Appreciating interpreters

My friend Dan Parvaz, who is a registered American Sign Language interpreter, posted yesterday on Facebook that it was Interpreter Appreciation Day. Further investigation reveals that this day is intended specifically for sign language interpreters, but spoken-language interpreters work hard and deserve appreciation too. Dan mentioned that September 30 is Saint Jerome’s day, the patron saint of translators, but as far as I know nobody mentions interpreters then. It’s as good a day as any other to appreciate the hard work that interpreters do in all languages.

I wanted to share a couple of radio stories that have made me appreciate professional interpreters even more – by their absence. In one case things seem to have turned out well despite the lack of interpreters, and in another they went very badly.

The first is a segment, “I Am Curious Yellow” in the “Tribes” episode of This American Life, which first aired on March 29. Debbie Lum, a Chinese-American filmmaker, produced a documentary Seeking Asian Female, which premiered at South by Southwest last year. She focuses on a white American man with a fetish for Asian women and his Chinese mail-order bride. She recounts how she intended to play the part of the neutral documentarian, but found herself being drawn into the story. She serves as an unpaid, amateur interpreter for Sandy and Steven, and even an informal relationship counselor, helping them both to understand each other and what they want from the relationship.

The second segment, “Yellow Rain,” was part of the Radiolab episode “The Fact of the Matter,” which first aired on September 24 of last year. During the bombing of Hmong villages by the Viet Cong in 1975, a suspicious “yellow rain” fell; some people believe it was poison, and others that it was “bee poop.” Host Robert Krulwich interviewed one of the survivors, Eng Yang, “translated by his niece,” writer Kao Kalia Yang. Krulwich later admitted that he “pressed too hard” in his quest to get evidence to condemn Ronald Reagan. At a certain point in the interview, Kao Kalia Yang, overcome with emotion, cut off both Krulwich and her uncle, yelled at Krulwich and then terminated the interview.

You can read Kao Kalia Yang’s side of the story here and here, and a brief statement from Eng Yang. Krulwich’s statement is here, and one from his co-host Jad Abumrad.

The only place that I have seen discussion of Kao Kalia Yang’s role as interpreter was a comment from “Diane from MN” on the “Yellow Rain” show page: “I speak Hmong and can hear Eng telling the interviewers repeatedly in the final cut he knows what bee pollen looks like. … Even Kao Kalia’s husband, who witnessed the interview, has said Eng was talking about his knowledge of bees and told the interviewers he is an experienced beekeeper. Did you hear any of this in the final cut? Not unless you understand Hmong!”

What Diane from MN is telling us is that Kao Kalia Yang, in her frustration, did her uncle and their cause a disservice. By stepping out of her role as interpreter, she left no one there to honor his voice. It is not even clear to me that he wanted to end the interview.  But even before that she did herself a disservice by agreeing to interpret in a situation where she would not be able to remain impartial.  In her reaction to the show she expresses frustration at being “reduced” to the role of niece in the show credits, when she is a published author.  But taking on the role of interpreter requires the humility to set aside your own agenda and qualifications, something she was not prepared to do.

Over the years I have watched Dan and my other interpreter friends work hard to convey meaning between Deaf and hearing people in as clear and neutral a way as possible.  Many of them are accomplished scientists of language and that may help them to interpret more clearly, but they set aside their research and their egos when they are interpreting.  Some of them will interpret for a friend or spouse in a casual setting, but in a formal situation where the stakes are high, Deaf people need to know that they are getting an unbiased translation of what’s being spoken, and that their own words are being translated fairly. It is the same for Hmong speakers in the United States – for anyone who needs to communicate with someone without a common language.

Ted Xiong, a Hmong interpreter at the Fairview Clinic of the University of Minnesota, told Minnesota Public Radio in 2008, “It’s being in the middle, between the patient and the provider. You cannot advocate for them, you can’t give them advice. It’s like… you are just a voice.” Xiong finds that frustrating, but the alternative is worse. Elizabeth Heibl, a doctor, added, “What you want is a two-way conversation between the clinician and the patient, with the interpreter there to help with communication.”

Unfortunately, children of immigrants like Kao Kalia Yang – the “1.5 generation” – and hearing children of Deaf adults are often thrust into the role of interpreter without any training or qualification. They find themselves interpreting for their parents with bureaucrats, teachers, shopkeepers and doctors, because nobody has hired Ted Xiong or Dan Parvaz or one of their colleagues – because interpreting services are expensive and many in government and business don’t know or care that people need this service. They find themselves forced to choose between conveying accurate information and being a full participant in the event. This is not fair to anyone.

There are some languages that have very small communities in the United States, and it can be very hard to find a trained, neutral interpreter. The Hmong languages are not like that. In a quick Google search I found three services offering professional Hmong translation. Eng Yang should have insisted on one; if so desired, Kao Kalia Yang could have participated as an advocate, free from the responsibilities of interpreting. But really, they shouldn’t have had to ask. WNYC can afford a Hmong interpreter for a two-hour interview session, and Pat Walters, the producer, should have simply provided one as a matter of course as soon as it was clear that Eng Yang’s English wasn’t fluent enough.

Walters and Krulwich set out to find the Truth. The Truth is a slippery thing. But you’re never going to get anywhere close to it without a reliable, neutral interpreter. And you’re probably going to mess things up.

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