By Helen Eby
On September 29 and 30, 2019, I had the opportunity to lunch with Odilia Romero. We spent the afternoon together; I met her family and her team at her home, and had lunch with her the next day. We talked about life, discussed languages and interpreting, relaxed, and dreamed.
What did I see in Odilia over that period of time?
She is WYSIWYG. What you see is indeed what you get: Odilia is smart, detailed, focused, unrelenting in her ideals and her pursuit of excellence, uncompromising in being faithful to the people she serves. You will not see a Mercedes parked outside her house. She lives in a home where an indigenous person can be comfortable, with a garden out front where they grow corn and other vegetables from their homeland. I saw them harvesting beans, watering the watermelon, and caring for a vegetable garden and a dryscape side by side. She remembers her roots. She is authentic.
A champion of language and culture
Odilia trains interpreters and teaches them to go deep. Her students dig for the meaning of the terms, and are not satisfied with the first equivalence they might find. Terms that do not have an equivalent in their culture invite discussion, and we concluded that translating “condom” as “penis cover” or “jail” as “metal house” is an accurate translation, not an explanation. That is what she teaches: interpret the message, not the words, so that the meaning is transferred.
Words that we use often, like yes and no, are embedded in some languages in a different way. In Mixteco, for example, there is a negation prefix, so if I had to answer yes or no to the question “Did you read that book?”, my answer would have to be “No read book,” literally. The “yes” version might be “I read it.” So I guess they are pretty specific. Just a couple of days ago, I interpreted at a deposition and the attorney asked for a yes or a no. Then they had to clarify what the no actually meant. I would expect fewer clarifications in this language! We can learn from them.
Training with experience and integrity
Through FIOB, Odilia has been training interpreters since 1994, for at least 25 years. That is more than many organizations I am aware of. Her accumulated experience is amazing. She has so many stories of interpreting done wrong… and done right, of course. I would imagine those stories make it into her class. She is hard to find on the phone because she is often busy at the hospital, interpreting for a surgery, or at court. She is an interpreter, training interpreters so that indigenous people can have meaningful access to services.
Training is costly, but Odilia is uncompromising. She will not accept funds from sources that exploit indigenous whose interests conflict with those of the people she serves. In fact, she regularly receives funding offers she can’t accept. She just won’t accept money that the indigenous people would not want to be connected with.
Finding and offering solutions
Odilia interprets for both the judge or the doctor and the indigenous person. Both of them need to be able to communicate clearly. She also works with judges so that when an interpreter goes to an assignment, the interpreter is set up for success in every possible way.
We were discussing new technologies by which school districts and hospitals could send information home after an interpreting encounter when Odilia’s creative mind immediately saw how useful this could be for the Los Angeles Police Department, allowing them to record the languages of the people of LA and not have to attempt to pronounce the indigenous languages themselves.
Thanks to the work of the Los Angeles FIOB chapter, the FIOB and Cielo now host a two-day indigenous literature conference at the Los Angeles Public Library, where the entire library becomes a cultural fair.
She works with other indigenous interpreters to make sure people are connected and have support. And she relies on her team, delegating assignments to those who have expertise in technical issues, in organization, or in whatever else needs to be done.
I grew as a human being from spending time with Odilia. I came away inspired to continue providing meaningful access to services through interpreting and translation, and by looking for creative solutions to problems. Odilia is just that kind of person: someone who will keep you inspired, creative, and energized.
For more information about her work, see the following websites:
 What You See Is What You Get
Helen Eby is an experienced translator and interpreter who currently serves as the Interpreter Division Administrator. She can be reached through her website: https://www.gauchatranslations.com/.
Images kindly provided by Helen Eby.