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?




7 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.

  3. Alright, here’s take #2 after the mysterious case of the disappearing comments.

    First off, thank you for posting about this, Liz. Relevant conversation for sure.

    I don’t think I’ve experienced quite the same disdain from interpreters towards “interpretees” that you seem to have witnessed, but I don’t doubt it’s out there. I completely agree on the bottom line: it is not our job to make value judgements on the language choices of who we interpret for.

    Here are three thoughts I had based on all this:

    1) Most of my surprise and fascination (and often the subject of conversations with other terps in my city, who all have very different language backgrounds than I) is how exactly Spanglish is used. Here’s an example from just yesterday: I was interpreting a medical appointment at the prison; the offender was asked if he spoke English, to which he adamantly replied no. At no point did he attempt to interact or respond to the nurse in English, but in his somewhat-faster-than-average Spanish, he used the words “muscle” and “shoulder” repeatedly without batting an eyelid. My language-nerd brain is mostly just intrigued by what could be the explanation/motivation to use these kinds of English words in the middle of his Spanish!

    2) While I believe strongly in avoiding judgement values on the language choice of those I’m interpreting, I just as strongly believe that is is my job to evaluate language choices and decide what I need to do with them in my own speech. I have zero problem saying “aidí” or “tráiler” if the LEP uses the word, but I believe as a language professional it would be inappropriate for those to be my default translations of their English counterparts. I would never dream of correcting an interpretee, but in the same vein, I’m not a snob for choosing to avoid Spanglishisms in my own personal speech (outside of interpreting). I believe in embracing Spanglishims in my interpretation if and when they aid in understanding (sometimes they do, other times not).

    3) This is a bit of a different topic, but related, and one I’d be interested to see more conversation on: heritage Spanish when it comes to assuming that because someone grew up speaking Spanish in the US, he/she is a safe interpreter.

    This is something I *am* quite particular on, because I regularly witness this assumption putting the lives or livelihoods of LEPs at risk. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of heritage Spanish that I witness (primarily from central WA) is, if you’ll permit me outdated and prescriptivist language, simply *bad* Spanish when it comes to protecting someone’s health and/or legal rights. And it’s dangerous because no one really is aware of the significant linguistic gaps in heritage Spanish, sometimes least of all the heritage speakers themselves.

    I’ve seen this have both medical and legal implications, as I’m sure you have too, in a hospital where a family member is assumed as a safe interpreter, or when a heritage-speaker police officer is used to take down witness statements between languages. It’s not about shaming or judging in this case, it’s about realizing the gaps in your knowledge that could be putting others at risk. I don’t feel comfortable protecting someone’s feelings when other’s health or rights are on the line, so when necessary, I explain politely and clearly (and discretely if necessary), that it can be very risky to assume that heritage Spanish equals fluent or competent Spanish.

    I’d love to here your thoughts on this at some point Liz, especially the heritage issue.

    Thanks again for your contribution!

    1. Hi Andrew!

      Thank you for so openly sharing your experience, and essentially writing part II of this blog post! I attended a workshop on the use of non-standard language in interpreting shorty after I wrote this, and to speak to your second point, the trainer recommended not using the non-standard language as default (as you suggest), but if the Spanish speaker uses aidí (for example), then we can consider that to be the “standard”. There was a lot of disagreement surrounding this, and I understand both sides. After all, I think it’s safe to assume that a Spanish speaker who uses aidí will also understand the standard Spanish term. So we can end up using different words, but meaning the same thing and understand each other just fine. I guess what I’m saying is that different approaches can lead to the same outcome where everything is being expressed, and (in the case of court interpreting) the record is preserved.

      Wow. The topic of heritage speakers is a big one for me, and I agree with everything you’ve said. The danger with heritage speakers (and please forgive my sweeping generalization) in my experience is that they are overconfident and may not know what they don’t know, which you’ve already pointed out. This has been my experience training interpreters and teaching terminology to heritage speakers. I have found that if heritage speakers are in a training or a class, they’re open to learning a different way. The trick for me has been this: My trainees and students who are heritage speakers have described for me the experience of being told by their family members that they don’t speak Spanish right. Then they study Spanish as an adult for the first time in an academic setting, and we kind of give them the same message. So what I’ve been thinking about lately is how do we help these students understand where they need work, without continuing this kind of “your Spanish is bad/weird/funny” message. I agree, the end goal of protecting the rights of people who need interpreters take priority–But in the case of students and trainees (a different scenario than one you bring up of intervening in the moment) their feelings do need protected to some degree so they can feel comfortable making the necessary mistakes for their learning.

      There is a professor at the school where I teach who has done work developing Spanish courses for heritage speakers, and I’m dying to pick her brain, and maybe write about how her work intersects with the work of training heritage speakers to work as interpreters.

      So. How does this all get resolved? I don’t know, but I like the conversation. My perspective on all things interpreting has changed since I finished grad school, and I’m still processing and unpacking everything I learned and seeing how it applies to my work now in interpreting and teaching.

      Thanks again Andrew for sharing your perspective, and please share any additional thoughts you may have!

      1. Oh man, that workshop sounds amazing. I can imagine the debates that must have broken out! For me, non-standard language in interpreting has very little to do with prescriptivism, which seems to be the assumption people jump to. I see it as more about facilitating understanding and having a faithful interpretation. If an LEP is using non-standard language/Spanglish/false friends, this is all well and good if it’s clear what the LEP means. However, as I see it, when interpreting EN>ES, especially in a court setting, if I am using “non-standard” Spanish or Spanglish in transferring the English of a lawyer or judge into Spanish, this is *not* a faithful interpretation. Non-standard language and linguistic interference are effects of certain sociocultural backgrounds, education, migrational biographies etc. Individuals like lawyers, judges etc. who are being interpreted into Spanish do *not* fall into that category, and to interpret them using the Spanish of someone who *does*, in my opinion is not faithful to the original.

        On heritage speakers, I think you make a great point in distinguishing between training/education and simply protecting given situations from mishandling due to heritage Spanish. And I have also frequently witnessed what you mention: basically Mexican moms saying to me in front of their kids, or to the kids themselves, that their Spanish is bad. And I know this is a regular occurrence in classrooms as well for heritage speakers.

        So disclaimer: I have zero expertise and very little experience in training and/or education for interpreting (just opinions!); obviously there’s tons to be said on teaching Spanish to heritage speakers, but I’ll stick to my thoughts on the interpreting-training for heritage speakers for now.

        I completely agree that in a training environment heritage speakers do not need to be told that their Spanish is bad and just hear the same tired things their parents and high school teachers told them growing up. Giving them simply positive vs negative adjectives for their language skills would seem totally unproductive.

        What I do think is important for heritage speakers to realize is that their Spanish is vastly different than and immediately distinguishable from someone who grew up and was educated in a Spanish-speaking country. That terms like “native language” or “first language” (which I regularly hear heritage speakers using for themselves) are actually zero indication of quality or breadth of knowledge. I think this realization is important because it creates room for growth and learning. If you think your Spanish is sufficient as is, why are we here?

        In the same breath, I would emphasize that the fact that they grew up speaking Spanish is in fact an incredible gift, and one they can do *a lot* with, but it needs stewarding. And if a heritage speaker wants to use his/her Spanish to interpret, flexibility is paramount, as it is for all of us. It’s not about “bad” Spanish, but if someone isn’t willing to hear “hey, you said X, and while that’s fine to use with your family, just so you know, that sounds like an error to an educated native speaker’s ears”, then I think we’ve got a problem.

        And I very much understand that part of the offense/bristling at the suggestion of insufficient Spanish comes from deeply-rooted questions of identity. Bilingualism is a huge part of heritage-speaker identity, and if there’s a suggestion of “this part of your identity is insufficient for X purpose” (even if it’s presented as constructively as possible), this can be hard to hear. And in some cases, instead of hearing it, people will just choose to go down a path where they don’t *have* to hear it.

        ANYWAY (wow, I’m really probably just ranting now. Apologies). Here’s my summarized conclusion:

        In an interpreting scenario, if there is a suggestion that the Spanish of a random heritage speaker can be trusted to do *my* job, in many cases I speak out and explain to the involved parties that this is a very risky assumption. I stand by these explanations.

        HOWEVER, in a classroom/interpreter training scenario, my approach would be different. It would probably be along the lines “Hey, your parents gave you an incredible gift by speaking Spanish to you growing up. There are many advantages in being heritage speakers, and I hope you’ll see them at play here. Please also realize that there is a lot to learn and many ways for your Spanish to improve, and that’s primarily why you’re here.”

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