August 6, 2019 § 3 Comments
Getting a college degree is no minor accomplishment, but in most countries, you need a certification, license, or patent to practice your profession. Interpreting is no different.
Unfortunately, a degree and a certification do not guarantee you anything. We live in a globalized society where only the best will reach success. Interpreters work with languages and human knowledge, both characterized by their constant, eternal change. Modernity brings changes in science and technology, and globalization makes all interpreters your competitors, regardless of their location. Continuing education is as essential to interpreters as the air they breathe.
Continuing education costs money, and interpreters need to spend time studying instead of earning a living. When faced with the need to continue our professional education to survive in a market economy, we have to be very careful as to how we spend that hard-earned money. At this point in their careers, interpreters have spent large amounts in their education: College and certifications were not cheap, and now it is time to decide how we will invest our financial resources, and our time, to further our professional development.
Continuing education is an interpreter’s need, but it is also a business. We will now look into some options out there, describe what we need, and provide a profile of fraudulent and poor-quality programs that exist.
The first question to ask ourselves is: What do we need when we seek continuing education? We need to keep a certification or license current; we need to pass an exam, we need to get certified, or we just need to learn and improve to succeed.
To achieve these goals, we need to seek education in five fields:
2. Our specialty area
We also need to stay up to date on current events and accumulate general knowledge.
There are several ways to get the education we need on these areas:
By entering a structured education program in a college or other higher learning institution to get a post-graduate degree; by attending summer courses for those who cannot be full-time students. There are also one- and two-week diploma/certificate programs, weekend workshops and presentations by professional associations, universities and colleges, agencies, the government, and well-known professional interpreters who teach.
There are also international, national, regional, and specialized conferences by professional associations.
Webinars by professional associations, universities, and professional interpreters are another source of education (ATA, IAPTI, eCPD, and others) and individual mentorship or internship programs with experienced interpreters as mentors.
Some colleges, professional associations, and experienced interpreters offer a virtual classroom experience, and this is where we see a higher risk to end up with a poor-quality workshop by an unknown interpreter turned instructors. Although some of these programs may offer continuing education credits, they are of little use in a professional life.
Because of the blog, many friends and colleagues contact me to let me know of workshops, seminars, and courses they regret taking. Most include at least one of these characteristics: The instructor is an unknown interpreter considered a “local hero” where he works and lives. These people have secured a local market as “instructors” because they have been around for a long time, or due to their impeccable social skills that have positioned them within a sphere of influence of judges, court administrators, school principals, and others. The classes are held at a person’s home or office, without a proper learning environment and with very few resources. Sometimes the instructor has her children at the venue, and occasionally, the workshop takes place at the same location where other activities are happening, such as a community theater, religious activities, or sporting events. At these courses enrollment is way less expensive than at legitimate programs.
Often a workshop could cost as little as an admission to the movies. Maybe these so-called “continuing education” programs are offered overseas in a resort, and they are handled as destination events or a family vacation instead of a professional event. I suggest you think long and hard before enrolling on a professional program run by a travel agency, or a workshop advertised in a brochure that describes tours, beach activities, and similar options side by side to a professional schedule. Finally, these workshops are often advertised in tacky signs, unprofessional poster boards, and online adds that are misspelled or improperly written.
Because we are in a very competitive market in a globalized economy that pushes us towards continuing education to survive and then excel, you must take care of your time and finances. Do your homework when going for a Master’s Degree or to attend a workshop to pass a certification test. Always select a program that covers the subjects you want to study, and use common sense when selecting a service provider. Trusted colleges, recognized professional associations, well-known experienced interpreters will offer programs that make sense, are useful, and unfortunately, are expensive. When a class it taught by an unknown, the instructor credentials are questionable, the course takes place in a factory cafeteria or the basement of a church, and the course is cheaper than others, look the other way and avoid the workshop, even if it offers continuing education credits.
Study every day on your own, and try to attend workshops, courses and seminars that will cover the five fields above: interpreting, your specialty area, ethics, technology, and business. Attending reputable professional conferences at least once a year may let you cross off your list two or more of them. Remember, look at the program and mistrust conferences that publish the program at the last minute.
Often a local conference may offer what you need. Sometimes you need not travel long distances to get your continuing education. I now ask you for your comments and experiences with good and not-so-good continuing education programs.
July 11, 2019 § 13 Comments
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know my position regarding California’s AB5 bill that will benefit independent contractor interpreters who are currently prey to abusive practices by many agencies that treat them like employees but provide no labor benefits in that state. If enacted into law, this legislation will protect those who cannot move or seek other sources of work due to personal circumstances such as a sick child, and elderly parent, or unaffordable individual health insurance coverage. (For more information, please see my post of June 12).
I have no problem with those colleagues who, acting as small business owners, not professional interpreters, seek to influence the legislature and kill the bill. They have a legitimate right to do so, just like I exercise my right to support the bill and advocate for its passing.
The situation turns problematic when an association the size of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) apparently injects itself into a controversy that affects many of its members on both sides of the bill, and throws its support behind one sector of its membership: the agency owners.
It concerns me that a national association decided to participate on a state-level issue in a way that goes beyond its mission to advance the quality of the services provided by its membership, and the professionalization of interpreting, and decides to adopt a position fueled by the commercial interests of some of its small agency members, and those who have listened to the one-sided arguments by these businesspeople, and erroneously think the legislation would harm them. A professional association should concern itself with continuing education, position papers, and support of its membership’s efforts to become a recognized profession, not a commercial entity or a merchant guild. It should not support the other side either.
Independent contractor interpreters have the support of the California Labor Unions and Guild; Agency owners are represented by the Association of Language Companies (ALC), an entity conceived to advance their business interests, not the professional status of individual interpreters or translators. On this issue, agency owners who are NAJIT members should turn to those who share their interests in ALC.
Professional associations should refrain from taking positions and acting on behalf of a membership segment at the expense of another. From the beginning of this controversy, at the time of the Dynamex decision, the American Translators Association (ATA) took itself out of this issue by announcing they would not take sides. That was the right decision, they did not put some members over the rest.
The second thing that troubles me is the way NAJIT got involved in this issue. The membership was not informed of any discussion about this support; as far as I know there was never a Board meeting to deal with this issue. No decision was ever made, and the Board was not consulted. For all these reasons, it is very disconcerting, and extremely troublesome to see NAJIT’s Chair actively participating on these actions through social media, by letting others use the name of NAJIT in a way the public could think the association and its Board were behind these efforts, and (according to social media) by actively attending the legislature’s session, not as a private member, but representing NAJIT (there are social media posts showing her approval of these actions). In fact, to foster trust on the leadership, I believe Board members should remain neutral even as individual members of the association for as long as they are part of the Board. I have no way to know if any other members of the Board participated in such an unfortunate incident, because there is no evidence they did, but if this were the case, they would have acted ultra vires as well, and without discussing these actions as a Board.
Fortunately, the California Senate’s Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee passed the bill on Wednesday, and it now moves to the Appropriations Committee before it can reach the Senate floor. Assemblywoman Lorena González (D-San Diego), author of the bill, added business to business services to the list of exempted occupations. This can be used to escape the law by some of those who claim the legislation will put them out of business.
It is my sincere hope that NAJIT and its Board, thinking of its membership as a whole, publicly take a position of neutrality and clarify they will not support some of its members over others.
June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments
It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.
It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.
It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.
It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.
I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.
I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.
I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.
These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.
This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.
Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.
This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.
Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.
June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments
Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.
Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?
I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.
This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.
For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.
Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.
Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.
They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.
Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.
What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.
Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.
I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.
May 28, 2018 § 4 Comments
On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.
On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.
Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forces of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.
The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.
The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.
The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.
The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.
The United States Space Force is the space warfare service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the sixth and youngest branch, and the first one established since the formation of the independent U.S. Air Force in 1947.
To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense. Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.
I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.
December 24, 2017 § 2 Comments
The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not. Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.
The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions. With globalization many other regions in the world now live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country.
Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year. Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to clarify that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I know that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. This post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries. Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:
In the United States the Christmas season, now called the holiday season to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live far from each other, often in different states; so that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.
Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures. As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business. Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.
The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree. These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve. Unlike many other countries, in particular those where most people are Roman Catholic, Americans hold no big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning. As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.
Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts only a yule log all day.
Adults exchange presents previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year. With the presents exchanged, people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before. Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, many desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake. They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV. Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.
I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one day. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us. I sincerely hope you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2018. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!
November 21, 2017 § 3 Comments
On Thursday the people of the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays. Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.
Distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day. The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. Documented ceremonies were held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.
The first Thanksgiving holiday can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621. During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved insufficient. Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons. The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region. This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed. The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had little in common. The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man. During his years in Europe, this man learned English and could communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures. He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers. There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead. His work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. Ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event. They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, maybe they also had wild turkeys as they existed in the region. Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.
We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays. Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas. We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades. This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American. Happy turkey day!
October 30, 2017 § 2 Comments
This time of the year brings all aspects of our reverence, fear, and fascination for the culture of death to the spotlight. Whether you call it Halloween, Day of the Dead, All Saints Day, Obon, Ghost Festival, Baekjung, Sat Thai, Mataka Danes, or any other name; even if you do not observe or commemorate the day, festival or event during the month of October, and regardless of your religious, spiritual, or commercial motivation to do so, at this time of the year, most people think of their mortality and manifest it. This blog deals with the subject every year.
Because the topic is very appealing for a blog about language and culture, in past years I have written about horror movies, cultural observances and traditions around the world, and even ghostly legends. This time I decided to share with you my all-time top fifteen scariest books or novels. A big fan of macabre literature, it was no easy task to narrow it down to fifteen. I assure you many horror stories stayed out of the list even though they could be part without any argument. Some of the ones that did not make my top fifteen are probably among your preferred scary tales.
These are my top fifteen:
Bram Stoker’s master piece cannot be left out. The grandmother of all horror stories keeps you involved in the lives of Jonathan Harker, and Van Helsing as they fight against the formidable vampire from Transylvania in a magnificent Victorian Britain. The description of Dracula’s lifestyle in his castle never fails to scare me. Crawling up and down the walls, turning into a wolf, and his power over Lucy will give you some sleepless nights.
The 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, that became the movie of a generation, narrates the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil and her exorcism by Father Merrin and Father Karras. Based on a story that Blatty heard about as a student at Georgetown University, the story describes the conduct of the possessed girl and the struggle to save her soul from the demon Pazuzu that culminates with Karras’ surrender of his own life in exchange from Regan’s. A very popular novel with past generations that should be suggested to all new fans of the horror genre.
El Panteón del Gótico Español (Pantheon of Spanish Gothic).
An anthology of gothic stories by famed Spanish authors such as Benito Pérez Galdós with his tale “Una Industria que vive de la muerte” (An industry that makes its living from the death); “Tristán, el sepulturero” (Tristan the gravedigger) by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez; Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s “El Miserere” (Misericord); Emilia Pardo Bazán’s “Eximente” (Exculpatory circumstances); “El Castillo del espectro” (The specter’s castle) by Eugenio de Ochoa; “Los tesoros de la Alhambra” (The treasures of Alhambra) and many more. Fifteen stories that live between the gothic and fantasy worlds, bringing us ghosts and other supernatural beings that accompany us from the moment we begin to read this compilation magnificently written by these 19th and 20th century superstars of the Spanish language.
Stephen King’s second published novel about Ben Mears, a writer who returns to the little town of Jerusalem’s Lot (Salem’s Lot) in the American State of Maine, only to discover that the residents are becoming vampires, and it can all be tracked down to the Marsten House, and old mansion he feared since childhood, now inhabited by the mysterious Kurt Barlow, who is never seen in public. The story begins with the disappearance of a young boy: Ralphie Glick, and the death of his brother Danny, who becomes the first vampire. The novel is full of suspense as everybody in town turns into a vampire. King himself has asserted on different interviews that Salem’s Lot is his favorite novel. In a world swamped with vampire novels, this one is a most read because of its implicit logic as people become vampires after a vampire attacks and kills them. It is uncommon to read a story where all victims end up as offenders.
An interesting dystopian novel by Japanese great Haruki Murakami that takes place in Tokyo during a fictionalized year 1984. After Aomame, posing as a hotel maid, kills one guest, she has bizarre experiences that lead her to believe that she has entered an alternative reality inhabited by characters like the dyslexic writer Fuka-Eri and school teacher Tengo. Eventually Aomame’s and Tengo’s alternative worlds intersect as they are both investigated for the murder. Murakami keeps you involved with the fantastic characters throughout the story from its unique beginning until the reader understands the reason for this strange world to exist. Great reading for both, horror and science-fiction lovers.
The Silence of the Lambs.
This 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, a sequel to his 1981 novel “Red Dragon”, feature scary cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his interaction with FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling ordered to present a questionnaire to Lecter, a brilliant forensic Psychiatrist, and is serving nine consecutive life sentences in a Maryland mental institution for serial killers. The novel is full of suspense and intellectual content as Starling and Lecter get into a macabre intellectual dance of questions, requests, and answers, while the young FBI agent is trying to solve the murders of serial killer “Buffalo Bill”. Full of interesting characters, and surprises, this novel is guaranteed to keep you reading until the end.
The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.
A delightful collection of the works of one greatest and earliest pioneer of the short story. Poe was the poet who perfected the tale of psychological horror, and we as his admirers, can savor his main works of satires, fables, fantasies, drama, and poetry in this anthology, including: “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “Annabel Lee’, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”, and his masterpiece: “The Raven”, where he tells us of a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught lover, showing us how the man slowly falls into madness because of losing his love: Leonore, as he listens to the raven who constantly repeats, to the lover’s distress, the word: “nevermore”. All those who call themselves literature lovers must read the works of Poe.
Interview with the Vampire.
This gothic vampire horror story by Anne Rice cannot be left out of this list. The reader “listens” to Louis as he conveys his 200-year-long life story to a reporter, starting with his days as a plantation owner near New Orleans, in the American State of Louisiana, and his search for death motivated death of his dear brother, that takes him to a vampire named Lestat de Lioncourt who turns him into a vampire and gives him immortality. Even though Louis comes to terms with he killing to survive, he becomes increasingly repulsed by Lestat’s lack of compassion for the humans he preys upon. The interview covers the fantastic adventures of Louis in Europe, including his romances, and moves on to one last encounter he had with Lestat I n New Orleans in the 1920s. At the end of the story, the listener begs Louis to turn him into a vampire so he can also live forever; but Louis, frustrated and disgusted by this young man’s doing not learn anything from his story, attacks him and vanishes without a trace, and the interviewer decides to track down Lestat hoping to get immortality. This is a perfect story for a city like New Orleans, and it shows the values and “humanity” of a vampire in a way that neither Bram Stoker nor Stephen King ever do.
This tale is apparently the deleted first chapter from the original “Dracula” manuscript, which the publisher eliminated from the final work as he considered it superfluous. After Bram Stoker’s death, his widow Florence published the chapter as a short story in the book: “Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories” by Bram Stoker. The story, as published, can stand alone. It follows a nameless Englishman (because we read Dracula we know it is Jonathan Harker) on a visit to Munich before leaving for Transylvania on Walpurgis Night. The Englishman, against all warnings by the hotelier and the carriage driver, makes it to a desolated “unholy” place where he takes shelter from a snowstorm in a cave. He soon realizes that he is in a cemetery and that his shelter is a tomb where he is met by a beautiful vampire woman who attacks him until he realizes that it is a gigantic red-eyed wolf licking at his throat. The English man is later found by the locals who rescue him and take him back to his hotel where he learns that a note had arrived during his absence. It was from his host, Dracula, warning him from the dangers of the snow and wolves at night. This gets your imagination going once you learned that Harker’s first encounter with a vampire was in Germany, not Transylvania.
This short novel by Mexican author Carlos Fuentes deals with dreamlike themes of double identity, as unemployed young historian Felipe Montero reads an add on the paper for a job to perform secretarial duties as a live-in for Consuelo Llorente, to help her organize and finish the memories of her late husband General Llorente. Montero goes for a job interview to Consuelo’s dark old mansion in downtown Mexico City where he finds her lying in bed with all lights off. She addresses him as she was already expecting him and hires him. Montero soon meets Aura, Consuelo’s beautiful young niece who lives in the house, speaks little, and mimics all movements and gestures of Consuelo. As his work progresses, Montero learns of Consuelo’s love story with her late husband, and about her infertility. He becomes more attracted to mysterious Aura until he falls madly in love with her. One day, Montero enters Aura’s room and finds her in bed. He holds her, and suddenly Aura transforms into the old widow, Consuelo, as he himself transforms into the old General Llorente. The story depicts the progression of the transformation of Felipe Montero into the General, and Aura’s transformation into Consuelo. This is a very original plot and it is wonderfully written by Fuentes.
This is a collection of short stories by Japanese writer Koji Suzuki, originally published in Japan as “Honogurai mizu no soko kara” (From the depths of the black water). It includes seven stories: “Floating Water” about a mother and her young daughter who move into a run-down apartment after her messy divorce, and discover that another girl vanished from the building a year earlier, and that the disappearance was surrounded by terrifying events in the building; “Solitary Isle”, about a man who investigates the unusual circumstances of his friend’s death and an artificial island in the middle of Tokyo Bay; “The Hold”, about a fisherman who abuses his wife, and how their son tries to uncover the reason for the woman’s disappearance; “Dream Cruise”, “Adrift”, “Watercolors”, and “Forest Under the Sea”, complete the anthology. As horror and science-fiction novel aficionados read these stories, they will find out that some have been made into movies under other names.
This was Stephen King’s first published novel, and it deals with Carrie White, a misfit high school who uses her telekinetic powers to avenge from those who bullied her., causing one worst local disaster in American history, destroying most of the town on prom night. After learning she was conceived because of marital rape, and that she was the subject of a huge prom prank, a mortally wounded, but still alive, Carrie destroys the house where she was conceived, kills her bullies, and after forgiving her innocent girlfriend, she dies crying out for her mother. This is a classic novel taken to the big screen twice, but I believe that even for those who have seen the movies, the novel is a good read because of King’s terrific style, and to see how he was writing at the very beginning.
Peter Straub’s fascinating story of the “Chowder Society” of the fictional town of Milburn, New York. The characters are five lifelong friends who meet periodically to share ghost stories until one of them dies suddenly and the surviving four find themselves haunted by dreams of their own death. The story takes us back to a time when the protagonists were young and they all were involved in the death of a young woman whom they believe has come back to take revenge upon them. This is a novel we must read. Even Stephen King has included it among the finest horror novels of the 20th century.
This novel by English writer Dame Daphne du Maurier tells the story of how a young woman, while working as companion to a rich American woman on vacation in Monte Carlo, meets Maximilian, de Winter, a British middle-aged widower who she marries after a short courtship. She moves into his beautiful estate Manderley where she meets Mrs. Danvers, the enigmatic housekeeper who had been a devote companion to the first Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident about a year before she met her now husband Maximilian. The sinister housekeeper drives the new wife to madness by constantly talking about the first wife’s beauty and intelligence, until the young wife is convinced that her husband regrets his decision to marry her as he must be deeply in love with the deceased Mrs. De Winter. Through Mrs. Danvers’ manipulation, the young wife attends the annual costume ball dressed like a woman in a portrait that hangs from one wall of the estate. This turns out to be the same dress Rebecca was famous for, and when her entrance to the ballroom is announced as “Caroline de Winter”, the name of the woman in the portrait, Maximilian gets very angry and orders her to change. Mrs. Danvers continues her campaign against the young wife and tries to get her to commit suicide, but at the last moment there is a shipwreck and a diver investigating the scene of the accident also discovers the remains of Rebecca’s boat with her body still on board. After some turmoil, Maximilian tells her he loves her; that Rebecca was a mean and selfish human who told him, on the night she died, that she was cheating on him and was pregnant with a child that was not his. In a moment of rage, Maximilian shot her and she died. Later on he learned that Rebecca was told on the same day she would die of an incurable disease and she could have no children. Maximilian assumed that Rebecca, knowing she would die soon, manipulated him into killing her quickly. After coming to terms with these facts, Maximilian drives back to Manderley, but as he gets closer to the mansion, it becomes clear that the house was ablaze. This is truly a suspense novel that will give you many reasons not to go near a boat or a masquerade.
Dear friends and colleagues, this is my list. I am sure that many of you will agree with some of my picks and disagree with others. I could have continued up to 50 or 100 novels, but I had to end the post at some point. For that reason, and hoping that you help me enhance the list, I now ask you to share some of your favorite horror novels, and please make sure that you talk about novels, short stories, or plays; I am not interested in horror movies this time around.
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.