A new Spanish Federal Court Interpreter Certification exam: Getting it right.

July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.

I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:

The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.

This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.

The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.

More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.

There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.

Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.

Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.

Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.

Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.

I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.

Interpreting during the holidays: Santa Claus in other cultures.

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes when interpreting during the holiday season, getting acquainted with the subject and terminology of the assignment is not enough. Speakers often bring up the holiday spirit and mention phrases, tell stories, share anecdotes, and convey best wishes to their audience. Sometimes, these names, stories, or traditions are unknown to the interpreters because they are not part of their culture, and to prevent those situations, we must incorporate them to our study materials. Often when we begin our research, we recognize the story or tradition, it just goes by a different name, or the characters are slightly different because they have been adapted to the foreign country. Speakers include this “holiday talk” in their speech because their goal is to project a sense of caring, to convey their well wishes. We must do the same in the target language.

As I was interpreting one of these holiday stories involving Santa Claus a few days ago, I thought it would help to compile some names and portrayals of the jolly bearded man in different cultures. It is true that, thanks to Hollywood, Disney, and Coca Cola, everybody knows the American version of Santa Claus as the white bearded guy in a red suit who leaves his home in the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and travels the world in a slay pulled by flying reindeer, enters your home through the chimney, leaves presents for nice kids and coal for the naughty ones, eats the cookies, drinks the milk, and off he goes, laughing out loud, and yelling “Merry Christmas.” Most Americans know nothing about Santa in foreign culture. These are some of the better-known traditions involving a gift-giving character, or characters, sometimes very similar to out Santa, sometimes very different.

Argentina and Peru. Like most Latin American countries, Argentina and Peru have adopted the American Santa Claus in image and deed, but they call him Papá Noel. He brings presents to those kids who behave, and co-exists with the Día de Reyes tradition Latin Americans inherited from Spain. To read more about this tradition, please read under Spain in this post.

China. During the “Holy Birth Festival” (Sheng Dan Jieh) children hang their stockings hoping that Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) leaves them a present. In some parts of China, they refer to him as Lan Khoong-Khoong (Nice Old Father).

Chile. Chilean children are visited by el Viejito Pascuero (Old Man Christmas) on Christmas Eve. He leaves presents to those kids well-behaved during the year. The tradition is a mixture of the American Santa Claus, Colonial influence, and Chile’s culture and traditions.

Colombia, Bolivia and Costa Rica. On Christmas Eve, good kids get presents from “El Niño Jesús” (Baby Jesus). The Niño looks like most images of an infant Jesus, but his role is the same as Santa’s: To reward those children who behaved during the year.

Finland. Here, Joulupukki, a nice man, goes door to door delivering presents to all children, but it was not always like that. Before Christianity, there was another character: During the mid-winter festival, Nuuttipukki, a not-so-nice young man, would visit people’s homes demanding food and alcohol, scaring the children when he did not get what he wanted.

France. French children have Père Noël, or Papa Noël (Father Christmas) who wears a long, red cloak, and on Christmas Eve leaves presents in good children’s shoes. Unfortunately, he does not travel alone, he comes with Père Fouettard (the Whipping Father) who spanks those children who misbehaved during the year.

Germany, Austria and Switzerland. On Christmas Eve, Christkind (the Christ Child) visits all homes of Lutheran children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, leaving presents for those who were good during the year. His appearance resembles that of Baby Jesus, with long, blonde, curly hair. Because of the required “angelical look,” this character is often portrayed by females. There is another character in Austria and other Alpine countries: Krampus, a horned, anthropomorphic figure in Alpine traditions who scares bad children during the Christmas season.

Greece. On New Year’s Day, Greek children are visited by Agios Vasilios (Saint Basil) who, in his Greek Orthodox Church tradition of generosity, leaves them presents. Notice how Greek kids know Saint Basil, not Saint Nicholas, as non-Orthodox Christian children do.

Iceland. During the thirteen days before Christmas, Icelandic children are visited by 13 gnomes called Jólasveinar (Yule Lads) who leave candy in good children’s shoes, and rotten potatoes in the shoes of the naughty ones. These gang of 13 trolls do many tricks during those thirteen days, such as stealing food, slamming doors, and peeking through windows.

Italy. Italian kids have to wait until the eve of January 5 when La Befana, a friendly witch comes to their homes on her flying broomstick and leaves toys and candy to the good ones, and coal to those who were naughty. She flies around on January 5 because she is looking for the Three Wise Men to join them to see baby Jesus, as she cannot find Bethlehem on her own.

Japan. On New Year’s Eve, Japanese children good during the year get presents from Hoteiosho, a jolly fat Buddhist Monk who has eyes in the back of his head to see those kids who were naughty. Because of the big American influence over Japanese culture in the last half a century, Japanese added their version of the American Santa Claus to their festivities. His Japanese name is Santa Kurohsu, and he is part of this acquired celebration in a non-Christian country with no turkeys, where the Christmas tradition is to have KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), which Japanese simply call “Kentucky” for Christmas dinner, and they often confuse Santa Claus with the image of Colonel Sanders.

Mexico. Mexican kids are neighbors to the United States and as such, they observe the same traditions as American children. They are visited by Santa Claus who looks exactly as the American version, lives in the North Pole, and has the same reindeer. He even gets inside Mexican homes through the chimney, although most Mexican homes do not have a fireplace. Maybe for this reason, Mexican Santa leaves the presents under the Christmas Tree instead of the stockings hanging from the fireplace. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexican children are also visited by the “Reyes Magos” from the Spanish tradition.

The Netherlands. The Dutch name for the Christmas visitor is Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and if you recognize the name, it is because the American Santa Claus took his name from this Dutch Bishop, the patron saint of children and sailors, who arrives from Spain by boat on December 5 every year, and makes his way to the homes of Dutch children to leave them a present. The Sinterklaas tradition was taken to the United States by Dutch sailors, and in recent times the American Santa Claus has entered Dutch culture as Kerstman (Christmas Man) so well-behaved kids in The Netherlands now get two presents from two different characters who started as one.

Norway. On Christmas (Jul) a mischievous gnome with a long beard and a red hat named Julenissen visits the children and plays pranks and leaves presents. He is said to be the protector of all superstitious farmers. A similar character exists in Sweden and Denmark, where he’s known as Jultomte and Julemand, respectively. In Sweden, an adult man wearing a mask goes to kids’ homes and asks: “are there any good children who live here?” before distributing his sack of presents.

Russia and Ukraine. Children in these countries are visited on New Year’s Day by a tall, slender character dressed in blue who arrives in a wagon pulled by horses and goes by the name of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). He now gives presents to good children, and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snegurochka, but he was not always that nice. A descendant of Morozko, a Pagan Ice Demon, long ago, he used to freeze his enemies and kidnap children, but that is all in the past.

Spain. On the eve of January 6, children in Spain (and most Latin American countries) expect a visit from the Reyes Magos (the Wise Men) Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltasar, who will visit their home on the date when they got to Bethlehem to see baby Jesus, and leave presents by the shoes of those nice kids who wrote them a letter. That night, before they go to sleep, children leave sweets for the Reyes Magos and hay for the camels they ride on.

United Kingdom. British kids’ Father Christmas, and American children’s Santa Claus may be almost the same, but they have a different origin. While Santa Claus comes from a Dutch tradition (see The Netherlands in this post), Father Christmas results from a merger of a Germanic-Saxon character: King Frost, and a Viking tradition: Odin, the Norse father of all gods who had a long white beard and distributed presents and privileges among those who deserved them in his judgement. Father Christmas, born from those two characters, brings presents to nice children all over the United Kingdom on Christmas eve.

I hope this list will help you prepare for your assignments during the holiday season, just in case, somebody brings up one of these characters when you are in the booth, or at this time, working remotely. I also invite you to share with us other countries’ traditions around Santa-like characters, or to give more details about the characters mentioned in this post. I wish you all a restful holiday season, and a healthy, plentiful, and in-person New Year.

The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.

November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.

Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.

Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?

Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.

Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).

How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?

The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.

The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.

In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.

Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji”  and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!

Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!

Halloween’s traditional foods around the world.

October 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Dear friends and colleagues:

Every year, Halloween is celebrated in more countries around the world and the interpreters’ booth is no exception. During the last week of October our conversations between assignments turn to traditions from our different countries, and many include food. I have been fortunate to try many wonderful dishes served during this season in different corners of our planet, and I thank my many friends, colleagues, and even clients who have contributed to my cultural-culinary education. This is a list of some of the most popular, and tastier Halloween foods, that came from other nations and traditions to the United States:

Pan de muerto (Mexico).  Traditionally baked in the days leading to the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), ‘bread of the dead’ is a soft, sweet bread roll. It’s sometimes decorated with bone-shaped dough on top and is eaten in Mexican homes and next to a loved one’s grave to celebrate their memory. Depending on the region, it can also be flavored with orange-flower water, anise seeds or other ingredients.

Pão-por-Deus (Portugal).  Pão-de-Deus (‘bread of God’) or Soul Cake is a small, round treat. People usually eat it on All Saints’ Day (Dia de Todos-os-Santos) on 1 November. The ingredients are: raisins, currants and spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. In Portugal, people give pão-de-Deus to children and the poor, who go from door-to-door singing and saying prayers for the dead. Soul cakes are also shared in other countries. Some say this practice might be the origin of trick-or-treating.

Dolci dei morti (Italy).  Often called fave dei morti (‘beans of the dead’), Italian families eat these little chewy biscuits on All Souls’ Day (Commemorazione dei defunti) on 2 November. The ingredients: Ground almonds, pine nuts, cinnamon and lemon zest.

Huesos de santo (Spain).  Long, white, tube-shaped ‘saint’s bones’ are made from marzipan (an almond paste). Spanish people eat them around All Saints’ Day or Día de Todos los Santos. Expect various fillings and plenty of syrup covering them.

Candy apples (United States) / Toffee apples (United Kingdom).  Although store packaged candy has taken over in America, perhaps the most well-known traditional Halloween snack is the candy apple (in the US) or toffee apple (in the UK). The apples have a sugar syrup coating, sometimes with an extra layer or nuts or other sweet decorations.

Guagua de pan (Ecuador).  These “bread babies” are sweet rolls molded and decorated to look like small children. They are part of the Day of the Dead tradition, often made of wheat and sometimes filled with sweet jelly. They may be exchanged as gifts between families and friends or used ceremonially.

Soul cakes (England).  These sweet, round cakes were traditionally given out in England and Ireland on All Saints Day or All Souls’ Day during the Middle Ages to those who went door-to-door saying prayers for the dead in what may be the forerunner to today’s trick-or-treating. They can be made with raisins and currents and aromatic spices like allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

Barm Brack (Ireland). On All Hallows’ Eve, you might enjoy some freshly baked barm brack. It is also called Bairín Breac, Barmbrack or often shortened to brack, is a yeasted bread with added sultanas and raisins. Usually sold in flattened rounds, it is often served toasted with butter along with a cup of tea in the afternoon. The dough is sweeter than sandwich bread, but not as rich as cake. The sultanas and raisins add flavor and texture to the final product. The Halloween Brack traditionally contained various objects baked into the bread and was a sort of fortune-telling game. In the barmbrack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Each item, when received in the slice, was supposed to carry a meaning to the person concerned: the pea, the person would not marry that year; the stick, would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes; the cloth or rag, would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Other articles added to the brack include a medallion, usually of the Virgin Mary to symbolize going into the priesthood or to the Nuns, although this tradition is not widely continued in the present day. Commercially produced barmbracks for the Halloween market still include a toy ring.

Colcannon (Ireland).  It is traditionally made from mashed potatoes and kale (or cabbage), with milk, butter, salt and pepper. It can contain other ingredients such as scallions, leeks, onions and chives. There are many regional variations of this dish. It is often eaten with boiled ham or bacon. An Irish Halloween tradition is to serve colcannon with a ring and a thimble hidden in the dish. Prizes of small coins such as threepenny or sixpenny bits were also concealed inside the dish.

Fiambre (Guatemala).  It is a Guatemalan dish prepared once a year on November 1st for the Dia de los Santos or All Saints Day, a celebration that takes place one day before the Dia de los Muertos. Each family has their own recipe for fiambre which is usually passed on from generation to generation. There are different kinds: white, red and divoriciado in which all the ingredients are left separated and each person picks what they want. Fiambre must be prepared at least one day before serving and marinated in sauce blend of vinegar and other ingredients called the caldillo. Many people add fish and even shrimp. The day you wish to serve the fiambre, place a lettuce leaf on a plate, arrange a layer of the veggie mixture and then add a layer of the meats and cheeses. Repeat at least once and decorate with pimientos, sliced cheese, asparagus, baby corn, radishes, olives, and boiled eggs. Serve chilled.

Please share your traditional food for Halloween, All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead, and I hope you enjoy your family recipe, celebrate your cultural heritage, and honor those who are no longer with you. Happy Halloween!

We must come together as a profession on this issue.

September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Imagine having to support a family when you are unemployed, poor, desperate, living in a country torn by war, ruled by a despot.  Then one day, somebody tells you that, because you speak a foreign language, you can become an interpreter for a foreign army. You are told that you will be paid for that service, and after the war, this foreign government will take you and your family to their country where you will be safe from retaliation, and will live a better life. Those of us living in a western nation cannot even imagine that situation, much less the ray of hope it means to many humans who live in that reality. This is the story, and the dilemma, of a conflict-zone interpreter.

You just noticed that today’s post is about interpreters in conflict zones. Please do not go away! I know most of you access this blog to read and debate topics related to conference, court, healthcare or community interpreting. Today please read this post from beginning to end, show your determination to defend the profession, and do something that will make you feel good as a human.

Throughout history, explorers, conquerors, traders, religious missionaries, and all others who found themselves in a foreign land where they did not understand the local language have used interpreters to accomplish their mission. Often, these interpreters have been local individuals who spoke both, the foreign and domestic languages, and with no formal training, but armed with their natural skills, and some powerful motivation, provided their able services even when it meant risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From Malintzin to Squanto, Boubou Penda to Luis de Torres, these interpreters, our colleagues, have contributed to the history of civilization providing a bridge that made communication possible when peoples did not speak the same language.

These interpreters have been essential in all armed conflicts: invasions, liberations, occupations, and peace negotiations. Many in recent history, like the Navajo Code-Talkers who serve the United States armed forces during World War II. Others, anonymously participating in conflict zones like Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and the Bosnian War.

Western nations have benefited, and still do, of the services of interpreters in conflict zones who assist military forces and civilian contractors in places like Africa and the Middle East.

From the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, western nations participating in those conflicts scouted those two countries looking for local women and men who spoke the local language and that of the western country. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and others, recruited bilingual individuals, often with a professional education background (doctors, teachers, engineers) who had no employment due to the armed conflict or because of their political opinions, ethnic group, or religious beliefs. Some had openly opposed the local regimes and were personae non gratae in the eyes of the despot in charge of government, others quietly disagreed with the way their countries were governed, afraid to say anything the authorities could perceive as treacherous. Others’ sole motivation was to feed their families.

All these courageous humans knew what they were risking by helping the West. Besides the tremendous danger of being in a theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where they could be killed during a fire exchange, and ambush, or by an improvised explosive device (IED), they knew the consequences if caught. Their execution, and that of their immediate family members was a reality they faced every day the worked with the foreign armed forces and independent defense contractors in their countries.  These were (and are) brave and courageous individuals. They also knew that all armed conflicts have a beginning and an end. They recognized the dangers they would face after the foreign troops left their countries. They knew their families, even if not involved in the armed conflict, would face the same consequences. To stay behind after the Western armed forces left would be a death sentence.

The United States and all of its allies were aware of this reality. They knew the only way to recruit much needed interpreters and translators was promising they would not be left behind. These conflict zone interpreters got assurances from the western governments they served that when the time to withdraw their troops came, they, and their immediate families would be taken to their countries to start a new life free from death threats and other retaliatory actions. In other words: conflict zone interpreters agreed to provide their services and the western nations promised they would take them to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and all other countries to use interpreting services for military and civilian personnel.  As we know, the troops withdrew from these countries, but many interpreters continue to wait for an entry visa to the country that promised to take them. Interpreters have been admitted to these western countries, but it has been a fraction. Many of those who have moved to their new countries endured a lengthy and cumbersome process. During this time, as expected, many conflict zones interpreters, and their family members, have been executed as traitors back home while waiting for a visa.

These interpreters, our colleagues, did their part, they rendered the service facing tremendous risk and unimaginable working conditions. They were essential to accomplish a mission; through their work they saved many western and local lives.  The West has not honored its word.

This is not a political post, and I am not arguing for or against the admission of refugees in any country. I understand there are very solid arguments for and against admitting refugees. I am not endorsing or condemning the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq either. Solely this post invites you all, interpreters and translators worldwide, regardless of your political persuasion, religious beliefs, or immigration stands, to join to protect the profession by supporting our conflict zone colleagues, just like attorneys help each other, as Marines leave no one behind. We need to raise our voice and tell the governments of those western nations who made a promise to these interpreters when they needed them, to walk the walk and deliver. We need them to know that we know, and we need to push for an expedient visa issuance system for these colleagues. Countries who break promises look bad and lose credibility. Interpreters who believed their promise continue to die while government authorities drag their feet motivated by politics instead of integrity.

Through my work as a civilian interpreter with the armed forces and defense contractors, and as an interpreter trainer, I have met several military and conflict zone interpreters who have served in different places. I have heard from them some horror stories of killings, kidnappings, rapes, and beatings. I have gotten to know many as friends and colleagues. I have met their families. I have also heard the tales of those less-fortunate still risking their lives while they wait for an answer from the West.

I also recognize the amazing, tireless, work of Red T, its compassionate and courageous CEO Maya Hess who I have the privilege to know personally, and the professional associations that support its efforts and share its values: The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) The International Federation of Translators (FIT) and many of its member organizations; The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI); Critical Link International, The International Council for the Development of Community Interpreting (CLI); and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). Some time ago during the IAPTI Congress in Bordeaux France, I had the opportunity to hear Maya’s passionate description of their efforts to raise awareness and to get a United Nations declaration of legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. On that occasion, she was joined by another fighter for protecting these colleagues: Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, AIIC. Just this Spring I had the opportunity to hear Maya once again, this time in Zaragoza Spain during ASETRAD Congress where she spoke before a big crowd of interpreters and translators, and was joined by some conflict zone interpreters for a round table discussion. On that occasion, ASETRAD conferred honorary membership to Red T. To learn more about Red T and to support their campaigns, please visit: www.red-t.org

My motivation to write this post at this time has to do with the Congressional elections in the United States this November. On November 6, Americans will vote to elect one third of the members of the U.S. Senate (according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate renews its membership one-third at a time every two years) and for all the members of the House of Representatives. Political campaigns just started last week and all candidates will visit your hometown, attend townhall meetings, debate their opponents, pay attention to your phone calls, and read your mail.

This is the time to tell your senators and representatives running for office that as a professional interpreter or translator, and as an American who values your country’s word and promises, that you want them to pass an increase on Special Immigrant Visa numbers (SIV) for conflict zone interpreters and their families, and to expedite the visa processing times, at least to comply with the nine-month limit in the books which has not been observed. During the last 2 years the number of SIV approvals has declined and the process has seen considerable delays. The official argument is the security background checks. It is understandable and desirable that the government carefully review case by case, but it is also necessary that authorities consider previous background checks and past performance. Remember, these interpreters already worked with members of the U.S. Armed Forces and risked their lives to do their job. Please call the candidates’ campaign headquarters, your Senate and Congressional Offices back home and in Washington, D.C., and support our colleagues. I guarantee you will feel better afterwards.

Regardless of where you live, contact your U.S. Representative. Remember: They are all up for reelection. Please contact your Senate candidates if you live in these States:

Arizona

California

Connecticut

Delaware

Florida

Hawaii

Indiana,

Maine,

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Dakota

Ohio,

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia,

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

To contact the U.S. House of Representatives, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives

To contact the U.S. Senate, visit: https://www.senate.gov/reference/

If you do not leave in the United States, please contact the office of your President, Prime Minister, or Head of Government. You can also visit Red T to sign the petitions.

Remembering that no political debate will be allowed, I now invite you to share with you your experiences as a conflict zone interpreter, or your ideas on how to press Congress and foreign governments to live up to their promise to our colleagues: the conflict zone interpreters.

The “must attend” conferences of 2018.

January 8, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2017 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) will pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best 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 issues that must be addressed.  Like every January, 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.  We need to be better interpreters.  We must study, we must 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 must attend professional conferences.

I find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you discover 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 must choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences 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 2018 conferences I am determined to attend. In other years I have attended more conferences than the ones on my list, last-minute changing circumstances and personal commitments let me go to events I had not planned to attend at the beginning of the year.

As of today, the conferences I plan to attend this year are:

The Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF), ATA Spanish Language Division (SPD) and Florida International University (FIU) “In Miami Spring Into Action” in Miami, Florida, (March 16-18). I will attend this conference because of the program they have put together with top-notched presenters, interesting topics, and the college environment of FIU’s campus.  If you are a Spanish language interpreter, translator, proof-reader, linguist, teacher, or you just love Spanish, this is an event impossible to miss.

Congreso XV Aniversario Asetrad in Zaragoza, Spain, (May 18-20). I always attend Asetrad’s congress because it does not happen every year, which gives me plenty of time to plan ahead since I live in the United States, and because it allows me to listen to some of the best presenters from a country with such rich tradition on interpreting and translating as Spain. Those of us who live in the Americas should take advantage of these events where we get to see and hear presenters who do not travel to the events in the Americas. I also enjoy the invaluable experience of learning about the problems my colleagues are facing across the Atlantic, and hopefully learn from the strategy they resorted to solve a problem that could be similar (sometimes identical) to a situation we may be fighting in the United States at this time. I hope that my Spanish speaking colleagues from the Americas travel to Zaragoza for this exciting event.

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Valencia, Spain (September 29-30).  I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization presents a unique viewpoint of our profession 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 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.  See you all in Valencia!

American Translators Association ATA 59 Conference in New Orleans, LA (October 24-27). Every year, the American Translators Association puts the biggest show on earth.  More presentations to choose from, more attendees, more opportunities to network, and wonderful NOLA! I enjoy attending ATA conferences because of the variety, organization, and the many friends and colleagues I get to see every year. However, to take advantage of the conference without being exposed to the many predators that attend every year in the form of agencies, vendors, and “well-intentioned colleagues”, I pick my activities very carefully and never losing sight of the obvious presence of those who want to destroy our profession and turn it into an industry of commodities. With that warning, go to New Orleans and enjoy the conference, jazz and cuisine.

XXII Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 24-25) Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from a very successful sold-out XXI Congress, the 2018 edition will 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, purchase books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop between sessions.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above.  I also know of other very good conferences all over the world, some of the best are local, regional, and national events; others are specialized conferences tailored to a certain field of our profession. I would love to attend many but I cannot. Some of you will probably read this post in a group or website of an association whose conference I will not attend this year, you will probably see me at other conferences not even mentioned here; that is likely. To those I cannot attend this year: I wish you success and productive conferences.  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 conference, 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 2018.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2017.

January 1, 2018 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 19, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

Jerónimo de Aguilar.

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

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

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

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

Malinalli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marina and Jerónimo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scariest movies in all languages.

October 31, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, we discussed monsters and ghouls, and we told ghost stories from around the world. This time I decided to share with you my fifteen scariest movies of all time.  Contrary to what many think because of the enormous amount of films produced in the United States, my favorite horror movies of all time come from many continents and are in many languages. I think that we as interpreters should look for opportunities to practice our languages and improve our skills, and what a better way to live the Halloween experience than watching some foreign language films. There are plenty more movies, and my list may not include some of your favorites; if that is the case, please contribute to our list by posting a comment at the end, but for now, please let me tell you about the movies, in many languages, that kept me awake at night. I list them in chronological order, but I leave it up to you to decide which one is the scariest. Go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Nosferatu (1922) Director: F.W. Murnau. Cast: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach. A wonderful silent movie about vampire Count Orlok who expresses interest in a new residence and a real estate agent’s wife. A classic based on the story of “Dracula.”

Dracula (1931) Director: Tod Browning. Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye. The legend of vampire Count Dracula begins here with this original 1931 Dracula film from Bela Lugosi. This is the film by Universal Studios that has inspired so many others, even more than Bram Stoker’s own novel. The movie is in English, but Bela Lugosi was Hungarian and had trouble with the English pronunciation, so the director decided that the vampire should speak very slowly and deliberately, giving Dracula, inadvertently, his unmistakable speech style.

Psycho (1960) Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh. When larcenous real estate clerk Marion Crane goes on the lam with a wad of cash and hopes of starting a new life, she ends up at the notorious Bates Motel, where manager Norman Bates cares for his housebound mother. The place seems quirky, but fine… until Marion decides to take a shower in this Hitchcock classic American film in English.

Even the Wind is Afraid (1967) Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada. Cast: Marga López, Maricruz Olivier, Alicia Bonet, Norma Lazareno. The film is about a group of students in an exclusive boarding school, where a student decides to investigate a local tower that has figured prominently in disturbing her recurring dreams of a hanged woman. She learns from the staff that the person in the dream is a student who killed herself years before, and that others have seen her ghost. This is a suspenseful Mexican movie in Spanish. (“Hasta el viento tiene miedo”)

Kuroneko (1968) Director: Kaneto Shindo. Cast: KIchiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, KIwako Taichi. Kuroneko (The Black Cat) is the tale of a band of marauding samurai who rape and kill two women in the countryside. Awoken by the titular feline, the spirit women vow their revenge on the samurai. Things get complicated when one of their intended victims turns out to be the son of one of the women and the husband of the other, long thought lost in battle. This is an engaging black and white movie in Japanese.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Director: Roman Polanski. Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer. The movie tells us the story of a young couple that moves into an infamous New York apartment building to start a family. Things become frightening as Rosemary begins to suspect her unborn baby isn’t safe around their strange neighbors, and the child’s paternity is questioned. One of the greatest American horror films of all time. It is in English.

Hour of the Wolf (1968) Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin. In this, his only horror film, the Swedish master brings us the story of renowned painter Johan Borg who is recuperating on an isolated island with his wife when they are invited to the nearby castle and discover that the lady of the house owns one of Borg’s paintings (which we never see), of Veronika, the woman he loved and lost and whose memory begins to obsess him all over again, despite his wife’s steady, practical devotion. This is a great movie in Swedish, although not an easy one to follow, that is full of surrealism in Bergman’s style. (“Vargtimmen”)

The Exorcist (1973) Director: William Friedkin. Cast: Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller. This is a well-known American blockbuster about 12-year-old Regan MacNeil who begins to adapt an explicit new personality as strange events befall the local area of Georgetown. Her mother becomes torn between science and superstition in a desperate bid to save her daughter, and ultimately turns to her last hope: Father Damien Karras, a troubled priest who is struggling with his own faith. This film, in English, is a must see for all horror film fans.

Suspiria (1977) Director: Dario Argento. Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé. A true nightmare from Italian terror genius Dario Argento, Suspiria brings us a menacing tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry. From the moment she arrives in Germany, to attend a prestigious dace academy, American ballet-dancer Suzy Bannion senses that something horribly evil lurks within the walls of the age-old institution. Besides all of its artistic and clever qualities, this Italian movie has another unique characteristic: Because the cast is multinational, and the actors spoke their lines in their native languages, the movie is dubbed into English, and sometimes the dubbing quality is less than top-notch.

Ring (1998) Director: Hideo Nakata. Cast: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yūko Takeuchi. This original Japanese version of the movie is about a mysterious video that has been linked to a number of deaths, when an inquisitive journalist finds the tape and views it setting in motion a chain of events that puts her own life in danger. Nakata executes the film in an incredibly smart way, and brings the traditional ghost story firmly into the modern day by melding folklore and technology. There have been several imitations in Japan and elsewhere, but the original, in Japanese, is by far the best. (“Ringu”)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) Director: Kim Jee-woon. Cast: Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yeom Jeong-ah. Based on a famous Korean folk story, the film centers on a pair of sisters who become suspicious of their new stepmother, when one of them starts to have some terrifying visions. From there, things get complicated. This is a true Korean horror movie with Korean actors speaking their language, and it is superior to the American remake released under the name “The Uninvited”. (“Hangul”)

Inside (2007) Directed by: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo. Cast: Aymen Saïdi, Béatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis, Nathalie Roussel, Nicolas Duvauchelle, François-Régis Marchasson. This French movie is about a grieving woman set to give birth at any minute, who is interrupted by a mysterious intruder who wants the unborn child for herself. The movie is cruel, sadistic and full of violence, including the scene where the pregnant woman accidentally stabs her mother to death, but it keeps you in suspense and very scared. The film is in French. (“Á l’intérieur”)

The Orphanage (2007) Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep, Mabel Rivera, Montserrat Carulla, Andres Gertrúdix, Edgar Vivar, Geraldine Chaplin. It is the tale of a mother and wife returning to the house where she was raised as an orphan, but she now brings her son who starts to see a little boy in a terrifying sackcloth mask, whom he befriends before mysteriously disappearing. The movie is really creepy, but it is also very sad because it deals with a ghost story in which the ghosts are as real as the grief they leave behind. I personally think that this is Spain’s scariest movie ever. In Spanish. (“El orfanato”)

Annabelle (2014) Director: John R. Leonetti. Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard. The movie is a sequel to “The Conjuring”, but in this one, by far scarier than the first on the series (there are more of them now) a couple is expecting their first child, and the husband gives his wife an antique doll she has been trying to find. At night, the wife hears a murder occurring at their neighbors’, and when she calls the police, she is attacked by a woman holding the doll and a male accomplice. The police arrives and kills the man while the woman kills herself by slitting her own throat. A drop of her blood falls on the face of the doll in her arms. Later, a news report shows that the assailants were Annabelle Higgins and her boyfriend who were part of a satanic cult in which they worship a demon with horns. Since Annabelle was holding the doll while dying, the couple tries to get rid of the doll, but this is the moment when all their troubles begin. I personally think this is an extremely scary movie. In English.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Director: Ana Lily Amirpour. Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnó, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains. This is a Farsi (Persian) language, American horror film about a young hardworking Iranian man who takes care of his drug-addict father who falls in love with a lonesome hijab-wearing vampire. The movie is in black and white, it was filmed in California, but the story takes place in a fictional Iranian city. Although not as scary as the other movies on the list, it is an interesting and different vampire tale. (“Dokhtari dar šab tanhâ be xâne miravad”)

There you have it, dear friends and colleagues. This is my list of scary movies. I hope you find some of them interesting enough to watch on Halloween; and I also invite you to share with the rest of us some of the titles that you think are very scary, and hopefully you will include some interesting films because of their language.

Legends and stories for the season.

October 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is Halloween time in the United States and many other places. Whether a native tradition, or an imported commercial scam, the fact is that Halloween is now a part of many lives.  In past years, I have used this space to talk about the history of Halloween, horror movies, and even monsters and ghouls.  This time I leave to others the task of looking for the links between Halloween and the Day of the Death, and I will not even bother to refute those who are going around saying that the Mexican ceremonies from Michoacán state have their roots in Aztec culture when the Aztecs were not even from that part of the country.  This year I decided to share with you five of my favorite ghost stories and spooky legends from the Spanish speaking world. There are plenty more, including many stories from the rest of the world that I have also made my favorites and I will probably share in the years to come, but for now, please let me tell you the following stories and legends, so go ahead, dim the lights, get under the blanket, and prepare yourselves to be spooked:

Ánimas Mountain (El Monte de las Ánimas. Spain)

The story tells us that a long time ago, during the Arab occupation of Spain, the King of Castile asked the Knights Templar to come to Soria, a village in his kingdom and help him defend the city. Unfortunately, this made the local aristocrats angry as they thought that they were brave and skilled enough to defend the kingdom. The situation got worse because the Knight Templars controlled Ánimas Mountain, a place reach with game and a hunters’ paradise. As a result, the noble Castilians had to find their food somewhere else. They did not succeed and lived a life of austerity while the knights were hunting and enjoying the abundance of the mountain. Soon, both groups met in fierce battle that left Ánimas Mountain full of corpses that were eaten by the wolves. The king intervened and banned them all from going back to the mountain turning it into a desolated sight with a decaying Knights Templar chapel.  It is said that ever since, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, the chapel’s bell can be heard, and the souls of the warriors come back to the mountain wearing their torn battle suits and leaving their grim footprints behind. For many years people were cautioned not to go to the mountain on the Day of the Dead’s eve.

Then, many years later, Alonso, a young aristocrat from Soria, who was in love with Beatriz, a beautiful young woman who was visiting the village, and staying at the Count of Alcudiel’s palace, announced that she was going to leave the village and live in France. Alonso, devastated, confessed his love and told her of his fear of losing her forever. To this confession, Beatriz replied that in her kingdom there was a tradition where the gentleman would give the lady a garment or a personal item to pledge his love. Immediately, Alonso gave her the brooch that held the feather to his cap, and asked her what she was going to give him in return. She told him that she would pledge her blue ribbon. She looked for it, and realized that she had lost in on the mountain earlier that day, so she asked him to go to Ánimas Mountain and retrieve it.  Alonso admitted that he was afraid to go to the mountain that night, but she did not change her mind. Finally full of fear, Alonso got on his horse and off he went in search of the blue ribbon.

As the night got darker, Beatriz heard noises, a bell, and horrible screams coming from the mountain until she finally fell asleep. The following morning she woke up to the screams of nobles and commoners alike. They were yelling that young Alonso had died on the mountain the previous night. She got out of bed to go outside, and that was the moment when she saw a torn bloody blue ribbon on her bed. When the servants reached her chambers to tell her of Alonso’s death, they found Beatriz dead; her face had with a horrible expression: She had been scared to death!

From that day on, the legend tells that on every Day of the Dead’s eve, the skeletons of many warriors can be seen fighting all over the mountain, and if you pay special attention, you can see the figure of a pale barefooted bloody woman yelling and screeching around Alonso’s grave.

The House of Don Juan Manuel (La casa de don Juan Manuel. Mexico)

There was a house in 16th Century Mexico City, the colonial capital of New Spain. It’s address: 94 Uruguay Street. It was the home of Don Juan Manuel de Solórzano, a wealthy man who was married to a beautiful woman who happened to be much younger than him. Don Juan Manuel was very jealous and he firmly believed that his wife was cheating on him. To find out who was her lover, he invoked the devil and made a deal: Don Juan Manuel gifted his soul to the devil in exchange for the name of his wife’s lover. Once the deal was sealed with Satan, Don Juan Manuel learned that his wife had been loyal to him all along, but it was too late.  The house still exists in Mexico City and it is presently used as an events ballroom. It is said by many that at night you can see a man dressed in 16th Century fashion who paces in front of the main entrance and approaches those who go by the house and asks them the same question: “What time is it?” and when the answer happens to be: “eleven o’clock”, Don Juan Manuel just answers back: “How fortunate is the man who knows the time of his death”.

La Tunda (Colombia)

Do not confuse the name with the Spanish word for a beating. It has nothing to do with it. It is said that for centuries, a horrific creature has inhabited the forests of Colombia’s Pacific coast. This monster has an insatiable appetite for human flesh and it prefers small children. Hunters and their families can be tricked by this creature at night when it takes the shape of a beautiful woman to trap men, and imitates the voice of a child’s mother to lure them into the forest where it holds them prisoners in a cave until it eats them one by one. The legend says that in order to keep them from running away, the creature feeds them seafood with special powers that paralyze the body leaving the victims totally helpless.  Many say that even now, especially in the Chocó region of Colombia, you can hear this motherly voice calling for its victims at night.

The Legend of Caá-porá (Paraguay)

There is a giant with a huge head who lives in the Guaraní Mountains of Paraguay. This huge being can only be seen in the most inaccessible parts of the mountains, but those who have encountered it, claim that he smokes a macabre pipe made of a human skull. Caá-porá will not harm those who go to the mountains to hunt for their own food, sometimes he even guides their dogs to the prey. However, this giant is ruthless with hunters who go to the mountains for the sole purpose of hurting the animals. Those hunters will face Caá-porá who will devour the animals before the hunters can get to them, spoiling their hunting trip. On other occasions, this big-headed giant can confuse the dogs so they cannot find any game, and kill the hunters to eat them.  It is said that those who have escaped the giant and made it back to civilization, come back under a spell and are never the same. Now you know, so the next time you go to the Guaraní Mountains and run into a hunter who may look bewitched, dozing or sleepy, you will have met a victim who escaped from Caá-porá.

Súpay (Argentina)

Also known as Zúpay, is a devil known since the days of the Incas. Súpay lives in the northern and central regions of Argentina in an underground cave named Salamanca. His home was originally called Supaihuasin (hell in Quichua).  This devil dresses all in black with a broad hat, gold and silver ornaments, spurs, a dagger, and a guitar. On Tuesday and Friday nights, it rides its horse until it finds some unsuspecting travelers. He asks them to dinner, and after hours of food and drinking, and once Súpay has entertained its guests with his guitar, he proposes a deal to his victims: their souls in exchange for temporary fortune and reaches.  Súpay followers visit his underground cave to learn his black magic and other means to hurt people.

I did my part to put you on the Halloween mood, now I ask you to please share with us other chilling legends or stories from your countries.

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