Translating: An Exercise in Spotting Oppression

8 Enero, 2020

Yesterday we toured a Costa Rican prison and visited the Supreme Court of Costa Rica. There was a man with our group all day who, it turned out, was an abogado (lawyer) in San José, apparently donating his time to share his expertise with the group and translate for our tour guides. At the prison he did a pretty good job of just translating for the guide—a woman who was (we learned after the visit) the prison warden. When we got to the supreme court, however, it became clear he was skipping things the speaker was saying (my limited Spanish came in handy several times), and elaborating with great animation when “interpreting” for her.

The speaker was a very professionally-attired woman who is the public relations specialist for the Supreme Court, and we were there to ask her questions about the legal system of Costa Rica. This is her specialty.

After her presentation about how the system works was finished, she shifted to question/answer time, and that’s where the really frustrating part began.

Allow me to pause for some explanation, in case you don’t know me. I’m a certified, licensed professional American Sign Language interpreter back in the States, where we have strict laws around what interpreting between Deaf people and people who don’t understand sign language looks like. The first, biggest, most important thing is that you have to interpret what’s being said, and not “interpret” what’s not being said. Sometimes this is frustrating, especially if the person you’re interpreting for is not an expert in the topic being discussed and you feel like you know more than they do about the topic, or you have personal expertise or experience on something that the speaker doesn’t. Sometimes you have to interpret blatantly wrong information. But you do it anyway, because you’re interpreting. Your job is to provide connection and communication between two persons who could not otherwise understand each other. That’s it. It’s what you do.

Now, this abogado was not a professional interpreter. I understand that. However, he was serving as our interpreter, and work had been put into setting up this visit and the Director of Public Relations for the Supreme Court had made time in her schedule to spend with us, and answer any questions we might have. But, since spoken language interpreting takes place sequentially not simultaneously, she would begin her answer to a given question and after a few moments the abogado would stop her so he could interpret. Then he would interpret…and interpret…and start explaining…and expounding…and then we would move on to the next question. After a few minutes of this, he started not even bothering to let her start answering the questions. He just answered them. All of them. Pretty much completely. Occasionally he would consult her, but mostly he just left her standing there, folding and re-folding her hands awkwardly.

Layers of Oppression

Once before I was in a Latin American country, when a man (in this case an American Baptist Pastor) was serving as interpreter for a woman. My Spanish was even more limited then, but it was clear that he was interpreting what she said, and then expounding, and then adding, and then moving on. That time, we were working together to teach a workshop about how to work as a sign language interpreter in religious settings, and the irony of his behavior was not lost on me.

In both of these cases, I’m not sure what’s coming into play. Is this just what happens when you have interpreters who are not bound by professional ethics? If so, then it’s certainly a good thing that ASL interpreters are bound by a code of ethics. But I can’t help but feeling like, even if I knew nothing about the ethics of interpreting, I would still be respectful enough to let the person who’s been asked to speak speak, and if I have more to add, I can do so later. After her valuable time is no longer being used, for instance. During the processing time back at the school. Or on the bus. Or any other time than when the professional in charge is standing there looking awkward and possibly not understanding anything that’s being said.

Which brings us to the question of linguistic oppression. The abogado could speak English, and he spoke it quite well. Chances are, the woman of the court probably spoke some English too, but clearly not enough to feel comfortable speaking for herself. Some of the students in our group spoke Spanish. Some even asked questions in Spanish. Those questions were always answered in English, which then allowed the abogado to add his two cents and left the non-English-fluent people looking awkwardly unsure what to do with themselves. When English is prioritized over other languages, oppression is in play. This is true in the experience I had yesterday, and it’s true when ASL users prioritize speaking while Deaf people are in the area. Family members and friends of Deaf individuals—even interpreters when they are not actively working—are often guilty of language oppression under very similar circumstances. Someone asks your Deaf friend a question, you interpret it, and then you go on to add an explanation, and maybe a little story to help the person who doesn’t sign to understand the Deaf person’s answer…and pretty soon you’ve been speaking English while leaving the Deaf person (who was probably the one asked in the first place) in the dust. Language oppression.

And what about gender oppression? Would the abogado have been so free with his opinions and so sloppy with his interpreting if the professional in question had been another man? Would another man have stood there quietly and let him take over and run the show? Would someone of the same gender been more likely to butt in and take the conversation back? I can’t know, obviously, but I suspect the answer is yes. In the case of the American Baptist Pastor in Ecuador, I strongly suspect racial and gender oppression were coinciding: the women he was speaking over were Ecuadorian, and he was an Older White American Man. When we hold an Ecuadorian Woman and an Older White American Man up side by side, it’s a fair bet that the Man’s going to be heard more.

I’m grateful for the access that the abogado’s expertise allowed us. He donated his time, if I understand correctly, and we got amazing access and accurate translations (when he was translating) due to his willingness to work with our little Mizzou group. However, as a professional interpreter and a Women’s and Gender Studies major, I have to be attentive to how the information I’m receiving here in Costa Rica is being given to me, and what prejudices, experiences, systems of oppression and worldviews it’s being filtered through before it reaches me. Unfortunately, in this particular situation, there was a pretty long list.

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