Military Interpreting: For many interpreters the least known part of the profession.

November 10, 2014 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) recently published an article I wrote on military interpreting in its official publication “Proteus.”

Military interpreting has always inspired me. I have the greatest respect and admiration for all those language professionals who serve their countries in harm’s way. For this reason, and motivated by my desire to share something about this part of our profession with all those who live abroad and maybe did not see the article, I have decided to post a version of this article with the needed changes to fit a blog format and honor my commitment to NAJIT. On this Veteran’s Day, I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts with the rest of us.

The conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58 BC, Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BC, the defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, the Mongol invasion of China in 1279 AD and Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition in 1805 have at least two things in common: They are among the greatest military campaigns in the history of the world, and they all involved two or more nations that spoke different languages. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at a small courthouse to meet with General Robert E. Lee. After four years of war Lee had come to Grant to bring the American Civil War to an end. The two generals had a quick chat about a time they met each other in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, politely negotiated the terms of surrender, signed the agreement, and then waved each other off. The whole thing was over in just a couple of hours. Surrenders can be much easier when both parties speak the same language.

The first interpreter appears in history some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens first met the Neanderthals and realized that they could not communicate. That first interpreter could have been a commercial/trade interpreter (unlikely) or a military interpreter that helped negotiate territorial borders, travel rights, and other related matters; perhaps a surrender, maybe a declaration of war. We all know what is the oldest profession, but unlike translation that appears when humans develop a writing system, I am convinced that interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession in the world. Ever since that time, human groups have made war and they have used the services of soldiers and sailors who spoke the enemy’s language. Military interpreting is as old as humans.

What is military interpreting?

military interpreter is a commissioned officer of an armed force who interprets and/or translates to facilitate military operations. According to the United States Army careers and jobs description, a military interpreter is an individual primarily responsible for interpreting and sight translating between English and a foreign language who will first require nine weeks of basic combat training followed by advanced individual training to learn the skills that are required to perform interpreter support in several areas such as checkpoints, medical support, training host nation armed forces, VIP escort, and cultural awareness.   Interpreter officers are used extensively in multinational operations in which two or more countries do not share the same language, or in expeditionary missions where communication with the local population is crucial. Interpreter officers also work in the intelligence gathering and analysis together with civilian interpreters, translators, and analysts. In other words, military interpreting is an essential activity within a country’s armed forces during war and peace times.

A military organization’s demand for interpreters and translators changes according to the location of the military conflict. During the Cold War years the United States military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on Russian, German, and other languages spokes behind the iron curtain. After September 11, 2001 the demand shifted to Arabic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. In recent years there has been a resurgence of the need for French interpreters and translators because of the developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The armed forces need for interpreters and translators also changes depending on the type of war being fought. During World War II the orders were to shoot all soldiers wearing an enemy uniform and interpreters were needed to interrogate prisoners of war, sight translate intercepted messages, and negotiate with enemy commanders. During the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan things were quite different, U.S. personnel were fighting against guerilla armies with no identifiable uniforms; for this type of military action interpreters are required to develop a close and trusting relationship with the locals; this requires a certain knowledge of the culture and social structure of those whose trust the interpreter needs to gain. In a war zone an interpreter could mean the difference between life and death for soldiers and sailors. The interpreter could overhear, as it has happened, part of a conversation about an ambush or an assassination. Spanish language military interpreters are generally used for natural disaster relief operations and for security checkpoints. Although the United States has no armed conflict with any Spanish speaking country, the fact that there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States who do not speak English, and its geographical location, make of Spanish a very important language for military interpreting and translating.

Behind the lines interpreters play an important role in logistics and diplomacy. When an elected official visits a military base, military interpreters serve as escort interpreters for said dignitaries. They also participate in media relations with local news agencies, and in the acquisition of supplies from local merchants. Interpreters also listen to radio reports, watch local TV stations, and skim newspapers to gather information about local issues.

Who are the military interpreters?

Military interpreters have been essential to most historical events in the world. Besides the examples mentioned above, we can think of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru where interpreters like Malintzin and Felipillo played a prominent role during the conquest. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first met Malintzin after he defeated the Maya-Chontal forces in what is now the western part of the Yucatan peninsula. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation. After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors got to the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires.

Military interpreters come from all walks of life. In the United States they mainly come from three different places: The military officers and regular members of the armed forces; civilians who have some foreign experience and language skills such as former foreign service officers who have spent time abroad working in embassies and consular offices; and local foreigner civilians from the conflict area who speak the required language as their mother tongue and have proficiency in English.

In the United States the 223rd. Military Intelligence Battalion provides interpreting, translating, counter-intelligence, and interrogation services, supporting the Army and the rest of the intelligence community. Many of the civilian and military officers who want to become interpreters attend the Defense Language Institute, a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution which provides linguistic and cultural instruction. The Defense Language Institute’s (DLI) primary foreign language school and training of trainers center are at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and it issues Associate of Arts in Foreign Language degrees to those students who come from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and law enforcement agencies to study one of over 40 languages that are taught at this facility. DLI (through the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State) has a facility in the Washington, D.C. area where it provides training in languages not taught at the Presidio of Monterey, and a location al Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years the United States Department of Defense has held some innovative courses like the Military Translation and Interpretation Training Pilot Program developed by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute. The United States Army currently has 14,000 “soldier-linguists” stationed around the globe. Compare this figure to the mere 1,000 interpreters who are certified to work in the United States Federal Court system in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo. Of late, the U.S. Armed Forces have been relying more on outsourcing these services to private contractors. This is big business if you consider that in 2007 one of the largest language services contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 interpreters and translators. Many of these interpreters are excellent and their language pairs are in high demand, so it is expected that once they leave the Armed Forces they will definitely impact the civilian language services market in the United States and abroad

What do military interpreters do?

Like all interpreters, military interpreters do consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation; however, the way the services are rendered and the environment where they are provided are very different from other types of interpreting. Sight translation is a very important part of their work. There are two kinds of sight translation: The “traditional sight translation” used primarily for strategic and intelligence purposes, and the more widely used summary sight translation. This type of sight translation is used during house searches, enemy searches and searches of local civilian population. The interpreter looks at the document, skins through it, and summarizes its contents for his superior officer. Then the superior officer decides, based on the information provided by the interpreter, if the document merits a more detailed sight translation or even a written translation. Keep in mind that many times during a search soldiers may come across a foreign document written in a language that does not use the Roman alphabet; summary sight translation helps the officer to differentiate a laundry ticket from the directions to build a bomb.

The most commonly used interpretation is a combination of simultaneous and consecutive rendition. When negotiating with the local elders or with enemy forces, interpreters often simultaneously interpret to their superior officer what the counterpart is saying. They do this by whispering into the superior officer’s ear; next, they interpret the superior officer’s words (questions and answers) to the counterpart using a consecutive rendition. Of course, this can vary depending on the number of officers the interpreter is interpreting for; if there are several, then the interpreter will do everything consecutively. The interpreter’s courage and skill are admirable as very often they perform the work under adverse circumstances such as choppers flying over their heads, shots being fired at them, or being surrounded by wounded people crying for help. All of it as they try to interpret and carry a weapon at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the role of the military interpreter throughout the film. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.

Essential principles of military interpretation (Ethical considerations)

Because of their function, military interpreters work under a different code of professional responsibility. Yes, they are ethically bound to do a professional job, to interpret with accuracy, to prepare for the assignment and to interpret to the best of their ability. They are also ruled by a different set of values and constraints: A military interpreter’s top priority and obligation is to his country and to his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. His rendition can and should suffer when he must take care of other priorities such as cover a fellow soldier, take cover himself, assist a wounded soldier, or comply with an order from a superior officer. Their loyalty is to their platoon or battalion. They are not neutral communicators; they are partial and serve one side: their armed forces. Military interpreters are required to interpret everything that the enemy or counterpart says, but they should only interpret back what they are told to interpret. If a superior officer tells them not to interpret to the counterpart either a portion of a speech or a paragraph of a letter, they must remain silent. They are always on duty as they may come across valuable intelligence at any time. It is important to understand that military interpreters are the only interpreters who work in an environment where one of the parties may be the enemy, and may want to kill him. Other interpreters, even court and diplomatic interpreters work in scenarios where there is an adversarial situation, but never with an enemy. Military interpreters are the only ones who hold a weapon while doing their rendition, and the only ones who, if necessary, have to be prepared to shoot one of the persons they are interpreting for. Military interpreters are motivated and moved by the highest principles of love of country and protection of their fellow citizens. This is important because the ethical justification to their job comes from this top values that most societies embrace. Military interpreters go to work every day ready to give their life for their country, and indeed this is common occurrence. Native military interpreters work under tremendous pressure and face incredible danger. They are repudiated by a big chunk of their communities, and are considered traitors by many. American military interpreter officers and enlisted personnel are at constant risk of fire and roadside bombs. Not long ago State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and her escort military interpreter were killed in Afghanistan while participating in a book give-away to local Afghan kids. She was 25.

The future of military interpreting.

A very pressing issue about the future of military interpreting has to do with another ethical and moral question: Should the nations who hire local military interpreters protect them after the conflict is over, and should these governments take the interpreters with them when they leave? This is a question that many military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking and to this day they have not received a clear answer. Countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Australia need to decide how they are going to handle this delicate situation. A negative or an affirmative answer that comes too late could have an impact on the recruitment of local military interpreters in the future.

As already stated, military interpreting has always been around and it is expected to continue to be an essential component of the armed forces. Languages may change and tactics could differ, but the profession as such will remain basically the same. One day military interpreters may not need to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. military already has automated airplanes and it is working on the development of a robot interpreter. In April 2011 the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a robot interpreter that must be able to perform sight translations and interpret local gestures as well. It is unlikely that the armed forces will turn over their military duties to a machine, especially in the near future, but maybe space travel will be a place where robotic military interpreters will star their careers as the new “rookies” in the profession.

Although the Pentagon will not turn over its military interpreting and translation services to a machine or to a computer programmer in the near future, military interpreters will have an unprecedented impact on our profession during peacetime. Every day very capable military interpreters are coming back to civilian life, and they are joining civil society with language pair combinations that not long ago were next to impossible to get. These professional interpreters will flood the market with a new kind of interpreter: one who is used to work under a lot of stress and in very tough conditions, one that will bring to the table language skills and the cultural knowledge of their clients; if the government lives up to its promise and does not abandon those local military interpreters who served during the war, we may be able to choose native speakers for these assignments. That would certainly be a wonderful way to write the final page on the armed conflicts that we have lived now for over a decade, and a way to thank our military servicemen and women who worked as military interpreters, and at the same time render tribute to this little known but vital part of our profession. Now I invite you to share your thoughts on military interpreting with the rest of us.

Is it medical interpreter, or healthcare interpreter?

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have struggled with the issue of how to refer to a growing number of our colleagues whose work mainly takes place in hospitals, clinics, or medical and dental offices. Their primary function is to enable communication between a person who does not speak the language of the land and a healthcare provider: physician, dentist, nurse, psychologist, paramedic, and other support staff. As you all know, this area of interpretation has been around for some time, but it has just become formally regulated in the recent past. Because of globalization and its migration consequences, now many countries experience the need to have somebody to bridge the gap of communication that has developed between native speakers and immigrant communities. These developments have augmented the need for court interpreters, legal translators, school interpreters and many others; the healthcare field has not been an exception; in fact, this is the area where we can appreciate the most dramatic changes to the old “business as usual” format. Unlike other interpreting specialties, like conference, military and court interpreting, which have been around for a long time, these new service providers just organized a few years ago. Great efforts and devotion on the part of some individuals have produced important results like the creation of professional associations, the adoption of ethical and professional responsibility canons, and the development of certification programs and examinations. This is truly admirable.

There are two organizations in the United States that have emerged as standard-bearers of this profession: The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) which endorses the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters exam, and the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Keeping in mind the services provided by these professionals (based on the organizations’ websites, several hospitals’ information, and conversations with many of my esteemed colleagues) I reviewed all information I could find on the two certification exams that test English, professional conduct and ethics. To a lesser degree they test some medical-related vocabulary that a true bilingual individual should know, without any medical or pharmacological terminology studies, and they include very short paragraphs, or vignettes as one of the test refers to them, where patient and healthcare provider communicate regarding the symptoms that the non-native speaker is experiencing. The dialogue is an everyday conversation at a moderate to low register. Finally, I also noticed that the main part of the score overwhelmingly goes to the consecutive interpretation, leaving simultaneous and sight translation at about 10 to 15 percent each.

I am convinced that the work these colleagues do is essential to the healthcare industry and well-being of those individuals who otherwise would see their chances of receiving appropriate services diminished by reason of the language they speak. Nobody is disputing this. I also applaud the conditions under which they constantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities where people perform under great stress. The writing of this post was simply motivated by my need to find a term I can feel comfortable with when referring to my colleagues, but before I am ready to form an opinion I should also consider what the rest of the world is doing and saying on this issue.

In Europe the services performed by our medical interpreters are part of what is known as public service interpreting or community interpreting in some countries. This public service interpreting also covers legal interpreting but not court interpreting as I will explain in a moment.

Public service interpreting refers to those services provided by an interpreter to help two individuals who speak different languages so they can communicate regarding everyday affairs, personal issues, including important topics, in cases when individuals who speak the same language would usually speak for themselves, but in this particular situation, because of the language difference, and cultural considerations, an interpreter is needed.

My dear friends and colleagues, conference interpreters provide their services to make it possible for individuals who do not speak the same language to communicate, by interpreting almost exclusively on the simultaneous mode, complex information at a high register. Their audience is usually formally educated. Court interpreters provide their services in cases when one or more individuals do not speak the language employed in court, to make it possible for officers of the court, litigants, jurors, and others, to communicate on the simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, and sight translation modes, everyday information, complex legal concepts and terminology, and expert witness testimony, at a variety of register levels.

Now I ask you to contrast these job descriptions with the job that public service interpreters such as school interpreters, welfare services interpreters, church interpreters, and community organization interpreters do. These professionals (and sometimes paraprofessionals that may include a family member) provide their services so that individuals who do not share the same language can communicate about important everyday matters such as parent-teacher conferences, services provided by religious organizations, and dealings with government agencies at the customer service window or over the phone. This work is almost exclusively performed on the consecutive mode, unlike court interpreting, and there are no formal rules to keep the interpreter from asking questions and give explanations to facilitate the communication. The main objective is to bridge the language gap without any consideration for rules of evidence or procedure. These interpreters can interrupt the parties and ask them to speak slower or in shorter sentences. While conference and court interpreters work with complicated and sometimes rarely used words as part of their everyday job, public service interpreters work with common vocabulary; not simple words, but words that anyone with a certain level of formal education, regardless of any interpreting training, should know.

This explains why we occasionally see conference interpreters in the courtroom and court interpreters in the booth. It also explains why conference interpreters, and not medical interpreters, interpret medical and pharmaceutical conferences; and why court interpreters, not medical interpreters, interpret the expert testimony of a pathologist or other medical professional during a trial.

I mentioned earlier that there was a difference between court and legal interpreters in many countries, and why the latter are considered public sector interpreters: A court interpreter provides her services in a formal court setting and during out of court events that are related to a current or future court or legal proceeding. A legal interpreter assists an individual who needs help with his dealings with the authority, such as getting a driver’s license, applying for government benefits, or requesting government documents. These interpreters are clearly outside the scope of the very strict canons of ethics and professional responsibility that govern the activity of court interpreters. Just as we may encounter a conference interpreter in court or a court interpreter in the booth, we may find a school interpreter or a medical interpreter in a government agency assisting a foreign language speaker with some excruciating government administrative process. I hope the example clarifies the issue, but I also ask you to look at this very carefully, because there are some who would like to assimilate the services provided by a court interpreter outside a courtroom to those of a public service or community interpreter; they would argue that these services are “legal” and not court services. They are wrong.

They are wrong because the terminology of legal versus court interpreter that was valid in the past does not apply to our globalized world. When most countries had a written legal system there was very little work for a court interpreter. In those days legal translators did most of the court work because everything was done in writing. Legal interpreters were then relegated to in-office interviews and customer service windows. If you consider that migration was less popular than it is now, then you would have a very low demand for court or even legal interpreters. Lack of migration did not impact legal translators who had to translate official documents, contracts, deeds, and many other written statements that originated within the other country. At the time the legal interpreter was really a community or public service interpreter. That reality is so different from ours. Presently, an interpreter who works before an administrative law judge, such as an immigration court, workers’ compensation court, or social security court, is subject to the same ethical and professional rules as the court interpreter who appears before a traditional court. The fact that some jurisdictions allow for non-certified or licensed interpreters to provide their services in administrative law courts does not mean that community interpreters should do the job. These courts still abide by rules of evidence and procedure, the interpreter has to act as if working before the traditional judiciary, the job must be done at a higher register, with specialized complex legal terminology, and on a simultaneous interpreting mode that does not allow to stop the procedure so the interpreter can request the litigants to slow down, or a consecutive rendition where the interpreter cannot ask the parties to speak in shorter sentences. The same can be said for civil depositions, jailhouse visits, and the transcription of wiretaps. On the other hand, those individuals who are appearing before the motor vehicle office are better off employing the services of a community interpreter because this professional knows more about handling situations where the interpreter has the freedom to step outside the box to achieve communication between the parties.

After considering all of these concepts and possible scenarios, and after reviewing the materials I have mentioned before, I understand that there are arguments to be made for the term medical interpreter, but I just do not believe that in my book that would be accurate. I think that the appropriate and accurate way to describe this very important segment of our profession is the one adopted by the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). For this reason, I believe that we should call our colleagues Healthcare Interpreters instead of Medical Interpreters. Please let us all know your comments on this issue that to some may seem irrelevant, but is actually very important.

Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

The First Interpreter in the New World.

August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As interpreters and translators we know that every job we do is very important and some of it will even transcend.  Today I want to focus on the pioneer of our profession in the Americas.  491 years ago, on a day like today: August 13, 1521 the Spaniards finally defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered Tenochtitlan where they founded what we know now as Mexico City.  At first glance, it seems that this incredible feat was accomplished by a handful of conquistadors and a fearful Aztec emperor who considered them gods.

Modern research has discarded that version of history as we now know that it was a more complex succession of events that led to the fall of the most powerful nation west of the Atlantic Ocean.  A big part of the outcome, if not the most important part, was brought about by a native woman of a lower-noble family from the Aztec Empire frontier, now the Mexican State of Veracruz.  Her birth name was Malinalli, the name of one of the 20 days of the Aztec month, but as she grew up, she became known as Malinalli Tenépal. The Náhuatl word Tenépal means “a person who speaks a lot with enthusiasm and fluency.”  Sounds familiar?

When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Tabasco México and defeated the Chontal Mayans, she was among the slave women he received as a present.  The Spaniards noticed right away that Malinalli, or Marina as the conquistadors named her, spoke the local Chontal Maya language and her birth tongue: Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs.  It became very clear that this girl, probably around 19 years of age, was very sharp, very pretty by all accounts, and had a gift for learning foreign languages.  At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting.  It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter.

Malinali and Cortes before Montezuma

Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, or Malintzin, as the natives called her (“Malin” being a Náhuatl mispronunciation of “Marina” and “-tzin” a reverential suffix for “Doña”) interpreted for Cortés in at least three combinations: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya, and there is reason to believe that she also spoke, or later learned other Mayan dialects as she served as interpreter for Cortés in what is now Honduras.  Testimonial and written accounts describe her interpreting consecutively and also doing whisper-interpreting for Cortés during many of the most important meetings with the native lords, including Montezuma, the Aztec emperor.  In fact Malinalli’s role went beyond mere interpreting; she was a cultural broker who helped Cortés to successfully establish alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation.

It is clear that the fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different if there had not been a Doña 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 refers to her as a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

Very few interpreters have had the opportunity to be the “first” to do anything, and despite the fact that many Mexicans consider her a “traitor” for helping the Spaniards, on this anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as interpreters we should remember this pioneer of our profession, salute all the things that she did instinctively right without knowing formal interpretation, and recognize her for her key role in the fusion of two worlds until then apart. She was truly a bridge between two cultures that knew nothing of each other.  I would like to hear your comments about Doña Marina and her role in the history of interpretation.

The Professional Interpreter: One Profession. One Real Profession.

June 9, 2012 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

It seems to me that a week never goes by without a colleague telling me that he or she was misunderstood, humiliated, obstructed, or underpaid while doing his or her job.  Some of them react with anger, others with frustration, a few seem resigned, but a growing number of our fellow interpreters have been reacting to these real-life situations by taking action, doing something about it. Finally, interpreters finding a solution to this “never-ending” comedy of errors where the interpreter is often an unwilling character.

As those of you who know me personally (and many others have figured out by reading this blog) know, I have always considered myself a professional at the same level as all those who we provide our services to:  Scientists, politicians, attorneys, diplomats, physicians, military officers, school principals; and I try to act that way when  I provide my interpretation services.  I feel that we should all consider ourselves a real profession, perhaps even a profession above many others as we are also a little bit of an art. For this reason, when I first heard of InterpretAmerica a couple of years ago, I immediately fell in love with the idea and threw my support (mostly moral I admit) behind the incredibly hard work that Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen are doing.

I attended InterpretAmerica last year. It was like a dream, something you can only find in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  The medical interpreters were there sitting next to the court interpreters, the military interpreters were having a conversation with the agencies; the equipment companies were there having a chat with the educational institutions, and the conference interpreters were sharing experiences, and learning, from the community interpreters.  This was unreal:  I saw everybody I know and work with in my different interpretation fields, all under one roof!  The colleagues from the east coast were there, so were those from the west coast, the European Parliament, the professional organizations, I saw board members and influential colleagues from ATA, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, and many more.

Next week, InterpretAmerica will hold its Third North American Summit on June 15 and 16 in beautiful Monterey, California.  Looking at the schedule and list of speakers, it looks like this will be the best summit so far. The speaker list includes colleagues like Sign Language interpreter Jack Jason (Marlee Matlin’s interpreter) Andrew Clifford from Glendon College, Renee Jourdenais from MIIS, my good friend Jonathan Levy from Cyracom with a military interpreting perspective that will probably be new to may in attendance, Barbara Moser-Mercer from the University of Geneva, and others of the same level.

Unfortunately, this year I will not be able to attend the summit due to professional obligations, but I will be checking in regularly with many of my friends who will be there.  As you know, I have devoted this blog to everything important and useful to our profession. This is one of the most important efforts in the history of interpretation in the United States. I encourage you to attend the summit, to exchange ideas, to take those ideas back home where you should share them with your colleagues.  And to those of you who cannot attend this year’s summit, I invite you to set aside the dates of next year’s gathering and go. In the meantime, stay in touch with those attending, and vote for InterpretAmerica in the Chase Bank campaign to qualify for a $250,000.00 grant.  I invite all my colleagues who are attending the summit, or have attended one in the past, to share their experiences with this movement  started by Katharine and Barry.

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