The problem of translation


It is believed that just by translating into Spanish everything said and written in English, Latino immigrants will be able to understand everything and engage in public life as English speakers do. At recent board meetings at Shoreline Unified School District, the absence of adequate Spanish interpretation prevented Latino parents from fully participating. They complained that interpreters from the agency Language People didn’t show up or offered deficient services, including one who translated only “one or two out of 10 words” and even fell asleep. Superintendent Tom Stubbs later apologized, promising that it wouldn’t happen again: “We owe it to our families to provide translation at all our board meetings and to provide translated materials,” he said. 

But it’s not that simple. Besides language, there are other barriers preventing understanding between Latinos and Anglos in general. The biggest barrier is cultural. Almost all immigrants arrived here with their own habits and prejudices, limited education and little information or means to understand how life and customs work in this country—including organizational and formal systems and cultural and social codes that are obvious to those born and raised here. 

With time, they adapt, imitating others who arrived before them. And so they seem to be fine at their jobs, on the streets, in stores and, when they have children, at schools. But by not speaking and understanding English well, systems that have their own vocabulary and codes—such as schools—can seem strange and intimidating. Few Mexican schools enjoy parent participation, as they are part of an authoritarian and vertical system in which teachers and principals are considered superior people.

Mexico, like many other countries, has an unequal economic and social system within which everyone knows his place on the social ladder according to his appearance, skin color, finances and family or place of origin. All know that those with more means and European looks are superior, deserving of respect, admiration and the freedom from being contradicted. Everybody wants to ascend socially and economically, but very few do. 

Americans often ignore these cultural differences and the difficulties immigrants face here; they think that by treating them as equals, Latinos will understand them and how things go here. But such equality is hardly reciprocated. Latinos smile and look pleased with such nice treatment, but inside they feel they are different, and they are frequently uncomfortable. They don’t understand why someone they see as superior would treat them as equals.

So what other conditions are needed for a true interpretation to take place at a meeting? First, it’s impossible to interpret if you don’t hear well (a complaint made by the sleepy interpreter at Shoreline). For an interpreter to translate simultaneously in Spanish what’s said in English, there must be an efficient audio system, with a quality receiver transmitting from the speaker’s microphone into the translator’s earpiece. It’s also necessary for those participating in English to be conscious of how they speak, avoiding speaking in a low voice or too fast, interrupting each other or talking at the same time. They should not read documents aloud, since doing so results in faster speech, nor use too many acronyms or specialized vocabulary the interpreter may not know (or which he will be forced to explain). A translator must be in direct contact with speakers, letting them know when such things happen. 

From the many cultural barriers in interpretation arises the term “cultural interpretation.”  A grasp of this concept makes possible a good interpreter—one who is conscious of cultural differences, who can interrupt speakers and listeners and explain confusing statements to be sure all terminology, ideas and expressions are truly understood by everyone. A good cultural interpreter can also set the tone of a discussion or participate as a mediator, explaining things to people across cultures so that both parties have the same opportunity to participate, understand and be understood, no matter their differences. But this ideal is hardly ever realized.

Written translations face similar problems, since we assume immigrants can read and understand as well as average American readers; however, nobody knows their real literacy level and their means to understand as equals. A written translation usually comes with mistakes, since translators often don’t know how to write correctly in Spanish, and they tend to translate too literally from English. (A good translator is always a good writer.) Eighty per cent or more of written translations in Spanish contain serious grammatical and syntactical mistakes and mistranslations.

It’s great to have translators and translations at Shoreline and other institutions, but if cultural and educational differences, as well as deficiencies in translations, are ignored, real communication and understanding will not be achieved.


Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, writer and native of Puebla, Mexico. A Spanish-language version of this column will appear in next week’s edition.