That’s Not How You Say it in Gringa-Land!

Here’s the thing about my Spanish: I learned it from a book. When I enrolled in my first Spanish class, I didn’t even know how to ask someone, “How are you?” But I progressed quickly, with brilliant professors hailing from places like Peru, Costa Rica, Spain and Chile.

I regarded my teachers and my native-speaking classmates with envy. Their “r”s rolled without even trying and they understood all the political in-jokes while I struggled valiantly to hide my laughable ignorance of world geography and current events. Most importantly, I, the lowly gringa, would not dream of claiming the intuitive understanding that allowed them to announce, “Yes, that word just sounds right.”

So you’ll understand, then, that I trusted my professors and my classmates blindly when it came to terminology. I memorized the false cognates and as we moved into problem areas of legal translation/ court interpretation, I promised them I would never utter the words corte or ocupación (“court” and “occupation,” respectively). Medicina (the science of medicine) was not the same as medicamento (as in, “medicine,” the pill), and I would avoid saying probatoria (probation) and use of the passive voice altogether. Let’s not even discuss how to use the word sentencia (“sentence,” as in “what the judge passes”) correctly.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I began working in the professional world and met people who completely disagreed with those whom I had trusted to guide me on my linguistic journey. And these new acquaintances were native speakers too! They swore that corte was acceptable and that medicina was fine. Furthermore, Guatemalan lawyers were using the passive voices combined with false cognates, and these were learned professionals! My compass was suddenly off, and I had no Mexican grandmother or Cuban Papi to give me the final say.

I’ve since learned to grow a bit of gringa-confidence. I can actually make intuitive decisions about idiomatic expressions and grammar, and I can proofread your Spanish documents any day of the week, accents and all. Likewise, I’ve learned that the language varies from region to region and what is one country’s uneducated Gringa talking is another country’s respected Ph.D. I generally use as a starting point, and then I give the final say. I trust my instincts, my research, and the input of my learned colleagues, but I take every “never say that ever” with a grain of salt.

And yet, the perfectionist flame burns deep in an interpreter and translator’s soul, and we all want the perfect equivalent. And sometimes, our terminology assurances are turned upside down. For years I’ve been saying ocupación is a false cognate (for the non-Spanish speakers among us, this is commonly viewed as a false cognate for the English word, “occupation.”. But the other day I looked it in the Diccionario de la lengua española , since I always tell my students not to just take my word on things and I wanted to practice what I preached.  The third definition was, and I quote, “3. f. Trabajo, empleo, oficio.” ( 2/9/17). In other words, ocupación means occupation, at least according to Spain’s Royal Academy.

What’s a gringa to do? I’m not quite sure. My go-to is to use the phrase that no-one will argue with. If anyone has a problem with it, I opt for something more “socially acceptable,” if you will. But does that mean that the other way is wrong? If you can find it in a well-respected dictionary, and there’s no caveat like Americanism that precedes it, I don’t think so.

What about you? What are the words and phrases, in Spanish or in any other language, that you think are absolute no-nos, or which you grew up using but have since been told are wrong?

How do you say it, in Gringa-Land or anywhere else?

Published on 2/10/17 at

Sailing Through Sight

Ah yes. Sight translation. The interpreter tendency to ignore sight translation is kind of like that affliction suffered by us middle children. You know middle child syndrome, right? It’s like this: our big brother Simultaneous is overtaking the track field and our parents (the interpreters) are too busy trying to catch up to him while making sure that our little sister, Consecutive, isn’t leaking scoring units all over the bleachers. Meanwhile us poor middle children represent that out-of-sight-out-of-mind interpreting mode, Sight Translation.

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Solving Simultaneous         

Do you remember that time, growing up, when you heard someone speaking and you spontaneously replicated what they had just stated in another language? Wait, you can’t remember doing that? Good! Neither can I!

We interpreters tend to polish a few pet peeves. On our scales of righteous indignation, people thinking our job is easy probably ranks right there at the top.

Simultaneous interpretation is not easy. Anyone who has ever tried doing it, knows that. So the purpose of this post is a to serve as a follow-up to Conquering Consecutive (published on 10/26/16). Consider this to be part two on breaking down the modes of interpretation.

My advice to the simultaneous interpreter is: Start slow, work incrementally, and don’t get discouraged! Remember, your attempts are successes. When I first started out, I shadowed for six months before I even tried to interpret simultaneously. Because, well, I couldn’t interpret. So, I shadowed.

Even if you are more advanced, this advice will still serve you well. You just have to find a “slow start” that works for you; locate your foundation and then build upon it. For example, even after I had passed my state exam, when I started studying for the federal exam I began at square one (i.e. the first bullet point below). First, as a warm-up, I shadowed. Then I dual tasked, all the while exercising my brain to get used to a new speed and more specialized content. Then I would attempt the more difficult simultaneous lesson. When I found myself flagging, I reverted back to shadowing or dual tasking and then I tried the simultaneous again.

Don’t discount the importance of prep exercises! As outlined below, they are important for a lot of things, and just because you already know how to interpret doesn’t mean you can’t get better.

Here is a hierarchy of study that I find works well:

PREP FOR SIMULTANEOUS (to be done either on its own, or as a warm-up to interpreting):

  • Shadowing: For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, shadowing means repeating what you hear in the same language. This exercise trains your brain to think and listen at the same time, without the added obstacle of converting what you hear into a new language. It also helps you to familiarize yourself with terminology, which you can embed in your brain through repetition (kind of better than that stack of tired-looking flash cards sitting on your desk). If you are just starting out, pick something very slow with a familiar topic. Once you get the hang of that, shadow speeches on harder topics, including those heavy in names and numbers. Then, pick up the pace.
  • Dual task: This exercise is a step up from shadowing. Repeat what you did above, but try to simultaneously write the numbers 1-100. When that gets easy, count up by threes. After that, go backwards. Then try writing phone numbers. The possibilities are endless. Consider these push-ups for your brain!
  • Rephrase: (This is usually called “paraphrasing” but I find that name to be misleading.) Here you shadow content in the same language, but whenever you can, you substitute one word or phrase for another with identical meaning. For example, instead of saying “my mom,” you can say, “my mother.” “Went back” becomes “returned.” Etc. This exercise allows us to accomplish that same task of listening and speaking, with the added challenge of focusing more on ideas than just robotically parroting words. I know, it’s annoying, but it gets you one step closer to actually interpreting!


Once you have completed these steps, you are ready to embark on the exhilarating roller coaster that is simultaneous interpretation.


  • Level one: Begin to actually interpret, using slower material covering familiar topics. If you notice you have missed something, take a deep breath and keep going.
  • Level two: Interpret faster simultaneous and/or unfamiliar topics.
  • Level three: Interpreter fast simultaneous, and/or specialized topics such as expert witness testimony for DNA, firearms, fingerprints, etc.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Recording yourself and repeating exercises are two vital steps in the process of self-improvement. Compare your recording to the original transcript, marking the sheet as you go. Then determine where you can improve and repeat the exercise in order to integrate what you have learned. If you skip these steps, you are missing half the lesson.

So, yes, simultaneous interpretation is hard. But if you meet yourself on your own individual foundation, so to speak, and then you add incremental challenges, you will find yourself improving without quite so much overwhelm.

And if somebody ever tells you that your job must be easy since you are bilingual…Well, just turn on the radio, explain to them what shadowing is, and tell them that if it’s so easy, they should go right ahead.

I can’t guarantee much, but I think I can guarantee they will not underestimate you again.

Happy studying!


Conquering Consecutive

If you have ever taken a class on interpreting, you know the drill: We listen not for words, but ideas. We don’t write everything; we take notes on key words. And yet, even though we may have heard this from multiple teachers, it seems that many of us only have a vague understanding of what this means.

Continue reading “Conquering Consecutive”