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¡Ask A Mexican!

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Dear Mexican: I’m a Spanish court interpreter in Santa Bárbara, California; I’ve also worked in Los Angeles courts. I just read your most recent column regarding the promotion of the learning and practicing of English by Latinos in the U.S. Generally, I agree with your view. But my question is why can’t we also promote the use and practice of PROPER SPANISH in this country? One only needs to take a stroll through the many Latino neighborhoods throughout California and witness the signage on businesses and nonprofits alike, with awful misspellings and grammatical errors — or, flip through the pages of community periodicals, or view the commercials on U.S. Spanish television and see the same linguistic garbage!

But that is not the worst of it. What about the legions of “bilingual” service professionals that work in private and public agencies who speak and write substandard Spanish? Many of these “professionals” are just taken at their word when they assert that they grew up speaking Spanish, their bi-literacy never truly tested. Sadly, this is the case with most Chicanos, and even native Latinos who neglect their Spanish literacy in favor of awkwardly assimilating into a forced English. Their arguments for using improper Spanish are disingenuous: “Mexican immigrants won’t get the big words,” or “Sometimes, there aren’t translations for big words or concepts.” The fact is that these “professionals” project their own linguistic incompetence and intellectual indifference when they use Spanglish or other phonetic contrivance in dealing with the Spanish-speaking community. English is the only official language in the U.S. (something we are constantly reminded of), so our Spanish can only be based on something just as official. Why is Spanish not respected as an established foreign language? Why is it consistently dumbed down?

As a court interpreter, it’s my duty to translate complicated legal terminology everyday. It’s unethical for me to lower the register, and use words like tíquete, corte, probación, and felonía, when the proper words are boleta de tránsito, tribunal, condena condicional, and delito grave, respectively. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the public I work with understands and appreciates my formal usage. Such standards should apply to any field. I’ve come to realize that the human experience is universal: there is a veritable translation for everything! Moreover, it’s actually impossible to direct a translation to a certain group or audience, as the only material that the translating agent has to work with is the source language, English. Walter Benjamin argues this point quite well in his essay, “The Task of the Translator.” Apart from the academic shortcomings, this practice also promotes a negative stereotype: those dumb Mexicans are too illiterate to understand.

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