Lost in translation: The role of the foreign language interpreter is so important

·3 min read

Buenos días, amigos:

My family used to watch the "Miss Universe" pageant together on television when I was growing up. While the concept may seem old-fashioned now, it was a way for us to see how women from different Latin American countries represented their cultures.

Of course, we also rooted for Miss USA, too.

But being raised in the U.S. in a pan-Latin family because of intermarriages meant we had relatives from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Mexico, and we were proud to be represented on TV.

One time, Miss Venezuela was answering the English-speaking host's question about her hobbies. She said something to the effect of "Me gusta cocinar ropa vieja en la cocina," which means she enjoyed cooking a dish of shredded beef marinated in onions, peppers, tomatoes and spices that also happens to be called "ropa vieja," or "old clothes."

However, the interpreter from Spain thought Miss Venezuela meant she liked to have dirty clothes in her kitchen. Big fail. No, she did not win the pageant.

This is just a trite example of how something can get lost in translation, but sometimes it's more serious than that, and it could be a matter of life or death.

In the latest episode of the Tennessee Voices video podcast show, I interviewed Diana Sanchez-Vega, who trains interpreters to work with people in the area of health care and education.

This has a real impact on residents' quality of life, and the wrong word or phrase can cause embarrassment, confusion, wasted time or worse: harm.

Sanchez-Vega, who is Argentinean, spoke about her desire to "monetize" bilingualism. Too often, bilingual people are asked casually to translate documents or interpret for someone because monolingual people think it is easy.

As someone who has been in that position, I can confirm that it takes skill, talent, cultural understanding and sensitivity.

Scroll to read more and to watch the video of our conversation.

More Latinos in news and coverage

Donovan Carrillo, of Mexico, competes during the men's short program figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing.
Donovan Carrillo, of Mexico, competes during the men's short program figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Beijing.
  • You may remember that Donovan Carrillo made a splash in the recent Winter Olympics as the first Mexican in decades to represent his country in figure skating. His moves on the ice and his positive attitude through his social media platforms inspired legions of fans.

  • My USA TODAY colleagues Eve Chen and Bailey Schulz write about diverse travelers who yearn to see more people like them in their adventures, be they Latino, Muslim or LGBTQ. "I always try to have my ears wide open to see if I hear Spanish or if I hear an accent," said Vanessa Fondeur-Adams, the Dominican American founder of Latino World Travelers.

  • Speaking of traveling, Francisco Camacho of Friendsville, Tennessee, recently studied abroad in Belfast, Ireland, and had the opportunity to interview that city's mayor and wrote a guest opinion column. Belfast is a city that was beleaguered for decades by sectarian violence known as "The Troubles." Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl told him: "People are able to live and work together. There's an increase in integrated education. We have a fragile but existing peace process."

  • Longtime readers may know I love the movie "Encanto" and have played the music dozens of times. So, I enjoyed reading a story by colleague Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic about a woman who resembles the sister Luisa — whose gift is super strength and who famously sings that earworm "Surface Pressure." Maribel Martinez has generated millions of views on TikTok with her striking impressions of Luisa.

Lastly, our President's Day sale offers unlimited access to The Tennessean for just $1 for six months, an introductory offer for new subscribers. If you've enjoyed the Latino Tennessee Voices newsletter each week, subscribing allows us to continue telling stories for and with the community.

¡Muchas gracias!

David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY Network Tennessee. He is of Colombian and Cuban descent, has studied or worked in several Spanish-speaking countries, and was the founding editor of Gaceta Tropical in Southwest Florida. He has lived in Tennessee since 2014. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at dplazas@tennessean.com or tweet to him at @davidplazas.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: The role of the foreign language interpreter is so important