Interpreter Project

Indigenous Language Rights and Cultural Mediation

The role of an interpreter does not consist solely of generating accurate translations, as if it were primarily an issue of semantic equation. Beyond the linguistic and grammatical concern for accuracy of meaning, interpreters—especially those who are involved in legal, medical and other institutional settings directly connected to the state—also partake in interpersonal processes that can often result in, or be influenced by, moments of cultural misrecognition, institutional neglect, and social abandonment.

Interpreters are charged with the responsibility to account, as faithfully as possible, for the conditions, experiences, and demands of others. To interpret, then, is always more than mere technical success; to interpret, is to act as a cultural mediator that, beyond rubrics of linguistic precision, aims toward an ethical representation of and social advocacy for people who are in need:

Interpreters do not repeat the words of another person mindlessly, mechanically. Interpreters are not parrots. Interpreters repeat the words of another person mindfully, humanly. Compassion, humility and selflessness drive our practice. Interpreters do not mimic; we embody.

Indigenous peoples in the Americas have, for over 500 years, endured varying historical forms of state-sanctioned political repression, cultural genocide and social marginalization. Today, when an indigenous person does not receive adequate attention and/or necessary resources in terms of interpretation and translation, it is a concrete, current manifestation of hundreds of years of abuse and exploitation at the hands of the U.S. nation-state, whose historical triumph has explicitly depended on the integration of non-Europeans as perpetual “second-class citizens” and as forms of expendable labor. Histories of neglect and dispossession, therefore, do not simply inform interpretive practices, but actively frame and structure the ways in which people organize themselves and how they relate to one another—both institutionally and personally.

The “official” task of interpreters need not be limited to mandates and expectations of what their “proper,” often understood as neutral, stance ultimately is. Instead, the task of an interpreter is troubled by the social necessity to account for variances in cultural systems, processes of language acquisition, and identity formation. Issues of interpretation and translation cannot be reduced to a level of linguistic transaction but, rather, ought to be treated as they exist within social reality—as part of larger matrices of power, authority, and agency.

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