The Interpreter

Some years ago I took a trip to El Salvador with other faculty members from various departments across the university where I worked. The purpose of the trip was to familiarize ourselves with the programs the university sponsored so we would be able to lead groups of students on immersion trips. The university already enjoyed well-established relationships with academics, non governmental organizations, and community leaders there.

This was my first trip to El Salvador. I went back many times over the years and got to be close to many people, locals as well as ex-pats. I traveled all over the country, which, although not big (i.e., slightly larger than New Jersey), has varied terrain including beaches, rain forests, and mountains. I also did much more than immersion trips. For instance, I can still recall being picked up on a street corner in San Salvador and whisked away blindfolded to a meeting with union organizers who had insisted on secrecy for fear of government reprisals. That may be best left for another blog post.

This first trip, however, required neither cloak nor dagger. I was simply there to listen and learn. My Spanish wasn’t even that good, having learned to speak it mainly from Mexican radio stations in San Jose, California. Turns out I had picked up more gang slang than was appropriate for an academic field trip, but the embarrassment wore off soon enough. The veteran faculty member leading the group had arranged for an interpreter to accompany us for the entire ten-day trip.

I don’t remember the interpreter’s name or many other details except that we put him through hell. He was a young guy and clearly nervous about working with a group of scholars from North America. As you might expect, we had questions for him at just about every turn, ranging from where’s the bathroom in this village (there was none) to how is this fruit related to the prickly pear, and what has dollarization done to the economy? This was well before bitcoin.

A chemistry professor, a positive guy with a molecular personality, inquired about the composition of the bricks in a church. When the interpreter fumbled for a response, the chemist went into a huddle with the anthropologist, who had experience with sediments and bones, and the art historian. They concluded that the bricks consisted of hydrated lime. That let the interpreter off the hook until we got to the indigo vats at the next village, which is when all hell broke loose.

When I say all hell, I don’t mean they drilled the guy over the history of dye-making and the textile industry in El Salvador, which they could have done but didn’t because we had what today are called “subject matter experts” (SME’s) there to answer questions and take us around. I mean we wouldn’t let him do his job. Certain members of the group started translating themselves, because in their minds the translator was either too slow or inaccurate. So, whenever we needed translating they would jump in and do it, which was not helpful at all. Sometimes, they would even argue with each other.

Now, here’s the thing. I stood back and watched it all play out, which, by the way, is a moral flaw in my personality that I will have to address in another blog post, but not now. From a distance I watched our interpreter retreat into the background and wait until the interpreter posse finished what they were doing. I thought he had given up, but at the next opportunity he stepped forward and calmly, firmly translated. He didn’t pay attention to the interruptions and corrections hurled at him by the posse. He held his ground.

There have been times over the past few months when I have thought about the interpreter. The reason is that another kind of posse has come riding into my life. Sometimes it’s someone who knows everything, other times it’s somebody who not only does all the translating but all of the talking, too.

Holding your ground is not for the weak.

Image credits: feature by Jeison Higuita on Unsplash; interpreter and “El Pital” view by Israel barraza on Unsplash. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” This post is dedicated to Doug Sweet. We’ll always have Suchitoto.


  1. What a wonderful lesson! It is definitely one I can use now. I appreciated the poise and focus of your translator. Recently, I had a number of visitors from the east coast and mid-west. Some of these visitors, with their dogs, stayed in our home, while others came to spend time with the friend for whom I provide hospice care. The purpose of the visit was the wedding of a grandchild in San Diego, but there were some grandchildren, not seen for two or three years that came, with their parents, to say their goodbyes. At times, there were six to twelve persons sitting or eating in the small living room turned into a hospital room.

    Although it was difficult to have so many persons passing in and out of my home, it was also interesting to see that some persons expressed their grief and discomfort by removing the groceries out of the pantry and placing them on the very top shelves, completely out of reach of my short stature. Others decided to move furniture, after telling me what they were going to do, and my telling them, “Please, no. There are reasons for the current arrangement.” Three times. Some persons mentioned a bathroom that needed cleaning and boxes that should be cut up in the garage. These persons indicated to others that elderly people just could not concentrate on what should be done. All took leave or went to bed at 9 pm.

    I understood, but I could have used the poise and focus of your translator.

      1. Unfortunately, I know that “place” as well…More a sense of exhaustion and a lack of support, resentment. But, that is my problem, not the problem of others.

  2. As a former STRAIGHT male dancer; conservative Christian in the film industry; and traditional American in a class full of Millennials stooges, holding my ground is not only necessary, but fun. Have gotten to an age and a position in life where if someone doesn’t like my non-PC and un-Woke take on events and literature, they can pretty much go F themselves.

    The beauty of this, and of the translator, is that a monumental and begrudging respect is born. Barring that, a punch in the mouth, delivered by Yours truly, is not out of the question.

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