Monthly Archives: September 2011

Profile of a Talented Interpreter and Administrator at S.D.N.Y.


Nancy Festinger

I am trying to create an awareness in our community about various players in our profession that stand out, whose work differs in some sense from the type of assignments I normally engage in, working for private attorneys, the courts and at conferences for multinational companies. In my world, that is the status quo.

I had heard about Nancy Festinger, the legendary chief interpreter at the Southern District of New York for years through several colleagues in NYC, but I had never had the opportunity to meet her. For those who are not familiar with it, the Southern District is one of the most influential and active federal district courts in the United States, largely because of its jurisdiction over New York’s major financial centers.

Nancy and I finally coincided in Scottsdale, AZ at the NAJIT annual conference a few short years ago.  She was the then editor of Proteus, the NAJIT newsletter. We hit it off at the event and she asked me if I would be interested in writing a regular column for Proteus. It was a great opportunity for me because Nancy is a gifted writer and I learned a lot from having her edit my articles.

When I conceived the idea of writing profiles/interviews of colleagues for my blog, I immediately thought of her because her job is unique. She is in contact with very varied circumstances and interpreters.

Here is her story.

How did you become involved with interpreting?

I became interested in interpreting, as so many of us did, by chance—although any language-oriented person will gravitate toward areas in which linguistic knowledge can be applied.

From a young age, I was fascinated by language, probably because of the many languages in my family history. My grandparents, all of whom had been born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. at different ages, spoke with heavy accents, in splintered syntax. One grandfather had spoken four or five different languages in his line of work. My mother’s first language was French, though she stopped speaking it at the age of 11. All this was intriguing. I was a bookish kid who loved reading and playing word games. I still remember my amazement at a little pink book I found in the library called You Can Write Chinese. What a great title!

After college, all I knew was that I wanted to work with language. I felt most drawn to literary translation because I knew it would teach me about writing. (A traditional MFA program held no attraction.) I had a thirst for “real life,” so I worked for a few years, then decided to go to Spain for a year. When I came back to NY, I got a contract to translate a book of oral history, which I had read while I was there. While I was working on the translation, I picked up a continuing education catalog from a local college, and saw a class titled “Court Interpreting: An Alternative Career for the Bilingual Individual.”  It piqued my interest, and I signed up. (Lucky for me, since it was the first and only time the course was ever offered.)  I especially liked the word “alternative” since I had been to an alternative college in the 1970s, a time when so many of us were questioning conventional career choices.

In class we had a great student-teacher ratio: five students to two teachers, one of whom was a staff interpreter in state court (David Fellmeth) and the other a freelance interpreter in federal court (Dena Kohn), who shortly thereafter became head of the SDNY interpreters unit.  During our court visit, I was surprised to see the interpreter sitting right next to the defendant! Thanks to the teachers’ encouragement, at the end of the semester, I trotted off to state court to see if they needed summer per diems. Of course I didn’t really interpret yet, I just had some basic notions, a little practice, and high motivation. These were the days before interpreter exams for state court. Street crime was rampant and Spanish interpreters were in demand. I talked to someone for five minutes and was told to come in the following day and report to the interpreters’ room, an L-shaped corridor behind the court security officers’ desk. About 15 interpreters were crammed in there, a combination of staff and per diem. One day turned into a whole year; I learned everything that year– and took the federal certification exam the following year.  My former teachers were the ones who got me involved in CITA, which later became NAJIT. I started out licking envelopes and somehow 25 years went by, there was always something to do!

How did you ultimately get hired as the chief interpreter for the Southern District of NY?

One thing followed another. After becoming federally certified in 1982, I spent 8 years freelancing, sometimes traveling to trials in other districts, but mostly working in the two federal courts in NYC.  In 1990, the SDNY expanded its staff from 2 to 5, and I applied for a full time position. When they offered me the job, I hesitated for a few days, because I wanted to retain the freedom to do books. I’d worked on other book translations during this period, but every time I did, I ended up losing money.  I had no sick days, no vacation days…Finally, I concluded that working full-time would be the best decision. In 1993, our then-chief (Patricia Michelsen) moved to Virginia, the supervisory position opened, and I applied for it. We are now six staff interpreters with two administrative assistants and a large pool of contract interpreters. I enjoy it tremendously, wear a lot of different hats, and still interpret as much as I can. You have to stay active or you lose your skills. The administrative part—coordinating scheduling and billing for contractors— while necessary, is not as exciting.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

I’d have to say the variety, which makes it a creative problem to keep actively engaged on all fronts. Having a dependable and talented team around me has enabled me to do a lot of different things. I get to know interpreters of many languages; orienting and coaching newcomers to the field; providing support to interpreters and observing them in action; interacting with courthouse personnel on every level; reading the growing literature in the field; talking directly to judges about interpreter protocol; advisory committee work; special projects such as creating our website or database glossary; working in myriad ways with NAJIT on professional issues;  preparing workshop or conference material; plus the everyday interpreting and translating assignments. I still enjoy interpreting legal arguments and translating letters to the judge, for example. Then there is the challenge of staying organized, so that all the information on hand is well classified and easy to access for the staff, the community of freelancers, researchers, the bench and bar, and the public.

What has been the most demanding assignment of your career?

Here I’d have to say a recent effort to identify Songhai interpreters for a major trial. My office spent the better part of a year tracking down leads, talking to people nationally and internationally. The best candidates we could find  had good command of both English and Songhai but no interpreting experience, so we had to figure out a way to train them. We hoped they would have what it took, but there were no guarantees. Watching candidates build up their skills, from first hesitant stabs to smooth simultaneous, was a real thrill. My staff and I designed and implemented the training program. Convincing the court of the need to do this was another matter.

What are the challenges our profession is facing and how can we strive to meet them?

I think we have the same challenges now as we’ve always had—how to attract high-quality people to the field, especially in languages not frequently needed by the court system. Most courts need interpreters who will continue to provide professional service for decades.  Time marches on and court cases only become more complex linguistically. In languages of lesser diffusion, the Catch-22 is you need highly skilled people on an occasional basis, so there is no incentive for those who interpret languages of lesser diffusion to get training– even if the training were more readily available. The challenge for courthouses is to find ways to provide court-sponsored training for freelancers. We need to develop talent where it exists, create attractive career paths so that people of ability are attracted to the field and can remain in it, and then encourage interpreters to keep honing their skills. How can we strive to meet these challenges? I think NAJIT and other associations are going a long way toward building a corps of committed professionals, and issuing persuasive position papers on professional issues. The court entities who use interpreter services have an obligation to create good working conditions, decent pay, and sufficient, effective support. That seems like a no-brainer, but it takes a huge public relations effort to get that message across to the powers that be.

Administratively, we have a whole other cohort of challenges, having to do with efficient scheduling, trend tracking, and streamlining bureaucratic paperwork.

Tell us how you went about creating the court-sponsored training for Russian, Fuzhou and Arabic interpreters in your court. Has that initiative continued to be developed?

In my experience, most court administrators don’t get involved in the nitty gritty of what interpreters do or what their departments  need. We are a niche unit within the courthouse, because no one else can do what we do, and most people don’t understand the details.  We are like a boutique business. My theory for getting things done in this environment is to take initiative, prepare a convincing report, and try to make it easy for higher-ups to rubber-stamp what I propose. While it is hard to predict what languages will be needed in the future, I looked at usage statistics and saw a need to reinforce our roster in our district’s most-requested languages after Spanish. I thought we needed to have language-specific training, one language at a time. When the first seminar was successful, it was easy to build on it and do the same thing with other languages. We on the staff did all the teaching in English, we got guest speakers from different court units, we hired expert interpreters to coach and supervise practice sessions, and we gave attendees lots of study material to take home. We tested interpreters before and after in short samples of simultaneous, and noted the difference. It was an awful lot of work, but it paid off.  Many of the interpreters who attended those seminars continue to work with us a decade later. The relatively small investment by the court ($5,000) paid off in spades. After these 3 languages, I didn’t continue because there was no other language whose usage statistics warranted a training program.

If you could implement one change in the interpreting dept of the SDNY, what would that be and why?

I would have the court reimburse conference registration fees for staff interpreters, or contribute to travel costs to attend conferences.  Every professional conference we attend is out of our own pockets, when the court has a vested interest in our continuing education.

Tell us about the most funny or satisfying assignment you ever did.

Actually, it wasn’t an assignment except in the sense that I gave it to myself, but it’s had a great effect on the esprit de corps. It turned out to be the best public relations plug for interpreters I ever could have come up with!  To counteract the intense seriousness with which people take their jobs, I decided I needed some comic relief, so I put together a musical comedy revue. It’s been going on now for 17 years. (We did it one year at the NAJIT conference in NY.) The Courthouse Follies started as an interpreters’ show and then spread to the whole courthouse. We make fun of everyone: politicians, judges, attorneys, ourselves. The material emerges from a collaborative process–for the past 10 years my co-writer has been a federal defender, and we also have material submitted by one of our judges. The rehearsals—always difficult because frequently half the cast can’t make it—have to be coordinated and directed, and for lack of anyone else, I do that, too. We hire a pianist, and whoever is willing (including judges and attorneys) can be in the cast, usually about 25 people. It’s expanded to have costumes, dancing, whatever we can think of. Everyone contributes ideas. A lot of improvisation happens on the night of the show. Crazy lot of work to pull it together, but once we’re in front of an audience, it all pays off.  It’s very satisfying because I get to see all these otherwise serious people guffawing at human foibles and the legal system itself. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy for an interpreter.

Can you give us an example?

Well, you know the song New York, New York from the musical On the Town?

Imagine watching court employees in a chorus line, singing these lyrics:

SDNY, it’s a helluva court

The trials are long and the tempers are short;

We get to keep all the drugs they import

SDNY, it’s a helluva court!

Commentary on 2nd Session of #IntJC


Our second discussion over Twitter took place yesterday at 10pm Tokyo time.  This time we had nine participants from Spain, Slovenia, Venezuela, Japan, U.S., and Belgium. The topic at issue was Stress and Interpreting.  For a full transcript of the 1.5 hr. discussion, click here.

The reason this topic was chosen is because interpreting is acknowledged by most in our ranks to be a stressful occupation due to the fact that you only have one shot at getting it right and many times there are significant stakes involved. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), 90% of visits to the doctor are caused by stress and stress is linked to 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis and suicide. Furthermore the WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that mental diseases including disorders caused by stress will be one of the leading causes of disabilities by 2020.

Some quick findings from our chat were that there is a thin line between positive excitement and stress.  Stress being when one has difficulties in coping with a situation.  And stress is not caused by an event that is imposed on you but rather by the way that you react to it. Interpreters stated that the majority of the symptoms experienced were cognitive ( poor concentration and forgetfulness), subjective (moodiness, anxiety), and psychological (increased blood pressure).

Outside stressors were reported in some parts of the world where disturbances of the peace and protests actually impact performance.  Some reported forgetting personal life stresses when working in the booth, although I think that that is a conscious decision we make to refuse to entertain these matters in order to be able to do the job.  However, our emotions are always present if only subliminally and they affect us 24X7. I was surprised to hear that last minute calls for work were experienced everywhere, although most of those on the call tended to turn down those offers.  I had thought it was predominantly a U.S. phenomenon  for some reason.

Some of the favorite techniques to combat stress among the group were time management, other interests outside of work (a/k/a having a life), salsa dancing, cooking, playing an instrument and yoga.

What I like most about our meetings/chats is not so much our conclusions, as nothing is rigorously substantiated, but the fact that we are creating a valuable network of interpreter friends around the world.  We are a sounding board for one another and we have begun to share common concerns, experiences and responses in a simple and fun environment. Our next meeting is scheduled for October 8, same time as before.  The subject matter has not yet been determined.  Please come hang out and opine, we all want this to be an inclusive group and the more diverse we are, the more we will all learn from it.  What would you like to be discussed?  Leave suggestions here or on Twitter under #IntJC.  See ya!

Comedy Central Interpreting Experiences – Part I


I occasionally see requests from our language forums for contributions of funny instances that have occurred at work.  I am never able to remember them off the cuff so I made a special effort to create an ad hoc list to share with you.  I recalled several stories, although I am generally of a serious nature, because they have taken place over a period of + 30 years.

In retrospect, I realize that  the anecdotes mentioned here could have been avoided if I had been more mindful and not on automatic pilot when they took place.  I have duly learned my lesson.

Once upon a time when I was a young housewife, I had a dinner party planned for a Friday evening, when a good client called with a last minute request for an interpreter late that afternoon.  We were not able to find someone else to cover due to the short notice so I went.  It was a very sad case of a young woman who had gone on her honeymoon to Mexico. Her husband, who had a cardiac condition, had suffered a heart attack and died.  There must have been a good eight attorneys asking questions.  It was late in the day, there were no signs that the depo was winding down and my guests were scheduled to arrive at home for dinner at 7:00.  While I was interpreting I was wondering to myself what I was going to do (fatal misstep!). My client proceeded to ask the witness what they were doing when he had the heart attack and she answered that they were making love.  The next question was “Were you engaged in foreplay?”  I thought about how to interpret that into Spanish in an elegant/efficient way and I was successful.  The woman answered after pausing to think. Still on automatic pilot thinking about the dinner, I blurted  out, “We were kicking”.  I only realized my error when the attorney turned around quizzically and said to me “Mrs. de la Vega,  that’s a strange way to go about it, don’t you think?”  The witness had used the verb for “kissing” in Spanish but I inadvertently turned into “kicking”.

Another time, in that same vein, I was interpreting for a plaintiff who was suing a doctor for malpractice. She testified about a number of terrible mistakes that had been made by the physician that resulted in the death of her child.  She was then asked when she had decided to sue Dr. Padrón.  When I interpreted the question to her, I committed a Freudian slip and unwittingly changed the doctor’s name to “Cabrón”, which means sonofabitch in Spanish. None of the attorneys spoke Spanish and the words sound so alike that they never noticed.  I only realized what I had said when she stared at me incredulously and the little “tape recorder” in my brain played back my answer. Without batting an eyelid, I simply repeated the question to her, substituting the correct name.  She visibly relaxed and answered, probably thinking she had heard wrong.

One of my all-time favorite war stories happened when I was interpreting at a meeting of the World Boxing Association.  Roberto “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone) Durán,  considered by many to be the greatest lightweight of all time, was reading a tortuous, flowery speech sprinkled with all kinds of obscure boxing terms about his achievements in the ring.  I asked my male booth partner to speak to him during a break and get a copy of the text that he was speed-reading out loud.  My partner came back and told me that Durán had insulted him and said he didn’t need to be giving the interpreters anything, that it was  up to us to do the job right without any help. I immediately got up to try my luck with him and the guy fell all over himself to get me the copy, hitting on me in the meantime.  When I came back to the booth with the papers, my colleague asked how I had gotten them, and not realizing the mics were on, I answered, “because Manos de Piedra is a dirty old man”.  There was a lightning-like response as all the press and the attendees wearing headsets roared with laughter, while the honoree looked at them nonplussed. Needless to say, as soon as we were done, I exited the building through the emergency stairs so as not to run into anyone.

I will save the rest of my treasure trove for another day so that we can savor an additional chuckle and trust that you will all be inspired to take a walk down memory lane and share your comical tales with me.

Interview With Prize-Winning Translator in Cuba


Dr. Lourdes Arencibia

(Please scroll down for the translation of the original Spanish into English)

Me siento muy orgullosa de presentarles una colega y compatriota que recién conocí en San Francisco durante el congreso de la FIT.  Se trata de la doctora Lourdes Arencibia Rodriguez,  ganadora del premio 2011 de dicha organización por su traducción en el género de ficción.  Lourdes viajó de Cuba a San Francisco para aceptar esta distinción y no saben cuál fue mi sorpresa y emoción cuando además de ella, otro cubano, Rodolfo Alpízar, también triunfó en dicho foro. Lamentablemente, él no pudo asistir a la ceremonia. Dos  de cinco premios me parece un logro fenomenal para nuestra  pequeña isla caribeña, cuyos ciudadanos vienen experimentando un sinfín de graves problemas desde hace muchas décadas.

Lourdes gentilmente accedió a concederme una entrevista para contarnos un poco sobre su trayectoria y la situación actual de la profesión  en Cuba. A pesar de lo cerca que está la isla de EE.UU., no estamos muy al tanto de la evolución del campo de la interpretación y la traducción allá, debido a la situación política que limita el intercambio normal entre colegas.  Ella me ha pedido que  realizáramos el diálogo en  castellano a fin de sentirse más a gusto durante nuestra plática ya que esta es su lengua materna y la que emplea en su desempeño  profesional.

A continuación, les invito a disfrutar de mi charla con Lourdes.

¿Cómo te iniciaste en el campo de la traducción?

A pesar de que por mi formación universitaria (Licenciada en Economía y Doctora en Filosofía) era de suponer que me inclinara hacia otras profesiones, para mí la traducción no es un amor tardío. Llegué a ella tan temprano como en los años 50 a través del francés. En esos años yo estudiaba en la Alianza Francesa que está en el Vedado, al lado de mi casa en la Habana,  y tomaba allí cuantos cursos de ese idioma y esa cultura ofrecían, incluidos los de alta costura , cocina y canto. Años después, fui becada para estudiar Relaciones económicas internacionales en París, de manera que cuando se creó la Facultad de Lenguas Extranjeras en la Universidad de la Habana, empecé allí a dar clases de traducción a los alumnos que cursaban la Licenciatura en lengua francesa. Luego, cuando se abrió el palacio de Convenciones en la Habana, integré el primer equipo profesional de intérpretes de conferencias, un trabajo con el cual casi le he dado la vuelta al mundo.  A partir de ahí, ya quedé vinculada a la traducción y luego incorporé el italiano, el portugués y posteriormente el inglés a mi práctica profesional hasta el día de hoy, siempre de las lenguas extranjeras al español.

¿Qué tiempo llevas ejerciendo la profesión? 

Pues como ves, más de cincuenta años consecutivos.

¿A qué tipo de traducción te dedicas mayormente? 

Al principio, hacía de todo: traducción documentaria : científico-técnica, económica, publicitaria, periodística, política…pero luego me fui inclinando  hacia la literaria y hoy día he traducido también novelas, cuentos, poesía, ensayo… Actualmente, soy más selectiva, pero si un texto me atrae o me interesa y me lo encargan traducir, lo asumo independientemente del género o la tipología en que encaje.

¿Qué especie de cliente les pide interpretación y traducción en Cuba, además del gobierno?

Los organismos regionales del sistema de las Naciones Unidas (FAO, UNESCO, CARICOM, etc) u otras personas o entidades que realizan actividades en el país o en la región con una audiencia plurilingüe.

¿Los traductores en Cuba suelen trabajar mucho para clientes en el exterior? 

Sí, siempre que se propicie, Actualmente esta actividad no está desautorizada ni mal vista por las autoridades. Sucede que existe una Empresa de Servicio de Traducción e Interpretación, que es estatal, cuyos trabajadores realizan trabajos de traducción para entidades extranjeras pero pertenecen salarial e institucionalmente a la plantilla de esa empresa. Otros traductores e intérpretes sin embargo que son trabajadores independientes, se pueden contratar libremente con clientes nacionales y extranjeros.

Cuando se envía una traducción fuera del país, el gobierno está involucrado en el proceso? 

No necesariamente. Lo hace si en el proceso participa el ESTI, que es la empresa que detallo en el punto anterior.

Cuéntanos sobre la obra que te ganó el premio en la FIT.

Yo concursé en la FIT con mi obra completa en la categoría de ficción, a partir de mi currículo de todos estos años.

¿Cómo te sientes después de recibir ese galardón?

Me siento muy comprometida a seguir  trabajando sobre todo para elevar la dignidad de la profesión para todos los traductores latinoamericanos  cuyos méritos no son, me parece, suficientemente conocidos

¿Lo esperabas? 

Cuando uno concursa, siempre sabe que por ahí hay alguien juzgándote, pero en realidad, cuando se concursa con un número tan amplio de profesionales del mundo entero, pues, bueno, ya esas son palabras mayores

¿Qué nos puedes contar de tu colega cubano, Rodolfo Alpízar Castillo, que también ganó un premio en San Francisco?

Alpízar es excelentísimo, es terminólogo y tiene algunas obras teóricas escritas. Trabaja con el portugués aunque además es escritor, poeta y ha publicado varias novelas. Su fuerte ha sido la traducción técnica y por eso presentó su candidatura en la categoría de no ficción. Hemos sido colegas de toda la vida  y le aprecio muchísimo.

¿Es difícil conseguir permiso para ir a aceptar un premio en EE.UU.? 

Hay que iniciar los trámites con cierta antelación, no te digo que sea fácil, pero no imposible. Personalmente, es la quinta vez que visito Estados Unidos, y siempre he sido tratada correctamente.

¿Qué te pareció el congreso de la FIT? 

Yo sólo pude llegar a la ceremonia de la premiación y por supuesto que me habría gustado presenciar el resto. Me parece que debemos trabajar para que los traductores de América latina tengamos mayor representatividad en la FIT. Sólo conocía a dos o tres personas, no más. Lo que más me impactó fue justamente ese desbalance que se aprecia, aún el prestigio del traductor es bastante eurocéntrico.

¿Qué proyectos tienes en el tintero en estos momentos?

Pues ahora mismo,  estoy trabajando con el Ministerio de la Investigación de España y el Instituto Cervantes, en dos proyectos cuyos directores son dos profesores de Barcelona: uno de los proyectos es el diccionario de traductores hispanoamericanos y el otro la biblioteca de traducciones hispanoamericanas (desde el siglo XVI).  También estoy traduciendo en la Habana, dos novelas de autores caribeños francófonos  y un ensayo de crítica literaria. Preparo mi conferencia de clausura del próximo Congreso de Traducción vinculado a los proyectos que te detallo arriba, que tendrá lugar en Barcelona en octubre  próximo.  Y por supuesto, sin abandonar mi curso en el Máster de Interpretación y Traducción  que imparto desde hace trece años como profesora en el Instituto de Lenguas Modernas y Traductores de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, que es una tarea por la que siento un gran cariño.  Y por el momento, eso es todo.

¿Has percibido algún adelanto en el ámbito de la traducción en los últimos años?

Por guardar relación con el ámbito de la edición y la traducción en Estados Unidos, pudiera ser de interés dar a conocer a  los lectores, editores y traductores  norteamericanos y latinos, lo siguiente. El pasado 27 de mayo, en la ciudad de Nueva York, se anunciaron y entregaron los 2011 International Latino Book Awards,  auspiciados por una organización norteamericana radicada en California que se llama Latino Literacy Now y que premia anualmente los mejores libros latinos escritos y publicados en inglés,  en español o bilingües,  traducidos o no, en distintas categorías,  por nominaciones de sus respectivas editoriales. Este año, en la categoría de Mejor Libro de Arte, se le otorgó Mención de Honor a un libro en edición bilingüe, traducido por mí en La Habana, del italiano al español y retraducido de mi español al inglés por una colega de Nueva York nombrada Beatriz Peñín. Ambos créditos figuran en el machón interior del libro.   La obra se llama: “Una colección de arte cubano”,  y su autor es un coleccionista italiano de arte que reside en Cuba llamado Claudio Marinelli.

Lo más curioso es que por primera vez que yo sepa, se reconoce también el trabajo de traducción  en una obra premiada, pues el Director ejecutivo de la Latino Literacy Now, el Sr. Jim  Sullivan,   me escribió una carta personal como traductora que dice lo siguiente:

Dear Dr. Rodríguez:  (tú sabes que muchas veces se pone el segundo apellido como si fuera el primero)

Latino Literacy Now wanted to express our respect for your translation of Mr. Claudio Marinelli’s book, Una colección de arte cubano, which was recently awarded an Honorable Mention in the category of Best Art Book, bilingual.

Although the work of a translator does not always receive the recognition it deserves, it is obviously an integral part of the process. Congratulations on your fine work. Sincerely, Jim Sullivan, Executive Director Latino Literacy Now.

Lourdes, muchas gracias por compartir con nosotros.  Te deseamos todo éxito con tus proyectos y espero sigamos en contacto para que nos cuentes el desenlace de los mismos.

TRANSLATION OF POST INTO ENGLISH:

I am very proud to introduce you to a colleague and fellow countrywoman whom I recently met in San Francisco during the FIT Congress. She is Dr. Lourdes Arencibia Rodríguez, the winner of the 2011 FIT prize for translation in the fiction category. Lourdes traveled from Cuba to San Francisco to accept this honor and you have no idea how surprised and proud I was to learn that, in addition to her, another Cuban, Rodolfo Alpízar, also won an award in said forum. Unfortunately, he was unable to attend the ceremony. Two out of five prizes is a fantastic achievement for our little Caribbean island, whose citizens have been beleaguered by many severe problems for several decades.

Lourdes kindly agreed to allow me to interview her so that she could tell us a little about her career and how the profession currently stands in Cuba. Despite how close the island is to the U.S., we are not very familiar with how interpretation and translation have evolved there because of the political situation that limits normal exchanges between colleagues. She has requested that we hold our dialogue in Spanish in order to feel more comfortable during the conversation, as that is her native language and the one she works into from a professional standpoint.

I trust you will enjoy my chat with Lourdes.

How did you start out in the field of translations?

In spite of the fact that my college education (I have a degree in Economics and a Ph.D in Philosophy) would lead you to think I would have favored other professions, translation is not a late fancy of mine. I started in that field as early as the 50s, through the French language. At that time I was studying at the Alliance Française, which is in the Vedado neighborhood close to my home in Havana, and I used to take whatever courses they offered in that language and culture, including haute couture, cooking and singing. Years later I was awarded a grant to study International Financial Relations in Paris.  When the School of Foreign Languages was created at the University of Havana, I began to teach translation to students working toward a degree in French. Later, when the Convention Hall was inaugurated in Havana, I was part of the first professional conference interpreting team, a job that has practically taken me around the world. After that, the link to translation was established and subsequently I added Italian, Portuguese and, eventually, English to my professional practice as it stands, always going from the foreign languages into Spanish.

How long have you been practicing your profession?

As you can see, it’s been over fifty consecutive years.

What type of translations do you usually do?

In the beginning I used to do everything: document translations, including scientific-technical, financial, advertising, journalism, [and] political material… but later I started to become more partial to literary works and so far I have also translated novels, stories, poetry, essays… Currently, I am more selective, but if a text is appealing or interesting to me and I am asked to translate it, I will take it on, regardless of the genre or type of work it falls under.

What sort of clients ask for interpreting and translation in Cuba, in addition to the government?

The regional organisms within the United Nations (FAO, UNESCO, CARICOM, etc.) or other individuals or entities engaged in activities in the country or region with a multilingual target audience.

Do translators in Cuba often work for clients abroad?

Yes, whenever feasible. Currently this work is not unauthorized, nor frowned upon by the authorities. There is a government agency , the Center for Translation and Interpretation (ESTI), whose employees do translation work for foreign entities, but they are part of the staff and on the payroll of said institution. Nonetheless, other translators and interpreters who are freelancers can work freely for national and foreign clients.

When a translation is sent outside of the country, is the government involved in the process?

Not necessarily. They are if ESTI is involved, which is the agency I referred to previously.

Tell us about the work that won you the prize at FIT.

I competed at FIT with my whole body of work in the fiction category, based on my CV from all these years.

How do you feel after receiving this honor?

I feel very committed to continuing to work, especially to raising the profile of the profession for all Latin American translators, whose merits, I believe, are not sufficiently acknowledged.

Were you expecting it?

When you are competing, you always know that somebody out there is judging you. But actually, when you are competing with such a large number of professionals throughout the whole world, well, that’s a pretty big deal.

What can you tell us about your Cuban colleague, Rodolfo Alpízar Castillo, who also won a prize in San Francisco?

Alpízar is excellent. He is a terminologist and has written some theoretical works. He works with Portuguese, although he is also an author, a poet and has published several novels. His strong suit has always been technical translation, which is why he competed in the non-fiction category. We have been lifelong colleagues and I am very fond of him.

Is it difficult to get permission to travel to the U.S. to accept an award?

You have to start making arrangements with some lead time. I am not saying it is easy, but it is not impossible. Personally, this is the fifth time I visit the United States and I have always been treated correctly.

What did you think of the FIT Congress?

I was only able to make it to the award ceremony and, of course, I would have liked to be there for the rest. I think we should work toward getting translators in Latin America achieve greater representation at FIT. I only knew two or three other people, no more. What impressed me the most was exactly that notable imbalance;  the prestige attached to translators is still pretty Eurocentric.

What projects are you currently working on?

Well, at this time, I am working on two projects with the Spanish Ministry of Research and with the Cervantes Institute, the directors of which are two professors from Barcelona. One is the dictionary of Hispanic American translators and the other is a library of Hispanic American translations (since the 16th century). In Havana, I am also translating  two novels by French-speaking Caribbean authors and a literary critique in the form of an essay. I am preparing my closing presentation for the next Translation Congress, which has to do with the projects mentioned above, to be held in Barcelona next October. And of course, I am doing all of this without leaving behind my course in the Masters in Interpretation and Translation, which I have been teaching for thirteen years as a professor at the Institute for Modern Languages and Translation at the Complutense University of Madrid, which is an endeavor very dear to my heart. And for the time being, that is it.

Have you noticed any advances in the field of translation in the last few years?

Due to the fact that it has to do with publishing and translation in the United States, it may be of interest to inform American and Latin readers, publishers and translators of the following. Last May 27, in New York, the 2011 International Latino Book Awards were announced and awarded. They are sponsored by an American organization based in California by the name of Latino Literacy Now, and they award prizes annually to the best Latino books written and published in English, in Spanish or both, whether they are translated or not, in different categories, upon being nominated by their respective publishers. This year, a book that was published in bilingual format in the category of Best Art Book, which I translated in Havana from Italian to Spanish, and was later retranslated from my Spanish into English by a colleague in New York, named Beatriz Peñín, received an Honorable Mention. Both credits appear in the inside cover. The work is entitled A Collection of Cuban Art and its author is Claudio Marinelli, an Italian collector who lives in Cuba.

The interesting thing is that, for the first time that I am aware of, the translation aspect in a winning entry is also recognized, as the Executive Director of Latino Literacy Now, Mr. Jim Sullivan, wrote me a personal letter as translator, which reads as follows:

Dear Dr. Rodríguez:  (You know how many times they write the second last name as if it were the first)

Latino Literacy Now wanted to express our respect for your translation of Mr. Claudio Marinelli’s book, Una colección de arte cubano, which was recently awarded an Honorable Mention in the category of Best Art Book, bilingual.

Although the work of a translator does not always receive the recognition it deserves, it is obviously an integral part of the process. Congratulations on your fine work. Sincerely, Jim Sullivan, Executive Director Latino Literacy Now.

Lourdes, thank so much for sharing your insights.  We wish you the best with your projects and trust we shall stay in touch so that you can let us know how they turned out.

Interpreting Journal Club Review of First Session


The first virtual chat just took place over Twitter yesterday using the hash tag #IntJC.  We discussed the merits of a personality test to determine a person’s aptitude for the interpreting profession.  For background and for the sake of efficiency, see my recent post to introduce the concept to my readers.

It was great fun and constructive!  Lasted about an hour and a half.  What did I like the most about it?  The fact that interpreters, students of interpreting and individuals interested in our field were able to get together informally from locations all over the world such as Brussels, Caracas, Paris, Bratislava, Tokyo, Barcelona, Neubrandenburg and Miami to casually discuss a topic pertinent to the profession. I think it is a great platform for all of us to expand our horizons and form networks outside of our immediate areas. I must say I was very surprised that we did not have a better representation from the U.S., but I am sure that as the momentum grows this will improve.  Everyone was responsible and diligent in taking the test and reading the literature in order to opine.

What did I find out?  That I am not as much of an oddity as I first thought after taking the test (that was somehow comforting) At least two other interpreters on the call shared my profile of INFJ. You can find out the personality implications of each type by clicking on the Kiersey personality interpretations on the same page as the test and you can see a transcript of the session here. I found the personality assessment to be valid in my case although I share the opinion that it is not indicative of whether a person can become a good interpreter. Other comments made were that the test could be helpful in getting to know interpreting students better although our host from Tokyo, felt that the test was grossly skewed towards a Western perspective. I venture to say that he is quite right.

Our next session will be held on September 24, 10 p.m. Tokyo time or 9:00 a.m. EST, and we will be discussing the effects of stress on interpreters.  To prepare and join in, please keep on checking the IntJ C Google site which will soon have all the pertinent information posted.  It is very easy to get on Twitter and either just monitor the proceedings or monitor and participate.  If anyone has any questions, do not hesitate to contact me personally and I will be glad to walk you through it.  Hope to see you there, and please leave me any suggestions for future sessions and I will be glad to pass them on.  We all want this effort to be a collective endeavor of interest to all.

The Interpreting Journal Club; Save the Date and Participate


Carl Jung

If you are serious about your profession, would like to discuss it with other colleagues from all over the world whilst having a good time in the format of a stimulating, fun conversation, please join us. Interpreters, lovers of language and students of the profession are all welcome.

What am I talking about?

A  colleague, Lionel Dersot, The Liaison Interpreter based in Tokyo, has come up with a novel idea of discussing interpreting-related topics on a regular basis over the Internet.  The first chat will be held over Twitter.com on Saturday, September 10, 10:00 p.m. Tokyo time, which is 11:00 a.m. EST that same day.  I know it’s during  working hours but some of us, depending on assignments, will be available. The hash tag that is being used on Twitter is #IntJC.  You can do a search there for that tag to see what kind of a buzz this has created. Another interpreting colleague, Michele Hof, The Interpreter Diaries, suggested that the topic for the first chat be a personality test based on the work of Carl Jung, which has been used as a model to study interpreting aptitudes.  I found it very much on the mark insofar as I am concerned and it explained some contradictions that I had noticed in my personality, quite well.  I am an INFJ, a rare bird from what I am reading. To find out what this is all about, take the test here.  If  after taking the test you are intrigued by the concept, visit the site Lionel has created so that you can read the actual material that will be discussed regarding the test, and see how the meeting will work. Interestingly, the study in question was also mentioned in the most recent issue of Interprenaut.

This is a great opportunity to end the summer doldrums making new acquaintances and learning something new about how our personalities influence our profession. Make a date to be there.  Drop in and let your voice be heard!

P.S.  You do not have to be a geek to participate.  Twitter is very user friendly and insofar as the material is concerned, that’s what we do, study the texts that are going to be discussed in conferences or legal proceedings (when we are lucky enough to get them) and it’s all very interesting to boot.

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