened without the interpreters’ professional minds working very fast to find a solution, and without the creativity of the interpreters that made it possible to switch gears in the middle of a very important event already in progress. Once again I proved to myself (and others) that professionalism and formation count. They are important tools that a real interpreter needs to use when the situation demands it. Without professionalism there is no sense of camaraderie, and without that perception that we are all colleagues, the two booths would have never worked together and solved the situation. I would love to hear some of your stories where creativity, a quick mind, or the sense of camaraderie among professional colleagues helped you to overcome a professional obstacle.

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.

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!

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Italian at The Professional Interpreter.