What we learned as Interpreters in 2019.

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2019 ended and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2020, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities.  In 2020 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year:  For the first time our African interpreter and translator colleagues gathered for the First Africa International Translation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. I had the fortune to attend the event. It was an eye-opener to see how many capable colleagues from all corners of Africa, and many other places in Europe, South America and the United States were committed to have an excellent program full of content. This conference was attended by true professional interpreters and translators who exchanged opinions, attended workshops and presentations, and enjoyed the beauty of Kenya and the enthusiasm of the local interpreters and translators. On a personal note, I had the privilege to be invited to lecture in front of hundreds of language, translation and interpretation students at Kenyatta University. This was an experience I will never forget. After the conference, our Kenyan colleagues organized a safari which I attended. Another unforgettable experience. In 2020 African interpreters and translators will build on top of last year’s accomplishments and hold the Second Africa International Translation Conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

Another “first” took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the Argentine Association of Sign Language Interpreters (AAILS) held its first conference entitled: “1 Jornada de AAILS”. The event was attended by Argentine Sign Language interpreters from all over Argentina, and by interpreters of other languages and representatives from other translation and interpreting organizations from Argentina and abroad. I was lucky to participate in the preconference workshops and the conference itself. The presentations were educational, fun, and informative. I was pleasantly surprised by the level or participation and the energy and talent of the board members and others who collaborated to the success of the conference.

The interpreting profession in Mexico is stronger every day as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, with more presentations directed to interpreters than ever before; The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) in Mexico City once again. This year’s edition added the participation of Mexico City’s prosecution agency (Procuraduría de la Ciudad de Mexico) to the impressive list of international guests, magistrates, judges, and attorneys already collaborating to the success of this project.

The Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters (ABRATES) gave us the biggest show of the year with its magnificent conference. Hundreds of interpreters and translators from all over the world gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil to learn and exchange experiences on a wide variety of subjects, from academic content to business practices, to the most recent developments in technology, to networking, this was a very-well organized, unforgettable experience.

There were many conferences in the United States: the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) held an attendance record-breaking conference in Nashville, Tennessee, The American Translators Association (ATA) had its every-year larger, and more expensive conference in Palm Springs, California, but the one to single out because of its content, organization and attendance, was the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) conference in Chicago, Illinois. This was a most-needed conference in the Great Lakes Area where many interpreters and translators live and practice, but few quality events are offered. Those who attended the event will be back in 2020 when the conference will take place in Wisconsin, and no doubt they will invite their friends.

On a year packed with great conferences and workshops, interpreters need to know that the prestigious biannual Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference took place in Sheffield, England, with an all-interpreter dedicated track. Some of the best-known, most capable interpreters from Europe and elsewhere shared their knowledge through very interesting, informative, and provocative presentations in an atmosphere like only interpreters can create. This, added to the well-known, high quality translation program, and a spectacular venue, made the conference a second-to-none event. I enjoyed it very much, and developed (and renewed) wonderful friendships with great colleagues.

In some parts of the United States, this past year saw the beginning of important changes in the way interpreters and translators provide their services, empowering the individual and limiting abusive practices by language service agencies. Unfortunately, big corporations and small entities seeking to keep the one-sided labor market they have enjoyed for too long, sold some interpreters the idea these changes hurt them, when in reality they only hurt agencies and leave interpreters and translators free and empowered to provide their services without expendable intermediaries. Sadly, instead of using their time and energy to educate direct clients and explain that services would now be provided without the middle guy, these agencies talked some colleagues into defending the interests of the agencies under the misconception they were defending themselves. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a few years of problematic ineffective leadership, during the second half of 2019, a majority of the NAJIT Board elected a truly capable, respected professional and proven leader to be its Chair. Now the association faces a promising future.

Once again, this year saw the growth of our profession in Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was in home RSI where interpreters, who are not technicians, and cannot control their neighborhood environment, or their country’s infrastructure, are exposed to civil liability while the agencies that hire them remain silent on the subject and professional insurance policies will not cover such events. Combined with the agencies’ growing tendency to hire RSI interpreters in developing countries (where infrastructure is not as reliable as it is in the United States, Japan or Europe) at a fee considerably lower than their counterparts in developed nations, to maximize profits, is the biggest threat our profession will face in 2020.

Unfortunately, 2019 will forever be remembered as the year when the largest association of interpreters and translators in the United States elected as “president-elect” a person who holds no certification as an interpreter or translator despite allegedly working with some of the most common, widely used languages. This creates a serious image problem to the association because there are only two possible explanations when a person is around for many years, claiming as working languages, combinations where certifications are readily available: Either the person has no certification because owners of agencies who do not interpret or translate do not need them, in which case interpreters and translators will have as president-elect an agency owner, not a colleague; or the person translates or interprets without a certification, in which case ATA members will be represented by a person who makes a living by doing exactly what the association fights against: translating or interpreting without being certified. Very sad.

2018 will forever be remembered as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Spanish language federal court interpreter certification exam, until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States. Even though there were two examination rounds in 2019, nobody has been held accountable at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). The year that ended a few days ago corroborated that ineptitude unacceptable in the private sector has no consequences in the federal government.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. Some European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

No year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2019 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

What we learned as interpreters in 2018.

December 27, 2018 § 16 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2018 is ending and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2019, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities. In 2018 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year: The Spanish Division of the American Translators Association held a very successful conference in Miami, Florida, where those of us in attendance could see many friends and colleagues doing great things for our professions. It was an eye-opener to experience first hand how a professional conference organized by one of the divisions of the American Translators Association, working together with the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF) and Florida International University (FIU), put together a conference we can unequivocally call professional, full of content, at an excellent venue, and attended by true professional interpreters and translators who could freely exchange opinions, attend workshops and presentations, and enjoy an environment free of predatory agencies, product pushers, and colleagues chasing after newcomers to convince them to work for insultingly low fees. Unlike the better-known ATA conference, this event truly felt like a professional conference, not a trade show. In fact, I invite all those Spanish language interpreters and translators who are ATA members, and think that the Fall conference is way too expensive, to attend this conference instead. In my opinion, if you have to decide between the ATA conference and the Spanish Division conference, it is a no-brainer: pick the smaller, more professional Spanish Division event.

Once again, the interpreting profession continues to advance in Mexico, as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year bigger and more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) that took place in Mexico City once again. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) took its world congress to Valencia, Spain for its best attended conference in history. Workshops and presentations were first-class, and as it is traditional with IAPTI, colleagues attending the conference had the opportunity to interact with their peers from around the world. The largest U.S. contingent attending a IAPTI conference to date, enjoyed the benefits of interacting with colleagues who literally live all over the world. They noticed the difference between attending a conference in the United States with interpreters and translators from many countries, all of them living in the U.S., and IAPTI where all of them live in their respective countries. The benefit you gain from talking to a Polish interpreter who lives in Poland enriches your personal knowledge of the profession more than speaking with a Polish interpreter who lives in New York City. Besides the characteristic IAPTI’s philosophy and agency-free conference, I was happy to see a well-balanced program full of Interpreting workshops and presentations. Finally, like every five years, the Asociación Española de Traductores, Intérpretes y Correctores (Spanish Association of Translators, Interpreters and Editors, ASETRAD) held its conference in Zaragoza, Spain. This congress was by far the best all-Spanish language conference of the year, and just as I do every five years, I invite all my Spanish speaking colleagues to save the time and money to attend the next gathering five years from now. I was involved in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars. It was a pleasure to spend time with all of you in 2018.

This past year saw big changes in healthcare interpreting in the United States with a major struggle between the two leading certification programs. Fortunately, what looked like the beginning of a big conflict, ultimately subsided, and better-informed interpreters are now deciding what to do with their professional future. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a major set back at the end of 2017 when two pillars of the court interpreting profession resigned from the Board of Directors, NAJIT went back to capable, experienced professionals, electing a new Board that fits tradition and expectations. Unlike 12 months ago, the association goes into 2019 with a group of experienced and respected Board members and a promising future.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the field of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). I had the opportunity to work several assignments remotely, and both, technology and work conditions were as they should be. I also heard from many colleagues who continue to struggle and endure abuse from some agencies who push video remote interpreting (VRI) in less than favorable conditions.

Not everything was good. 2018 took from us some of our dear friends and colleagues. I cannot reflect on the year that ends without remembering three dear and admired colleagues who passed away: Juan José Peña, a pioneer in the American Southwest, mostly in New Mexico. For years, Juan José was a trainer and examiner for the New Mexico State Court Interpreter Certification program; he was the first staff interpreter at the federal court in Albuquerque, and he selflessly helped new interpreters in New Mexico and elsewhere. Carlos Wesley, a powerful and gentle presence in the Washington D.C. metro area for many years, and an examiner for the federal court interpreter certification exam. Esther Navarro-Hall, a kind, selfless, talented colleague who impacted our profession and the lives of many interpreters worldwide as a professor at MIIS, regular trainer all over the globe, habitual presenter at professional conferences, Chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) in the United States, and humanitarian, promoting help and assistance to those impacted by natural disasters everywhere. Our lives and profession are better because of them.

Unfortunately 2018 will forever be remembered as a low point in the history of the profession in the United States. It was its darkest hour. I am referring to the inexcusable fiasco that impacted hundreds of interpreters, and continues to do so, because of the ineptitude of government officials, their selected contractors, and the cover up, misinformation, and lack of response that followed for many months: The 2017 oral federal court interpreter certification examination. We go into the new year with many unanswered questions, with no accountability, and with uncertainty for many who took the test, and patiently await to this day for an examination date more than a year after taking the exam. 2018 will be known as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States.

The biggest shift in American foreign policy in decades and its impact on our profession continued in 2018. Events held in the United States for many straight years left for other countries because of the uncertainty of American immigration and trade policy. It proved very difficult to plan a big conference and invest a lot of money, without the certainty that attendees from certain countries will be admitted to the United States for the event. International government programs that require of interpreting services were at an unprecedented low, and changes of personnel in the administration, at all levels, impacted the work available to interpreters in the diplomatic, international trade and private sectors.

If not for the federal court interpreter certification exam disaster, the biggest stain of 2018 would be the conspiracy by most multinational and domestic interpreting agencies to do whatever necessary to overturn a California Supreme Court decision that protects independent interpreters by giving them certain rights that greedy agencies oppose, as compliance with the court decision would diminish their ever-growing margins. These agencies are actively pursuing the overturn of the decision by lobbying for legislation against interpreters. Apparently these efforts are led by a lobbyist who, ignoring any conflict of interest, and with the blessing of the largest interpreter and translator association in the United States (either by action, omission, or both) is trying to get Congress to exclude interpreters from the groups protected by the California Supreme Court decision.

Said conspiracy took us trough a research path that showed us how some of the Board members of this “translators and interpreters” association actively support agencies’ efforts, including a Board member who stated he would not even excuse himself from a vote in cases of conflict of interest. Statement that we will surely revisit come election time.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. More European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

Of course, no year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2018 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2018.

I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

What we learned as Interpreters in 2017.

January 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2017 is ending and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2018, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2017 was packed with learning opportunities.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year:  The International Federation of Translators (FIT) held a very successful conference in Brisbane, Australia where those of us in attendance could see many friends and colleagues advancing our professions throughout the world. It was personally very instructive, and inspiring, to see how interpreting services in Aboriginal languages and Sign Language interpreting in many languages have grown and developed In many countries. I witnessed how the interpreting profession has moved forward in Mexico, as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-rich conference in Pachuca, and the very inspiring second court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) that took place in Mexico City with the tremendous backing of the Mexican judiciary.  The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters brought its world congress to the Americas for the first time, and the decision could not be better: An unprecedented number of colleagues from North and South America attended the event and benefited from IAPTI’s philosophy and the quality of the presentations in beautiful Buenos Aires. This, and the workshops and talks I gave in Mexico to colleagues and students, including a very special invitation to the Autonomous University of Guadalajara (UAG) have helped me understand why the profession is growing south of the border, successfully taking the challenge by their government’s total revamp of their judicial process.  I also could participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Querétaro, Mexico City, Charlotte, San Antonio, Buenos Aires, Washington, D.C., Brisbane, Pachuca, Montevideo, Guadalajara, Seattle, Chicago, La Paz, and Baltimore. It was a pleasure to spend time with all of you in 2017.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare field.  Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) had a landmark year as it listened to the professional conference interpreters and treated them with respect in both, labor conditions and professional fees. It also defined itself and marked an important distinction between the quality of Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) the “industry’s” option.  Once again, I noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our court and healthcare interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against “peer” mediocrity, government ignorance, and agency greed. 2017 saw the biggest shift in American foreign policy in decades and this affected our profession. Events held in the United States for many straight years left for other countries because of the uncertainty of American immigration policy. It is very difficult to plan a big conference and invest a lot of money, without the certainty that attendees from certain countries will be admitted to the United States for the event.  International government programs that require of interpreting services was at an unprecedented low, and changes of personnel in the administration, at all levels, impacted the work available to interpreters in the diplomatic and international trade arena.

Apparently some bad situations remain alive, like the one suffered by the state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states. These colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, continue to fight low quality translation and interpreting services in the legal arena.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. Some board members in one professional translator and interpreter association maneuvered to oust two of the most valuable and recognized members of our professional community, and this jury (me) is still out on the question of the future of the association.

On a personal positive note, 2017 was the year when a long-time goal was reached: with my distinguished friends and colleagues, María del Carmen Carreón and Daniel Maya, we published the first ever text on court interpreting in Mexico within the new legal system the country recently adopted. The publication: “Manual del Intérprete Judicial en México” has been embraced by interpreters, judges, and attorneys throughout Mexico, and so far, the sales are handsome in many Spanish-speaking countries.

Of course, no year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2017 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2017.

I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

A few days ago the world commemorated, and debated, a most controversial date. Depending on culture and history, it is known as “Columbus Day”, “Native-American Day”, “Hispanic Heritage Day”, “Day of The Race”, “National Day (of Spain)”, “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, and maybe other names I do not know. Because it is a widely observed date, and not getting into the political, cultural, and historical debates, I thought it was an appropriate occasion to talk about the first encounters between the European and American civilizations from the perspective of the interpreters’ work.

There were many contacts between explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries from Europe and rulers, warriors, ad common people from the Americas; this meant there were many interpreters struggling to facilitate the communication between peoples who did not know their counterparts’ language. The interpreters often spoke one language and learned the other “on the job”.

There are not enough accounts of what many of these interpreters went through to facilitate communication, but there is enough information about some for us to get an idea of what happened during the first half of the Sixteenth Century in what is now Mexico.  This post deals with two individuals who played a vital role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish Crown, and it includes historical facts, my interpretation of what happened from the interpreter’s viewpoint, and my conclusions on the services provided.

Their backgrounds could not be more different, but these two humans would meet and collaborate in an awesome task that would forever change the world as it was known. I am referring to Jerónimo de Aguilar and Malinalli, also known as Malintzin or “La Malinche”.

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Jerónimo de Aguilar was a Franciscan friar from Écija, Spain who most likely traveled to The Americas to convert the native population to Catholicism. As all Spaniards, he first arrived in Cuba where he was assigned to a mission in the colony of Santa María La Antigua del Darién (now Panama) where he served for a few years, until some internal strife among the Spaniards forced him to sail to Santo Domingo (now Dominican Republic). His expedition shipwrecked near the Yucatán Peninsula where apparently they hit a sand bar. He survived, but the strong currents took him and the rest of his crew to the beaches of what is today the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. The Spaniards were captured by the locals who sacrificed them to the Maya gods, but Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish conquistador, escaped alive just to be taken prisoners and enslaved by the Mayan chief Xamanzana (his name according to Spanish records).

Aguilar and Guerrero learned Chontal, the language of their Mayan captors. Because of their loyalty, the Mayan ruler offered them freedom if they married a Mayan bride. Jerónimo de Aguilar, a friar, refused to break his vows and lived as a slave for eight years. Gonzalo Guerrero married Zazil Há, daughter of Nachan Can, Lord of Chactemal, fathered three children, and became a general in Nachan Can’s army. By applying his military experience, and his knowledge of the Spanish culture and language, he was instrumental on the defeat of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in Champotón in 1517. Although Hernández de Córdoba died from his wounds shortly after his return to his military base in Cuba, this expedition is well documented because among its surviving crewmembers were Christopher Columbus’ pilot: Antón de Alaminos, and famed historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

When Hernán Cortés invaded México in 1519 he heard of some Chontal-speaking white bearded men living among the Maya in the Yucatán region. Thinking they might be Spaniards, and envisioning their help as interpreters and translators, Cortés dispatched letters to both, Aguilar and Guerrero, inviting them to join him in his quest. Aguilar accepted the offer and join the expedition. He visited Guerrero, by now an influential general, to convince him to join Cortés. Gonzalo Guerrero explained to Aguilar he had a happy life with a wife and children. He said that because of his current physical appearance (he had tattooed his body and face, and pierced his ears) he could not face the Spanish army, so he declined, asking Aguilar to reassure Cortés of his Catholic faith and loyalty to the Spanish monarch. Maybe he also feared punishment once Cortés learned of his involvement in the defeat of Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition two years earlier.

Once Jerónimo de Aguilar joined Cortés’ army and the general was convinced of his loyalty to Church and Crown, he became Hernán Cortés’ personal interpreter Chontal<>Spanish. This was very useful during the campaign in Mayan lands.

Malinalli.

Malinalli was probably born around 1500 in Oluta (near present Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico) to a wealthy family. Her father was Lord of Copainalá, Oluta and Xaltipa. Some say that he was married to a young and beautiful noble woman named Cimatl. Her place of birth was a border region between the Maya city-states and the Aztec Empire. She got the name Malinalli to honor the Mayan goddess of herbs and vegetation. As she grew up and showed her personality, friends and relatives called her Tenepal (She who speaks lively).

Malinalli’s father died when she was a child, so her mother remarried and had a baby boy. This relegated Malinalli to the role of stepdaughter and put her under the care of her grandmother. During this time her mind is stimulated and motivated to learn. Her grandmother taught her the oral history and traditions of their people and forced her to develop her memory by playing a game every night: Before bedtime, her grandmother would tell her a story that young Malinalli had to visualize and memorize, because the next evening she had to tell the story back to her grandmother before she shared a new story with her. Soon Malinalli’s excellent memory became famous among her peers in the village.

As Malinalli entered her teens, her stepfather sold her as a slave to some Aztec slave traffickers from Xicalango in the Yucatán Peninsula. After hew masters lost a war against the Maya, she was claimed as a slave by the Mayan Lord of Tabasco: Tabscoob. To this point in her life, young Malinalli spoke only her native Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire. Now she quickly learned Chontal, the Mayan language of her masters and became fluent.

When Cortés arrived in Tabasco, already accompanied by Jerónimo de Aguilar as his personal interpreter, he defeated Tabscoob in the Centla battle. Among the spoils of war, he received gold, blankets, and 20 slave women as a present. Among them Malinalli.

Cortés baptized the women so they could be given to his soldiers. Legally, for a good Catholic to be allowed to have concubines, the women had to be baptized and single.  He baptized Malinalli as Marina, and gifted her to his loyal captain Alonso Hernández Portocarrero.

By now, Cortés is advancing towards the Great Tenochtitlan (present Mexico City), site of the Aztec Empire, and he realizes that Jerónimo de Aguilar’s knowledge of Chontal is useless among peoples who speak Náhuatl. It is now that he discovers that Marina speaks both: Náhuatl and Chontal, so he uses her interpreting services combined with those of Aguilar, because Marina did not speak Spanish.

Soon after, Cortés sends Portocarrero back to Spain as an emissary to King Charles V, but he keeps Marina, or “Malinche” as many call her by then, as his Náhuatl interpreter.

Marina and Jerónimo.

It is clear from all accounts that Marina and Aguilar turned into an indispensable asset to Cortés. At the beginning, they practiced relay interpreting on the consecutive mode with Cortés addressing Náhuatl-speaking lords and commoners in Spanish, the source language, Jerónimo de Aguilar consecutively interpreting from Spanish into Chontal, the relay language, followed by Marina’s consecutive rendition from Chontal into Náhuatl, the target language. The answers would have been interpreted back to Cortés through the same process.

There are records showing the use of relay interpreting as described above. I chose consecutive interpreting as their mode of choice for several reasons: It was the customary mode of interpretation in Europe, and explorers and conquerors had been using consecutive interpreters during their campaigns throughout history. Neither Marina nor Aguilar were trained interpreters, they were empiric interpreters, and it is doubtful that they even considered a simultaneous rendition; there is no evidence as to the level of fluency that Aguilar had in Chontal, and they both had to explain concepts and develop vocabulary for things and ideas that were unknown to the counterpart. We must remember that European concepts such as Christianity, and things like horses, harquebuses, and body armors were new to the Native-American population; and the Spaniards had never seen tomatoes, turkeys, tobacco, or chocolate.  These linguistic and cultural difficulties are usually resolved with consecutive interpreting.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that, even today, interrogations, or question and answer sessions are rendered in consecutive mode. Finally, we have information about Marina’s excellent memory, a skill she had developed in childhood because of her grandmother. In her case, consecutive interpreting would have seemed the natural thing to do.

Marina and Aguilar were able to learn foreign languages. Aguilar had learned Chontal, in an environment where nobody else spoke Spanish, by observing his Mayan masters in the Yucatan Peninsula. Young Malinalli mastered the Chontal language while held as a slave. By the time they were part of Cortes’ expedition they had both discovered their interest in foreign languages, and they had realized that interpreting was their ticket to working with the top ranking Spanish officers, including Cortés himself.  As they got deeper into Aztec territory, and Chontal speaking became less of a necessity, Aguilar must have learned Náhuatl, and as historical records show, Marina became fluent in Spanish. I believe that at some point relay interpreting was unnecessary anymore. From that moment on Aguilar and Marina must have rendered interpreting services separately.

Besides language interpreting, these two individuals acted as cultural brokers and advisors to the Spaniards. Because of their lack of knowledge, Cortés and his troops needed plenty of explanations about the natives’ culture, social structure, government, and religion. This was an essential part of their plan. Cortés had only some four hundred Spanish soldiers, fifteen horses and seven cannons; for the campaign to succeed, he needed the military support of some of the native nations enslaved by the Aztecs. This meant plenty of convincing first, and learning how to live side-by-side during the war against the Aztec Empire.   This is how Cortés was joined by the Totonac nation in Cempoala, after he convinced them to turn against their Aztec oppressors, and how he negotiated a peace agreement with the Tlaxcalans after he defeated their leader Xicoténcatl. Both negotiations showed a great deal of diplomacy and awareness of the political situation and tribal hatred these state-nations had for the Aztecs. The role of Marina and Aguilar as interpreters and cultural advisors was the key to success. At this point we see how they were working as diplomatic interpreters, dealing with very sensitive matters at the highest level, and most likely under extreme pressure and total secrecy. These interpreting skills had to be developed by practicing their craft. In Aguilar’s case by putting into practice his knowledge of history acquired through formal education as a friar, and in Marina’s case, by mere intelligence, social skills, and perhaps some memories of her early childhood as the daughter of a nobleman. They also took advantage of what they learned by observing their masters during their years of slavery.

These interpreters’ versatility was crucial for Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs. Aguilar and Marina were interpreters in conflict zones working under unique conditions: Aguilar raised suspicion among the native troops and lords who joined Cortés in his war against the Aztecs, and Marina was perceived as a foreigner by the Spanish soldiers. There is evidence that at least Marina acted as a military interpreter once. While the Spaniards were in the city of Cholula, Marina learned from a local woman that the locals, who outnumbered the Spaniards, were planning a surprise attack against the Spanish troops. Marina took this intelligence straight to Cortés who confronted the Choluteca lords and priests, arrested them, and helped by three thousand Tlaxcalans, killed about six thousand Cholultecas as a warning to all natives who may consider betraying the Spanish forces. Thanks to Marina’s actions, the surviving Cholultecas joined Cortés’ army, and the Spaniards turned a sure defeat into a decisive moment in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Here Marina’s actions are military interpreting textbook.

The highest point of Marina’s interpreting career (and of Jerónimo de Aguilar’s, even though he is not specifically mentioned or depicted on surviving records) were the encounters between Hernán Cortés and the ninth Aztec Emperor: Montezuma II Xocoyotzin. These face to face meetings involved complex concepts and terms about the fundamentals of Christianity, Emperor Charles V’s divine right to govern all peoples, and questioning about gold and treasures. There were also welcoming speeches of peace by Montezuma, and presentation of gifts, including an Aztec calendar, in the understanding the presents were in exchange for Cortés’ withdrawal from Tenochtitlan. Many written and painted accounts of the event depict Marina beside Cortes and right in front of Montezuma. A common positioning for modern diplomatic interpreters, but something that must have made her very uncomfortable and proud at the same time.

Aztec Emperors were deities. Most Aztecs would live and die without ever seeing their emperor. Marina was the daughter of another Nahua nation that had been vassal to the Aztec Empire. She had been enslaved by the Mayans, and she was now a slave woman acting as the interpreter for the most important encounter in Aztec history. She must have known of this, and must have realized that because of her condition of Native-American, she was despised and hated by all Aztecs. The same circumstances must have made this woman “who speaks lively” very proud. I could not imagine these meetings between Cortés and Montezuma without Cortés demanding that Jerónimo de Aguilar be present nearby if Marina needed his assistance, or if the Aztec Emperor refused to speak through a slave of Cortés. It is also possible that despite the loyalty Marina had exhibited since day one, Cortés feared a double-crossing once she was in the presence of such intimidating figure as Montezuma. He needed Aguilar nearby just in case.

Although not documented, it is possible that, after Cortés’ return from defeating Cuba’s envoy Pánfilo de Narváez, either Marina or Aguilar were present during the last exchanges between Cortés and Montezuma once the latter had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was asked (or ordered) to speak to his people from the balcony of his palace. The Aztecs revolted against the Spaniards, when absent Cortés, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado had ordered what is now known as the “Great Temple Massacre”.  Forty-year old Montezuma was killed that evening.

Following the death of the Aztec Emperor, Cortés and his army were driven out of Tenochtitlan by the Aztecs in the biggest defeat of the Spanish army during “La Noche Triste” (The Night of Sorrows). During their retreat to Popotla, Marina and Aguilar were to the back of the column. Almost immediately, Cortés inquired about the whereabouts of his interpreters, and gave orders to make sure that neither Aguilar nor Marina were lost during the escape.

Cortés eventually regrouped in Tlaxcala and launched the decisive campaign that would put an end to the Aztec Empire. During this period, his interpreters were crucial in developing battle plans and recruitment of more allies. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the role of Marina and Aguilar changes as they become the main interpreters in the collection of tribute and taxes. Cortés built a palace in Coyoacán, near Tenochtitlan, where he lived with Marina for about a year and fathered a son: Martín Cortés.

Because of her service during the conquest of Mexico, and perhaps because of his legitimate Spanish wife Catalina Xuárez, Cortés freed Marina from her slavery by marrying her to one of his captains, who eventually became Mayor of Mexico City: Juan Jaramillo. This way, Cortés fulfilled the promise he made to Marina at the beginning of the expedition. Cortés made her a free woman, married to a good family, and he granted her the lands of Huilotlán and Tetiquipac, once property of her noble biological family.

The following year Cortés would require of her services (and perhaps Aguilar’s as well) one more time for a trip to Las Hibueras (present Honduras) to suffocate a revolt organized by his former lieutenant Cristóbal de Olid. Accounts of this trip indicate that on his way to Honduras, Cortés stopped in Coatzacoalcos (presently in the Mexican State of Veracruz) where Cortés called a meeting with all the local Lords to tell them, through Marina, that they had to be loyal to the Spanish Crown. Among those present were Marina’s mother and half-brother, now baptized as Marta and Lázaro. Apparently, they were very afraid of her; after all, her mother had sold her as a slave and Marina was now Cortés’ closest collaborator. Apparently, Marina called them aside, consoled them, forgave them, and gave them plenty of gold and clothing.  Marina was pregnant by her husband Juan Jaramillo. During this trip, Cortés executed Cuauhtémoc in what is now Campeche, Mexico, extinguishing this way the royal hereditary line to the Aztec Empire.

We know little about Jerónimo de Aguilar after the fall of Tenochtitlan. He probably worked as an interpreter in the collection of taxes for some time. He remained in what was now known as Mexico City until his death in 1531. His house later became the home of the first printing press to operate in the Americas. As far as we know, he observed his celibacy until his death.

After the Honduras campaign, Marina and Cortés never saw each other again. Marina and her husband lived in Mexico City where she gave birth to a baby daughter who they named María. Unfortunately, she was denied access to Martín, her son with Cortés, who was raised by Juan Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés’. We have no official records of her death, but we know it was before 1529. It is speculated that she probably died of smallpox, or perhaps from health problems derived from the trip to Honduras.

Both, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina with many other Native and Spanish interpreters that followed, contributed enormously to developing a new Spanish language full of words, concepts and cultural values until then unknown. They played a crucial role in the fusion of these two cultures, races, and (many) languages, and by mere instinct, without knowing it, they were the precursors of consecutive, relay, military, diplomatic, and escort interpreting as well as cultural brokerage.

The fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different without the interpreting services of Aguilar and Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly calls her a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

I invite you to share your thoughts about these historical figures so important to the interpreting world, and relevant during this time of the year. I also ask you to remember that this is a post about interpreting, so please abstain from making any politically charged comments.

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.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2016.

December 29, 2016 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2016 was no exception.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low.  Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.

Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.

Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.

Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services. As you can see, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.

August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico.  With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.

Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters.  What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere.  Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.

Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree.  Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.

The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights.  The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.

The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court.  During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam.  Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court.  Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.

Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.

I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice.  Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages.  The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.

I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.

I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.

Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

June 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

If you know me personally, you know how much I like going to the theater. I enjoy musicals, drama, comedy, classic and contemporary, big and small productions; I watch anything and everything: from the biggest names on stage to community theater.  For professional reasons, I am presently in New York City, and I have taken this opportunity, as I always do, to see as many plays and musicals as allowed by my busy agenda.  This past weekend, I saw “On Your Feet!” the musical that tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the world famous musician/producer and songwriter/musician/performer respectively.

The play is full of beautiful music, with top-notch singers and dancers in a production second to none, but the most relevant aspect of the musical is the story.  The performance takes you by the hand through the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Fajardo, with all of the highs and lows they have experienced in life. From Emilio’s childhood when a little boy had to say goodbye to his family in Cuba in order to escape the atrocities of the Castro regime, to little Gloria’s life in Miami as part of an immigrant family that faced all obstacles encountered by those who move to another country, with a different culture that is expressed in an unknown language, as well as the devastating Multiple Sclerosis that her father suffered during Gloria’s youth.  The play shows us how a strong will, ambition, determination, and hard work (and huge talent), were key to their success.  The musical is in English, but it is culturally and linguistically permeated by a Cuban atmosphere at every step.  It does not hide or minimize the struggle to be accepted when you look, speak, and sound different.

During (in my opinion) the most important scene of the play, already successful Gloria and Emilio meet their record producer to convince him to back an album in English. By then, they were famous and recognized in the Hispanic world and culture everywhere, but they lived in the United States and wanted to reach everybody with their music. The producer tells them that their music is popular with those who share a Hispanic taste, that their style is for latinos, that their work would never make it in the wider English speaking American society. He suggests they stick to their culture and stay Cuban. At this point, a very angry Emilio approaches the producer, and within a paper-thin distance from the producer’s face tells him: “look at my face up close, and take a good look, because this is how Americans look”.

At that point, the audience reacted with a huge applause. It was extremely moving, and very telling. In a few words, Emilio had summarized the reality that we are currently facing in the United States as a nation, and in the rest of the world as the human species.  Emilio’s face is the face of all immigrants, refugees, political and economic, who leave everything, and sometimes everyone, behind to pursue an opportunity to contribute to society at large.  As interpreters we are constantly exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of earth. We interact with them on a daily basis and we see first- hand their flaws and their qualities. This is our reality, but it is not everyone’s; In fact, most people, especially those who do not live in the big urban areas in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, spend a big part of their life around people who look like them, act like them, think like them, and speak a common language with a familiar accent.  This is the rule around the world; we, and some other professionals who work with different cultures, are the exception.

As interpreters, we hear different languages spoken with different accents every day, it is part of our “normal”; but we need plays like “On Your Feet!” for the rest of the people who are too quick to form an opinion and disqualify others a priori, just because they do not share their language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food. This is the true value of the play: one that goes beyond the challenges that the Estefans had to overcome to get to the top and stay there. Given the current environment generated by the U.S. presidential campaign, the brexit vote in the U.K., and people’s attitude towards war refugees, and indigenous immigrants all over the world, artistic manifestations like this one give us an opportunity to reflect and talk to others about what is really important.

I believe that theater and our profession are connected.  In both cases we are only successful when our message is understood by others. Plays and musicals are written in a particular language, and they cannot reach a universal audience unless they are translated. Can you imagine a world where only English speakers knew Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers were the only ones enjoying the works of Lope de Vega? It seems impossible, but it is only possible because of the work of many translators who have taken these and many other works to the masses for centuries.

As a theater lover, I try to see plays and musicals everywhere I go, particularly in those cities famous for their theater.  Every time I am in New York City, London, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, I make a deliberate effort to attend a play. I enjoy musicals and plays in their original language, but as an interpreter, I am always fascinated by a good translation and localization of a play.

Although the success or failure of a foreign play rests on the shoulders of the translator, it is rare to see a program, or a marquee that credits the translator. I have examined many programs to discover at the end of the booklet that the people who provided the lightbulbs for the stage are credited on the program, but the translator is usually missing.

It is for this reason that I was in shock when I saw that a translator was given a very well-deserved credit for a very difficult play.

I was in Madrid about two years ago. It was late in the afternoon after a very exhausting job. I really needed something to lift my spirits and at the same time take my mind away from more work waiting for me the next day. Of course, I immediately thought about going to the theater, and before I knew it, I found myself at the steps of Teatro Lope de Vega on the Gran Vía. I looked up and saw that they were showing “El Rey León”. By then, I had already seen The Lion King many times in New York City, London, and Mexico City, so I hesitated for a minute. Another theater was showing “Chicago” a couple of blocks down the street, but after a quick reflection, I decided to buy a ticket for the Spanish version of The Lion King.

It turns out that I made the right choice, the play was excellent, actors, musicians, costume designers.  Everybody did a first-class job; but the best part in my opinion, was the translation and adaptation of the play. Dialogues, lyrics, and cultural references were all impeccable. I had seen the musical in Spanish before in Mexico City, but humor is very different in Madrid, and the localization was excellent. Moreover, translating a play with some dialogues and lyrics in Swahili, leaving those portions untouched, but making them fit the Spanish version, despite the fact that they had been originally conceived with English in mind, was an enormous task. The translation was very good.

Everything I have shared with you resulted on a memorable experience that I still bring up to my friends and colleagues more than two years after the fact, but the highlight of the evening happened when, as I was reading the program, I found the translator. There he was: Jordi Galceran, from Barcelona, getting a well-deserved credit for his work. I never forgot that moment, and since that night, I continue to look for the translator on every program; unfortunately, for the most part, I cannot find any names. For this reason, I have taken the opportunity that this blog entry, on diversity and tolerance in a Broadway musical gave me, to advocate for the respect and recognition that our translator friends and colleagues deserve. I now invite you to share your stories on diversity and tolerance of foreign groups and cultures, and to write down the names of any translators of plays or musicals that you may want to honor by mentioning them here.

Professional values and interpreter identity affirmed at a dental office.

January 5, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I spend most of the year traveling for work. To me, travel is a priceless tool that lets me peek through a window and see the world as it is, unfiltered and first-hand. It was something that happened during my last trip of 2015 that made me think about who I am as an interpreter, what I need professionally, and in my opinion what the true professional interpreter and translator need so we can be better at what we do for living.

Last week, while in Mexico City, I lost a tooth filling and I had to go to a local dental office to take care of it.  Fortunately there was no pain, but this is one of those things that you have to take care of right away, so I made an appointment the following morning to see a local dentist.  For those of you who have received all of your dental care in the United States this would be a true cultural experience.  The first thing that surprised me was that as soon as I was sitting in the waiting room the dentist who was going to take care of my tooth came out to let me know that it would not be long before they call me to see him.

Even more shockingly, there was absolutely no paperwork to fill out. Being used to answering endless questionnaires and signing tons of forms and releases in the United States before seeing anybody from the medical profession, I have to admit that I was surprised. Then, almost instantly, it sank in: This was a professional dental practice managed by professional dentists who thought and acted like members of the dental profession. They saw me as a person who needed a professional service: I was a patient. It never crossed their minds that I was a customer, they never saw their job as an industry. There was no need for endless paperwork for the assembly line because I was dealing with real professionals in a field where there is no room for commodities. There were no forms, releases, or “cover your butt” documents to read and sign because the dentists were calling the shots, not the insurance companies, not the pharmaceutical conglomerates, not the professional associations that are in bed with all of these other members of the cast who are in the dentists’ environment, but hold different and many times opposing interests and points of view to those of the professional delivering the service that I was there for.  The service was delivered professionally and promptly and I left the dental office happy and satisfied with the way they treated me and the services I received.

Dear friends and colleagues, I saw in action what many of us have tried to do throughout our careers, and at the same time, I saw the ugly face of that “reality”, foreign to our profession, that so many are trying to sell us as the true state of affairs and the future of the “industry”.   Thanks to a dental problem in a foreign country I got to see what our profession really looks when the decisions are made by interpreters and translators instead of multinational agencies, incompetent project managers, and corrupt entities who want us to believe that we belong at the industrial park with the car manufacturer and the sweat shop, when in reality we are part of the professional services provider world with the physician, the lawyer, and the dentist among others who are downtown and very far away from the language maquiladoras where some want us to live.

I was a direct client, in this case a direct patient, who entered a professional services relationship with the professional to deliver the dental care.  I paid a professional fee for the service rendered, and I was treated like a valuable individual. The fact that I met the dentist from the get go, made me feel comfortable and safe, even in a place as scary as a dental office with all of its sounds and smells. I had peace of mind throughout the entire episode because I always felt, and knew, that I was dealing with the person who knew what needed to be done: the professional dentist.

My friends and colleagues, this is exactly what we need to do every day. We have to deal with the client directly, we need to get them to experience the abysmal difference between on one hand dealing with a professional interpreter or translator who knows the field, can solve problems, and can deliver a world-class service at a well-deserved and earned world-class professional fee, and on the other hand having to deal with ignorant front desk individuals, monolingual agency owners, and unscrupulous multinational entities who many times charge as much as a real top-notch professional interpreter or translator and pocket most of it while paying the timid, scared or mediocre individual who translated the documents or interpreted the event a fee that even a beggar would consider an insult; and on top of all that, they see them as customers in a made-up industry, instead of clients getting a professional service.

A visit to a dentist in Mexico City motivated me to reaffirm my commitment to the profession, and inspired me to continue to practice a professional service without falling for those self-serving sophisms spreading the idea that we are not professionals but part of an “industry”.  At this time of the year when most people make New Year’s determinations, I ask you to join me on this commitment to defend the profession and our livelihood from these outside forces who want to vanish the idea that a professional works and acts like that dentist who I met in Mexico City last week.  I now invite you to share your comments on the issue of how you are educating your clients about the big differences and huge risks of hiring a “maquiladora interpreter or translator” from the “industry” instead of a professional.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar.  It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III.  The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.  Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez.  Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France.  The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.  The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday.  On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day.  It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war.  Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire.  This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens.  Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN)  In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.”  (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years.  Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila.  Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration.  I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

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