“The new interpreting degree fills an important gap”

How professional interpreters of indigenous languages in Mexico are to strengthen the rights of the indigenous population.

Issue 1 | 2023

Author: Ulrike Scheffer

International research collaboration does not always have such a practical relevance as the work Professor Martina Schrader-Kniffki is doing together with colleagues from Mexico. In a DAAD-funded project, the Mainz-based expert in Spanish and Portuguese linguistics and translation has established a degree course in the translation and interpreting of indigenous languages at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

68 indigenous languages are spoken in Mexico, some of which are recognised as official national languages. In the past, however, there were hardly any professional interpreters for these languages. That has had and continues to have serious consequences for people from indigenous communities. “Indigenous people who have to appear before a court are often unable to defend themselves properly,” explains Schrader-Kniffki, adding that no small number of them have been sent to prison despite being innocent. Indigenous people are also disadvantaged by language barriers during hospital stays, she says: “The consequences in such cases can likewise prove disastrous.”

Besides interpreters, relatives or friends often help translate between indigenous languages and Spanish in Mexico. This makes it more difficult for indigenous people to take equal part in social and political life. “The new interpreting degree in indigenous languages plugs an important gap by helping to strengthen the rights of the indigenous population in Mexico,” says Martina Schrader-Kniffki.

Together with indigenous speakers, she is now exploring how trials in Mexican courts are affected by the fact that translations are done by non- or semi-professional interpreters. To this end, video recordings of court trials are transcribed and analysed. This also provides useful information for the training in professional interpreting that is run at the partner university in Mainz. Based on court records and texts compiled by missionaries, Martina Schrader-Kniffki also analyses translations between Spanish and the indigenous language of Zapotec from the colonial period. What was conveyed, and what was left out? How did the meaning of words or the values associated with them change as a result of the translation? “The translation culture greatly influenced the social structure of indigenous communities,” the researcher explains.

The requirements for interpreters are changing all the time. Community interpreting is becoming increasingly important; this is when interpreters accompany for example refugees on visits to the authorities or the doctor. “In these cases they don’t only translate, they often also help overcome cultural or religious obstacles,” explains Schrader-Kniffki. Interpreters have to explain a great deal in such settings and sometimes even actively steer conversations themselves. “This is certainly comparable to the situation in Mexico when interpreters translate for indigenous speakers.”

The Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz has a dedicated working group to study intercultural communication. It served as an important point of contact for the project partners from Mexico during their visits to Germany. Martina Schrader-Kniffki is quite certain: “Both sides can learn a lot from one another.”

About the researcher: Professor Martina Schrader-Kniffki (63) runs the working group in Spanish and Portuguese linguistics and translation at the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. She is particularly interested in the translation and interpreting of indigenous languages in Mexico. In collaboration with the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca in Mexico, she has been involved in establishing a specially designed interpreting degree for indigenous languages in this Central American country.