February 15, 2017 § 2 Comments
As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February. We have had forty five presidents in our country, and people often ask if we honor them all on this day. The answer is no. Let me explain.
The United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process. As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state. The latter ones are referred to as state holidays. By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays. The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them. The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.
The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.” There is only one George Washington. Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States. On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February. As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd. For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”
Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12. It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored. A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents. This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either. The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.” Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and they observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.
By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit. Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.” In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy. In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29. In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.” In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”
Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday”, we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”
Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.” Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.” As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term. Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone. So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique holiday. Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.
February 7, 2017 § 1 Comment
This past weekend the United States held the Super Bowl, an ever-growing part of American culture and lifestyle. It is the most watched TV event in the country, and for all practical purposes, the day when the game is played is an unofficial holiday that happens to be more popular than most holidays on the official calendar. We have previously discussed how this American football game is not the same football game played in the rest of the world. This incredibly popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it very well. Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons: (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that in many ways came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which at the time of the invention of American football was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”: “socc” which mutated into “soccer.” You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Keep in mind that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So you see, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, there are times when a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football. Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters? Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football in general, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.
Ten days ago, most Americans gathered in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion battle the American Football Conference champion for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl. It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition. There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football. College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day. These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.” You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others. When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”
On this occasion, the fifty-first edition of the championship game was played in Houston, Texas, and the outcome of the game will likely be a topic many American speakers will include in their speeches for years to come. For this reason, it is important that we, as interpreters, be aware of the result: The New England Patriots, a team that plays in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts, defeated the Atlanta Falcons by coming from behind, overcoming a huge point difference, to win the Super Bowl in overtime after the was tied at the end of regulation. The leader of this unprecedented come back was the Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. Remember these two circumstances: The Patriots came from behind to win the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady led them to victory. It will surely help you in the booth during several speeches by American speakers in the future.
As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish. “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio doing the simultaneous interpretation of a football game for your own or another foreign market.
The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms that are very common, and in cases where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.
|National Football League||Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano|
|American Football Conference||Conferencia Americana|
|National Football Conference||Conferencia Nacional|
|Regular season||Temporada regular|
|Standings||Tabla de posiciones|
|Field||Terreno de juego|
|End zone||Zona de anotación/ diagonales|
|Super Bowl||Súper Tazón|
|Pro Bowl||Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas|
|Uniform & Equipment||Uniforme y Equipo|
|Special teams||Equipos especiales|
|Fair catch||Recepción libre|
|Possession||Posesión del balón|
|First and ten||Primero y diez|
|First and goal||Primero y gol|
|Line of scrimmage||Línea de golpeo|
|Neutral zone||Zona neutral|
|Long snap||Centro largo/ centro al pateador|
|Turnover||Pérdida de balón|
|Pass rush||Presión al mariscal de campo|
|“I” Formation||Formación “I”|
|Shotgun Formation||Formación escopeta|
|“T” Formation||Formación “T”|
|Wishbone Formation||Formación wishbone|
|Sidelines||Líneas laterales/ banca|
|Out-of-bounds||Fuera del terreno|
|Head Coach||Entrenador en jefe|
|Offensive Tackle||Tacleador ofensivo|
|Offensive line||Línea ofensiva|
|Wide Receiver||Receptor abierto|
|Tight end||Ala cerrada|
|Fullback||Corredor de poder|
|Quarterback||Mariscal de campo|
|Defensive end||Ala defensiva|
|Defensive tackle||Tacleador defensivo|
|Nose guard||Guardia nariz|
|Free safety||Profundo libre|
|Strong safety||Profundo fuerte|
|Punter||Pateador de despeje|
Even if you are not a football fan, I hope you find this glossary useful in the future. Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting in general, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.
January 31, 2017 § 3 Comments
September 11, 2001 changed the lives of everybody in the United States and in many ways it also changed the way so many live around the world. After the despicable attack on the American people, the U.S. embarked on two armed conflicts in a land thousands of miles away from America, and in so many ways different from the west.
Many young Americans were sent to the Middle East to fight these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were brave service men and women unfamiliar with the geography, culture, traditions, and languages spoken over there. It became apparent that communicating in the local languages would be essential to the success of the military operations and to the safety of all Americans, military and civilian, in harm’s way. It was then that the United States armed forces recruited native speakers from the local population who spoke English, and were familiar with the culture and social structure of local tribes and governments, friend or foe.
Soon, these brave volunteers from Afghanistan and Iraq learned basic military skills and protocol, acquired the necessary knowledge to serve as a communication conduit between the Americans and the local dwellers, captured prisoners, and members of the official armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan; they became the conflict zone interpreters of the United States Armed Forces. Many of them were motivated by their resentment towards the local governments and the corruption of their local officials, others did it out of hope for a new regime without religious persecution; some participated because of their sincere admiration for the United States and its values. All made the commitment to serve as interpreters for the Americans despite the fact that they well knew that they were risking their own lives and those of their family members.
In exchange for these invaluable and much needed services, the American government promised these interpreters that at the end of the conflict, those who were alive, and their families, would be taken to the United States to start a new life away from any potential risk they may encounter in their home countries as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. during the war. This was an essential part of the agreement. These conflict zone interpreters knew that their heads would have a price once they started working for the Americans. They understood that they were not just risking their lives during the fire exchanges or door-to-door raids; they knew that if left behind by the United States, they would be subjected to unspeakable harm by those who considered them traitors. These interpreters and their families would be killed without a doubt.
When it was time to honor their end of the bargain, these brave interpreters fulfilled their promise by acting as communication liaisons and cultural advisors, to the Americans they were embedded with. They interpreted under the most extreme conditions: in the middle of a fire exchange, during unpleasant interrogatories, when helicopters were flying over their heads making it next to impossible to hear what a soldier or an enemy were saying, and while they were running for cover.
Once the U.S. decided to withdraw from the region, the surviving conflict zone interpreters expected the United States government to fulfill its end of the bargain and take them and their families to the United States. They had risked it all honoring their commitment to interpret from Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Hazaragi, Uzbek, Balochi, Pashayi, and others languages, into English and vice versa. Now they waited for Washington to live up to its promises and protect them from the animosity and rancor that permeated their towns and villages.
The U.S. government slowly responded and started the immigration process for these born-abroad American heroes. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the conflict zone interpreters, the men and women in the military they had helped and protected during the wars, and the international interpreter community, the process came ever so slowly. The entry visas were granted at a piecemeal pace. In fact, to this day, many of these interpreters and their families remain abroad, waiting for their entry visas, and worrying about the violence that constantly surrounds them back home.
Despite the efforts of many professional interpreter organizations and other non-governmental entities demanding that immigration authorities speed up the process, many of these conflict zone interpreters and their relatives have lost their lives during this wait. It is important to mention that the United States government is not the only one delaying the issuance of these entry visas; regretfully, most western governments are doing exactly the same.
I have been fortunate to meet several conflict zone interpreters, and I am honored that some of them call me their friend. They are regular people. They have interpreting stories they like to share just like you, and they have tales of horror that leave you speechless after you hear them. Tales of fathers killed right before their eyes, older brothers recruited for the army against their will in the middle of the night, mothers and sisters raped in their presence, friends and relatives they never saw again. They went through so much, and yet they are kind, friendly people full of gratitude to the United States for bringing them to a safe place.
It is in the middle of this environment that President Trump’s executive order requiring “extreme vetting” before allowing entry to citizens of several countries becomes enforceable on January 28, 2017. Immigration officers inspecting foreigners arriving at all ports of entry to the United States are ordered to deny entry to all people from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The ban includes those individuals who present a visa to the immigration authority, and even those who have been adjudicated status as lawful permanent residents of the United States. Tragically, the executive order includes all Iraqis without any distinction; among them: all Iraqi conflict zone interpreters who were entering or reentering the country (certain individuals were excluded from this order for national interest reasons, but that is irrelevant to this post). To add insult to injury, the first Iraqi denied entry to the country at JFK International Airport in New York City was a conflict zone interpreter: Hameed Jhalid Darweesh!
What happened to the promised made to our Iraqi colleagues a decade and a half ago? They fulfilled their commitment to the United States, are we not?
Dear friends and colleagues, President Trump’s executive order covers many issues and has many consequences in the real world. As expected, it was challenged in federal court, and like all lawyers knew, the court granted a stay pending a hearing on the merits in February. I understand that many of you oppose the executive order in its entirety; I am also aware that many of you support it. This is not the place to attack or defend these different points of view. As a lawyer, I believe that some of its content will be overturned and some will be upheld by the courts. Those of you in favor or against the order will no doubt pursue different means to make your voice heard. What I ask you on this entry is non-partisan: We must protect our profession, we have to support our conflict zone interpreter colleagues.
Please understand that the stay ordered on Saturday by Judge Ann Donnelly is temporary. Do not believe news reports, like Yahoo News, that immediately informed that the president had lost. That is false. What the judge did this time happens very often in cases when the potential damage caused by a government act could be serious and irreparable. The court has to hear the case on its merits and then decide. This will happen next month, and at that time, she may decide that the government is right, that the government was wrong, or most likely, that part of the executive order is constitutional and part of it is not. Even in the event that the judge rules the order unconstitutional, the Administration will appeal the decision. I have no doubt that this case will end up before the United States Supreme Court.
This is too much of a risk. We have to defend our profession. We have to make sure that the promises to our Iraqi conflict zone interpreter colleagues are kept; that the agreement they entered over ten years ago is honored by our government. We have an opportunity to set precedent in our legal system so that it is clear that in the future, those foreign colleagues who cooperate with the United States in other conflict zones, regardless of geographical location, are protected and treated honorably once it is time to come back home.
Regardless of anything else you may do for or against this executive order, I invite you to contact the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and tell them to support an immediate exception to the executive order excluding from the ban all conflict zone interpreters and their families. Explain to them that they risked their lives for the sake of our country, and that the United States promised to protect them and bring them to America. Ask them to keep our promise the same way they kept theirs. If you live in a State of district where your senators or representatives are Republican, please call both: their local and Washington office to let them know that these colleagues are heroes who fought for the United States and saved the lives of many of their constituents’ sons and daughters by putting their own lives on the line. We have to do this. We cannot wait for the outcome of a court case that could take a long time and could grant admission to some of this interpreters and exclude others, particularly those who have never entered the U.S.
We have to make sure that the exception to the executive order, and any future legislation, will cover three types of conflict zone interpreters and their families, regardless of their country of origin: (1) Those already admitted to the United States who may reenter the country after a visit abroad; (2) Those already granted a visa to come in who have yet to enter the U.S., and (3) Those colleagues whose application for admission is still pending adjudication or pending a final decision after an appeal or reconsideration of an original denial. They all assisted the members of our armed forces. All of them have to be protected.
I know that some professional associations like AIIC, FIT and IAPTI, nonprofit organizations like Red T, which advocates for interpreters in high risk settings, and some interpreter programs like InterpretAmerica will make their voice heard on this issue. That is great; however, nothing gets the attention of a legislator like the voice of their own constituents; this is why you must call, email, or physically go to their local office. Let them know what interpreters do and how crucial is our work. Many of you have spent a lifetime educating attorneys, judges, physicians, nurses, agency managers, event organizers, sound technicians, and many others, so this should come naturally to you.
To conclude, I thank you for supporting our Iraqi colleagues, for defending our profession, and for setting aside your personal political agendas for the cause that we all have in common: The interpreting profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experiences with conflict zone interpreter colleagues, from Iraq or elsewhere, you have met here in the U.S. or abroad if you were serving in the military with any of them. I ask you to please do so without any politically charged arguments for or against the administration, and I ask you to limit your comments to conflict zone interpreters or their family members.
January 27, 2017 § 10 Comments
For several months I have noticed a proliferation of blog posts, language agency advertisements, webinars, and conference presentations where the interpreter’s knowledge of legal terminology is emphasized. Seminars, on-line and in-person, focus on the importance of legal terminology and are usually packed with lists of words and phrases found in statutes and regulations. Bilingual glossaries are given away as perks to those who paid to attend the talk, and power point presentations are full of sections of the law that were literally cut and pasted from the statute.
Attendees to this “terminology workshops” are told to memorize the new words and expressions just because “…that is what the Act says” or “this is the term found in the bilingual legal dictionary”, and their questions are often answered with the reading of more sections of the law, without giving any logical reason or explanation as to the why it has to be the way the instructor said so. There are many blog posts, language agency websites, webinars, and conference presentations where current and accurate terminology is shared, but there is absolutely no context. This is dangerous and it is wrong.
Sometimes we read that a populist government, a well-known linguist, or a prestigious language institution issue statements advocating for legal terminology that is more accessible to the common individual. This is also extremely dangerous, irresponsible, and very wrong.
Legal terminology is what it is for a reason: It deals with social values higher than accessibility; it deals with legal accuracy and legal certainty, two values that are needed in any society to keep individuals safe. Free to pursue their lives as they please by creating legal transactions, forming legal bonds, and asserting their legal rights, which are necessary to reach their goals and be happy. To protect this higher values, a legal system needs to be complex and sophisticated. We need the proper terminology to put these concepts, which we call legal precepts, in writing for all to see and observe. It is a fact that many times they will differ from conventional language, not because legislators, attorneys and judges wanted to, but because they had to. This is why we have lawyers in our society.
Memorizing legal terminology like a parrot is easy, it only requires of memory and patience. Knowing the “why” and “how” of a legal term, and understanding its different meanings and applications according to context is a different story: it requires a deep knowledge of legal philosophy, substantive and adjective law, and the development of an analytical capacity that allows the individual, who has the background mentioned above, to decipher hidden meanings, legislators’ intent, and applicability to the specific set of facts (there is a term in Spanish to describe this essential skill: “criterio jurídico”) It is only then that we are in a position to truly know the meaning of a term that makes it applicable to our particular set of facts. We need to have context to know when and how to use legal terminology. Everything else is confusing, vague, and potentially damaging to the client.
In Mexican legal Spanish, the term for bankruptcy is different depending on the type of proceedings. The legal term “bankruptcy”, used in the American legal system does not give us enough information to decide the appropriate terminology. We would need to have context to determine if we are facing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in which case the correct legal term would be “quiebra”, or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as this would be translated or interpreted as “suspensión de pagos”. Without getting into Bankruptcy Law, I have to tell you that these are two very different legal figures and proceedings with very distinct consequences.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines legal interpretation as: “The art or process of discovering and ascertaining the meaning…” (Black’s Law Dictionary Centennial Edition 6th. Edition p.817)
To be able to properly interpret a hearing or sight translate a legal document, court interpreters must know legal terminology on both languages, but to provide a professional accurate rendition, the interpreter must understand the legal concepts and court proceedings being interpreted, and put everything that is happening at the hearing in context, so the choice of legal terms and concepts in the target language is correct.
It is essential that those teaching legal terminology are skilled in this area so they can answer questions with accuracy, and it is important that they explain the “why” and “how” of the legal terms and concepts that they are teaching. It is also very important that those paying for a webinar, workshop, or glossary, demand this knowledge from their instructors. Everything else is dangerous and unethical. Please do not get me wrong, I am not calling for all court interpreters to have a law degree (although having one is a tremendous advantage). All I am asking is that you stop and think of all the possibilities before you utter a legal term in court, and that when you pay for a continuing education course, workshop, talk, or webinar on legal terminology, you make sure the instructor does have the required legal knowledge and skill to teach the subject correctly.
I hope that the next time you see an agency advertising that their interpreters know the appropriate legal terminology, you go a little deeper to find out if they are offering interpreters who truly know how select the applicable legal term or concept, of they are simply advertising bilingual parrots for hire. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your ideas regarding this crucial aspect of court and legal interpreting.
January 20, 2017 § 12 Comments
“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…” Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).
Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States. Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.
The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.
To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.
This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.
A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely. We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.
Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America. This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.
The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.
I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many of my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries. I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.
You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration. I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.
January 13, 2017 § 15 Comments
The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time. As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.
The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”
These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.
I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.
For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.
There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.
Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups. The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches. The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.
I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control. It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.
The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.
Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites. Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?
Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know. It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.
My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City. I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami. My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place. I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back. To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.
The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career. This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away. As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.
Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.
Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.
One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job. The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.
I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.
January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments
2016 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible price. The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service? The answer is complex and it includes many different issues that have to be addressed. Today, at the dawn of a new year, the time for planning activities, and programming agendas, we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.
It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology. In other words, we need to be better interpreters. We need to study, we have to practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client or grammar) and we need to attend professional conferences.
I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting. Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world. Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries. Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go. I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event even if you wanted to be there. I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.
Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2017 conferences that I am determined to attend:
The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina (April 22-23). I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that I consider priceless. It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you. Some of the results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence. This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments, because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue. You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year. Extra added bonus: Beautiful Buenos Aires! I am personally delighted that IAPTI decided to take its conference to Latin America where so many colleagues need these events.
The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. (May 19-21) I am determined to be in Washington, D.C. in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world. This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States. It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences. Extra added bonus: As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. offers interpreters and translators the opportunity to physically see where it all happens: the government institutions and agencies, monuments, museums, and the federal court system: History and the law!
International Federation of Translators (FIT) XXI World Congress in Brisbane, Australia (August 3-5) This is an excellent event to attend for several reasons: It is an international meeting of professionals who actually live all over the world. There are other big events where interpreters and translators from many countries get together, but most of them live in the United States or the United Kingdom; at the FIT World Congress most of the professionals attending the event will be coming from their respective countries, bringing along different perspectives, points of view, and first-hand information on the status of the profession somewhere different from the country where you live. Extra added bonus: Despite the long trip for most of us, the central theme of the congress is “Disruption and Diversification”. Enough said: This are issues that affect all of us and should be near and dear to the heart of all professional interpreters and translators.
XXI Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 25-26) Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from an unprecedented success during their XX Congress, the 2017 edition will surely have workshops and presentations in varied, useful, and trending topics. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language. Extra added bonus: The Congress is held in the same venue (Expo Guadalajara) and at the same time as the International Book Fair, one of the largest in the Spanish language world. Besides the professional sessions, attendees can also stroll up and down the immense fairgrounds a purchase some books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop in between sessions.
I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above. Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition. That advantage might be what you learned at one of these conferences, or whom you met while at the convention. Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2017.
December 29, 2016 § 9 Comments
Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2016 was no exception. The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.
Our profession had some positive developments this year: In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.
The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.
Unfortunately, not everything was good. Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low. Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.
Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.
Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.
Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services. As you can see, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!
December 22, 2016 § 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 that are 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 start to 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 of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.
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 during this time 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 make it very clear 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 am very aware of the fact 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. Please understand that 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 referred to as the holiday season in an effort 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 very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact 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 the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, 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 at the latest 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 a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a 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 some 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 nothing but a yule log all day.
Adults exchange presents that were 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, a variety of 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 of these days. 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 that you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2017. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!
December 16, 2016 § 1 Comment
It has been a great year full of professional activity. I have been honored with your preference for this interpreting blog where we explore all facets of our craft and other disciplines and events that help us improve our services while advancing the profession. We will continue to tackle these issues in 2017, but for the next two weeks I will try to get into the Christmas/End of the Year spirit with a couple of posts that I hope contribute to the season’s mood while providing some useful information at the same time. Today, I will go back to a theme that seems to be quite popular every year: “Las Posadas”.
Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary. Because this year has not been different, I decided to repost one of my most popular articles where I write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.
Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.
The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.
Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.
Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.
These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany. I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.
|Outside Singers||Inside Response||Outside Singers||Inside Response|
|En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
|Aquí no es mesón,
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
|In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
|This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
|No seas inhumano,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
|Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
|Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
|You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
|No me importa el nombre,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
|We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
|I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
|Posada te pide,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
|Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
|I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
|Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
|Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
|¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
no los conocía.
|My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
|Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
I did not recognize you.
|Dios pague, señores,
y que os colme el cielo
|¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
|May God pay, gentle folks,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
|Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
|Upon opening the doors at the final stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses in unison:|
|Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
|Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
|Oh, peregrina agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada.||Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
|Cantemos con alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
|Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.
I wish you all a happy holiday season, and thank you for reading this blog during 2016. Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.