Defense.gov News Article: Panetta: Language Training Critical to U.S. Interests, Security
I was grabbing a quick lunch with a colleague, Tony Rosado, recently, between sessions, at a language conference we both attended in San Franciso. See my prior post on FIT. The conversation naturally turned to work and I asked him what he was up to. To my amazement, as I am so far removed from this sphere, he went on to tell me that he was off to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where he has been working for some time as a “trainer of trainers”. He teaches our servicemen and women foreign language skills to enhance our national security and defend U.S. interests abroad. I honestly did not know of Uncle Sam’s interest in this initiative which I find very intelligent and commendable, in accord with an opinion that Madeleine Albright and Chuck Hagel wrote for USA Today on the subject a few months ago, especially in view of the language cuts we are constantly seeing. To see the op-ed, click here. Coincidentally, I was just reading today about a new technological offering by Lockheed, Martin, to offer remote interpreting through a smartphone on the battlefield.
I have asked Tony to fill us in on this interesting aspect of our profession through a brief interview as follows:
How did you become involved with interpreting?
I went to law school and practiced law for a few years. When I was an attorney I worked with many interpreters. I have always been fascinated by words and languages, so I made a decision that forever changed my life and became an interpreter! It has been almost 30 years, and so far, so good. I believe that going to law school in Mexico City, taking the California bar, and practicing law in Mexico and the United States allowed me to learn correct legal terminology and understand both legal systems. For this reason I am convinced that it is of outmost importance to learn the right terminology in your language pair. When I practiced law I did everything: Civil and criminal law in Mexico, and then family and immigration law in the States. As an interpreter, I have specialized in Mexican legal terminology and American legal terminology. This works really well because it has opened the door to an extraordinary group of clients: The Mexican attorneys, companies, and government, and it also serves me well when I work for the courts, as in a good portion of the United States, the majority of the Spanish-speaking defendants come from Mexico. This is very interesting because when I interpret for them and I use Mexican legal terminology, they understand and feel at ease. The truth is that this is the Spanish they grew up with, the one they saw on TV and read in the papers. It is only after they come, and find themselves talking to Spanish speakers from other countries, and after they are exposed to the “made-in-America Spanish” that they have to re-learn their vocabulary. I always tell my colleagues who believe that Mexicans forget their Mexican Spanish when they come across the border and try to convince me that they will only understand words and “legal terminology” made-in-America, that it is only because of them, the interpreters who use those words, that they start understanding “aseguranza” and “acuerdo declaratorio”. I feel that we are a real profession, and when we interpret for professionals, we should sound like professionals (attorneys in this case) That is why I go around the country teaching “Mexican legal Spanish and proceedings” If other Spanish speaking professional communities were to do the same, we would be able to provide the best possible service to the attorneys, parties, and judiciary.
How and when did you start working for the Defense Language Institute?
Actually I do not work for DLI. I am a contractor and a subcontractor. It started several years ago when I began working as an interpreter for the Department of Defense, specifically the Northern Command and NORAD. That gave me the opportunity to work closely with the military. From the beginning, I fell in love with their sense of duty, dedication, and commitment. Therefore, when I was approached by a defense contractor to participate in a new and challenging program that the U.S. military was implementing, I got involved right away. It has been an incredible experience. It is very rewarding. As an interpreter, it made me increase my vocabulary, and knowledge of geography. Military conference interpreters will know what I am talking about, but for the rest of my colleagues, let me give you an example: As an interpreter for NORTHCOM/NORAD you have to interpret for military personnel from all different branches of the service, and from many countries. One time I had to work a conference that required ample knowledge of naval vocabulary, as well as the capability to recognize all military ranks and their equivalents in the other branches of the military and foreign armed forces. A captain is not the same in the army and navy, for example. Unfortunately I cannot give more detail of the type of knowledge you must have as an interpreter to be able to work these assignments, but please believe me when I tell you that it is very challenging and different from what most interpreters do every day. Working with military interpreters, personnel, and foreign language instructors has given me the privilege to see the world through other people’s points of view. It is really great to hang out with other colleagues after a conference or a long trial, but believe me, getting together with colleagues from other countries who have witnessed first-hand the war in Afganistan, or having dinner with one of Sadaam Hussein’s interpreters during his trial, is a different experience. To all my teaching colleagues: The sense of duty and patriotism that envelops you when you are working with our finest and bravest is the most rewarding experience you can have as a teacher. Military interpreters are not just good interpreters, they are also brave people with a sense of duty. In early August of this year the Taliban shot down a U.S. helicopter in Wardak killing American servicemen, among them some of the Seals who took out Bin Laden, according to the press. One of those killed was the Seals’ interpreter. Many interpreters have lost their lives in times of war. I do not know of any other type of interpreter who has to keep an eye on the person he is working with so he doesn’t kill him. Military interpreting is an essential part of our national security, and we have come a long way from the end of World War II when the U.S. prosecutors arrived in Europe after the war for the Nuremberg trials without a single interpreter (They never thought about needing one). I can tell you that we are only a few years away from seeing many of these magnificent men and women join the other fields of interpretation as they retire from the military. It was very exciting to go to InterpretAmerica in Washington D.C. earlier this year and see how other interpreters are now recognizing and embracing military interpretation as a fundamental part of our profession.
What type of courses/skills do you teach there?
Military interpreting is a type of interpretation just like conference, legal, medical, and community. Military interpreters learn the same basics as all interpreters in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation. The difference is that their work is so complex, and it is executed under such difficult conditions, that they have to utilize their military training on top of the basic interpretation/translation skills and vocabulary. Can you imagine interpreting while people are shooting bullets, choppers are flying over your head, and there is an expectation that you must get it right all the time? Other interpreters complain of noisy hospitals and courtrooms! When you train the trainers you teach interpretation to language instructors who are very capable and have mastered their language pairs. Many of the people you work with at this level are top professionals in some scientific or technical field somewhere in the world. One thing I find fascinating is the constant need to keep up with all the world languages, and the need to continue to add new ones. The world is definitely getting smaller in the 21st century.
Are you familiar with prior students of DLI who have gone on to pursue a career in languages?
The program is new, but I am convinced that in the future our profession will be enriched by many smart, dedicated, and capable military interpreters who will eventually enter the other areas of interpretation. They will be awesome.
What portion of your time do you typically allocate to instruction vs. interpreting/translating?
To me, the secret to be able to last in this profession without getting tired is to achieve a balance that will work for you. In my case, I try to do one-third interpreting, one-third translating, and one-third teaching.
Do you enjoy any aspect of your work more than the others?
I enjoy all aspects. But the truth is that sometimes I do enjoy one more than the others. It really depends on the project. At this time, I am very involved with teaching and the business side of the profession, and I am enjoying it very much. I also want to mention that attending professional conferences is a very important part of my motivation to keep going. I have not missed many and I plan to continue to attend. Lately I have spent quite a bit of time teaching because I see that as the profession evolves and becomes more specialized, there is a greater need to provide the proper instruction for specialized fields.
We are like physicians who went from being the doctor for every possible illness, dentists, veterinarians, and yes, even barbers, that have evolved to become specialists in very specific aspects of their profession. I am sure that is also happening to us. Clients will more and more look not just for a plain- vanilla interpreter, but for a legal Mexican Spanish interpreter, a Korean interpreter with experience in neurology, a Tagalog boxing interpreter, etc.
I am also spending a good chunk of my time on the business side of the profession. I have always looked after this part of my practice along with the interpreting and translating services portion. Some time ago I realized that the world economy and technology would change our profession and how we do business. I am working on strategies to stay competitive in the 21st. century to be ready to compete with machines, ever-changing technology, services offered by other countries at a lower fee, and an economy where one of our main sources of work: The government at all levels, is cutting expenses, reducing its budget, and there is a perception that even in the private sector quality has been sacrificed to save a buck. Either you evolve and adapt or you will be gone like the dinosaurs. Traditional interpretation and translation as we knew it is an endangered species destined to disappear.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the field of military interpreting. We look forward to questions and feedback via comments. Let us know if you have any stories relating to this genre, or whether you are interested in any other particular aspects of our profession that we might discuss in this forum.