I Can’t Get No Respect: Lamentations of a Language Professional

The Love of Language

A number of thoughts and events came together recently to start me thinking about how we acquire language and how the ability to speak more than one language and interpret from one to the other is seen by those outside of the language profession. I can’t say that no one understands or respects what we do as interpreters or translators; it just seems that almost everyone I come in contact with really hasn’t got a clue as to how well one has to know the languages one works with. They see a bilingual person interpreting for a monolingual person, and they believe that anyone can do that with a little language study. You speak some Spanish? Go ahead and translate this important medical document for our patients who don’t read English.

This drives me nuts. I have had attorneys say to me, “I wish I had taken Spanish in high school; then I could talk to my clients directly.” People will come up to me and ask me if I think their kid could be an interpreter: “She’s getting straight A’s in Spanish!” Some people ask me if I think it would do them any good to purchase one of those pricey language-learning programs that guarantee fluency in a matter of days. Then there are those jocular folks who exclaim with a little wink, “I know just enough Spanish to get myself into trouble.” I have always been a little afraid to follow up on that one.

The thing is that learning another language really well takes time, patience, dedication and, yes, love. When I was a college professor, I couldn’t help but notice that every student of mine who actually became fluent in Spanish evinced an enormous love for language, and particularly the language being acquired. Most of them learned all they could in the classroom and then went on to study abroad. I myself fell madly in love with the English and Spanish languages at a young age, and worked very hard indeed both here and in other countries to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the syntax, usage and grammar of both languages, not to mention vocabulary.

Now, I must say I heartily approve of foreign language study at the high school and college levels. I believe that kids need to be exposed to other countries, other peoples, other points of view, especially nowadays. But don’t expect to really speak, read or write well without some serious work.

 Perceptions about Language Expertise

It takes an enormous amount of effort and study just to become fluent in two languages. Acquiring genuine command of both of the languages in your language pair goes far beyond what one can learn either in the classroom, by desultory study and reading or by sheer osmosis. That’s where outsiders just don’t seem to get it. We have worked so hard to become experts, but we don’t seem to get enough respect.

About a month ago, I was interpreting in a custody case for an attorney and his Mexican client. Before the hearing began the attorney conversed with his client in Spanish. The attorney spoke fairly well, and I could tell that he prided himself on his ability. He was really quite fluent—his verb conjugations were correct on the whole, his grammar was not too terrible and his accent, while excruciating to a language professional, was not bad for a gringo. The trouble was that he thought his Spanish was every bit as good as mine. As his client was testifying at the hearing, she used the word playera, the word for t-shirt used by most Mexicans. The attorney immediately said: “I object to that translation.” Well, we all just stared at him—the judge, myself and even the defendant after I had interpreted his objection to her. I said something like: “The interpreter has interpreted the word playera as t-shirt, which is the word generally used in Mexico, the native country of this witness.” The attorney would have learned the word camiseta, which is the word generally taught in the classroom.

The point is that the attorney had no trust in me or my hard-won knowledge of both English and Spanish. I tried to convey this to him as we were leaving the courtroom, but I don’t think he really understood. How would he have felt if I had challenged him on a point of law?

And then there was the time that I was interpreting for a witness in a rape case. At the start of the trial, the defense attorney asked me for my credentials. After I stated them, he had the nerve to ask if I had an accent in Spanish (I don’t), and if the witness might not have trouble understanding me. Just a courtroom ploy, of course, but so very insulting to a professional interpreter!

It is often the same with written Spanish. I cringe when I come across some of the signs posted in our court buildings and hospitals. (One of my favorites warns against driving poisoned.) At the risk of going off on a tangent, is there any language other than Spanish with which people feel they can take such liberties? I think not. I read a best-seller recently set in an indeterminate Spanish-speaking country. The Spanish words and phrases thrown in for verisimilitude were often either misspelled or apparent machine translations. Accent marks were strewn about haphazardly. Neither the author nor the editor seemed to give any importance whatsoever to the correct use of even the little bits of Spanish in the text.

I have to wonder, though. I do believe that if the book had been set in a French-speaking country, the editors would have had an expert review the use of the French language. It’s French, after all!  Spanish just doesn’t see to be accorded the same respect.

 Then there was the time I worked as a part-time paralegal in a community legal assistance organization. It was a pretty cool place to work, especially since I could leave whenever I needed to go to court to interpret. One of the other people who worked there was a young “bilingual” receptionist with a high school education who had grown up speaking Spanish and English at home. The office decided that it would be a good idea to have some of their materials translated. Whom did they ask? The bilingual secretary! I tried to explain the difference between someone who really knew the language and someone who grew up speaking it at home, but it was like talking to a brick wall. The attitude seemed to be: “How can you possibly translate anything into Spanish—you’re not Hispanic! Duh!” Finally they had to cancel the project, though; the translator didn’t seem to be able get any of the work done.

At any rate, I’m done griping. I am sure that all you interpreters and translators out there have similar tales of woe. I guess we’ll just keep working away to raise the general perception of what it is to be a language professional. I know that we can and will get the respect we deserve!

0 thoughts on “I Can’t Get No Respect: Lamentations of a Language Professional”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    I can soooo relate to this! I work with Brazilian Portuguese which is often confused with “a badly spoken Spanish” :o) Doctors, judges, lawyers – enter almost any profession here – often think they can use Spanish to gather accurate data from a Portuguese-speaking patient/client/student. The lack of respect also happens within Brazil: anyone with a minimum knowledge of a foreign language believes they can translate into Portuguese – and forget about target language grammar! Recently I saw and heard this pearl on a subtitled piece in one of Brazil’s largest networks:
    – English: Romney hits the fan
    – Port. Br: Romney joga no ventilador – which either means he threw something at the fan or he was playing on the fan.

    At times I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. Then I get my hands on a great translation and my soul is vindicated.

    1. Kathleen says:

      Wow, I guess all languages seem to be a fair target for those who seem to think that all you have to do to translate something is plug foreign words into English spaces. I was talking to a bailiff the other day, and he asked me what “feliz” meant in “Feliz Navidad.” I told him the literal translation would be “happy.” Then he said: “Why don’t they just translate the word “merry” into English?” I tried to explain about idiomatic expressions, and different languages expressing the same idea with different words, but I could see he just wasn’t getting it. Sigh!

    2. John Leahy says:

      Great article. Gio, I agree with you. I interpret in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese and everyone says, “well isn’t Portuguese just a dialect of Spanish?”. They make it seem like I took a quick how-to course and boom, I know it. Ugh!

  2. Regards|Warm regards|Sincerely},

    1. Kathleen says:

      Thanks, Sandra!

  3. Loved your article. I will pass it on. It is so right on and to the point. everyone, please share this article with others in the courts so we can educate people to know the difference between interpreters and folkks that simply study the language. Interpreters, we could say, are the gourmet chefs of language, not the serving crew.

    best wishes,
    Juanita Ulloa

  4. Kathleen says:

    Thanks, Juanita!

  5. Stephanie Turner says:

    Thanks for griping for all of us! And I assure you, French does not get better treatment than Spanish when it is sprinkled haphazardly into books as “ambiance.”

  6. Kathleen says:

    Thank you!

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