Indigenous Interpreters Program

Indigenous Interpreters: A Necessary Bridge Between Cultures

It is not enough to speak two or more languages to be an interpreter. Neither is sufficient to have received a formal training from an educational institution. Language interpretation entails a great responsibility, which also requires knowing how the justice system of the United States works (courts, judges and enforcement agencies) as well as the system of private and public institutions such as hospitals, schools and other social service providers. Moreover, it is a vital requirement to master a wide vocabulary and concepts used in the languages interpreted.

According to Leoncio Vásquez, whom since 1999 has taken trainings as an interpreter of the Mixtec language into English and Spanish, interpretation is a complex work, especially when it is about interpreting in a court case, “even more if it is about a serious case in which every word has to be interpreted correctly because the freedom of the defendant is at stake or he or she is at risk of being detained and there are fines that could be imposed”.

As a matter of fact, the lack of a professional interpreter who knows very well the cultures in which a case is developed has negatively affected many indigenous people who have been condemned due to a lack of understanding and effective communication between the parties involved and the justice system.

Due to the problematic situation derived from the language barrier that thousands of indigenous migrants face in the United States, the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (CBDIO), implemented the Indigenous Interpreter Project in 1996 to facilitate the training of the indigenous people who have the skills and characteristics to work as interpreters.

CBDIO’s initiative was based on the Title VI of the Act of Civil Rights of 1964, released by president Lyndon B. Johnson about the right of every person to have an interpreter in the courts.
In January 1996, CBDIO organized in San Juan Bautista, California, an intensive training with the participation of 12 indigenous interpreters. This training session was conducted by professional interpreters from the International Language Institute of Monterrey and it was focused on interpreting techniques, legal terms and professional ethics. This training was held again in 1997 with indigenous interpreters from Guatemala, whom started an organization called Mayavisión.

CBDIO kept promoting these trainings and in 1999, it sponsored a session with the participation of indigenous people who speak Chatino, Zapoteco, Triqui, Lower Mixtec and High Mixtec.

During the months of January and March of 2006, 12 indigenous women speaking Mixtec, Zapotec, Triqui and Chatino, besides Spanish and in some cases English, were trained through intensive sessions of 80 hours, to become professional interpreters. These trainings focused on health issues given the growing demand of medical services among the indigenous people and they gave emphasis to the anatomy of the human body, medical terminology, and confidentiality aspects among other things.
These trainings were organized by CBDIO in collaboration with Healthy House of Merced.

Eugenia Pérez, one of the trainees highlighted the great responsibility of the interpreters when they assist other indigenous people in clinics or hospitals since 85% of the diagnostic that doctors make is based on the symptoms that the patient informs them. The communication between the physician and the patient depends on the interpreters.

“A good interpreter has to go through a training to have the capability of interpreting without omitting anything at all of what is being said in that room. Whether it be at a hospital, at a social services office or any other place delivering a service”, she added.

CBDIO efforts to promote the professionalism of indigenous interpreters as well as the interpreters’ hard work have resulted in better trained indigenous interpreters. These interpreters have been able to do their job at hospitals and clinics, immigration offices and other service providers offices in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Florida and New York.

Despite the fact that indigenous migration to the United States has almost been seven decades, many institutions in this country ignore that the indigenous people of Mexico and other parts of Latin America are very diverse and that we have our own languages, which are very different from Spanish. This is the reason why we consider important to share this information and at the same time we are offering the interpreting services of indigenous people who have been professionally trained by CBDIO.

In Mexico there are 62 indigenous languages. In Oaxaca 16 diverse native languages are spoken. Many of these tongues have two or more variants or dialects, for instance Zapotec of the Isthmus, Zapotec from the Highlands and Zapotec of the Valley, or Mixtec form the Highlands, Mixtec from the Lowlands and Mixtec of the Coast.

CBDIO recommends to the service providers working in the courts, clinics, hospitals, social services offices and police departments, among other institutions, to make use of the interpreters who have received professional trainings to ensure good communication and understanding with their interlocutors.

Leave a Comment