The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.
November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments
Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.
Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.
Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?
Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.
Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).
How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?
The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.
There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.
The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.
In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.
Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji” and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!
Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!
The original interpreters. First encounters between Europe and The Americas.
October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
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 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.
Indigenous languages: An interpreting need yet to be properly addressed.
October 2, 2014 § 12 Comments
There is no doubt that globalization has brought us together in ways we could have never imagined just a few decades ago. A smaller world means innumerable benefits for earth’s population and interpreters and translators play a key role in this new world order that needs communication and understanding among all cultures and languages.
Although we see progress and modernization on a daily basis, we can also perceive that there are certain groups that are staying behind; not because they decided to do so, not because they are not valuable to the world community, but because of the language they speak. It is a fact that most people on earth speak the same few languages. We all know that Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, and everyone is aware of the fact that, geographically speaking, English and Spanish are by far the most widely spoken languages. The problem is that there are many languages in the world that are spoken by smaller groups of people, even though some of them are very old, and despite the fact that some of them were widely spoken and even lingua franca in the past.
I am referring to the so-called indigenous languages of the world. A reality faced by humankind in every continent: The Americas, Asia, Australia, the Pacific islands, and Africa have a serious problem. Once acknowledged that this is a universal issue, today I will talk about the Americas because that is my field.
It is no mystery that these languages have always existed and even co-existed with the more widely-spoken languages of the Americas. Native American tribes and nations have spoken their language in Canada and the United States while using English and French as a business tool and an academic gate to universal knowledge.
Presently, there are between 900 and 1,500 indigenous languages spoken in the Americas (depending on whose study you believe) and regardless of the real number, and without considering that many of them may be spoken by a handful of people, the reality is that there are many widely spoken Indigenous languages that are in need of interpreters and translators in order to guarantee access to modernity and legal security to many people in all countries in the Americas. There are some efforts that are bringing accessibility to these native populations, and there is legislation in the process of being enacted and implemented in many places. The United States government is making sure that State-level government agencies comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and provide interpreting services to all those who need to use public transportation, or go to court, to a public hospital, or to a public school. There is a federal court interpreter certification in Navajo as well. The Mexican Constitution was amended to guarantee the right of a Native-Mexican to have an interpreter when he is charged with committing a crime; through the protection and promotion of Mexican indigenous languages, the National Indigenous Languages Institute (INALI) empowers these communities in Mexico. INALI was created to make sure that the Mexican native population is able to participate in society like every other member, without any restrictions due to the language they speak. The current project to produce legislation and regulations for court interpreting in the new oral trial process recently adopted by Mexico, includes the Indigenous languages interpreters, who are collaborating with foreign language and Sign Language interpreters to achieve this very important goal.
Let’s be honest, the need is enormous and the resources, human and monetary, are limited. Acknowledging this reality, and agreeing on the importance of this issue, we need to look for a solution; we need many ideas, many proposals, the problem is difficult, but there is no way to avoid it. We must forge ahead towards a solution to this problem. On this post I do my share by presenting you the ideas I propose to get a solution off the ground, and at the minimum, to start a serious dialogue.
Part of the problem is the lack of enough fluent speakers of English or Spanish, and the Indigenous language. In part, this is because the language is not widely spoken, and because there are very few interpreters who speak the Indigenous language due to profitability issues. This is understandable, the interpreter needs to make a living. Another part of the problem is the lack of access for non-native speakers to learn the indigenous language and to have it as one of their language combinations. Unfortunately, from all the obstacles to overcome if we want to have enough Indigenous language interpreters, the stigma of speaking an Indigenous language is probably the biggest. Education is needed in order to bring Indigenous languages into the mainstream of interpreting, and I already addressed this issue on a separate post.
Many interpreters could say that although they would like to learn an Indigenous language, and even work as an interpreter to and from that language, how will they get work as interpreters? How will it be possible for them to make a living? It would be difficult to convince a top conference or diplomatic interpreter to drop his clients and go to work as a healthcare or court interpreter making very little money. That is not what I propose. First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to make them attractive for the new interpreter.
If the new interpreters and translators understand what these languages really are, and they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them in the mainstream business world is because of lack of opportunities for those who speak them, they will understand that these Indigenous language speakers should be at the same level of opportunity as those who speak a widely spoken language.
The idea would be that those who study languages to become interpreters or translators, be required to learn, on top of the traditional language combination of their choice, an Indigenous language that they would select from a variety of options. This way, they would enter the professional world with the same skills and language combinations they had always envisioned, and an additional language that no doubt will widen their professional horizon and fatten their wallet a bit more. My idea would be to pair them with a native speaker of the Indigenous language to work together in the booth, or as a team in court, and elsewhere. This way the empiric interpreter will benefit from the academic skills and knowledge of the formally educated interpreter, and the latter will benefit and learn traditions and cultural nuances, that just cannot be learned in the classroom, from the empiric interpreter. Of course, because the market will notice a good thing, many already established interpreters will rush to learn an Indigenous language to stay competitive; Náhuatl, Quechua, K’iché, Mixtec, Otomí, and many other versions of Rosetta Stone will sell like there is no tomorrow.
Dear friends and colleagues, I know that this proposal may seem fantastic and unrealistic to many of you, but I ask you to please, before you rush to sell me a bridge you have in Brooklyn, to kindly consider what I propose, and then perhaps offer other possible ways to address this problem; I only ask you to offer global ideas, that is, possible solutions to this problem that may work not just in the United States but all over the Americas, and maybe all over the world.
Why are the interpreters of Indigenous languages treated differently?
August 5, 2014 § 7 Comments
During my professional career I have noticed how the interpreters of Indigenous Languages are often treated differently and separately from the rest of us. Whether it is their service fees, labor conditions, or even the way they are addressed by the client, I am often left with this aftertaste that I dislike. I am sure many of you have observed and felt the same way at one time or another. Although this is a universal problem that afflicts interpreters all over the world, I will concentrate on the indigenous languages spoken in the Americas: From Alaska to Patagonia.
I believe that the main reason, and often unconsciously motivated, why Indigenous Languages interpreters are perceived as different, perhaps even less professional than the rest of us, or even as belonging to a “not-so-important” language, is pure ignorance; a complete lack of cultural knowledge of the way society functions in many places around the world, not being familiar with world history, and the oversight of how these two elements should be combined in order to acquire the appreciation for these languages that is so much needed. Let me explain:
First the social aspect: For centuries, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans have lived in a world where many speak Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese; many speak a native language with no fluency in the European predominant language, and a minority has been able to reconcile and master the use of both: a European language and one or more Indigenous Languages. It has been part of the Latin American culture to have a household where the family speaks Spanish (it could be Portuguese or some other European language, but to save some time, on this blog I will refer to Spanish and it will mean all European languages spoken in the Americas) and the domestic help speak Náhuatl, or Quiché, or Zapotec, or perhaps Quechua. Nobody living in Latin America would be shocked to hear people within their own household speaking a language they do not understand. That is how it has been for centuries. It is also part of Latin American reality that many of these people stay in the shadows, relegated to a second tier; not because of their intelligence, not due to their work ethic, but because they have been systematically denied access to knowledge and opportunity for the simple fact that they do not speak Spanish fluently. This problem has generated social unrest from the moment the conquistadors landed in the so-called new world, and it has finally caught the attention of government officials, society, and the media, causing changes in the legislation, and in the way society opens its doors to these segment of their citizenry.
Because of modern immigration trends, the problem also exists in the United States where many of these indigenous groups have an important physical presence. Once in the United States, they face some of the same obstacles that their fellow Spanish-speaking citizens must deal with; among them: their lack of English language skills. Fortunately for their Spanish-speaking fellow countrymen, there are many more instances where they will find a Spanish interpreter who will assist them in courts, hospitals, churches, public schools, and even stores and restaurants. Unfortunately for those Latin American citizens who do not speak Spanish, or even if they do, their command of the language is far from being fluent, there are very few linguistic resources to assist them, and in many cases, depending on their geographic location or the language they speak, there are none. As a consequence, service providers are often frustrated before the reality that finding a Spanish interpreter will not solve their problem, because of the (for them) hard-to believe reality that these individuals, despite being citizens from a Spanish-speaking country, have a different native language and do not know Spanish. The result: We have three segments of the population at odds who do not talk to each other, and for that reason they are incapable of understanding the new reality in their hometowns and communities: (1) The Spanish speaker immigrant who is used to Indigenous Languages speakers because he lived with them, side by side, back in their common home country; he knows of their linguistic limitations in Spanish, and he also knows that they are proud hard-working people who speak centuries-old languages, and not ignorant second-class citizens who do not speak Spanish. (2) The American who speaks English and no other language, and sometimes even the bilingual English-Spanish Latino who was born in the U.S. to Latin American parents but ignores this part of his parents’ homeland’s social culture. (3) The Indigenous Language speaker who usually comes from a poor community, and is an honest, hard-working, decent individual who grew up in an Indigenous culture within a Spanish-speaking country, and had very little or no contact with Spanish speakers. If these three segments of the population were to sit down and talk to each other, they would understand their different realities and work out common solutions without putting another group down because of cultural ignorance. Once we have established this common ground, it is important to learn who these Indigenous groups and nations really are. Because language is a very important part of who we are, this will get them to where they should be: An even field of opportunity.
First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to unveil them so that they go from “exotic” and “mysterious” to simply a “foreign language.” The best way to do it is to let history speak. Many people do not know, or forgot, that one of the greatest mythologies about creation is called the Popol Vuh, that it comes from the Mayan Post-classic K’iché kingdom in Guatemala, and that just like the Chilam Balam, it was written in K’iché (Mayan).
But K’iché was not just a language of mythology writers and historians, it was the language of scientists. The Mayan civilization knew and used the zero before many other civilizations. They were great mathematicians and astronomers, and they did it all in K’iché (Mayan). If science is not your cup of tea, we can then talk about the Lord of Texcoco: Nezahualcóyotl, one of the greatest poets in history, whose famous “Flower Songs” were composed in Náhuatl. He turned his Acolhua nation into what historian Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci called “The Athens of the Western World” where the “tlamatini,” poets, musicians, sculptors, philosophers, and others gathered to create and learn. And of course, we have to mention Malintzin or Doña Marina, the first Spanish interpreter in the Americas, who was instrumental in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, and Felipillo, Pizarro’s Quechua interpreter (I have written about both, Malintzin and Felipillo on separate posts that you can access in this blog) We cannot forget that a Native-Mexican, who spoke Zapotec as his first language at home, grew up to lead and defend his country and became universally known as Benito Juárez. Finally, if we want to bring this to a more contemporary setting, we need to remember that a big part of the reason why the United States and its allies won World War II in the Pacific was because of the Navajo code talkers; a group of military interpreters and translators who interpreted and translated military communications from English into Navajo and vice versa in order to avoid Japanese detection. All of these examples show Indigenous people doing extraordinary things using Indigenous Languages. You see, these are not second-class languages, they are first class languages that have been abandoned to a certain degree, and for that reason, they have not received the acknowledgement they deserve in the pantheon of languages.
If interpretation agencies, event-organizers, government officials, and the rest of the interpreter and translator community understand what these languages really are, and if they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them for world trade, advertisement, modern science, or any other mainstream use of language, is because they have been denied access to opportunity by the mere fact of what they speak, then they would value and treat them both: the interpreter and the Indigenous Language as their equal. It will be then that all of our colleagues will be welcomed to the great community of interpreters and translators. From that point on, we will all realize that our job is the same and we will all make sure that these colleagues are treated the same way all other spoken language and sign language interpreters are treated. I invite you to share with us other stories of this linguistic/cultural coexistence back in your home countries, or if you prefer, to tell us about another historic character who emphasizes the importance of Indigenous Languages.
The First Interpreter in the New World.
August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments
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.
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.