You do need a good chemistry with your translator

Interview with Arwa Aburawa:

This was your first in-depth-reporting in Central America and you don’t speak Spanish. So how did it go?
It was amazing. First of all, I had an amazing interpreter, her name is Trudy Mercadal. She wasn’t just translating what people would say. She was really helping me put it into that cultural context, and explaining why some people want to do things a certain way, what they were maybe insinuating. One of the things that she told me very early on was that Guatemala has been through a huge civil war, and a lot of people don’t want to be too contentious, don’t want to say anything that’s too controversial, don’t want to cause issues or troubles between people. So, there’s a lot of reading between the lines.

Sometimes the rhythm of translating was actually really helpful, because they would speak and then they would stop. Then she would translate to me. You could always see that they were kind of forming their thoughts, and having a moment to gather themselves, and to think about what they wanted to say next. So, sometimes I felt like it was actually useful to have those pauses,

Tell me about the time you interviewed leaders of the Mayan community
Yeah, so there was one occasion where we were brought to the head of Santiago which is a Mayan indigenous village near Lake Atitlan. We were given an audience with him and so there was a three way translation: There was a Mayan-to Spanish translator and then a Spanish-to-English translator. So, that was quite long but that was very much a one way conversation because he was talking to me and my responses weren’t very elaborate so it didn’t feel like it slowed anything down.

One of the very first interviews that we did was in a group setting so we were meeting indigenous leaders in villages and we initially wanted to interview them individually because we felt like that would be the most efficient way to do it. And they were really against that. They wanted to be interviewed in a group and it was quite a big group. I said to Trudy, “I think that this could be really unmanageable. People will have to be sitting and waiting.” And Trudy explained that this is quite common in these communities. They are very communal and that includes having these kinds of interviews and it was interesting.

Do you remember any specific moment where Trudy changed your understanding of a situation or changed the way you would have conducted the interview?
Yes,  I was doing this interview at one of the mines and we ended up talking a lot about conflicts within families. Families who agree and disagree about the mine and how they manage that. And I interviewed some of the women, they were very open about the conflict that happened, and there was a sister which they didn’t talk to because she was very pro-mine, and she wasn’t very happy that they were part of the resistance. And then when I went to see the father, he was so different. He gave me an entirely different story. He was like, “No, we get along really well. There is no conflict here. Yeah, we disagree but that’s quite normal in this community. Everything is fine.” And, it was kind of like, Oh My God, did we misunderstand what was happening? And then Trudy was very great at stepping in and saying, “Look, you know in these communities it can be very patriarchal, and he has to be seen as the person in charge who is managing all these women, and airing dirty laundry is not a thing that’s done.

Since you didn’t understand Spanish, did you pay more attention to other things like body language?
Yeah, I think that definitely happened because you’re looking at someone’s face and not understanding a word so you do tend to pay attention to how other people are reacting to what they’re saying. So, when that father was saying, “Oh no, everything is fine,” I remember I noticed the mother’s face – she just disagreed. And she was a bit like, I’m not happy with what he was saying or perplexed by what he was saying.

I think a lot of the time I was just really trying to maintain eye contact and to maintain a relationship because sometimes you do feel like you lose it through the translator. Sometimes they don’t know who to look at and so I was very conscious about maintaining eye contact and nodding and trying to pick up on their tone, in terms of whether I should be smiling or not. If someone is sad or seems a bit angry, obviously, I wouldn’t smile.

You need a really good chemistry with your translator.
You definitely do. You do need a good chemistry with your translator. And I think Trudy was really great, she would sit in places that were quite strategic and she would say, “You should sit closest to them. I will sit just behind you or right next to you and she would say to them that Arwa doesn’t speak English but she’s asking the questions and you’re having the conversation with her.” And so, she was really great in building confidence with the person I was speaking to and telling them that this is the person you are talking to.

Martyna Starosta, Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Fellow


(Trudy Mercadal left, Arwa Aburawa right)