A little while back I offered to serve as an interpreter, for free, for a non-profit aid trip to Guatemala. I like to help out and it seemed like it was a good cause. I was willing to go out on a limb and offer my professional services that have been bolstered by my studies and trainings during the better part of the last decade. Actually, I thought it would be an exciting opportunity.
By way of rejection, I received a note from the coordinator of volunteer services. She thanked me for my application and explained that they had found a “translator” who was “actually a native speaker” so he was “really bilingual.” The tone of the note suggested that I would clearly understand the preference for an interpreter whose first language was not English. I will venture to say that as long as the individual’s first language was Spanish, it would have been good enough for them, regardless of whether or not he was a native Guatemalan.
Don’t get me wrong. There are many qualified interpreters out there whose native language is Spanish, and their accent in their native language, along with their intuitive understanding of various Spanish grammatical rules and linguistic culture definitely trumps mine. Of course, my native knowledge of English is rather useful to my own interpretations, in the same way as their native Spanish helps them. But either way, qualified native Spanish interpreters are professionals and I owe them only the utmost respect. What gets my goat is when earnest non-profit volunteer coordinators who know nothing about the interpreting profession assume that if you were born to parents from somewhere in Latin America, you are automatically the most qualified to interpret.
I think that part of my frustration stems from how this attitude nearly discouraged me entirely from trying to pursue my chosen career. I still remember how it felt to be in advanced Spanish class, surrounded by students who had grown up speaking the language at home. I tried to emulate the way they transformed the word “bailado” [danced] into “baila-o”, lopping off their d’s (and s’s) with abandon. I wanted to be like them; I was embarrassed by my Gringa accent. I had bought into the idea that these classmates were truly bilingual in a way that I could never be. Even my professors heard me state my aspirations of court interpretation and conference interpretation with a degree of wariness. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for a court interpreter here in NJ who accepted my internship application and thereby demonstrated she believed in me, I think I might have given up. Again and again I was told, directly and indirectly, that this dream was unattainable.
I should note that it is possible that my professors’ pessimism was based not on my native language but rather on their knowledge that qualifying as an interpreter is HARD. It is hard for native Spanish speakers and native English speakers alike. As for the “true bilingual,” that is almost (but not quite) a myth entirely. Many of my classmates had the advantage of spoken accent, idioms and natural-sounding Spanish while I jumped ahead in the field of standardized grammar, written accent placement and the ability to study and apply rules of speech. Many of them had grown up with a very limited vocabulary and much of their Spanish was unwittingly and liberally sprinkled with English vocabulary and syntax. Meanwhile, I had plenty of catching up to do since I had spoken only English until the age of 16. In other words, none of us was the “true bilingual” that the non-profit volunteer coordinators are always looking for; all of us had a lot to learn.
I am an interpreter now. I still have an accent in Spanish and (yes, I’ll confess it!) I still sometimes mistake por for para. But I’ve stopped apologizing for my Gringa roots. If anyone doubts my qualifications, they can see my work in court and decide for themselves.
Printed on 3/20/15 at http://najit.org/blog