Friday, November 30, 2012

Will Lakota Survive?

Lakota Immersion
Lakota is the language of one of the branches of the Sioux native people.
In the post here last month about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, it was mentioned that Lakota/English interpreters were needed for internal communication between the English-speaking performers and the hundred or so Lakota Sioux in the troupe. (Enter lakota in the Search box on the right to find the post.) So Lakota was still very much a live language at the start of the 20th century.

Sadly the language declined in the ensuing hundred years until now it’s on the verge of extinction. The Sioux have recently reacted:
"The spiritual, cultural and political survival of the Lakota people is contingent upon the recovery of their language, said Bryan Brewer, president-elect of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
“As the incoming president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, I will waste no time in debating this need,” Brewer said Thursday. “We will move with purpose and conviction, and all of our available resources to address this challenge.”
"A retired educator, Brewer, 65, addressed the fifth annual Lakota Language Summit, being held in Rapid City at Best Western Ramkota Hotel. Representatives of 23 Lakota-, Dakota- and Nakota-speaking tribes from 11 states and three Canadian provinces are at the summit.
"This is a turning point in history for the Seven Council Fires, Brewer said, referring to the seven major divisions of the Sioux Nation.
"One year ago, the state and national alliances to save Native languages declared the Lakota language in a state of emergency."
Meanwhile one man, the last fluent Lakota native speaker, is doing something practical to try and keep it alive in the next generation.
"Tom Red Bird is 61 years old. Red Bird is one of the remaining people in the world who can speak Lakota, an indigenous language spoken by Hunkpapa Sioux since time unknown. He spends his days in a large airy room with green plants in the windows among 10 boys and girls, speaking to them only in the ancient language of their ancestors... these little ones hear and speak Lakota with Red Bird and the three instructional aides in the room.
"Red Bird speaks it fast and fluently since his own childhood on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The aides speak it slowly. They, too, are learning as they go.
"It is an experimental program at Sitting Bull Community College on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border."
Let's wish him success.
  • Lauren Donovan. (The Bismarck Tribune). Program at tribal college teaches Lakota language. Daily Republic, 21 November, 2012. The article is here.
  • Andrea J. Cook. Brewer pledges to preserve Lakota language. Rapid City Journal, 16 November 2012. The report is here, with a fine portrait photo of Bryan Brewer.
Lakota immersion. Source: Daily Republic / AP photo file.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Whispering and the Origin of Simultaneous Interpreting

In a recent online discussion between Professional Interpreters about the training that's given in interpreter schools (see References), one object of criticism was the lack of training for chuchotage.
What is chuchotage?
Chuchotage is French for whispering, i.e., whispered interpreting. The Professionals’ use of the French term is a reminder of the influence of French interpreters on the development of modern conference interpreting. I’ll use the English word because, for one thing, whispering is not confined to Professionals.
“In whispered interpreting..., the interpreter sits or stands next to the small target-language audience whilst whispering a simultaneous interpretation of the matter to hand; this method requires no equipment.”
(Though “this method requires no equipment”, lightweight equipment is sometimes used to enhance it.)
The “small target-language audience” is often, indeed is ideally, a single person, because whispering doesn’t carry far. The maximum is three or four people grouped close to the interpreter. Despite this limitation, it can be used to advantage when there are only very few people in a gathering who need the interpretation. Since it needs no equipment and is usually done by a single interpreter, it’s very economical. Besides conference interpreting, it’s used in court and liaison interpreting. Like all simultaneous interpreting, it offers the advantage that it takes up much less time than consecutive. In fact it’s widely used, and many interpreter agencies offer it: see the ads on Google.
When we look at it more closely, we observe some finer distinctions. For example, besides true whispering there’s also murmuring. In whispering, besides its low volume, the enunciation is, as linguists say, devoiced; that is to say, the resonance of vowels and certain consonants is reduced or eliminated: z becomes s and so on. In murmuring, the voicing is retained and only the volume is reduced.
Another distinction is in the manner of translating. The definition quoted above says it’s “simultaneous”, and so it is in the sense that the interpreter whispers while the speaker is still talking. But the interpreter may stick very closely behind the speaker and whisper continuously, or may translate in short bursts with interruptions. There is also summarizing, where the interpreter doesn’t render all that’s said but only delivers bursts of summary. In general, whispering hasn’t been studied much and I don’t know any research that has looked into these finer distinctions.
So whispering has its usefulness, but what are its drawbacks?
First and foremost, obviously, the limitation on the size of its audience. Any attempt to increase it requires the interpreter to speak louder, and then it’s no longer whispering. Worse than that, ‘loud whispering’ disturbs the listening and concentration of people around who are not targeted, including the speaker. Nothing could be more annoying.
Second, it’s a mode of simultaneous interpreting, and like all SI it requires great concentration to listen, translate and speak at the same time, even if the translation is only summarized. Therefore it’s very tiring. Furthermore, "while it takes less effort to produce a whisper, it tires out the vocal cords more quickly." I said above that it’s commonly done by a single interpreter – unfortunately so, because that interpreter ought to have a relief if it goes on for very long. (In my experience, short consecutive interpreting is less tiring.) There was a good discussion in a Kudoz forum a while back about the load on a single interpreter and the professional pay for it (see References).
Third, the listener too has to concentrate because of interference from the ambient noise and the voice of the speaker.
What then should interpreting students be taught and practice, beyond the basic skill of simultaneous translation?
The most important extra skill, and for some people the most difficult, is prolonged voice control. If you're concentrating on listening and translation, your voice volume may rise without your noticing it and you may even slip from whispering into murmuring. In that case you'll usually be called to order by black looks from the other people around who don't want to hear you. Some people have naturally loud voices, which they must make an extra effort to dampen
It's also important to learn to place listeners and speaker in the right position vis-a-vis the interpreter, and to resist any request to 'whisper' to more than four listeners.
To be concluded.
  • What they don't teach you at interpreting schools. Interpreting Journal Club Session 23, October 27, 2012. Read it here.
  • Section on ‘Whispered’ in the Wikipedia article on 'Language interpretation’, which is here.
  • There's also a Wikipedia article on the phonetics of whispering here.
  • Chuchotage. forum discussion, 2008. Read it here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

American Election Postscript

Dearborn Mosque
This is by way of a postscript to the previous post (November 4) about the role of Natural or Native Translators in the American presidential election. So that post should be read first.
“Election day in Dearborn [Michigan] did bring out a large number of Arab Americans to local precincts, but along with it came several issues that many voters feel need to be addressed.
“At the Salina Elementary School precinct in the south end of the city, State Representative Rashida Tlaib, who was monitoring the precinct during the afternoon on behalf of the Democrat party, says the precinct had very few translators to assist bilingual voters and many residents were at first denied voting due to errors in the system. ‘There are a lot of Middle Eastern names that are very long and some of the clerk workers are denying them the right to vote because there might not have been a hyphen in their name. We should always have translators at these locations.’
“Salina wasn't the only precinct that experienced some setbacks. There were also issues among Arab Americans at William Ford, who needed translators to help them vote. While many translators were at the precinct, there were some complaints that it wasn’t enough.
“Cindy Galea, the Election Supervisor for Dearborn told us in a phone interview that they received several complaints on election day, but she stressed that the city clerk's office tried their hardest to make sure that multiple interpreters were available at every precinct, especially on the east side. The city clerk's office had reached out to ACCESS, who gave the city at least 30-40  people who were bilingual and also understood how to work the computer system. With 50 precincts in the city, the interpreters had to be divided accordingly.
“One minor problem that occurred at several precincts was reports of soliciting from several poll workers. According to Galea, this wasn't a major issue but there were a couple of cases of bilingual poll workers who were assisting residents regardless of whether they asked for help or not, which is against voting guidelines. Interpreters are only supposed to assist residents when they ask for help.
“One issue that emerged at the Lowery precinct on the east side of the city ended with Dearborn Police having to be called onto the scene.
“A local man tells us that when he was waiting in line, he noticed that a poll worker was not communicating clearly with bilingual residents. The local man says he offered to help the poll worker interpret for residents who were confused about straight party voting. The poll worker initially agreed that the local man could help interpret for residents and he was able to assist voters for over two hours.
“However after 8:00 p.m., the poll worker had an issue with the local man still being inside of the polling location because the polls had closed. The local man said he refused to leave because people were still inside placing their votes and needed guidance. The poll worker became irritated and called the police, claiming that the local man was a disturbance. While no arrests were made, police did make a report of the incident.
“Galea stated that for future purposes, residents should know that they are able to bring an interpreter with them to assist them with the ballots [their translator of choice – see previous post].”
From this we learn that
  • It's illegal for interpreters to intervene unless voters ask them to.
  • Though Spanish is the language for which interpreters are most required in the USA, there are large communities with other languages, in this case Arabic, who also need them.
  • A "local man" stepped in to help. It's often the desire to help a stranger who has a momentary language problem that triggers Natural Translation. The "local man" should be congratulated for standing his ground.
  • Proper names in other languages and cultures present a special problem. People think that personal names don't need translating, but they commonly undergo modification even if it's only in the pronunciation or spelling. Muhammad or Mohammad or Mohamed or Mahomet? Computers are worse than humans at coping with such changes.
Samer Hijazi. Shortage of translators, mechanical problems plague local polls. Arab American News, 9 November 2012. The full report is here.

Brian Harris. The translation of names. In J.-M. Bravo (ed.), A New Spectrum of Translation Studies, Universidad de Valladolid, Spain, 2004, pp. 73-92. Available here

 Mosque at Dearborn. Source: Shakeel Ali, Peace and Collaborative Development Network

Sunday, November 11, 2012

High-School Students as Community Translators

This report comes from Dalton, Georgia, USA, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Classroom meetings are hard enough when teachers struggle to explain curriculum, and parents press to learn why their children aren't making better marks. Language barriers makes the encounter even more treacherous.
“Schools here are turning to their own kids for help.
“Students from Morris Innovative High School are translating at parent-teacher conferences in local elementary schools. Their work eases communication difficulties, say school officials, and gives the translators real-world experience.
‘"‘When you talk about a child's grade, it can get emotional,' said Paige Watts, the teacher at Morris High School who lines up translators for three local elementary schools. "All the student translators have made things gel better between teachers and families. They've helped a lot, and I've watched them mature and grow up through the process."
“A language gap looms especially large in this northwest Georgia county, [a center of the] carpet and flooring industry. More than one-quarter of the population speaks Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than half of those are not proficient in English.
"‘They want to know how their kids are doing in school,' said sophomore [second year high school student] Estela Fuentes, who has translated in some parent-teacher conferences. ‘They want their kids to succeed, and they need to get information that would be hard to get normally. I really wanted to be part of that process.’
“Fuentes said she's happy to help parents understand what's happening in their children's classrooms. Junior Ronaldo Adame said the work also gives the translators practical experience.
“’It looks good on college applications and resumes,’ said Adame, ‘and could lead to part-time work.’
“The Morris student translators are also helping give the school exposure in the community. They've worked at a health fair and will have opportunities to work with a local carpet manufacturer and in a college admissions office. Students will also shadow translators at a local hospital."
  • The penetration of Spanish, according to the U.S. Census figures.
  • There's no mention of training, It seems the students are thrown in at the deep end.
  • Nevertheless, their work, done in a context that they know well themselves as students, appears to be effective.
  • While most of the interpreting is undoubtedly of the liaison type, some of it's conference interpreting (parent-teacher conferences).
  • The student translators are happy to help, and don't regard the work as an imposition.
  • Their ages and education: the ones quoted are 15 and 17, so they're mature adolescents. But they don't yet have a postsecondary education.
  • The work has a beneficial effect on the translators: "I've watched them mature and grow up through the process."
  • The report, being popular journalism and neither a professional nor a technical text, doesn't distinguish interpreter from translator.
 CNHI. Schools facing language barrier use students for translation. Bluefield Daily Telegraph, 8 November 2012. The full report is here.
The Wikipedia article on Dalton is here,

Morris Innovative High School students Luiz Paniagua, 17, left, and Estela Fuentes, 15, translate for students at an elementary school health fair. (Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Daily Citizen, Dalton, GA)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Translators Will Be There on Tuesday

As you may have heard, the American presidential election will take place on Tuesday.

And the translators will be there when needed, right in the polling booths.
"'Federal law allows a voter to have a translator of choice present– like a friend or a family member – even inside the voting booth. The voter absolutely has every right to bring a translator of their choice who can assist them with their ballot. The translator will have to sign an oath [at the polling location] saying he [or she] is not going to improperly influence their vote,' explained Maureen Haver, state director, Common Cause [in Houston]. 'While polling stations may provide translators,' Haver said, 'having a trusted person to provide assistance can be especially useful for voters who may be only partially literate in their own language. Time and time again, we continue to hear that poll workers are saying that only they can provide assistance to these voters. That is incorrect information,' Haver emphasized.

"Haver said, 'The assistance in the booth not only applies to the Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese-speaking communities of Houston, but also here in Alief, which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the entire city, we have Indonesian speakers, we have Malaysian speakers, we have Punjabi. We have all these other languages.' Ballots in Harris County, which includes Houston, are available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and now Chinese as well. The Voting Rights Act has several criteria that mandate multi-lingual ballots based on Census data. Harris County was ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to print Vietnamese ballots based on the 2000 Census which documented at least 10,000 Vietnamese residents old enough to vote but who were not English proficient. From the 2010 Census, the Harris County Clerk’s office made the same numerical determination about the Chinese community.
Note that there are no qualifications required for "the translator of choice." It's the voter who decides. One hopes that the people who translate the ballot papers are Expert Translators, for a mistranslation in the ballot papers could have widespread consequences. However, the helpers in the voting stations and the translators in the booths will practically all be Natural or Native Translators.

Khalil Abdullah. Right to translator of choice invigorates Houston voters. New America Media, 1 November 2012. The report is here.

Bilingual presidential voting paper in English and Spanish. Source:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Unrecognized Translators: Tour Guides

Vincent Hardy
Hard on the heels of news about a conference on religious translation and interpreting (to find it, enter germersheim in the Search box on the right), come announcements of several other meetings that indicate people's conception of translating is broadening.

In chronological order, the first is a one-day seminar in London on 10 November with the title Tourist guiding - an exciting opportunity, and it's organized by the Interpretation Division of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. For the announcement, click here.

An initiative to be applauded! This blog has already included tourist couriering and guiding among the many forms of unrecognized translation, i.e., translating that goes unrecognized because it forms part and parcel of some other job. See, for example, the two posts that are retrieved by entering courier in the Search box on the right. In them I tell how I started out on my own interpreter career as a courier and guide for a London travel agency. (There's a technical distinction between courier and guide, but they're closely related.) I didn't forget my origins. Many years later, by which time I was teaching conference interpreting in Canada, an exercise I always gave my students was to interpret for one of the official guides (see photo and Image) on a tour of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. As the guides are bilingual in English and French, they could critique the students' work. The mode of interpreting was long consecutive, which requires note-taking. The exercise got the students out of their stuffy booths and away from their comfortable seats around a conference table and gave them a taste of interpreting on their feet and on the move valuable for liaison interpreting. It's true that the "exciting opportunity" in the London announcement means how Expert Interpreters can make extra money by guiding; but conversely guiding can give a toehold to newcomers in the interpreting profession.

Many tour guides are multilingual, and among them there are Native and even Natural Translators. I once heard Danica Seleskovitch, a famous teacher of conference interpreters, tell how she was helped out in an African marketplace by a young boy who interpreted for her. That's probably the closest she came to acknowledging Natural Interpreting, but let me add an anecdote of my own.

One morning some 30 years ago, my wife and I crossed the Nile by felucca from Luxor to the landing point on the opposite shore for the Valley of the Kings. We had left at dawn so as to be ahead of the crowd and the heat, but when we disembarked we were already assailed by the usual knot of guides, souvenir sellers and other suppliers to tourists. We wanted to break free of them, because we'd been to the Valley before. So we spoke only French to one another and pretended we didn't understand the lingua franca, English. We were almost out of the scrum when we heard a voice behind us call out, Msieu', Madame. Je parle français. Je peux vous montrer tout. [Sir, Madam. I speak French. I can show you everything.] We turned round to face an Egyptian boy 12, perhaps 13 years old, in very worn clothes. He was too young and too poorly dressed to be an official guide, and anyway he didn't have a badge. Yet we were so taken aback by his French and amazed by his quick ear that we agreed to take him on for the morning. His knowledge of Ancient Egyptian history was sketchy, but no worse than what many of the real guides spouted. We kept up the pretence of only speaking French. When we needed something from one of the locals, refreshments for example, he translated for us between French and Arabic. He also translated signs and information panels that were only in Arabic. He even claimed he could translate some of the hieroglyphic inscriptions. His French and his translations were far from perfect, but he got by.

Of course we were intrigued to know how he'd learnt French so well. Had he learnt it at school? Did he have French-speaking relatives? Neither of those. He told us he'd worked the previous two digging seasons for a team of French archaeologists in the Valley and that's how he'd picked it up.

We said au revoir back at the landing stage and it was the last we saw of him. We wondered how many other French-speaking tourists he would charm.

Vincent Hardy
Vincent is a Franco-Ontarian, a French-speaking native of the Canadian province of Ontario. There are about half a milliion of them. They are not to be lumped together with the Québecois (Quebeckers) in the province next door. Growing up among an English-speaking majority, most of them are early bilinguals. He studied at the University of Ottawa, a bilingual university that trains interpreters for the Canadian Parliament. He has a special fondness for Ottawa and its institutions, having worked bilingually both as a Parliamentary Guide and as a tour guide at the Mackenzie King Estate, residence of a former Prime Minister of Canada.

The Wikipedia article on Franco-Ontarians is here.