An Interview by Cristina McDowell
CM: Armando, you have come a long way since you were a kid living in a small village in the Andes. You are a Federally and NAJIT certified court interpreter. You teach at La Salle University, you have interpreted for many dignitaries, and you have been an expert witness on several occasions. But let’s start with your arrival to the United States when you were still a teenager. Can you tell me about it?
AEH: Here I studied English at a Baptist school. I started improving my English, I took the TOEFL exam and I scored high, which enabled me to attend a university. The study of a language never finishes and I still keep on learning and I like it. I think when one finishes learning, one starts dying. So I majored in Psychology and in International Relations. I have a diploma in Latin American Studies and I also got a master’s degree in Spanish with a focus in literature rather than the language. Later on I moved to Philadelphia and I started a PhD in romance languages but I did not complete it because I had to go back to my country when my mother passed away, among other events.
CM: I’m sorry to hear about your mother. You got your MA and you started the doctoral studies. How did you transition into the interpreting world?
AEH: I started interpreting for a painter at a high level presentation and I fully realized that interpreting does not only consist of knowing two languages very well. So I abandoned the idea. Life went on here in the US and I was gaining mastery in the English language because of the confluence of several factors, among them listening proactively to the media and watching movies with subtitles. This was in fact a great help, because I liked to compare the translations with the dialogue. As many of us do, I also had to interpret for my own family, which helped me develop some skills without realizing that in the future it was going to turn into something lucrative. It was a real blessing because I was able to find the professional vehicle that I had been longing.
In 1999 I began to study translation and interpreting and was hired by an institute to tutor in Spanish. Back in those days emails were not prevalent and we used to send everything by fax. However at this institute they did not even have a fax so I had to deliver the translations in person. One time the manager told me, “I know you came for this project, but we are in need of a person for another one, that you might be interested in. But you should take an exam first.” So I took it and she gave me the assignment of transcribing some recordings. I did the job well enough that after a couple of weeks I was promoted to manager and my task consisted of supervising my team mates. It was a very hard job and I think I started with the most difficult task, which was transcribing and translating the conversations of informants. They had a recorder attached to their bodies and were talking to people in bars or even at parties and we had to decipher their voices and assign each sentence to each speaker.
CM: It sounds fascinating. What kind of dialogues were you transcribing?
AEH: The dialogues between drug dealers that had been recorded by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. At the institute they had all the ACEBO materials and some other training materials. From then on it was a progression, I started shadowing some of the more experienced interpreters, I took notes, watched some videos, did the exercises, and little by little I started with medical interpretation assignments before I launched into judiciary interpreting.
CM: I have attended some of your presentations at several conferences, including one at the Spring into Action summit that you organized here in Philadelphia. The clarity of your delivery, your knowledge and your professionalism caught my attention. It’s not surprising that you are now adjunct faculty of professor of interpretation. Can you tell us specifically what you teach?
AEH: The program is called Translation and Interpretation Studies and I have been teaching it since 2009 at La Salle University. We offer both a Master’s degree and also a Certification or Diploma in the language pair English <> Spanish. You will find students that persevere and complete their studies obtaining a master’s degree. Others decide that this is not for them; they don’t have the personality for it and they get the diploma. It has grown enormously since it started as a program on Hispanic Studies. Thanks to Prof. Dr. Luis Gómez it kept on maturing and I was hired for further development. I have always liked teaching. It is interesting to point out that some students come for an interest in translation and then they discover that they have the skills and interest to interpret and vice versa.
What is important to note is that at the beginning we used to get people who already worked in the T&I (Translation & Interpretation) field but wanted to back their experience up with a credential. They wanted to persevere in their careers and strive for excellency. Now you find a mix. There are students that come from finishing a B.S in Spanish or even in other languages, while some others start learning Spanish from scratch.
CM: What is the academic situation of our profession in the US in comparison to other countries? Is there a moment in the future when a college degree in T&I is going to be required in order to work as an interpreter in the US?
AEH: A couple of years ago I read an article that stated that 70% of interpreters come from other disciplines, mostly because most interpreters don’t study interpretation due to a lack of academic programs. Obviously there is a moral obligation to study and get credentials. Yet in the United States there are few institutions that offer academic studies in interpretation. There is Kent State, as you know, the program in Charleston was closed, there is Monterey, but until very recently they specialized in conference interpreting. Now they also offer community interpreting. Aside from these, there is an abundance of diplomas and certificates all around. Maryland also has a good program. La Salle is here in our area, and Hunter College is in New York.
The reality is that given the size of our country and the number of the profession’s end-users, a surprisingly small number of universities offer a master’s degree in T&I. This is why I mentioned that 70% of interpreters have never studied interpretation formally. There is an extreme need for university level extension programs, continuing education, etc., to help working interpreters learn new concepts, skills, and ethics as well as “unlearn” some other things.
CM: What do you mean by “unlearn”?
AEH: When we speak strictly about interpretation, for example, I refer to something as simple as the use of the third person to intervene and leave the use of the first person to interpret. This is something that is very easy to do, but a person who has not received training as an interpreter is going to make the mistake of using the third person to interpret: he says, she says…
In the field of translation we have been working for some time now on transcreation, which I enjoy a great deal. The issue is to teach students, as you very well know, that sometimes you don’t need to be a slave to the syntax and semantics of the source language. Instead you owe yourself more to the target language and the main goal is that the text should not sound like a translation but rather as if written in the target language. So this is something that needs to be unlearned.
CM: In which field of interpreting do you work, mostly?
AEH: I occupy most of my time as a legal interpreter. But for many years I worked for an agency and basically I interpreted for clients in the field of education. In the long term one can choose the subjects that one enjoys, and reading for pleasure reinforces the subject one specializes in. Having said that, I really enjoy politics and have ended up interpreting for many politicians, like Donald Trump for example, although not for him directly, but I have interpreted his voice. I also interpreted during several meetings when President Bush was elected. I never thought I would use my studies in psychology, but in fact they were not only useful at these kinds of events but also in every day of my life.
CM: Acknowledging their limitations, some interpreters find it difficult to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. How do you break into a new specialty when you don’t have any experience and still perform professionally? Nobody wants to miss an opportunity but everyone knows that if you mess up the agency will never call you again and you run the risk that the word will spread.
AEH: This process is like riding a bike. I use this analogy with my students. You can read many manuals on how to ride a bike, but reading a manual on how to ride a bike is not going to be as efficient as getting on the bike, riding it, falling off and getting on it again. As for knowing what your limits are, the only way to know them is by finding something new and trying it, confronting those limits and realizing if things are working for you or not. This information can be used as feedback to know whether you want to go further into whatever field you’ve ventured into.
There is a beautiful sentence that goes, “I was at the right place at the right time.” However, there is also an element of luck in exploring one’s possibilities. Not everyone who should get a certification gets one, and not everyone that has a certification should practice. It all has to do with the moment in time, luck and I think…I don’t know… karma is involved if one puts a lot of effort into something.
CM: Have you ever accepted an assignment that confirmed your true calling or, to the contrary, you said: this is definitely not for me?
AEH: I was working for an agency and one day we got an unusual job request, which was the translation of a political speech. I say “unusual” because the translation was not going to be published but instead read to an audience in Washington D.C. Politics is an area that I particularly enjoy, so I took that assignment myself. The speech was read by former President of Argentina Dr. Carlos Saúl Menem who, at the time, was elated after having been reelected and was summarizing the achievements of his first legislature. So I proceeded with the translation and realized that while he was talking about some facts that any Latin-American person would understand, they would not have been so obvious to an English speaking person. So I added numerous suggestions throughout the document, like “this could be explained with one more sentence so that the audience could understand the president’s words in their context.” In fact this was a localization job. A couple of months later, President Menem came to the Republican convention and he specifically requested the same translator that worked on the speech delivered previously in Washington to be the interpreter at various events. I was very happy and nervous at the same time. This is an example of striving to put the best effort into every assignment, because you never know, as it happened to me, what opportunity may arise as a result when you are at the right place, at the right time.
CM: You have a passion for your job and show a real commitment to career development. Is there anything else that you still have not accomplished? Do you have a muse that still inspires you?
AEH: Well, lately the idea of writing a technical book comes to mind. There are many, but I have experience from another field and as you know I spent years working with a company that specializes in telephonic interpreting, which is the elephant in the room. Many people don’t think of it but there is a lot of in this type of interpreting. There is a dichotomy between calling it an industry or a profession. Maybe in the future, I will gather my knowledge and experiences and will put it in writing; I enjoy and learn a great deal with transcreation. It is a blessing to be able to do so many things and choose what one wants to do. Let’s see what the future has in store, as long as I am alive and in good health and I have the opportunity to learn, I would love to be give back. It is part of the circle for me. I learned a lot in the past thanks to the patience and generosity of many people, so I try to help and contribute in whatever I can to our sector, our profession, our colleagues, and our students. Things come full circle.
What would you like to add?
AEH: We have talked about translation and interpretation, but I would like to add that these two activities are not too far from one another. They are complementary skills and translation is the best starting point for an interpreter. I teach a course in comparative analysis of Spanish <>English. I love teaching it and I enjoy learning from my students as well.
CM: Thank you very much, Armando.
Armando Ezquerra Hasbun is a Federally and NAJIT certified court interpreter, is an adjunct instructor at La Salle University’s Hispanic Institute, has interpreted for many dignitaries, and has been an expert witness on several occasions. He holds a BA in Psychology and International Studies and a MA in Spanish Language and Literature. He lives in Philadelphia.
Image of The Andes by monikaw1999 via pixabay.com