Maybe It’s Time to Make Friends With Spanglish

Maybe It Is Time to Make Friends With Spanglish

…And Italish, Portugish, 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. 🙂


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

  1. Gregorio says:

    Great little blog entry! 🙂 I encounter it daily.

    Sometimes, I find it helps if you take the lead and say, okay…today, the word we’re going to use for alimony is: pensión conyugal, or whatever the word you prefer may be. This helps set the tone, and it might even ring a bell with the client of having heard it at least in their home country, on TV, or maybe they just understand there is really an equivalent, which they’d truly never heard before in Spanish or whatever the language may be. So, explicitly telling them the word that you’re going to use oftentimes helps, and they’ll oftentimes follow along, and thus you get rid of the whole problem. Plus, the words in English pronounced in Spanish are, like you say, very difficult to understand and sometimes have a mangled pronunciation, ha ha. This avoids that problem too.

    Finally, I think we need more organizations to start to use proper Spanish terms. This starts with directors to secretaries, for instance in homeless shelters. I remember when working for a homeless shelter, I translated maybe 50 documents for them from English to Spanish. Before this, the Spanish-speakers were using something like la shelta (shelter). After I translated the documents, it kind of cemented the Spanish word el refugio/albergue (can’t remember which I used now–but both seem valid), and once the staff started using the proper word, the homeless people followed.

    I suppose this means it has to happen not just in the courts, but outside, in shelters, welfare offices, child services etc. This helps avoid problems later! 🙂

    1. Kathleen M. Morris says:

      Great blog! My solution to this dilemma is to use the standard Spanish term, say, “refugio”. If I keep hearing ‘cheta’/’shelta’, I continue to say “refugio”, but if getting blank looks, will add ‘la cheta/shelta’ after it. Many times my client will pick up on this, and starts reacting to the standard term, but not always. Though I have no empirical proof, I believe that non-professional translations of newspaper articles and informative materials for public consumption are slowly being improved by various sources, such as easy to access online dictionaries and language professionals who insist on using correct terminology (coupled, in court settings, with the slang or non-standard term, when necessary for comprehension). Do you agree? What has been your experience?

  2. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

    Ah, NJ state courts! 😀 I remember interpreting between an ombudsman and a woman who’d come in after she got a final notice to quit because she hadn’t showed up to her tenancy hearing. We asked her why, and she said (and I will never forget this!) “Porque la huaifa del lanlo y el loya del lanlo hicieron un misté cuando vinieron a cor pa’ poner el complé.” (Notice that this is not an answer to the question!) I had to do her emergency stay hearing, and her whole paradigm of language was nouns in Spanish, other words in English. I think the judge thought I was the most incompetent interpreter ever, because it always took me several tries to understand what she was saying.

    1. Kathleen M. Morris says:

      Loved this story! In Cook County, IL landlord-tenant court, I have encountered many similar dilemmas. Tempers can get very heated. The litigants, who often both need the interpreter, simply stand before the bench, with the interpreter between them. They are usually self-represented. One often gets the feeling that you are being hired to act as a physical buffer, not just to interpret, otherwise, a fistfight may ensue! There is a sheriff present, but things are much more relaxed than in criminal court. Add to all this pressure, impatient judges who constantly interrupt Spanish responses BEFORE they are completely interpreted, since they “think” they “understood” them…It took me several readings of Bethany’s posting to understand “Because the landlord’s wife and attorney made a mistake when they came to court to file the complaint”. Under the gun, only hearing the spoken version hurriedly said, is a supreme challenge of our abilities.

    2. Athena Matilsky says:

      So many thoughtful and interesting comments! This truly is a universal issue. I thought so when I wrote the blog but I am even more convinced now upon reading your responses. I am going to begin implementing some of the suggestions, such as the usage of standard/non-standard the first time and then using just standard target language for the rest of an encounter. I do think that eventually some of these words will become part of that standard language, but I agree that we can’t assume what combination words our clients know or don’t know. Keep up the stories and the trouble-shooting. It’s always nice to know we are not alone!

  3. Very useful thoughts, I totally agree! Language is a living entity and immigrants make it even livelier, they like to play with it, to make it easier in their adaption to the new country, make it their own.

    Native Romanians are no exception. I am a daily observer in my work of their pragmatic way of choosing American words for this vital appropriation. They decline them, conjugate them, pronounce them using Romanian rules. And they are very positive in using them. A linguist like me could not do this without blushing, prudishly and, sometimes, foolishly. In doing this, they are funny and even ridiculous but never without a cause. As an interpreter, I always find it useful when I see that clients know what they mean, they sure make my job easier. To have an average education, as they do, does not mean no to able to be logical or intelligent. Besides, these terms are not computer slangs or mere Americanisms but necessary little inventions driven by an appetite for construction. Furtive little take-overs of language syncretism and contraction that make communication easier. Not classier, easier.

    My current favorites are ‘apuntament’ for appointment (instead of the correct ‘programare’) and ‘inșurență’ for insurance (‚asigurare’). It’s simply a linguistic survival. So, biologically, it’s evolution, correct me if I’m wrong.

    When I first came to the US, I was gently warned by a friend (native Romanian raised in the U.S. since the age of 4) of the convoluted way I will hear him speak with his family, quite large in number. I thought he meant funny pronunciation. But he was talking about this funny hybrid called, of course, Romglish.

  4. Gio Lester says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I hear “Vou fazer a aplicação para a mortgage” or “Estou levando minha filha para a oficina do pediatra” or “Vou ficar na corte o dia todo.”

    It hurts my ears. Yes, I understand that once you are in court or in a deposition you have to make sure your client understands you. But the utterances I mentioned were made by tourists and Brazilians who have lived in Miami for a while. I personally call it “mental laziness”: sometimes the word in English sounds like one that already exists in Portuguese (application x aplicação; the correct word is “solicitação”), or they just borrow the Spanish word (in the case of “oficina” – which in Portuguese is a “body shop”; the correct phrase would be “consultório médico”).

    A pet peeve of mine is “condado.” Yes the word does exist in Portuguese and it is a translation of the word “county,” but it does not have the same meaning. The word in the dictionary refers to a piece of land under the possession or administration of a Count whereas “County” refers to an administratively and geographically delimited municipality and in Portuguese, at least in Brazil, its equivalent is “município.” Just remembered another one that is especially important for us who work with legal translations and interpreting: “Ministério Público” is the Office of the Prosecution. A few months ago a lawyer client of mine was reading a document into the record and all of a sudden she says “the public ministry” and we all looked at each other wondering what the church had to do with the proceedings. To her defense that was the officially translated document provided to her – plus she does not speak Portuguese, but since Brazil is known for being a religious country, she did not argue.

    Gregorio is right: it has to start with the authority figures closest to the masses, and from there it will spread both horizontally and vertically.

    OR, who knows, this misuse will become so prevalent that the dictionaries will be changed to accommodate the new definitions.

  5. Gregorio says:

    Loved this:
    “Porque la huaifa del lanlo y el loya del lanlo hicieron un misté cuando vinieron a cor pa’ poner el complé.”

    Also, great to hear that it just doesn’t happen in Spanish, but also Romanian! Thanks. This is a great discussion!

  6. Grace says:

    I agree with your article Athena. In the short time as a professional judiciary interpreter, you have shown you are wise beyond your years.

  7. Jesse says:

    My approach has been (when I can tell that Spanglish will be an issue) to provide the witness with both versions of a typically-troublesome term the first time that it comes up, perhaps the first two times, and from then on I use the Spanish one only.

    “Cuanto es el pago mensual de su mortgage/hipoteca”, the next time I might flip the versions around, and from then on I drop the English.

    The cool thing is that almost invariably they come around to using proper terminology as well. Win-win. 🙂

    I think we all have our usual suspects when it comes to which terms will need the assistance I use above, such as: mortgage, shed, carpet, tile, truck etc. Things get funny when we get caught by surprise, for example:

    Atty to the witness: “Sir, please tell the jury what you understand would happen if you did not testify truthfully here in court.”

    Witness: “Ay no! Tengo que hablar con la verdad porque si no me meto en problemas con la llorona.”

    After a bit of back and forth confirming that only “Crybaby” has power over him… everyone baffled as to who that might be…. finally the witness bursts… “Como que quien es la llorona?! Mirenla ahí” and points to the judge.
    La “your honor”. Lol

  8. Lada says:

    Very good post. Legal, financial, business and even medical terminology used by Russian immigrant community is heavily affected by exposure to American English.
    Modern Russian newspapers and literature use a lot of vocabulary that was clearly borrowed from oversea. Life and languages are always evolving!

  9. Clarence says:

    While many interpreters may give up and accept entering the waters of Pidgin English; I deftly disagree. Of course, my opinion won’t change the tide of history, but I will offer my it here.

    I am a Korean linguist that found my way into court interpreting about ten years ago. The majority of Koreans I encountered in the courtroom tended to want to use Konglish. Konglish, like Spanglish, is a combination of English and Korean, although many LEP Koreans think it is understandable English.

    While an interpreter may be adept at interpreting this form of Pidgin English, be it Konglish or Spanglish or whatever; the Court Reporter or authorized Transcriber has to contend with the record. In the case of Konglish, Koreans cannot pronounce properly words they believe to be English simply because the Korean language lacks diagraphs, triagraphs, and diphthongs found in English. Furthermore, the LEP’s usage of English words is often out of whack and in reality of context misused. So the record becomes distorted.

    Limited English proficient Koreans of the Korean sub-communities on the east coast here in the US communicate with each other using Konglish and many pretend to know the English words they bandy about, but when questioned what do you mean by the word, pulo glam [program] for example; they become dumbfounded. Most or many do not even understand that the word program is gwajong in Korean. In my opinion, they insert English into their Korean discourse to impress the listener. If allowed in the courtroom, you run into a situation where the courtroom becomes a classroom for language study and learning.

    I have experienced firsthand in the courtroom encountering fellow Korean court interpreters, both certified and eligible for certification, that engage in Konglish and, depending on the Judge, get away with it. If in such cases when a transcript of the proceeding is required, then there is a whole new ballgame.

    Mispronounced English words in the context of the Korean language would have to be re-pronounced correctly by the interpreter, who most often is Korean and also has a pronunciation problem, in order to keep the record clean for transcription. If the interpreter does not accurately grasp what is being said by the LEP using Konglish then another problem is introduced.

    I came to recognize this issue soon after beginning my work as a Court Reporter. Shortly after that, I qualified to be an Interpreter. Thereafter I worked in both positions for nearly ten years. I soon resorted to politely asking LEP Koreans to use their best Korean during proceedings and avoid Konglish if possible.

    The result was that all used good Korean with some occasional Konglish slipping in; but in those instances, the Judges in the courtrooms I worked would always ask the LEP Korean speaker to either speak out in English or Korean and that would result in some using English briefly or continuing the use of Korean.

    In my ten years of experience in the courts of Maryland, my biggest challenge was dealing with the Konglish proficient LEP Koreans I encountered. Sometimes, my approach irritated fellow interpreters I worked with who just wanted the proceedings to progress without issue. Some judges too agreed with that principle.

    The issue of Koreans using Konglish has been kept damped for some time because, in my opinion, even Korean language court interpreters use Konglish on a daily basis, and I strongly suspect the referees of the certification test do so too. The Korean sub-community as a whole in the US is somewhat isolated culturally from the rest of America and is an environment where Konglish seems to flourish. Ultimately, Koreans know their language and can speak it fluently when required to do so.

    The culture disparity and difficulty of internalizing English for many elderly Koreans is not insignificant, but an LEP Korean means that the person’s English is limited and thus that person uses the Korean language. So, it is my recommendation that judges in courtrooms throughout the country advise LEP Koreans in the courtroom to either rely fully on their Korean language court interpreter or use English; after all, it is the record that must be preserved to sustain the system of justice and the growth and acceptance of a third language as Konglish or Spanglish does not have a place in the courtroom at this point in time.

    I also urge the referees of the Korean Language Certification Test to eliminate Konglish all together both in the questions and their assessments of the responses.

  10. I was so happy to run into this thread because it is something related to what I just mentioning to my students the other day: “As interpreters we cannot look at spoken language in terms of correctness or incorrectness, language is an expression of what someone is and it should be accepted as such.”
    As a court interpreter I have run into the situations you all have mentioned in my daily practice. Whenever I run into the use of a non-standard form, I first check the meaning with my source, the speaker. Once, I have done that, I normally ask my speaker if he/she knows the standard form, which most of the times is an affirmative answer. I then tell the speaker if it’s fine to use the standard form for the purposes of the hearing, and the answer surprisingly is always affirmative too. So I will continue using the standard form even if my speaker reverts to the non-standard one.
    I totally agree with the comment that as court interpreters we are to preserve the accuracy of the record. In my opinion, starting a conversation peppered with non-standard forms is dangerous. It is like going from non-standard into standard Spanish into English. It is pretty hard already moving between two languages, let’s not introduce one more!
    On the other hand, who can claim to know all non-standard variations of language such a Spanglish, slang, argot, regionalisms and so forth? As interpreters we must keep an open mind and always listen to how people speak so that we will not be taken by surprise, but moving into a non-standard form may cause more confusion, especially if the interpreter has not mastered Spanglish. I know I haven’t.

  11. Glenda says:

    As a Staff Court Interpreter in South Florida (Miami-Dade County), I personally along with my colleagues have faced this problem frequently. In addition, down here many defendants/litigants say they need an interpreter even when they speak English, because they feel “more comfortable” or they mistakenly think that we will be some sort of advocate for them since we are interpreting for them, and afterwards they will start speaking English or Spanglish midway or intermixing both languages.

    We are certified in English/Spanish or English/whatever 2nd Lang. not Spanglish or Portuespañol, etc. so we go back to our Code of Professional Conduct. We inform the person that they have requested a SPA/ENG interpreter so they have to speak said language in order for the “RECORD” to be clear. If the person continues we ask the judge to please instruct the person/defendant/witness and usually that helps a lot.

    Insofar as LEPs who use certain term such as “lomoe,” “widiwidi”, “folifero”, etc. even when we can decipher what they are trying to say by context, we inquire of the deponent/person after letting the judge/attorney know that an inquiry is need for clarification or we risk being called on assuming what the words or person mean. When the LEP is using an English word because it’s the only thing he/she knows and they look at you like you are speaking Chinese to them when you use the correct Spanish word, I would agree that Jesse’s approach of providing the LEP both versions tends to work or if not just using the word they know. It is a constant struggle not to fall into bad habits in the type of high volume we work here in the State Courts.

    Any ideas to better resolve this type of problem would be considered & welcomed!

  12. Athena Matilsky says:

    So many thoughtful and interesting comments! This truly is a universal issue. I thought so when I wrote the blog but I am even more convinced now upon reading your responses. I am going to begin implementing some of the suggestions, such as the usage of standard/non-standard the first time and then using just standard target language for the rest of an encounter. I do think that eventually some of these words will become part of that standard language, but I agree that we can’t assume what combination words our clients know or don’t know. Keep up the stories and the trouble-shooting. It’s always nice to know we are not alone!

  13. ANNA WATROUS says:

    Love the blog entry and comments. At a deposition, a lady from rural Mexico was asked what other types of work had she done, besides farm labor. Imagine the look on my face when she responded: “Vivisiti”! *

    * (I finally figured out she meant: “Baby sitting”)

  14. Josephine Baldwin says:

    I am afraid I have a completely different take on this. I will explain why.
    Languages evolve, but they should not “devolve”… What is referred to as Spanglish is nothing other than substandard Spanish, or English, depending on who resorts to this type of “sub-language”. “Pagar los biles”, “Parquear un carro”, and so many other linguistic aberrations should never be an option for a professional Interpreter. As a Court Certified and Medical Certified Interpreter, I have encountered many situations in which the non-English speaking person, who has not had -sadly, in many cases- the advantage of an education, does speak Spanglish, but I have always maintained the register of the language used by the setting and whenever I have said “facturas” instead of “biles”, “alquilar” instead of “rentar”, the non-English speaking person has ALWAYS understood. If clarification of a term is needed, then it should be provided or the substandard version of a word used for clarification purposes only. But suggesting that Spanglish is in some way the equivalent of a language evolving, I don’t think so, and I hope it never comes to that, although I am quite pessimistic in this respect, as people, whether English-speaking or not, express themselves very poorly. And let’s not go into people’s writing skills…

    1. Athena Matilsky says:

      I understand your point, Josephine, and to be perfectly honest I am being a bit of a devil’s advocate here. That said, who is to define “evolution” and “devolution”? I can’t quote statistics off the top of my head, but English has a huge percentage of words borrowed from all sorts of languages. When people speaking different languages live in the same proximity, “language contact” occurs and languages influence each other. I’m not promoting the use of Spanglish terms like “biles” right now, but I don’t see it as such a bad thing if some day they make it into the dictionary. Furthermore, I think we must at least acknowledge this as an issue in order to address it as interpreters. Finally, Roberto brings up a perfect point: there are words that are culture and place specific, and when we use them in English we avoid the confusion of finding a less-than-perfect translation in the other language. It even makes me think of specialized legal concepts that DON’T EXIST in other countries. Yes, we can find a close approximation and give a description in Spanish, but perhaps we should consider the usage of the English term. I say this with much trepidation and really I am mostly trying to open the discussion. The discussion appears to have commenced with vigor, and for that I am glad. 🙂

  15. Roberto says:

    Really enjoyed this! I have come to the same conclusion, but sometimes have felt “rebellious” when attending a workshop put on by the purists, who inevitably refer threateningly to the “ethics” involved. And, I really prefer the pure language, but reality will not always allow it. Schools are one of the issues I deal with most. The students attend “The Jai Skool” or the “Meedel Skool”. It is best because if I use Secundaria for Jr. High/Middle School or “Prepa” for High School, as they do where I lived in Mexico, those from other Latin countries don’t understand. They have different terms for those levels of school. Thus, the use of the English adaptation is actually a unifying concept for those of different countries living in our community.

  16. Jennifer says:

    I think these things have to do with the accent, intonation and dialect.

    One of the most difficult things to learn to do when you learn a foreign language is to speak with an accent that doesn’t sound foreign. Usually when you speak a foreign language and your accent is lacking, it will shine through because the new language has a few sounds or different vowels that aren’t present or are used differently in your native language.

    Some examples that I can recall include the following:

    The “rr” sound in Spanish is a kind of rolled r. I can definitely hear the sound, but I can’t for the life of me pronounce it. “Perro” (dog) and “pero” (but) coming out of my mouth would sound the same.

    Spanish speakers sometimes have difficulty with words beginning with sp, because in Spanish, e always preceeds sp, therefore, spoon becomes espoon. Speed becomes espeed, etc. This is something minor that can be easily corrected with lots of practice.

  17. Abdus Samd says:

    The discussion on this particular blog has been quite informative and insightful for me. We also have Banglish (Bengali + English). The problem is that my native language has adopted a lot of English words where no Bengali equivalent is available. In some instances the Bengali term having fallen into disuse is at the point of extinction, the English word clearly winning the battle to becoming the word of choice.

    Now, the other problem I frequently encounter is where the client confidently uses English terms whose meaning they do not comprehend. I have faced clients that insist that their cases were “dismissed” when in reality they pled guilty to a violation. To them “dismiss” meant that the matter was resolved and no further court appearances were required. Again, many women in my community use the word “affair” in the sense of flirting. A client admits to her baffled attorney that she knows her husband had an affair with the other woman but that was no big deal. Upon learning of the true meaning the response is of course not, that’s not what I meant. If what is said is not meant or what is meant is not said, then I suppose that’s a discussion for a new thread.

  18. Ricardo says:

    Just to add to the mess, there are words, like “sheetrock” which simply do not exist in whole countries of Central and South America. Building supply stores in Central America would not know what sheetrock or drywall is. (Or tabla-roca, tabla-yeso or estuco.)

    Going back to legal terms, “Due Process” is a USA-specific term, same as “taking the fifth.” “Debido proceso” will elicit blank stares from Latin Americans who -even if we explained what the concept means in the USA-, would still have nothing to compare to from back home.

    “Serve and protect” is another term where most Central Americans have nothing in their experience (here or there) to help them anchor the concept.

    Then we have the other problem affecting the purists: In many Newyorican families, three and four generations would understand perfectly “Tengo que arreglar el rufo porque si no se me va a mojar la furnitura.”

    At what point does the Real Academia throw in the towel and start accepting words that have been in common use for decades? (Rufo for Roof, furnitura for furniture.)

    One of the reasons English is alive and vibrant is because each year hundreds of words are added to the dictionaries. Meanwhile, in Spanish, and worse French, someone is trying to CONTROL how people speak. It is a sure recipe for extinction.


    I am a litigator and I’d like to say that sadly, the judicial system is less than optimal at providing Spanglish or any other “ish” blends, an accommodation. How is that due process? Why do our Judges tell people not to speak in way that they can communicate? Is it to preserve a clean record? Is it to preserve the highest level of language culture? Those are not a good enough reasons in my opinion. How is that a fair day in Court? How does someone who is told not to speak the way he or she normally speaks provided a fair trial when forced to communicate in a way he or she simply can’t. I live in a very mixed community and the justice system as well as other professionals know that the reality is that many people here live in a half Spanish half English world and as a result, might not have the ability to fully and fairly communicate in either single language. I’m curious to know how other countries around the world deal with this phenomenon in their justice systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *