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Maybe It’s Time to Make Friends With Spanglish

Maybe it is time to make friends with Spanglish.

…And Italish, Portinglish, Haitian Creolish and any other language +English!

It happened this way:

Judge (English): “…mortgage…”

Me (Spanish): “…hipoteca…”

Litigant (No language): [Blank stare; look of incomprehension and confusion.]

The question was repeated. All at once, understanding dawned and the litigant responded, “¡O! ¡El mortgage! ¡Sí, sí, sí!” (Translation: “Oh! The [English word for] mortgage! Yes, yes, yes!”)

As we interpreters well know, situations like these are really frustrating. What good is my glossary of terms when no-one ever uses them? English words and phrases like “child support,” “unemployment,” “foreclosure” and of course, “mortgage,” are inserted into the middle of our clients’ sentences all the time. Yet we interpreters are told that it is unprofessional to use them.

And here we get to my point. I dare say it is time to make friends with Spanglish and all the other variations of litigant’s language + English.

Languages evolve. Language contact happens. We interpret for a population that on the whole has had a good deal of exposure to English. For those LEP individuals who never owned a house, worked construction or went through a divorce in their home country, it is conceivable that the only words they know for things like “eviction”, “sheetrock” or “alimony” are precisely the English words we are converting into Spanish. What’s more, from the interviews I have overheard involving bilingual staff, the staff doesn’t use the Spanish words for these terms either; this must further cement the English as “proper” in the minds of litigants coming to the court for help.

Yes, the fine print in our interpreting manuals does every now and then give credence to this thought, allowing that if a litigant should use the English word first then the interpreter is not in the wrong to use it later. And I am not suggesting that interpreters be lazy in their research and use English simply because they do not know the target language equivalent. Furthermore, we cannot assume that our clients won’t recognize a word in their native language. But I am willing to submit that the use of certain English words is not actually an exception but a norm. As such, it warrants more than just a passing nod as we discuss interpreter technique and ethics.

By now I am used to, and ready for, the usage of many of the terms mentioned above. I do have a quandary though; occasionally I will go along and use the English word, but habit and professional indoctrination motivate me toward the Spanish. Thus during some child support cases, I have spent the entire time repeating “manutención de menores” while the parents continually refer to “el child support.” For the whole case.

The situation becomes even more challenging when the word is not clear-cut. I have been stymied more than once with words such as “cheta” (it turned out that my litigant was referring to a shelter. The Spanish word for this is “refugio” but maybe the first time he had ever been homeless was in New Jersey). I won’t even begin to speak about confusion arising from the varied pronunciation of English proper nouns.

People come to this country and they are no longer exposed only to people from their place of origin; they are also interacting with a plethora of individuals including those many other countries and from the U.S. of A. I believe that this has caused an intermingling of dialects and languages, and as interpreters we should be prepared to interpret the resulting medley. Like it or not, that is what many of our clients are speaking.

I don’t suggest that we automatically use Spanglish (or its equivalent in other languages), but I do believe the conversation needs to start about how to accommodate it appropriately. And that’s where we come in, right here and right now. How can we maintain our ethical and professional guidelines while recognizing the evolution of the languages we interpret?

I look forward to your responses below. 🙂

This article was originally published in October 2014. Feature image courtesy of CookAngel.

Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

Click here to access Athena’s other posts.

19 thoughts on “Maybe It’s Time to Make Friends With Spanglish”

  1. Alina Paradoa says:

    I have been saying this since forever,
    I am glad that someone sees it that way too.
    Unfortunately … Correct & Proper v. Not Understood By Many
    just saying…

  2. Aleksandr L says:

    First thing that I might note about this, is that if you argue for adoption of Spanglish (and surrogates of other languages adjusted to English), then why not argue for abolishing interpreting as a separate profession? After all, where did this defendant/respondent learn the word “mortgage”? Most likely, from his real estate agent. His real estate agent said “mortgage” for “hipoteca” because “this is how they say it in “here (“America”))”. This is because the real estate agent does not care for the language much. The real estate agent cares much about his or her business. So, maybe too, should the courts not care much for the language as long as the lawyer speaks English, the lawyer can interpret to the client later. And if it were the court testimony, well the client can testify and the lawyer can interpret in the third person or, the assistant clerk can do it as well. And, of course, Spanglish can be used for ease of understanding. and the cases would move through the court system much faster. What do you think?

  3. These comments apply to French judiciary interpreting too. However as to “Yet we interpreters are told that it is unprofessional to use them.” I haven’t been instructed on this, but so often in live interpreting situations we think on our feet and must instantly devise the best way to achieve MUTUAL COMPREHENSION. I often say both words if this situation arises, e.g.. “child support-pension alimentaire pour enfants” … “lease-document de bail” if I think the litigant will “get it” better if I do so. Actually figuring out solutions like this is the fun part of court interpreting 🙂

  4. Constance Marina says:

    I agree with you absolutely, Athena! The first time a word is mentioned in a trial or in a hearing, I’ll interpret it properly into Spanish, If the defendant uses the English word in their reply, however, I’ll often use it in my interpretation. Many times defendants or respondents in civil cases know both the Spanish and English words, and then I enjoy using the Spanish. The most important thing here is not linguistic perfection but rather communication. Otherwise, can we really call ourselves interpreters? Wouldn’t we then be speaking properly for the selfish fun of hearing how good we sound? That would not be right in my opinion, and would be at the expense of the LEP.

    1. Elida M. Testai, MD, MA says:

      I cannot imagine any interpreter interpreting to show off! I think this is the way they may be perceived by others who are expecting Spanglish. In my long five year experience in Superior Court, nobody thought of themselves in this way.

  5. Gabriela Munoz says:

    Great article. I think we’re at a point where it would be unprofessional to not recognize and use anglicisms, where appropriate, especially since some bilingual staff in these fields are reinforcing their use in daily interactions with LEPs. Adopted anglicisms, in my view, should be treated like the colloquial terminology and slang that we are expected to know as professional interpreters. Like slang, don’t default to it, but if the proper word is causing a communication barrier, then the anglicism is worth trying out.

  6. Andre Moskowitz says:

    Athena, you speak the truth and I loved “Maybe It’s Time to Make Friends With Spanglish”!

    My only question is, why has this article not been published in NAJIT’s main publication, Proteus, and, taking things a step further, why hasn’t NAJIT stated its official position on this issue–hopefully agreeing–in a “position paper”?

    I believe it’s high time NAJIT did.

    What will it take for us interpreters to get over being stuck up, purist and “más papista que el Papa,” and for us to realize that our purpose is to communicate?

    For many of us this happened long ago.

    But, alas, for many others the answer is probably “¡Jamás!” y “¡Primero muerto!”

  7. I respectfully disagree. My personal experience is that when I translate (in Spanish), “alquiler” instead of “renta” (the meaning of which in Spanish is completely different), the witness/deponent has ALWAYS understood me. We are linguists and our mission is definitely not to lower the register of a language. If the deponent does not understand what “rent” or “factura” means, they might ask for clarification and when they get that either from the deposing Attorney or the Interpreter, they understand. Many Spanish-speaking witnesses (and Attorneys, for that matter) have congratulated me and thanked me for using proper language. Our mission as linguists is to interpret/translate, and true, languages evolve, which should not be interpreted/translated as “devolve”.

  8. M Leslie Tabarez says:

    I have very mixed feelings about this. We are supposed to maintain register and, frequently, an attorney is speaking in a higher register (simply because of the legal terms), which the non-English speaker is unfamiliar with., yet we don’t attempt to lower the register. Certainly, there are certain Spanglish terms that, if we used them, would make our interpreting job easier, but how can we assume people don’t understand correct words? For example, in Workers’ Comp, many claimants who have had MRIs done, do NOT know the correct term in Spanish, but unless they specifically ask, or don’t answer at all, I continue to use the correct term. If they understand me, but use Spanglish when speaking, I continue to speak correctly. If they respond appropriately, they DO understand the term even though they don’t use it themselves. If they don’t understand, I sometimes use both the correct term AND “MRI.”

  9. Helen Eby says:

    Some of the terms called out as Spanglish may be common usage in places where Spanish is the dominant language. I saw lots of “renta” signs in Guadalajara last year. So let’s be careful and be slower to judge on this one.

  10. Elida M. Testai, MD, MA says:

    It depends on how immersed you are in the Anglo culture, your degree of acculturation, the level of education, how much you loan English terms etc…In my case, ‘mortgage’ would have meant nothing, but ‘hipoteca’ yes. By providing a sort of universal, standard, non regional Spanish interpretation, we allow the defendant or person for whom we interpret, to make questions, as Josephine Baldwin says. Their attorneys will explain what things are. Or they can ask questions: no se qué es hipoteca; for example. Do not take for granted that all of us know what brecas, rufer, mean. I remember when I was a court interpreter that defendants were surprised to learn with me that ‘the court is waiting for you’ was not ‘la corte lo espera’ (they were expecting a committee of judges ) but that Court meant Juez (most of the times, or tribunal; but Corte Suprema de Justicia).

  11. Hal Sillers says:

    You make some interesting points, Athena, especially in the title of your article: “Maybe It’s Time to Make Friends With Spanglish.” This should only be, however, a passive friendship, in that as interpreters we are obligated to understand what LEP parties are saying when they use “Spanglish” vocabulary. This allows us to to accurately and completely convey the meaning to the English speakers in the proceeding. It is not our place to actively pursue the friendship by using Spanglish vocabulary, and thus reinforcing it’s credibility.

    On a totally separate point, I notice in your article that you refer to LEP parties as “our clients.”
    “….are inserted into the middle of our clients’ sentences all the time.”
    “Like it or not, that is what many of our clients are speaking.”

    The LEP parties are not our clients, especially not in a court proceeding. LEP parties should not be referred to as clients of the interpreter, as to do so is to cause a misunderstanding of the role of the interpreter, and brings into question the impartiality that the interpreter has promised to maintain when swearing to uphold CANON 3:IMPARTIALITY AND AVOIDANCE OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST of the Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreter in the Minnesota State Court System.

    Interpreters shall be impartial and unbiased and shall refrain from conduct that may give an appearance of bias. Interpreters shall disclose any real or perceived conflict of interest.

    Referring to LEP parties as client also lends credence to the idea, which is still quite prevalent in many places, that interpreters provide extra and unfair assistance to LEP parties.

    Thank you for providing a very interesting and well written article.



  12. Marta Menendez-Lyons says:

    Interesting article! During my training I was taught that if someone used a certain word when speaking, be it a Spanglish word or an English word… if that is the word they identified with that I should use it also while interpreting to them. I think it makes things easier for the person.

  13. Andre Moskowitz says:


    The meaning of “renta” in many Spanish-speaking countries, and particularly in Mexico, is identical to the meaning of “alquiler” and translates as “rent”; “renta” is not completely different in meaning from “alquiler” as you allege.

    If you are not already convinced, the following definitions that describe Mexican usage should convince you of that fact.

    Kind regards,


    Andre Moskowitz

    renta. Cantidad de dinero que se paga o se cobra por el uso temporal de algo, especialmente de una vivienda; alquiler, arriendo: La casera les subió la renta. | Un mes de renta. | Cobrar la renta. | El recibo de la renta. | Está sin chamba y no tiene para pagar la renta. | Con el dinero que hizo favor de enviarme cubrí los gastos de la mudanza y pagué un mes de renta por adelantado. | No, la casa no es mía: se la arriendo a un tío por una renta más bien simbólica. | Con un poco de suerte quizá pudiera comprar el departamento donde vivía, pues ya estaba harto de pagar renta. | Debe tres meses de renta.

    rentar. Pagar o cobrar cierta cantidad de dinero por el uso temporal de algo, especialmente de una vivienda; alquilar, arrendar: Ahora no le alcanza ni para rentar un cuarto. | Se rentan departamentos. | Rentó la toga para la ceremonia. | Rentar un coche, un traje. | El apartado postal o caja de apartados es una casilla numerada en una oficina de correos, que se renta para recibir en ella correspondencia.

  14. I agree with you to some extent. Our goal is to communicate a message and be understood. I may use both terms at first, but I may stick to the correct term in Spanish without resorting to Spanglish. We can never assume that these people are so unsophisticated that they may not understand the Spanish term for “mortgage”, as your example shows. They may not have owned a house, but they may recognize the term once you use it.

    Yes, I agree that some of these terms didn’t exist in their small world before coming to the US, but you are the professional. Judges don’t change legalese for slang so that the defendants understand. When judges read the law to juries (composed of a lay people) it is not simplified. If we start doing that for our LEP then we are acting as advocates and not as court officers and why bother with a professional? We are switching roles.
    I do offer that easier words may be used instead of Spanglish. For instance, you may want to use “prestamo” or “el pago mensual” for mortgage. For “manutención de menores” you can use “mantención del niño”. In these instances you’re still using Spanish without resorting to Spanglish. One thing I never do is correct the speaker, but I will certainly not imitate them because that will reinforce their continued use of Spanglish. Let language evolve without my help. I’ll catch up, eventually.

  15. Alfredo Babler says:

    Ah, la carpeta and el rufo, el chirró and la troca, el jangueo with la Mara and la clica, probeichon and el cherif… LOL, you should try “parquímetro” some day and see where it gets you. Once I told a lawyer/friend with whom I have worked a long time, when he asked me if I drew a blank on what the deponent had just said, “No man, I just don’t speak qualude.” I love this job.
    Great article. Do the Marines thing: Adapt and overcome.

  16. Irene Caramuta says:

    I’ll call this my “You say tomato”response.
    Yes it is quite true that languages are not static. Also, I’d say that the thrust in academic linguistics moved from prescription to description long ago. Further, as a wise colleague once said to me, we who work in the court interpreting trenches are not there to teach litigants how to speak, we are there to serve as language conduits. That said, I have had the experience of hearing defendants use English terms at the beginning of an attorney/client conference (for example “Quiero mi discovery”) only to adopt the Spanish term and even the grammatical structures I use as the interview progresses. Then there’s what I’ll call the parenthetical tactic. For example, I use the accepted Spanish term and then say “lo que Ud. denomina ‘xyz’”, with the xyz being whatever English term the litigant is using. There you have my pragmatic, one case at a time approach.

  17. Terri Shaw says:

    I start out with correct Spanish word but if the LEP persists I may use the Spanglish word after a while. As a telephone interpreter I have hard time understanding some of the Spanglish words, not to mention the proper names, such as street names in cities I have never been to.. I did not hear properly or understand “factoria” during a workers comp hearing and the lawyer had to explain it to me. As one colleague told me, we have to be trilingual–English, Spanish and Spanglish.

  18. Noemi Quirch says:

    Spanglish can be a deviation of the actual meaning too. If using the noun “mortgage” in Spanglish is an accommodation into the way it is understood or used by the person you are interpreting to…what are you going to do when you need to turn it into a verb or an adjective in the same context ¿Mortgagear o hipotecar? ¿Mortgageada o hipotecada? Uhm….
    There are many ways in which we may contribute to properly enrich the language and not spoil it.
    I think we better think it twice before compromising terminology or we may end up in trouble along the interpretation. I always try to avoid that and if further clarification is necessary, so be it.

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