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.

Remote interpreting. The way it should be.

November 9, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We live in an environment where everybody is finally acknowledging the technological and economic changes that have disrupted the world of professional interpreting. About half of our colleagues are singing the praises of the innovations while the other half are opposing them. The truth is: Nobody is right and no one is wrong. Many of those who jumped on the bandwagon of video and audio remote interpreting did it with ulterior motives with nothing to do with the quality of the interpreters and therefore with their remuneration as professionals. Their concern was to get there first, and to do it quickly to make a lot of money with little consideration of the side effects of their actions. These call themselves the “industry”: Multinational agencies who sell interpreting services as a used car salesman sells you a lemon, and individuals who rushed to position themselves as intermediaries between these agencies, stingy uneducated end-users, and that group of paraprofessionals who are glad to work as “interpreters” for a handful of crumbs.

You have many capable, seasoned interpreters who refuse to work remotely because of their lack of knowledge about the technology and fearing performing below their well-known widely recognized professional level, not because they cannot interpret, but because they may have a hard time learning how to use the equipment, and even to do the simple things now required in the booth, like typing and searching the web.

There are many others who refuse to work remotely for a good reason: Because the quality of the equipment proposed for the event is subpar, because they are asked to provide a professional service for an insulting amount of money, or due to the deplorable working conditions offered by those who try to equate us with laborers instead of professionals.

For years, I have made my position known to those who care to hear it: I am all for technology if it is of excellent quality and the interpreters who use it are true professionals, making a professional fee and under working conditions that do not differ from those available in live in-person or on-site interpreting. Some of you have heard me praise the tremendous opportunities we have now as interpreters, and how we can now get more interesting assignments and make more money by eliminating travel days (usually paid as half of the full-day fee) and replacing them with more interpreting days where we can make our full-day fee.

Today I will share with you my experience with remote simultaneous interpretation and how this is working out fine for me.

I will be talking about conference interpreting, and what I say will probably be inapplicable to other types of interpreting because of the way multinational agencies and unscrupulous intermediaries have already polluted the environment.  At any rate, what you read here may help your efforts to demand better conditions in court and healthcare interpreting, and to refuse all work offered under such denigrating conditions.

The conference interpreting system I am working with is a cloud-based platform named Interprefy, by a company from Zurich, Switzerland. They are not an agency and they do not retain the interpreters. My business relationship is with their U.S. office: Interprefy USA in Chicago.

When I interpret with them, I physically go to their office in downtown Chicago by the Sears Tower where they have some booths/studios (more about this later) where I work with a live expert technician with me in Chicago. My booth-mate is usually sitting next to me in Chicago, but sometimes she is interpreting from another city or continent from the booth/studio of the company. A second (or third, fourth, etc.) expert technician, who also works for the company, is at the venue to coordinate and if needed fix any glitches at that end. If the interpreter is technologically very savvy, or daring, she can even work from her own home, after the equipment has been set up and tested. For this she must have at least 2 computers and a high speed internet connection.

The set up in my booth is similar to the one we have for our in situ assignments. There is a table with a computer, a very good headset, and a state-of-the-art microphone. If you prefer, you can use your own headset, just like an in-person conference. Your partner sits next to you and he also has a computer, headset and broadcast-style microphone.  Both interpreters have the same equipment. The computer on your desk lets you watch the speaker at the venue, and you can switch to another camera to see the screen on the stage of the people asking questions. There is a giant screen in front of both interpreters where we can watch the power point presentations and videos that the audience sees at the event. This is synchronized so that every time the speaker changes the slide, our screen will display the new one. If we want to see something else, or we want the volume at the podium higher, we can ask our technician at the venue and he will take care. There is a desk full of computers and other equipment behind the interpreters; this is where the main technician sits. We can talk to the main technician by turning around and speaking directly with him, or we can address him, and all other technicians by typing our questions, comments, and requests in the chatroom we all have through the platform. This is how we as interpreters can communicate with our virtual booth-mate when she is somewhere else, or to the other booths if we need something from another language, or for a relay.

The audience at the venue can listen to the interpretation by using traditional receivers and headphones, or by using their laptop, tablet, or phone, if they do so. Finally, if there is a problem with the internet connection, the service can immediately change from the cable or satellite provider, to an over-the-phone connection. This makes for a smooth service where the audience and speaker soon forget that the interpreters are thousands of miles and many time zones away from them.

Now, this is a sophisticated and at the same time, simple way to work a conference remotely; we are not talking about an Ipad on wheels, and from beginning to end, we are working under the watchful eye of expert technicians, not a jailer, court clerk, or nurse “operating” the technology.

We as interpreters can get used to this service because the quality of the product we deliver to the audience is top-notch, and because we work under the same conditions and pay as we do when physically at the conference. We get full dates and half dates, not that per-hour and even per-minute nonsense that the “industry” has imposed on court and healthcare interpreters. The company that runs the platform proudly announces that they only work with top quality conference interpreters in all languages needed. Their business model suggests that the savings are on the booths and travel expenses, not the interpreters.

This service has proven itself in big conferences with several booths from different locations, where there is no room to physically install a booth at the venue, and for less common languages in conferences where widely used languages are interpreted from a booth physically at the conference. Because of the company’s local partners, we as interpreters can easily drive downtown in most major cities and work from their location.

This is how remote interpreting must be, dear friends and colleagues. We cannot compromise quality, working conditions or remuneration just because some of the usual predators have taken over a market. I suggest you demand professional fees and conditions regardless of what type of remote interpreting you do.  Always remember: The end-user is already saving money in booth and travel expenses, do not let them fool you by convincing you that the service will not be profitable unless they pay you by the minute, and nurse Ratched is in charge with the dolly and the tablet.

Remote Simultaneous Interpreters (RSIs) cannot get a fee lower than in-person conference interpreters. Our work as RSIs is more complicated because we must know broadcast interpreting to deal with the voice latency (lag) that could be as much as 5 to 10 milliseconds, and to have extreme concentration and deep knowledge of the subject if gaps or blackouts keep us from hearing a syllable or even a word. Not all conference interpreters can sound seamless under these conditions. This is one reason why the RSI booth looks a little like a broadcast studio. I am convinced that Remote Simultaneous Interpreting is a new and different type of interpreting: A hybrid between broadcast and conference interpreting that requires training and preparation only a professional can embrace.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this very trendy subject in our profession, and please remember that I have no experience with those other less-sophisticated devices hospitals, detention centers and courthouses are using to save a quick buck.

Please let the interpreter do the interpreting!

January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in award season again!

This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.

The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.

As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.

Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)

Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.

This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.

Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.

I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.

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