Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What the World Needs Now Is...
To heck with love sweet love, we need more trained interpreters.

Despite the glibness of the title, I'm entirely serious. Bill Poser's Language Log entry, "Not Me" talks about the distressing inadequacies of courtroom interpreting in the US. He writes:
In the United States, there are standards for interpreters in Federal court, but not in State courts, where the majority of criminal cases are heard. Interpreters may be highly qualified, or they may be the bailiff's sister who took a little Spanish in high school. No one really knows how often this leads to miscarriages of justice, in part because it is very difficult to appeal on these grounds because appellate courts normally consider only the written record of the trial, and the written record contains only the English translation of the testimony, not what was actually said.
When I was an undergraduate and people would hear that I was a Spanish major, their inevitable question was, "Oh, do you want to teach?" Given that I had been through high school Spanish classes with my peers, my immediate response was always, "Absolutely not." However, like many college language majors, this left me with the question of just what it was I wanted to do with these hard-earned language skills upon graduation. We're all the time hearing people talk about how valuable it is to know a foreign language in order to get some mythical future job, but as it turns out, finding a job that really utilizes such skills is hard to find, and by the time it materializes, our language skills may be a bit rusty.

Why is there not more emphasis on people becoming interpreters in the US? Is it because the jobs are scarce? They don't pay? There's not enough steady work to keep one fully employed? No one thinks about needing one until it's too late? Everyone in the US continues under the misapprehension that all immigrants and tourists should stay out of the country until they learn English? What?

Certainly the government is slowly coming to realize that maybe there should be more people around who can speak the languages of other countries, like, say, ones we're invading, occupying, or otherwise engaged with for long periods of time. But why has it taken this long to realize that maybe people in Iraq should be spoken to in other than loud, slow English, or maybe shot when no one on either side understands what's being said? We've been through two wars there now.

Which reminds me, last night I watched Jarhead with my family. (All hail my father's Netflix account.) At the end, my brother noted that it was basically a movie about nothing, which seems to be the theme with movies about Desert Storm, (witness the previous movie Three Kings). However, there was an interesting incident in about the middle of the movie, where the main characters finally see some actual residents of the country they've been walking around in for months. As the rest of the patrol all bring their weapons up, the star of the movie actually remembers some of the extremely limited Arabic he had either been taught or just picked up on his own. He yells it out, goes out to meet the people, and comes back with the news that they're upset because someone shot their camels, but aren't going to try to start a fight over it. Presumably they spoke some English, as that one sentence of Arabic to bridge the gulf was enough to tax our hero. But still! He made the effort! Spoke their language, and like magic, no one got killed.

Maybe this post is a bit disjointed and rambly, but my overriding point is this. I'm tired of language majors, and polyglots in general, getting no respect except as curiosities in this country. We've got valuable skills. Why won't people put them to actual use, outside of managing construction sites and poultry plants?

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