Chartered Institute
of Linguists

A case of Spanglish

What can the interpreter do when faced with hybrid and unusual language use in court, asks Andrew Belisle

As a Spanish-English interpreter in the US, I encounter some fascinating challenges in my day-to-day work. The kind of language I handle in my sector – community interpreting – is vastly different from what you might witness in the conference or diplomatic world. I believe one of the unique aspects of this kind of interpreting is the ever-present use of Spanglish. So what is Spanglish, how does it manifest on the job, and what do I, as an interpreter, do to handle it?

I first cut my teeth as a medical and legal interpreter in the US in 2016. Having returned from an undergraduate degree in Wales and a séjour linguistique in the south of Spain, I was unprepared for the diversity of Spanish I would experience on the other side of the pond. In a single day in court or at a hospital, I would interpret for individuals from Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela. Besides learning to manage the regional varieties of these countries, I also had to grapple with a key component of communication for the millions of Spanish speakers in the US: Spanglish.

Since this is a descriptive account of my own experience, I am going to use a non-academic definition of Spanglish that is specific to my work. By ‘Spanglish’, I mean the appearance of some form of English in the Spanish of mostly monolingual speakers.

This could be a word directly pulled from English and given Spanish-language pronunciation, for example tengo que hacer un apóimen instead of una cita (‘I have to make an appointment’). It could be using a Spanish word that sounds similar to an English word, and using the latter’s meaning, such as van a instalar la carpeta (‘they are going to install the carpet’) instead of van a instalar la alfombra. The word carpeta does exist in standard Spanish; it means ‘folder’.

An adjacent difficulty that cannot be deemed Spanglish but that often arises, especially in court, is the pronunciation of US place names by monolingual Spanish speakers. When I began interpreting in areas of the US where I had never been before, witnesses were explaining how they arrived in brosbi (Brownsville) or worked at araberguer (Whataburger, a Texan fast-food chain).

Many words in Spanglish have become commonplace in the speech of Latin American immigrants and are therefore predictable and uncomplicated. Examples include aseguranza for ‘insurance’ (seguro in standard Spanish), los biles for ‘bills’ (factura del agua/de la luz) and los taxes for ‘taxes’ (impuestos). However, I frequently come across more unexpected usage of Spanglish that is particular to someone’s work or personal life.

What does an interpreter do in such cases? The truth is that Spanglish has caused some comical and, at times, frustrating bumps in the road for me. I have developed a much calmer mentality than I had in the beginning; before, it would throw me into a panic, especially in court, believing that if I could not decipher güirira (‘weed eater’) on the spot, I would seem incompetent or unprepared.

Strategies in a medical setting

Over the years I have developed a few strategies to smooth out the wrinkles caused by these linguistic nuggets. The strategies are sector dependent, since medical and legal interpreting differ significantly from each other. The former is a care-based environment in which I am treated by both parties as a welcome advocate, while the latter is an adversarial setting with a verbatim record.

In medical interpreting, my approach is straightforward. If I hear a word that I suspect is Spanglish, or a thorny pronunciation of a place name, I simply clarify with the patient, quickly explaining to the provider what I am doing. I find this to be the quickest, cleanest way to obtain the information I need.

Let’s imagine a patient’s mother tells the doctor: Mi niña se cayó en la playera del mall (‘My daughter fell in the playera at the mall’). Here we have two instances of Spanglish: playera and mall. One is obvious, as almost all Spanish speakers in the US use the English word ‘mall’ in their speech. Playera is funny because it means ‘t-shirt’ in Mexico, but contextually that does not make sense.

With the ‘mall’ clue in mind, I would say to the provider, “The interpreter needs to clarify a term” and then ask the mother, in Spanish, “Ma’am, do you mean that your daughter fell in the play area?” It turns out that playera is the ‘play area’, but the fact that the word exists with a separate meaning in standard Spanish caused that split second of confusion.

Legal matters

My strategy for legal interpreting is different. Because a verbatim record is kept, a back-and-forth dialogue of clarification between me and the Spanish-speaking witness can elicit additional statements from that witness, who may not realise that I need to decipher a single word, render the statement containing that word, and move on. In such a case, these additional statements also need to be interpreted, causing an intrusive interruption in which the whole courtroom is waiting to hear what is happening.

Instead, with indecipherable place names, if I am not completely sure of the English-language version, I maintain the Spanish pronunciation when I render the phrase in English. Let’s say that the respondent states “llegué a járlinchon el tres de octubre” (‘I arrived in járlinchon on 3 October’). I haven’t the slightest clue what or where járlinchon is, so I say: “I arrived in járlinchon on 3 October”. Most often, the judge and attorneys are experienced enough to know that járlinchon is Harlingen, a border city in Texas. By keeping the Spanish-language pronunciation, the responsibility is shifted to the court to clarify, on the record, what was said. This avoids a potentially lengthy exchange between me and the Spanish speaker that must then be interpreted for the record.

Beyond place names, when I encounter Spanglishisms that I cannot immediately discern from context, I go with a similar approach of shifting responsibility to the legal team by letting them know what is happening. I find this especially helpful in depositions, where I hear all sorts of vocabulary relating to construction, car repair, plumbing and restaurant work.

A witness in a recent deposition stated that he used to be employed as a paifíder. Based on the witness’s decades of residence in the States, I knew he was saying a word in English, not in Spanish. But without additional context, it was impossible to know what he meant. After hearing the statement, I said to the attorneys (in third person, as is protocol), “This is a comment from the interpreter. The witness is saying his profession in English and not in Spanish, and the interpreter is unable to make out the name of the profession.”

Of course, at first the attorneys had no idea what paifíder could be either. They started to ask him questions about what he did on the job. It turns out he installed piping systems on ships. One of the attorneys with experience in maritime law caught on and exclaimed “Pipe fitter! He’s saying ‘pipe fitter’.” Everyone in the room, witness included, chuckled at the lightbulb moment.

As you can see, there is seldom a dull moment in my work. Hearing Spanglish keeps me on my toes, forces me to think outside the box, and constantly expands my personal lexicon. Thank you for joining me in these musings, and if you have any of your own stories to share, please join me on Twitter @abanion. There are often “Spanglish-of-the-day” tweets for colleagues to guess – Wordle for interpreters if you will.

Andrew Belisle is a Spanish-English interpreter and German to English translator pursuing an MA in Conference Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California. He has worked since 2016 as an interpreter in medical, legal and conference settings. Follow his professional adventures on Twitter @abanion.