In the U.S. the interpreting profession getting off the ground. 52 years have passed since legislation began making it’s way through Congress. Now, we are at last seeing the profession mature. The result—Texas’ English Spanish interpreters are among the best in the world. Download the list of Texas licensed court interpreters from the state website.
Law makers in the 60’s drafted legislation addressing discrimination toward limited English speakers. Their aim was increasing access to language professionals. In Texas our English Spanish interpreters are the busiest ones providing services. In short, Kennedy and Clinton both signed laws to improve access among other issues. From a legal standpoint, the effort paid off.
The World’s Best English Spanish Interpreters
However, in court rooms, law offices, and hospitals interpreters are not always seen as professionals. Commonly I hear excellent, qualified professionals referring to interpreting services as a nuisance. Some say, “We just need someone who speaks the language!” So, because of the many latinos in Texas, our clients frequently work with interpreters. As a result, conversations with doctors and judges reveal changing attitudes. Broad vocabulary, public speaking skill, and professional demeanor are only a part of a professional interpreter’s skill.
But, to the point of the article. A couple of years ago I was in immigration court. I chatted with a Somali interpreter who was a real jet-setter. A tall, lean and gently spoken Somali, he is among just a handful of Federal Somali-English interpreters in the U.S. As I was early in my career, I lamented the challenges of interpreting in federal court. “Almost everyone in the courtroom speaks Spanish! So people are on top of my interpretation” It was difficult time. I am not a native Spanish speaker. Due to the pressure my skill increased rapidly. Mastering the breadth of dialects is a long hill to climb. He concluded saying “Yes, but that is why Spanish-English interpreters are among the best in the world.”
Professional organizations are beginning to understand. The difference between bi-linguals and interpreters is tremendous. The numbers of people from Latin America are contributing to our economies and social fabric. If you are reading this wondering about the value of an interpreter, just remember, if nothing else Texas has some of the best English Spanish interpreters in the world.
Of course you’ve seen the images of signs from other countries with amusing phonetic misinterpretations. Sounds in English, for example, just don’t work well in other languages. So, sometimes a misunderstanding ensues. Usually these signs are from Asian countries where concepts and words don’t translate well. The Japanese are usually the ones who get picked on for their verbal bungling. The ‘r’ sound is often used in place of the ‘l’ sound. So, English would become Engrish. The author of this blog explains how these mistranslations often turn out to be a humorous faux pas. Especially when something like ‘bi-curiosly’ comes out instead of ‘vicariously’ as she mentions.
In Spanish mistranslations happen all of the time. English speakers often confuse false cognates like embarazada for embarrassed. The former meaning pregnant not uncomfortable in a social setting. A few years ago in Bolivia a friend of mine, a female, was learning English and decided to practice late at night at a bar. The bar is called the Pub Alpaca in Oruro, Bolivia. I have very fond memories of Willy, the bar owner, and his assistant Katy. Like I said it was late and she decided to practice English after a few drinks. She looks me in the eye and says, “Are you hard?” I look down and play along. A roar of laughter went up from everyone in the pub. Willy tells her that it translates into a faux pas, effectively. In Bolivia asking ¿Estás duro?” or “Are you hard?”, means to ask if you are drunk. We couldn’t get enough of that one. Like I said very fond memories.
However, last night, in Austin, a friend of mine showed me a YouTube video of a caller into a Dominican radio station. “I’d like to hear Reebok or Nike”, he says to the DJ. The DJ brilliantly deciphers it into ‘Rhythm of the Night’, a popular club song. What’s interesting is Nike in Spanish is pronounced like the name Mike in English with a silent e. And Reebok because the th sound is not used in Spanish. I was struck by depth of cultural references and language implications that made this a very amusing interaction.
As interpreters our jobs have many emotional facets. At a minimum our jobs are fulfilling. If you happen to work in immigration like I do, it can be exciting even electrifying listening to testimony about harrowing desert crossings and narrowly escaped gun fights. Though it wrenches my heart at times, I get a genuine sense of real action, real people, in real struggles. That’s why I love being an interpreter. That’s why I choose to do it. Action. Life.
But we must keep in mind that even interpreters can live in a bubble. I thought I had a pretty good idea about interpreter’s lives until I read about a project on Kickstarter for a film titled The Interpreter. It’s directed by a military videographer Robert Ham. Ham served in Afghanistan and worked with an interpreter on the project. There is no spoiler here, but the action I mentioned before, well, in the trailer the director mentions that Afghan interpreters–who are hunted as traitors by the Taliban–are killed. 1 interpreter is killed every 36 hours.
I hadn’t thought much about interpreters in a war zone. I don’t imagine they become interpreters because it has a good career track or is well paid. In the movie the premise is that the interpreters are offered a visa to live in the United States. Still I don’t think they do it for that either, though it is probably a nice perk. These young men and women interpret for many of the same reasons we do here. It instills a sense of freedom to communicate ideas. Unfortunately in America many are still of the opinion that ‘Oh, he’s bilingual. Or, grab her she can interpret for ya doc.’ We’ve still got a long way to go everybody. Our fellow citizens don’t understand yet how much interpreters put on the line to carry out a physically and mentally demanding job.
A Japanese climber has broken her leg. She dangles precariously on the icy ridge of a fjord in Norway. Above her only sky. Below, a deep green valley and deeper dark waters. Her climbing partners are anxious to get her down. It’s too steep on one side. On the other side it’s to narrow. Suddenly, out of the whiteness, a drone the size of a man rises into the air. The climbers are not quite sure what to do. The whirring of the propellers is alien but strangely familiar. It hovers in mid-air for a moment moving back and forth. Even the injured climber’s excruciating pain cannot blind her dumb curiosity. She scratches her head. “Help is on the way,” it says in Japanese over a loudspeaker. It’s a rescue drone. It turns and darts down the valley like a honey bee in Spring.
This is just one scenario that demonstrates the utility of the drone. For several months we never heard about their usefulness. The media reported they were only good for delivering dirty bombs or accidentally getting sucked into commercial airline engines. The drone and the interpreters behind the rescue are pure fantasy at this very moment. I think soon I could be getting a phone call to interpret for a rescue mission.
First, let me tell you a story. A few years ago I was living in Bolivia. I was working for a non-profit that was heading up a relief mission for record flooding in the Beni, a region in the Amazon basin. The flooding covered hundred’s of square miles. This wasn’t ankle deep flooding, it was several feet deep over large areas of land. Hundreds of communities were cut off from food and medicine. I remember that the military used boats in many places but there weren’t enough. The television showed a helicopter flying over the little islands dotting the landscape. It was hard too watch. For the first couple of weeks you could see movement down there. Then, as the stubborn flood continued, you stopped seeing the movement of animals and people. Maybe they swam for it. I just remember that there was no way to communicate. There was no way effective way to deliver food, medicine, or any essential. They needed dozens of military choppers.
So, how does the rescue drone interpreter fit into this. Well, I imagine in the not so distant future. In a place not too far from here there will be a disaster. Let’s say like the earthquake in Ecuador just a few weeks ago. The folks in Ecuador speak many languages. So, rescue missions are really challenging in some cases. Especially when international efforts are in play. Most American’s don’t speak Mam or have even heard of it. In my hypothetical scenario mission control is Quito is coordinating food and medicine drops to communities outside the cities, cutoff by debris and fallen buildings. In some cases, these drops are threatened by hooligans running about threatening people. (That part of the scenario is already happening!) So, in comes a team of military drones capable of lifting large containers and even people if necessary. However, the drone pilots at mission control are all Dutch, let’s say. Here comes the interpreter? The pilot can see and speak to people using the drone. This is a game changer for the relief effort. There are 24 drones and they can each fly for up to an hour with a large payload. The interpreter sits next to the pilot and the doctors assessing the problems. Just like the Japanese woman stuck on the side of the mountain, the drone arrives and says in Mam, “Help is on the way!”
I became a die-hard advocate of on-demand apps since they started cropping up about 5 years ago. It’s made getting a ride easier, ordering take out, and even having the curtains hung up–all thanks to on-demand app services. However, a couple of months ago I had a change of heart about everything “on-demand” when it came to machine translation. It started when a long-time client, who I had not heard from in a long while, sent me a message. She asked for me to be on a team of translators for a special corporate project. The subject matter was unusual: military memorabilia, fine watches, antique coins, diving equipment and sex toys! Subject matter that demanded a nuanced understanding and vocabulary for magazine copy. I was surprised and excited at first. Then I was shocked when I read on my screen the tiny black and white decimal point mocking me as I looked at the dismally low per word rate. Why? What? So, I read on.
My job on the special project was post-editing machine translation. I was to correct the machine translation, and then the engineers on the other end would feed it through the machine. So, this is what is called “training” the machine model. The rationale behind the low rate was it had already been translated once. I had to correct it. Then the machine translation would be perfect.
For the first time, I think I felt like so many factory workers who lose their jobs to robots. One day you walk onto the factory floor and there it is: a big fast elegant looking machine swinging about. It never gets tired, rarely makes mistakes, and can do the work of 100 men and women. And most importantly you only pay for it once. “Are translators being downsized?”, I thought. It’s a serious question now. 5 years ago no, but now it is. Technology increases exponentially.
Obviously, there is no comparison between translation and manufacturing skills. Though I realized that for the “client”, what I produce in translation is not unique. The words are the same as what this or that person would choose. The sentence or phrase is no different than a rearview mirror or maybe a cigarette lighter. Maybe it doesn’t matter with magazine copy, who knows? But there is intrinsic value in the human touch. Isn’t there?
I did the project. I felt a little dirty admittedly. Of course, I did a good job. I did an excellent job. I cannot help doing the best I can. Besides I needed the money—famous last words. It just made me realize that like it or not, the future of translating magazine copy may be eliminated by artificial intelligence. And it’s not a man in a black cape and mask trying to take my job. Machine translation is big business. Just look at TAUS for example. It’s an international organization bent on the destruction of the ‘human-touch’ translator. The conflict is, I understand why they are doing it—why they are collecting the world’s translation memories into a massive database. Smartling is another massive organization that has streamlined technology localization. One plug they had somewhere mentioned that the Internet has so much text it is virtually impossible for all the world’s translators to come together to take on the task of translation. I cannot disagree with that.
So how do I weigh the benefits against my checkbook? In my opinion, one of the greatest detriments to social advancement is the language barrier. If language were not an issue, is it possible we could soften war and conflict, or at least make it a lot easier to get to know our earthly neighbors? Let’s be honest though. No corporate entity is genuinely egalitarian. It’s not fundamentally possible. So, here we stand at the edge of a social paradox: on the one hand machines, or machine translation as the case may be, is supposed to speed up and provide a generally high-level product. On the other hand, we are violating key economic principles which dictate that a healthy division of labor results in the creation and accumulation of wealth. What is to happen to the translator? Are we to become old out-dated machinery?
Over the last few years the field of digital translation has soared. Before that–even just a few short years ago– translation technology was expensive—and definitely not available on any smart phone. Machine Translation was limited to web pages like Google Translate or translation memory software. The most useful translation app in my interpreters tool kit is the Reverso Context App for Android and iPhone
It is the next generation of what’s to come for translation apps. The Reverso Context App has many strengths. But the text highlighting and phrasebook make it an ideal tool for interpreters on the move. The examples come from huge collections of text from medicine, science, legal, and technology. So, it does not just translate what you type. It shows you examples in the target language text. It’s surprising the words I’ve managed to dig up.
Layout. So, as with any app layout is important. For me, having my previous searches available is really important. For $3 you can buy the premium annual membership. It includes a phrasebook of 500 previous searches. When I am learning a new set of words for a case or conference I like to be able to quickly refer back. That’s very useful in a conference. As a bonus you can click on the phrasebook icon and share phrases via text or email. Another plus where there is more than one interpreter.
The overall design of the app is utilitarian. It is strictly geared to providing you with functionality. So don’t expect a lot of snazzy graphics. The app rarely crashes and it spits our results lightning fast. I’d like to see an offline version at some point. If you are in the basement of a court house you won’t have an internet connection. Where will you be then? Check it out and let me know what you think!
As a nurse with some Spanish-English bilingual capabilities, I’ve learned firsthand that medical interpretation is critical for patients who speak languages other than English. I’ve also learned that grabbing your nearest bilingual person can lead to unclear messages. Clarity is critical in medical interpretation, especially in crucial perhaps even life-threatening circumstances.
Semi-fluent medical or even bilingual professionals are limited for a couple of reasons. One, is that they are probably already busy with their demanding jobs. Meaning, they want to get back to work. So, they are incentivized to give you just the gist. Moreover, they are deciding what the doctor should and should not know. During examinations I have often heard doctors instruct the patient, “Tell me what you feel even if you don’t think it is important.” Seemingly insignificant clues can lead to important conclusions. Secondly, it is a question of training. It takes practice to act as a conduit for speech. People in general are unaware of the demands. It’s like listening to a radio host. If you’ve never been on the radio you just say, “They’re just talking. I can do that.” And if it’s a family that is interpreting for a sick loved one. Well, you get the picture. “Mom, you have cancer. You have 2 months to live.” I know, I know, in spite of all the money spent on health care we skimp. We all want a deal.
Americans are pragmatist so we like a good-enough solutions sometimes. Just call an interpreter and spend the money! Don’t let a hundred bucks keep your business from being as professional as it can be. The civilized thing to do for yourself and the patient is to call a professional, folks. Avoid saying, “Medical interpretation? They’re just talking. I can do that.” A good resource is certified and trained medical interpreter.
Non-English speaking patients rely on medical interpreters. They are a life line in an often scary and uncertain situation. Imagine being in hills of China or the plains of Mongolia and you get a splinter and an infection in your foot. Nothing is familiar except the pain. An interpreter can be reassuring because you understand them and they you. Medical interpreters listen carefully, interpret and translate the patient’s needs, desires, fears and questions, and also clearly communicate the information needing to be relayed to the patient by the medical staff.
This two-way medical linguistic dance can truly only be performed well by a certified medical interpreter. The medical interpreter has experience with dialects and specific terminology, colloquialisms, slang and other vocabulary that an untrained semi-fluent staff member (like myself) might easily miss—or at least misinterpret.
Medical interpreters are gateways for information. Nuanced meaning results in the best possible care for limited or non-English speakers. The goal of health care is to generate well-being in and outside of the hospital or clinic. Healing begins when someone hears, understands, and relaxes to the words, “Tell me where you hurt.”