Does an interpreter’s race/ethnicity matter when working with clients?

Although the world is constantly and rapidly becoming more globalized, multicultural and interdependent, the collective mentality with regards to race or ethnicity may be moving at a slower pace. At first glance, people in the United States may think that problematic interactions among people of different race or ethnicity is an issue that only affects this country; yet preliminary research, as well as my anecdotal experience, paints a very different picture.

My experiences, as well as growing up in Venezuela and in the US among Latinos, have led me to conclude that Latinos have a pervasive problem of “colorism”, classism and internalized oppression among their community and media. If you have worked closely with Latinos in the US (US-born or immigrant), imagine the interpreter being a bilingual African-American, or an Afro-Latino from the Dominican Republic or Cuba. My past experience leads me to believe the interaction would be very different than if the interpreter were a bilingual Caucasian American or a Latino of European ancestry.

In recent experiences, I have seen that the client may automatically assume that the lighter skinned interpreter is more competent than his or her darker skinned counterpart, and if that is not the case, the client may be more lenient in accepting the lighter skinned interpreter’s mistakes, and pass harsher judgment on the darker skinned interpreter. Race and colorism in Latin America is still a very taboo and not openly discussed issue, which ultimately can deeply affect an interpreter’s working relationship with clients.

Recently, a shocking replication of the famous “doll study” surfaced in Mexico and Chile (See Doll Study Latino) and the results were just as bad, if not worse, than those found in the US-based study. Across the board, the children interviewed chose the light-skinned doll as having better qualities, being prettier or nicer, solely based on the color of the doll’s skin. It is particularly saddening to see how some dark-skinned children admit that they look like the dark-skinned doll, yet still assign the bad qualities to this doll.

Anson Musselman, of the UCLA International Institute, writes about a lecture on race in Latin America and the Arab world given by Dr. Carlos Moore, of the Universidade do Estado da Bahia in Brazil:

“While he clearly regarded the often overt racism of the North as perhaps even more objectionable than the Arab-Spanish form in the South, [Moore] saw a particular problem in the general Latin American denial of race as an issue. This has made it socially disreputable to raise demands for reform in Latin America around race issues,” Musselman writes. This suggests not only a problem in the Latin American psyche around race issues, but a dangerous denial of the problem, which prevents the community from moving forward and overcoming the issue. (See Musselman)

The problematic interaction with race in other cultures is not limited to Latin Americans; preliminary research for this post also shows there are serious problems of colorism and racism in the Arab world (See Anti-black racism and Dirty secret), as well as among southeast Asians.

I think it is the responsibility of interpreters to become agents of change in their community in order to break down barriers in communication perpetuated by patterns of racism and discrimination. However, it is never appropriate to bring up these issues during an assignment, unless the problematic interaction is causing a complete failure in the relaying of the message; even then, it is advised to maintain composure and to address the problem in a sensitive and productive manner.

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Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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