Interpreting Silicon Valley: A Work in Progress

By Juan Pino-Silva


All interpreters have stories to tell: The changes in their lives; the adjustments they make. In this post, Juan Pino-Silva explores the case of the interpreter who relocates within the US, his hopes and frustrations. His new network and equipment. The post is one of many narrative pieces the author is collecting for a larger project called Interpreting America. Read on.


“The people who built Silicon Valley were engineers. They learned business, they learned a lot of different things, but they had a real belief that humans, if they worked hard with other creative, smart people, could solve most of humankind’s problems. I believe that very much.”

Steve Jobs


I. Scouting the territory

Only days after my relocation to San Jose, CA, I received an email that read: “I found your name in the ATA Directory of Translators and Interpreters. Would you be available for an assignment tomorrow in Menlo Park, CA?” I checked the place of the assignment on Google, found directions, and I read that the Facebook campus was on my way. “Available” I wrote back. A few minutes later, I learned that I had got my first gig in Silicon Valley. It was far from my base but I was on an exploratory mode, and beginning to build a resume in Silicon Valley. The Facebook campus was crowded with truly, young looking employees and tourists making sure that their selfies would permanently memorialize their visit to this campus.

I repeated these explorations three or four times till I could make better sense of the maps and the “talking lady” on my GPS, till I had a better idea of the distances, the nature of the assignments, the real people I was going to help and their needs, the demand for and hence the value of my Spanish-English skills, and other important aspects of an interpreter’s freelance business here. Regarding budgeting, for instance, I had to quickly process that the gas price here was US$ 3.80 per gallon, and that housing was almost unaffordable. I heard on a local TV news segment the story of this well-paid engineer that slept in his SUV during weekdays and would drive off town during weekends to see his family. Stories like this are common, actually. However, the drive and the heart to make innovation happen is what still attracts people to come here. Silicon Valley was quite different from my previous homestay and I was beginning to like it…

II. Beyond selfies: networking, the players, the languages

Menlo Park was too far from my base, and there was the traffic fight element. And so, for the next offer I wrote back “Unavailable, Thanks”. Actually, having taken my selfie with the Facebook famous logo, I wanted to check other tech giants nearby: Apple in Cupertino, Google in Mountain View, YouTube in San Bruno , Yahoo in Sunnyvale, Netflix in Los Gatos, and so forth. Would I ever work with them? For them? The weather in California is rarely a nuisance and one can dream big and wait for a call that never comes. I learned that my target wasn’t going to be the big tech companies based in Silicon Valley; big translation and interpreting vendors would get the contracts from say, Apple, and they would call in freelancers. Soon then, the big tech companies became part of the landscape. As I came to understand, my work was to be with the people who live in Silicon Valley, the underserved and struggling families in the doctors’ office, the lawyer-led depositions, the IEP meetings at schools or the orthopedists’ offices  working with injured workers. Consecutive interpreting was the most frequently required mode and I had to change my glossaries, learn or relearn legalese and special education extensive glossaries, acquire a good and fast phone to use it as a computer, and invest in a new car.

The famous California 101 freeway isn’t as pretty as the California I 280 and it is not unusual to use both in just one trip. The traffic is busy and the  fonts in the traffic signs are hard to read from a distance; only after some good time on the road one gets confident on the wheel. Errors on the way to an assignment are costly and frustrating. On the way back, it is a different story. I’d use WAZE as a navigation tool if I have some free time to ride back home to learn new, alternative routes by avoiding freeways and   to learn more about my neighborhood and about my community. In the next lines, is part of what I’ve observed.

The signage for food was diverse and a feast for linguistics students: Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, Hindi, Greek, Farsi and English. Only a little French, German, Russian and Italian. The street names and location names were chiefly Hispanic: San Bruno, San Felipe, and other saints.  The most widely spoken variant of Spanish was then and still is Mexican Spanish. My Chilean-Venezuelan hybrid had to accommodate to Mexican Spanish and what started with words such as “aseguranza” (insurance), “troca” (bus), junta (meeting)  became a process of partial dialect acquisition which is pretty on the go now. But just as there is acquisition, there is also loss.  My argentinean coworker has lost (or hidden) her heavy bonaerense, partly tired of being the butt of jokes by speakers of other Spanish dialects spoken in Silicon Valley. In other instances, loss is the result of pressure from English use in schools. While English keeps going strong, the native language of many thousands of children is relegated to the home environment. Spanish or Chinese loss, for example, is evident but speakers are  functional bilinguals. That English becomes the strongest language is good news for the parents with limited proficiency in English: Their kids will serve as “interpreters” for them in some environments, challenging present regulations. Putting the legality of this to rest for a moment, the little interpreters phenomenon is a fascinating linguistic issue to watch in Silicon Valley

III. Permanent education, networking and projects that never happened

With my resume showing some work done in the area, my networking also started to grow. I had met numerous colleagues on the road, with whom I would meet for coffee or lunch between assignments. I concurrently formalized my membership with Northern California Translators Association (NCTA), an ATA affiliate. As a result, my networking grew and I reconnected with my permanent education. And so I started taking workshops at NCTA on short term memory drills, budgeting, technological resources and use of social media, dialect variation, and so forth. Right there in those workshops, I had many opportunities to meet dozens of think-alike colleagues. Slowly, Silicon Valley became home and it feels like home even now.

The phone rings again: “What’s the assignment?” “Localization.” “Where?” “Cisco, Milpitas Campus.” “What time?” “Full day, two days from today. Beginning 8:00 am.” “No, Madam, I have not signed a NDA with you yet. But I will. And I am available.” So finally, a giant has called. This was a team designing a software for Latin American countries and they were starting with Chile. They wanted the exact and more frequent words for directions like “Go ahead” in Chilean Spanish. I was fascinated with the prospect but the fun wouldn’t last. There were so many layers of management in the project that I could not figure out who I was working with or working for. It was fun, though.

Another day, another call. It was a colleague. “Where?” “Intel. Santa Clara” “Assignment?” “Conference interpreting.” “Simultaneous?” “Nope, consecutive. “I am in.”, I said. I wasn’t going to miss that. Intel was co-founded in the 60’s by Robert Noyce, the inventor of the microprocessor, the tiny little device that makes our personal computers run. The meeting was cancelled, and the assignment was never fulfilled. It happens.

Then the chance to teach a course in a Spanish Translation and Interpreting Program came. I took it. Students and future interpreters were mostly Spanish heritage learners from Silicon Valley. Some of them reminded me of the kids described earlier. Now young adults, they will sacrifice evenings and one Saturday morning to get a diploma that will hopefully grant them a job in a hospital, school district or open the door for a court certification. Writing a syllabus, designing teaching and testing tasks for sight translation, consecutive and simultaneous interpreting in an audio laboratory are some of the instructors’ responsibilities in the program. It isn’t interpreting but mentoring or teaching future interpreters is a rewarding experience for an interpreter; and it is a source of income.


The title of this post is intentionally redundant: Interpreting Silicon Valley in its literal meaning is used here to indicate understanding the area, its economy, its geo-economics, business and technology players, its institutions, its character and the people who make Silicon Valley their home. Interpreting Silicon Valley can also mean from the linguistic viewpoint, the act of going around Silicon Valley and performing interpretations to solve people’s real language problems. In either sense, interpreting Silicon Valley is pretty much a work in progress, and will be so for years to come.



Dr. Juan Pino-Silva wears two hats. He is a second language educator and a translator and interpreter. He is the founder of L2slates Language Services, LLC in San Jose, CA. where he manages interpreting projects. He was the editor of e-Voice, the blog of the ATA Interpreters Division, from June to October 2018.


Image kindly provided by the author

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/interpreting-silicon-valley-a-work-in-progress/

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