Confessions of a Gringa: My Biggest Pet Peeve

A little while back I offered to serve as an interpreter, for free, for a non-profit aid trip to Guatemala. I like to help out and it seemed like it was a good cause. I was willing to go out on a limb and offer my professional services that have been bolstered by my studies and trainings during the better part of the last decade. Actually, I thought it would be an exciting opportunity.

By way of rejection, I received a note from the coordinator of volunteer services. She thanked me for my application and explained that they had found a “translator” who was “actually a native speaker” so he was “really bilingual.” The tone of the note suggested that I would clearly understand the preference for an interpreter whose first language was not English. I will venture to say that as long as the individual’s first language was Spanish, it would have been good enough for them, regardless of whether or not he was a native Guatemalan.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many qualified interpreters out there whose native language is Spanish, and their accent in their native language, along with their intuitive understanding of various Spanish grammatical rules and linguistic culture definitely trumps mine. Of course, my native knowledge of English is rather useful to my own interpretations, in the same way as their native Spanish helps them. But either way, qualified native Spanish interpreters are professionals and I owe them only the utmost respect. What gets my goat is when earnest non-profit volunteer coordinators who know nothing about the interpreting profession assume that if you were born to parents from somewhere in Latin America, you are automatically the most qualified to interpret.

I think that part of my frustration stems from how this attitude nearly discouraged me entirely from trying to pursue my chosen career. I still remember how it felt to be in advanced Spanish class, surrounded by students who had grown up speaking the language at home. I tried to emulate the way they transformed the word “bailado” [danced] into “baila-o”, lopping off their d’s (and s’s) with abandon. I wanted to be like them; I was embarrassed by my Gringa accent. I had bought into the idea that these classmates were truly bilingual in a way that I could never be. Even my professors heard me state my aspirations of court interpretation and conference interpretation with a degree of wariness. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for a court interpreter here in NJ who accepted my internship application and thereby demonstrated she believed in me, I think I might have given up. Again and again I was told, directly and indirectly, that this dream was unattainable.

I should note that it is possible that my professors’ pessimism was based not on my native language but rather on their knowledge that qualifying as an interpreter is HARD. It is hard for native Spanish speakers and native English speakers alike. As for the “true bilingual,” that is almost (but not quite) a myth entirely. Many of my classmates had the advantage of spoken accent, idioms and natural-sounding Spanish while I jumped ahead in the field of standardized grammar, written accent placement and the ability to study and apply rules of speech. Many of them had grown up with a very limited vocabulary and much of their Spanish was unwittingly and liberally sprinkled with English vocabulary and syntax. Meanwhile, I had plenty of catching up to do since I had spoken only English until the age of 16. In other words, none of us was the “true bilingual” that the non-profit volunteer coordinators are always looking for; all of us had a lot to learn.

I am an interpreter now. I still have an accent in Spanish and (yes, I’ll confess it!) I still sometimes mistake por for para. But I’ve stopped apologizing for my Gringa roots. If anyone doubts my qualifications, they can see my work in court and decide for themselves.

11 thoughts on “Confessions of a Gringa: My Biggest Pet Peeve”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    Well said, Athena. Let your work speak for itself. Preconceptions usually create problems.

    Most people have a problem with me, a Brazilian, translating into English. Well, I only have one certification (so far), and it is into English! What can I do?

  2. Ricardo says:

    Yes, there is a good possibility that a Native Spanish speaker can interpret better INTO SPANISH.

    However I have seen enough native whatever interpreters who can barely be understood in English, either because of their thick accent or their poor grasp of English.

    The question I would have asked is whether the non-profit organization was going to Guatemala to fact-find or to impart their knowledge.

    I was born and grew up in Costa Rica in a bilingual/bicultural family. After graduating from high school and attending several years at the Universidad de Costa Rica, I moved to the US, where I have lived over forty years.

    When my brother, -who stayed in in the US only long enough to get a 4-year college education- interprets in Costa Rica, I can catch inaccuracies in his use of English terms. When I interpret in Costa Rica, I find myself hesitant sometimes when searching for the correct term in Spanish for words that are outside of my everyday vocabulary or the technical vocabularies I’m familiar with. I’m still fully bilingual, but forty years in the US have taken their toll on my Spanish.

    I believe the two of us would be an unbeatable combination if each one of us interpreted into our strongest language. (Even though we are still very much bilingual.)

    So, your pet peeve is justified. Even in the best bicultural/bilingual families, each one of us has strengths and weaknesses. Just keep doing what you are doing, always aiming to improve.

    It is the same with all of us.

  3. ZOILA says:

    Comparto enteramente sus puntos de vista y admiro mucho su

    perseverancia. Me anima su historia a seguir estudiando Ingles. para llegar

    algun dia a convertirme en una buena interprete como lo es usted hoy dia.


  4. Martin Anderson says:

    You’re not alone. I didn’t speak any Spanish until I was 34 or 35. My grammar is imperfect as well.
    I don’t know if anyone is completely bilingual in any meaningful sense. I read somewhere, perhaps in Berk-Seligson’s book, that being really bilingual would be an impediment to skilled interpreting. One’s brain needs to be able to fluently and automatically distinguish between the two languages to recognize and interpret them.
    I sometimes think, however, that I perhaps get a little special treatment for being a native-English (not Hispanic) speaker. Prejudice has not disappeared.
    I’m retired from NY (staff) and NJ (free-lance). I currently work free-lance in Federal Court and the state courts in New Hampshire. I don’t know where you work. Please greet mi hermano Miguel and the others in Union, mi hija Maggie and the others in Bergen, la querida Evelyn and everyone else in Middlesex, and all my free-lance colleagues in the NJ registry.
    You’re working in a good state, with really professional interpreters. They taught me a lot.
    Martín Anderson
    Loudon, NH

  5. Sean Hunter says:

    If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard a native speaker say “rompido” instead of “roto” or “ponido” instead of “puesto” I’d make Bill Gates look like a pauper, not to mention the numerous spelling mistakes I constantly see from them like “ablar” instead of “hablar” or “Yo boy” instead of “Yo voy..”
    And these are EDUCATED natives, mind you.

    I find many native speakers are lazier with their grammar than someone who learned Spanish as a second language because I suppose they take things for granted and that causes the spelling and speaking mistakes.

  6. Athena Matilsky says:

    Hi everyone,
    Thanks for your astute comments and observations. I actually heard myself saying “rompido” the other day…then again, yesterday I was speaking English and I said “I have gave that to…” At the end of the day, no-one is perfect, it’s just that some people are misinformed as to how to judge the imperfection. Martin, I work in Mercer but I know many of the people you mentioned from my freelancing days. You are right, I am super lucky to work in New Jersey. And you are also right that although I am sometimes misjudged because my native language is English, I am sometimes wrongfully given more respect. Prejudice certainly comes from and goes to all corners. That is an important thing to point out and I appreciate it.

  7. Tatiana Hay says:


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I absolutely agree with you that there’s no “real bilingual”. I have the benefit of being a native Russian speaker, but, much like yourself, I only spoke Russian until the age of 17 and therefore had to do a lot of work to get my English up to par. It doesn’t matter, which side of this equation we start on, as long as we reach our goal. Btw, from someone who has seen you in action – your fluidity, speed and technique are second to none. Glad you pursued your dreams.

    Tatiana Hay

  8. Jazmin says:

    I think what all of us have failed to look at from the original post is that perhaps when the organization that turned down the “gringa” said they had found a “really bilingual”, they might have meant someone who understood the culture much more as a native, than say a “gringa” would.

    If you are interpreting in a rural area of Guatemala, a native who knows the culture will be a huge factor as they will be familiar with the local beliefs, terms, slang, etc. I don’t think it had much to do with the quality of “interpreting” as much as understanding the locals.

    Keep improving your language skills, we all are always working on our language skills, whether we are natives or not.

    1. Armida Hernandez says:

      First, I want to applaud you and all of our colleagues who have achieved such a high degree of fluency in a second or subsequent language – no matter the combination. Your achievement (especially since it came post-adolescence) is remarkable! I tend to agree with Jazmin’s comment. For whatever reason, the organization in question didn’t feel that you were the “right fit” for the assignment. I also believe that their choice of words in their response to your offer was less than elegant, even sour, perhaps not intentionally. Although I personally feel very comfortable interpreting in states around the Southwest, I would more than likely not seek out assignments in a part of the country where a Caribbean variety of Spanish is spoken, e.g., Miami. That is because I believe that cultural brokering is an important element of what we do as interpreters. Yes, I can interpret and have interpreted for people who speak other variants of Spanish, but it’s not something I excel it. So be it. There really is no such thing as a perfectly bilingual person. And that’s perfectly fine! As a native English speaker you have many, many positive qualities that you can use to your advantage when marketing your skills. Please focus on that and let the negative stuff roll off your back. You are awesome!

  9. Be glad you got rejected and remember:
    Every good deed get justly punished soon or later.
    The more money you charge for your services, the more people respect you.
    Concentrate on well paying customers, who respect you.

  10. Athena Matilsky says:

    I definitely think that a native bilingual Guatemalan trained in interpretation, especially someone familiar with the area and culture involved in this trip, would have made the ideal interpreter here. My “peeve” has more to do with the fact that uneducated people seeking to hire an interpreter value the native speaker over all else. I am willing to bet that in the case I described, the organization would have been just as happy with a native Mexican or Chilean, for that matter. Furthermore, as to the example of cultural brokering: although I am not Honduran, I would feel very comfortable serving as a cultural broker in that country because of the time I spent living there. Indeed, I might be the ideal cultural broker because I understand both Honduran and US culture and I have a significant understanding of the potential cultural clashes that can occur and what can be done to encourage harmony between the two cultures.. Again, I do not minimize the value of an interpreter native to the place in question, but I have a problem with people who don’t know what to look for in an interpreter, and who don’t know how to appreciate interpreters whose first language is English. All that said, I do agree that unfortunately, all of us have to deal with erroneous judgments, and in many ways I am very lucky. Thanks to all of you for your words of wisdom and encouragement!

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