Stop the Language Shaming

As an undergrad, I took a Spanish phonetics class, which is the study of the sounds of language. On one occasion, the professor brought to class with her a hand-written traffic ticket she received while driving in the Dominican Republic. The officer who’d written the ticket misspelled just about every word. It was a fascinating specimen, the professor explained, of this regional accent, since the words had been spelled out phonetically. She actually told us that this traffic ticket was one of her linguistic treasures.

This professor was known for her rigorous classes. So it fascinated me that someone so demanding, who set the bar so high for us as students, could be so enamored of what some people would write off as “bad Spanish”. This made a lasting impression on me and my approach to language–We can cherish the way individuals express themselves, rather than holding them in contempt. An academic approach to language is important (and interesting!), and we can apply academic tools outside of the classroom not to judge, but to learn.

The combination of these academic and everyday things is dynamic, like the work of interpreters. I need to have an understanding of (and I would argue, an appreciation for) the way a wide variety of people communicate in different settings in order to interpret effectively. Yet what is it that drives some interpreters to label some language as “good” or “acceptable”, and other language as “bad” or “unacceptable”? Teachers must do this to some extent, as they’re charged with teaching the “rules” of standard language. But some interpreters do it, too. Why?

Did you ever notice that the same interpreters who will lecture you on your value of impartiality are the very same ones who will publicly and ruthlessly make fun of how those they interpret for express themselves? If an interpreter feels such deep disdain for the expression of the very people he’s interpreting for, does that come across in the interpretation? In my experience, it certainly can. Maybe that’s the conversation about impartiality we should be having.

To work effectively, interpreters need a command of a wide range of registers. They must be able to express themselves like an attorney, like a medical doctor, like a judge, like a bratty teen, like salesman, like a gang member, and like someone from a rural area with no formal education. I delight in this kind of linguistic flexibility, and I ask again: How can an interpreter who mocks the expression of an individual for whom he is interpreting, possibly be faithful to the original message?

Are we language instructors or interpreters? I happen to be both, and I can tell you that these roles are similar in key ways: In order to teach or interpret, you need to feel, at times, super-human patience and empathy for the people you’re working with. In both teaching and interpreting, we’re looking for barriers to understanding, and looking at ways to minimize those barriers. In both, we must be good communicators.

Teaching and interpreting are also different in some key ways: In teaching we’re, well, teaching. We’re correcting, guiding, and assessing students based on learning objectives. Interpreting does not involve correcting the speaker. That’s my impression anyway, based on the goals of interpreting, so I’m always surprised when I’ve heard interpreters say or express on a forum, Well yes of course if the patient says the wrong word, I correct them. Really. How is it that the speaker said the wrong word? Interpreters correcting interpreters, sure. But interpreters correcting speakers? When the patient is corrected by the interpreter, what does that do to the patient’s impression of the interpreter? Does that approach support effective communication? Would anyone like to claim that interpreters don’t make mistakes? Instead of a patient, if the speaker were instead an attorney or a diplomat, would that same interpreter get all correct-y? Oh, that’s different, you say? How?

How is it that I often hear interpreters complain that our work isn’t respected, yet in the very same breath they will apply that same lack of respect to the same people we interpret for?

If a Spanish-speaking patient wants to preserve words in English, like appointment or parking, who am I, as the interpreter, to correct her? If a deponent wants to talk about his fellow ruferos in his rufin job, who am I to say that’s wrong, or insist he use “correct” terminology? He said it, I understood it, I interpreted it. Why is it so very difficult to imagine and accept that Spanish spoken in the U.S. would be influenced by English?

This is where we walk a fine line as interpreters. I must judge a message to the extent that I know how I want to express it in the other language so that the listener hears what I heard. But I am judging for content, for spirit, intonation, intent, and not for “good” or “bad”. This is very much the trick of interpreting obscenities. I need to know what is offensive, but I can’t be so offended that I won’t be able interpret the message faithfully.

We are all free to speak all the “proper” or “improper” Spanish we like, but when it comes to interpreting, I’ll let the listener decide what’s good and bad.

If you ask me (thanks for asking!), there can be better or worse ways to interpret what we heard. But how can we say that the original message from the speaker is better, worse, right, wrong? It just is. Believe me, BELIEVE ME, I know it’s tempting to take our judgement that extra step further, into good or bad, right or wrong. But the helpful questions (Where’s the speaker going with this? What’s the point? Is my interpretation making sense? Is the speaker making sense?) do not include anything in the realm of “Do I agree personally with the way this is being expressed, and is it worthy of my interpretation?”

But that’s just one interpreter’s opinion. What do you think?




4 thoughts on “Stop the Language Shaming”

  1. Liz, you bring up a good point. I absolutely agree with you. In fact, Katherine Allen made a similar point in her InterpreTips video on how to handle non-standard language (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LbiFYU30wA). She recommends using the standard term at first but switching to the patient’s preferred term if you see that’s the term they know and understand. I have to make that judgment, too, for certain treatments and tests. The patients I work with (Russian speakers from various parts of the former USSR) may have moved to the US before these treatments, e.g. MRI, were widely available in their home countries, so if I hear them use the English term, I switch from the “proper” Russian name to the name they know.

    1. Hi Maria, Thanks for providing the link to the Interpretips video! I think that provides the missing piece in terms of how do we actually deal with non-standard language as interpreters. I think the example you give with the MRI is perfect in terms of describing how to handle it! I attended a webinar some years ago on Spanglish that indicated the same, and it just makes sense.

  2. You nailed it Liz! Interpreters are not part of the conversation. Even when we disagree with the message, and if even if our personal emotions/ideologies are poked by the message, we must recall that the message does not belong to us – it belongs to the speaker.

    1. I love your expression of our emotions or ideologies being “poked” by the message, because it makes it easy to imagine this reflex reaction we can have of, UGH that’s not right! It’s worth learning to check that reflex.

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