Native Tongue

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Students who speak Spanish and an indigenous Mayan language learn about professional interpreting. Interpreters of indigenous languages are in high demand.


Speakers of indigenous Mayan languages train to become professional interpreters. 

by Momo Chang::

It’s Saturday morning, and a dozen students file in with their notepads and folders tucked under their arms. One carries a dictionary in her purse.

The class is a 12-week series taking place in the Mission District of San Francisco, and its students all speak an indigenous Mayan language and Spanish. They are training to become better interpreters with the hopes of helping their community and making a living utilizing their unique language skills. Most are learning to interpret between their native indigenous language and Spanish, and in a few cases, between their native tongue and English.

Some have no experience interpreting and started on this journey while interpreting for their parents, while others have been interpreting for more than a decade.

The demand for interpreters of K’iche, Ts’eltal, Uspanteko, Mam, Ch’ol and Yucatec Maya — all indigenous Mayan languages — is on the rise.

In San Francisco alone, the Mayan descent community from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico is estimated at 20,000. And in agricultural regions, a significant portion of the farmworker population is indigenous.

The Mexican government has identified 68 indigenous languages in Mexico. The speakers of these indigenous languages are also immigrating to the US, particularly to states such as California, Texas, Washington and Arizona, Miguel Toledo told interpreters during a California Federation of Interpreters seminar on relay interpreting in Costa Mesa in March. Mayan languages include about 30 distinct languages, concentrated in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras.

“As court interpreters we are up against a huge challenge: How to deal with so many languages and so much diversity,” said Toledo, a Spanish and French interpreter in Riverside Courts. Toledo is indigenous and speaks some Isthmus Zapotec, a language spoken in parts of Oaxaca.

Despite the need, there are very few interpreters. There is only one registered (the court certification equivalent for non-tested languages) indigenous-language interpreter in California — in Mixteco, a non-Mayan language originating from the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Guerrero in Mexico — in a system with more than 900 registered or certified interpreters of more than 50 languages, based on the Judicial Council’s list of certified and registered court interpreters.

“You’re supposed to have an interpreter, especially in cases when you’re faced with losing your freedom, in the language that you feel most comfortable in,” says Naomi Adelson, who teaches Mayan interpreters in collaboration with Asociación Mayab, a nonprofit in San Francisco serving the city’s Mayan population.

Naomi Adelson

Naomi Adelson shares a laugh with her students. Adelson, a CA certified court interpreter in Spanish, teaches indigenous Mayan language speakers on court interpreting.

A few years ago when Adelson, a member of the California Federation of Interpreters, organized her first series of classes, the focus was entirely on relay interpreting, the method of interpreting often used at the United Nations.

That means that if an indigenous speaker needed and interpreter, there would have to be at least two interpreters — one to interpret from English to Spanish, and another from Spanish to the indigenous language. And again, back from the indigenous language to Spanish through one interpreter, and Spanish to English through another interpreter. This process, while necessary, takes longer and is also more costly, employing at least one additional interpreter.

“It’s like the telephone game that we played when we were little,” Toledo said.

While the language of instruction in schools in Mexico and Central America is almost solely in Spanish, not all Mayan immigrants and refugees were able to attend school consistently, particularly women and those from the rural areas, says Adelson, who is also a certified Spanish and English interpreter for the Superior Court of CA.

Part of the challenge is educating agencies on why it’s necessary to have indigenous interpreters, according to those who work with indigenous populations. Some of the population is monolingual, while others speak Spanish seemingly fluently without an accent, but do not have a true command of the language, Adelson says.

“Many people assume that we came from Mexico and that we should speak Spanish. And that’s not the reality for the indigenous community,” says Leoncio Vásquez Santos, executive director of The Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño or Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO), one of the few organizations that has also trained indigenous interpreters.

His organization, headquartered in Fresno with satellite offices in Greenfield, Santa Maria and Los Angeles, was founded by the indigenous community, mostly from Oaxaca, Mexico and has trained about 70 interpreters throughout the years in a 40-hour course. “It’s been a hard and difficult job to make these entities and those people in the administration, or whoever makes decisions on providing interpreters, to educate and make them understand that it is necessary to provide interpreters in the indigenous languages,” says Vásquez, who speaks Mixteco. Agencies, including in the medical field and legal system, still often rely on children or bilingual Spanish and English individuals, and not necessarily those who are trained to interpret, he said.

When indigenous interpreters are provided, relay interpreting is still the norm, because few people are bilingual and biliterate in both English and their indigenous tongue.

However, the children of indigenous immigrants are growing up here learning English, so the need for intermediary interpreter could lessen if members of the younger generation chose to become trained interpreters.

“They are just starting to exist,” Adelson says, referring to children of immigrants who are among the first to grow up in the U.S. while still maintaining their first language. Three of Adelson’s students or former students are now interpreting between English and Yucatec Maya, and English and Mam.

Martin Perez, 31, is one such person. When asked what he would like to get out of the trainings, he shrugs (“he’s humble, which is what I like to see in an interpreter, Adelson notes). Perez grew up in East Oakland and is fluent in Mam — a language spoken primarily in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico — and English. Recently, he was hired by the Alameda Court system to interpret between Mam and English, a rarity because it only required one interpreter.

Perez has worked many jobs, including as a pizza deliveryman, manager at a pizza shop, in construction and carpentry. He says he’s just learning about this new field and is taking it “step by step.”

A more senior interpreter who has more than a decade of experience is also taking the class. He and Perez are one of the few who can interpret directly between English and Mam.

Adelson hopes that both of these students take the written exam given by the CA Judicial Council Administrative Office of the Courts so that they can become registered interpreters with the state of CA. They would be the first in CA to become Mam-English interpreters if they did.

student's notes

A student takes notes, translating legal terms from Spanish to Mam, a Mayan language primarily spoken in Guatemala.

Francisco Icala is also considered a more seasoned interpreter. His first experience with interpreting was when he went with his mom to the hospital as a child. While children who interpret for parents is considered unethical in the professional world, it is a frequent reality. “It’s really hard,” he said about learning about interpreting. “Some words don’t exist (in K’iche).” But, he adds, “I’m learning a lot. Today, many people need interpretation.” And it shows: since his time interpreting for his mother, he has been called on to interpret in federal immigration courts, hospitals, schools and police.

During the class that day, which was instructed in Spanish, the students learned about legal terminology. They also focused on consecutive interpreting, one type among three — simultaneous, consecutive and sight translations, which are required of certified CA court interpreters. In one exercise, called dual-tasking, students listened to a recorded voice in Spanish. As the voice spoke, they had to repeat what the voice was saying while writing down numbers like 1, 2, 3 or writing in 10s.

This is training for active listening while also training the brain to handle two tasks simultaneously. In another exercise, the students had to take notes and remember an assortment of numbers including dates.

Elisa Chable hopes to turn this into her career by working as an interpreter in the courts, in hospitals or in immigration court. “I’m hoping to help people and, in a way, get a better job,” Chable, who currently works as a seamstress and is fluent in Yucatec Maya and Spanish, said.

Since 2008, Adelson, through Asociación Mayab, has trained about 20 Mayan interpreters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Carmen Montejo, a housecleaner who is in the class, says very simply that she would like to help others. Montejo speaks Spanish, Tseltal and Ch’ol, languages spoken primarily in Chiapas, Mexico. “It’s very interesting,” she said through an interpreter, about what she’s learning in the class. “I would like to help some people because they don’t speak English.”

Anabelle Garay contributed to this story.

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