Relay Interpreting: A Solution for Languages of Limited Diffusion?

by Holly Mikkelson
Monterey Institute of International Studies

(published in The Translator, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1999)


No one knows exactly how many languages are spoken in the world, partly because linguists cannot agree on what constitutes a language, as opposed to a dialect or a variant of a language (Crystal, 1997a), and partly because some languages cease to be spoken as minority groups are assimilated into surrounding societies. One estimate puts the number of languages actively spoken in the world today at 6,000 (Crystal, 1997b). With very few exceptions, most countries have only one official language, and the languages spoken by minority groups may or may not be recognized in government, social, educational, and cultural spheres.

Usually, the official language of a country is used as a lingua franca among minority groups, even though it is a second language for them. In the Philippines, for example, English is one of the two official languages, but no Filipino claims English as a native language. In China, Mandarin is the official language, but many different languages are spoken throughout the country. In the tiny Russian republic of Dagestan, 28 languages are shared by a population of 2 million. Although dozens of languages are spoken throughout Russia, 90% of its citizens claim to speak Russian at home (The Economist, 1997). French is the lingua franca in much of Africa, while English is often used for inter-ethnic communication in the Indian subcontinent. When speakers of minority languages emigrate to another country, they may find it easier to communicate in one of these major international languages than in their mother tongue.

The United Nations has declared 1994-2004 the Decade of Indigenous Peoples, in recognition of the existence of many ethnic groups that have survived invasion, colonialism, and oppression. Members of indigenous ethnic groups are still frequently subjected to mistreatment or neglect in their home countries, and as a result, many of them emigrate. Much has been written about the need for quality interpretation services for immigrants in host countries’ public institutions, such as courts, hospitals, social service agencies, and schools. The focus of such writing tends to be on providing interpretation services in major languages such as Spanish, Arabic, and Russian, no small task in itself. A few writers mention the added difficulty of finding qualified interpreters in less commonly spoken languages, often known as minority languages. The present article specifically addresses the issue of providing trained interpreters in indigenous languages through relay interpreting.

Definition of Terms

A minority language is defined by Crystal (1997a) as

A language used in a country by a group which is significantly smaller in number than the rest of the population, also called a linguistic or language minority. Those who speak the language may be nationals of the country, but they have distinguishing ethnic, religious, or cultural features which they wish to safeguard.

Often minority languages are suppressed by the government, which impedes their dissemination through formal instruction or publications. Some minority languages have survived only due to the tenacity of a few speakers who continue to use and teach them in secret. Examples are Catalan in Spain under the Franco regime, and Gaelic in Ireland under English rule.

Indigenous languages are minority languages spoken by ethnic groups that predate the arrival of the group currently in power. Examples are Inuktitut in Canada and Maori in New Zealand.

Languages of Limited Diffusion (LLD) are spoken by relatively small numbers of people, in contrast to languages that are spoken in several different countries and are widely taught as foreign languages. An LLD may be the official language of a small country, such as Laos or Estonia, or it may be a minority or indigenous language, such as Hmong (spoken in Laos and now in immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere) or Navajo (spoken by Native Americans in the southwestern United States). It is rare for an LLD to be the official language of an international organization, such as the United Nations or the World Bank, but LLDs are frequently used in the daily work of these organizations. Because LLDs are spoken by relatively few people, it may be difficult to find publications written in them. Dictionaries may be scarce or non-existent, and there may be no university-level courses or trained teachers in these languages. As a result of these constraints, there are very few interpreter training programs in LLDs.

Relay Interpreting is necessary when more than two languages are involved in an interpreted event and no single interpreter commands all of the languages, or when no interpreter can be found in a given language combination. Matheson (1997) illustrates the process by describing a hypothetical conference of widget makers in which the working languages are French, English, and Spanish:

Let us say that the French CEO of Widget Makers de France is addressing the audience in French. Booth #1 is interpreting from French into Spanish for all conference attendees and panel members from Spain. Booth #2 does not listen directly to the speaker, but instead, using the relay switch, is listening to the interpreter in Booth #1, who is interpreting into Spanish. Then the interpreter in Booth #2 proceeds to interpret from Spanish into English for conference attendees and panel members who need to listen to the English interpretation.

Relay interpreting has been employed throughout history when explorers, traders, or conquerors have come into contact with previously unknown groups. For example, Karttunen (1994) mentions the use of relay interpreting between Totonac, Nahuatl, Maya, and Spanish during Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. Today, this expedient is used extensively in large international organizations such as the European Union, which has 11 official languages (Matheson, 1997). It would be impossible to find interpreters in every language combination (e.g., French to German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, and Dutch; Greek to French, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, and Dutch, etc.), so the interpreters relay from other booths. Experienced conference interpreters are accustomed to relay interpreting, and the conference halls and meeting rooms of international organizations are equipped with the appropriate electronic connections to make simultaneous relay interpreting a relatively seamless operation. The delegates are usually unaware that the version they are listening to is not being interpreted from the floor but from one of the other booths.

Another application of the relay system is found in sign-language interpreting (New Jersey Court Interpreting Section, 1997). When a Deaf individual does not know the standard sign language of the country (ASL, in the case of the United States), a Deaf interpreter may be asked to interpret what are known as “home signs” (informal sign language) into ASL, and the ASL version is then interpreted into English by a hearing interpreter.

Relay interpreting is obviously much more cumbersome than two-way interpreting, even when performed in the simultaneous mode. If an immigrant is bilingual in his native tongue (a minority or indigenous language) and the official language of his home country (a major world language such as Spanish, French, Russian, Hindi, or Mandarin), he will have to rely on an interpreter in one of the latter languages, because English/minority-language interpeters are rare. But many immigrants speak only a minority or indigenous language. In the community interpreting settings of the United States (courtrooms, hospitals, etc.), there are no interpreting booths or elaborate electronic connections. As a result, relay interpreting in spoken languages must be performed consecutively. Thus, the service provider will make a statement in English, and the statement will be interpreted simultaneously into a major language (Spanish, for example) but the Spanish version will have to be interpreted consecutively into the minority language (Mixtec, for example). Then the Mixtec speaker will make a statement, which will be interpreted consecutively or simultaneously into Spanish; the Spanish version will then be interpreted consecutively into English.

Background of Indigenous-Language Interpreter Project

In the United States, the language spoken by the largest number of immigrants, and therefore the language most frequently requested for interpretation, is Spanish (U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, 1998). Mexico is the country that contributes the most immigrants to the United States, and it is also a country where many indigenous languages are spoken. Another country that has recently seen many of its citizens emigrate to the United States, primarily because of a devastating civil war, is Guatemala, where 60 percent of the population speaks an indigenous language (Caribbean Update, 1997). Immigrants from these two countries in the 1980s and 1990s have included far more speakers of indigenous languages than in the past (McDonnell, 1997). As a result, public institutions are faced with an urgent need to find qualified interpreters in Mexican and Guatemalan indigenous languages.

The most common indigenous languages spoken by Mexican immigrants are Mixtec and Zapotec (Kearney, 1995; Alvarez, 1995; Cearley, 1997; Bedell, 1997), each of which is actually a large family that includes dozens of mutually unintelligible dialects that could actually be categorized as separate languages. Thus, two people who claim to speak Mixtec may not be able to understand each other well if they are from different villages. The principal Guatemalan languages spoken by immigrants are Mam, Quiche, Kanjobal, Chuj, Quechi, Aguateco, and Kacchiquel (Nugent, 1998). Again, many speakers of these languages do not know Spanish, much less English. When they appear at a hospital, court, or social service agency, they may be mistakenly assigned a Spanish interpreter whom they cannot understand. Once the language barrier is discovered, the search begins for an English/indigenous-language interpreter.

The rare person who is fluent in both English and an indigenous language is unlikely to be trained in the specialized skill of interpreting in the legal, medical, or social services setting. As has been amply demonstrated elsewhere (Roberts, 1994; Gentile et al, 1996), interpreting in these community settings is a complex task that requires extensive training to develop proficiency. Incidents of misdiagnosed patients, wrongfully convicted defendants, and exploited workers have proliferated in recent years as the number of indigenous Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants has grown in the United States. Stories have appeared in the press describing injustices that have arisen because speakers of indigenous languages were provided with either no interpreter, a Spanish interpreter, or an untrained and incompetent indigenous language interpreter (Alvarez, 1995; Bingham, 1997; O’Malley, 1997; Bedell, 1997). One such case was that of Santiago Ventura, a Mixtec speaker who was charged with murder and was provided with a Spanish interpreter throughout his prosecution. Ventura’s conviction was eventually overturned, and he was released from prison. By the time of his exoneration and release, he was fluent in English, and he became an advocate for the rights of indigenous-language speakers. His story was told in a documentary that aired on the public broadcasting network throughout the United States.

The Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional (Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front)--Oaxaca being the state in Mexico where most indigenous immigrants come from--was founded to protect the human and labour rights of indigenous Mexicans and to promote solidarity with their cause. California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a legal aid firm whose primary clientele are Mexican farmworkers, had seen first-hand the difficulties encountered by its indigenous clients in their dealings with public agencies, employers, and landlords. Because inadequate interpreting was evidently one of the biggest barriers to meeting indigenous immigrants’ needs, the Frente and CRLA decided to work together to seek funding for a program to train interpreters. They obtained a grant from Oxfam America and contracted with the International Interpretation Resource Center (IIRC) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies to design and present a training course for indigenous-language interpreters. The IIRC determined that, given the limited formal education and English skills of the indigenous-language speakers, the most pragmatic and cost-effective approach would be to train them to interpret in a relay situation with experienced Spanish-English interpreters. Accordingly, a screening instrument and curriculum were designed to train indigenous-language relay interpreters to work in health, educational, social-service, and legal settings.

Phase One

Recruitment and Screening

The Frente and CRLA already had extensive contacts among the indigenous Mexicans living in California, and they set about publicizing the program through newsletters, radio stations, and social organizations in Mexican immigrant communities, and by word of mouth. The Frente was flooded with inquiries about the course (Nugent, 1997). All interested individuals filled out an application that asked for information about their legal status, educational background, language proficiency, current and past employment, availability for training and interpreting assignments, and reasons for wanting to participate in the program. Those who lacked proper documentation to work in the United States had to be turned away, which had the unfortunate effect of eliminating many otherwise promising candidates. The trainees had to be able to leave their families and jobs for 10 days to go through the training program, a requirement that eliminated additional qualified candidates. The potential interpreters lived in many different parts of the state, so regardless of where the training took place, it would require extensive travel for most of the trainees. Candidates who were not literate in Spanish had to be rejected as well, since much of the work of a community interpreter involves reading written instructions and filling out forms (in California, most documentation in public agencies is translated into Spanish). Literacy in the indigenous language was not required.

Originally, the program was intended to encompass three Mexican indigenous languages, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Triqui. Unfortunately, no Triqui speakers came forward and only a few Zapotec speakers applied for the program. The planners had also hoped to recruit equal numbers of men and women, but very few women met the initial requirements.

Applicants who satisfied the requirements of this first phase of screening were asked to take an oral and written qualifying exam. This exam consisted of several parts: 1) a group session in which applicants were encouraged to talk about their reasons for wanting to participate in the program and their expectations about working as an interpreter; 2) an interview with a specialist in their indigenous language to determine oral fluency; 3) a reading comprehension test in Spanish; and 4) an oral exam designed to test their listening comprehension, memory, analytical skills, and lexical resourcefulness in Spanish. (The texts of the exams are included in Appendix A.) Most applicants appeared in person for the exams; a few were interviewed by telephone.

Out of a total of 39 candidates, 15 were selected for the training program. The languages represented were various dialects of Mixtec (a total of 13 who spoke various dialects of mixteco alto and mixteco bajo), and Zapotec (one speaker each of zapoteco del valle and zapoteco de la sierra) (Nugent, 1997). Although Oxfam wanted to encourage as many women to participate as possible, only one woman was able to attend the training.

First Training Session

The first training session, titled Indigenous Relay Interpreter Training, took place at a retreat center over a period of six days (February 2-8, 1997). The curriculum of the course was designed according to a classic model of introducing content first by using a subject-matter expert to present the topic, having the students develop language-specific glossaries related to the subject, and then providing practice materials for the students to implement what they have learned in actual interpreting. Because the Frente and CRLA had detected a need for indigenous-language interpreting in a variety of settings, the curriculum was designed to cover interpreting for social services, state agencies and administrative hearings, education, health care, criminal law, and civil law (See Appendix B for course syllabus). Each day focused on a different topic, with guest speakers who were either attorneys or government officials working in the particular setting, or interpreters with extensive experience in that area. All presentations were given in Spanish.

For example, on the day devoted to state agencies, a bilingual community worker who represents CRLA clients in administrative hearings conducted by various social service agencies provided an overview of how claims are filed and adjudicated in these agencies. To demonstrate administrative hearing procedures and the role of the interpreter, the guest speaker and two CRLA attorneys staged a mock hearing to allow the trainees to play the roles of interpreter and claimant. The proceedings were conducted in English and interpreted into Spanish and an indigenous language, and the “claimant” testified in the indigenous language. After the lecture and demonstration, the trainees met in language groups and began compiling indigenous-language glossaries based on Spanish word lists prepared by the IIRC. Then the students were given scenarios that served as prompts for improvisational role-playing in which they acted the parts of judge or attorney, client, and interpreter in language-specific groups (examples of scenarios can be found in Appendix C). If any member of the group had sufficient English proficiency, the trainees practiced relay interpreting. If no one spoke English fluently, the trainees interpreted between Spanish and the indigenous language. At the conclusion of the practice session, a plenary session was held to discuss issues related to procedure, ethics, and terminology.

Using scenarios designed for improvisation enabled the trainees to practice dialogue interpreting in a multitude of languages and dialects for which no written materials existed. Moreover, role-playing allows students to work with spontaneous speech, which is more realistic than prepared scripts. In some cases (such as public assistance, hospitals, and criminal courts) participants also were given some documents for practice in sight translation from Spanish to the indigenous languages.

The curriculum emphasized peer evaluation as well as guidance from the instructors. After each student finished interpreting, he or she received feedback from colleagues who shared the indigenous language, particularly on language-specific issues, and from the instructors, who focused on interpreting technique and protocol. With respect to relay interpreting in particular, the trainees had difficulties in three main areas. They had trouble remembering long utterances (in the simulated dialogue interpreting, questions and answers ranged from one to three sentences in length, perhaps three to one hundred words), and often needed to ask for repetitions. Exerting situational control was also difficult for them, as it is not customary in Mexico to question authority or assert individual needs. Thus, they had to overcome their reluctance to ask speakers to slow down or speak in shorter phrases, or to seek clarification of terms. In addition, terminology posed problems: Often they would simply use a Spanish term when they did not know the equivalent in the indigenous language, and because of the varying degrees of proficiency among the participants, it was unclear whether equivalents simply do not exist in the language in question, the Spanish term is in fact widely used and understood by speakers of the indigenous language, or there is an equivalent term in the indigenous language but the trainee did not know it.

In addition to the topics mentioned above, an anthropologist addressed the group on the indigenous languages of Mexico. The purpose of including this subject was to instill pride in the students, since many of them had grown up in environments in which speaking an indigenous language was a source of shame. The participants were also given some tips on identifying the different dialects of their languages and dealing with intelligibility issues. Another lecture covered the code of ethics and the role of the interpreter in different settings. A well-known interpreter trainer, Alee Alger-Robbins, introduced the code of ethics in an interactive session that provided practical examples of ethical dilemmas and introduced the students to proper interpreting protocol (how to ask for clarification or repetitions, for example). During their role-playing exercises, the participants were encouraged to follow this protocol so that it would become automatic. By the end of the session, they appeared more comfortable asserting themselves to request repetitions or clarifications to ensure accurate interpreting.

Given the multiplicity of languages, it was not possible to give the students a standardized interpreting exam at the conclusion of the course. Instead, they were asked to write an essay on the role of the interpreter, and each language group gave a final demonstration of interpreting techniques before the whole class. The training session concluded with an emotional ceremony at which participants were awarded certificates of completion. One interpreter read a poem he had written about the experience, and several sang songs in their native languages.

One of Oxfam’s aims in funding the training program was to select potential leaders in the group who could in turn train other indigenous-language speakers as interpreters after they gained experience in the field. Accordingly, a few individuals with natural leadership abilities and strong interpreting skills were identified for a future training-of-trainers session, which would take place after they had been interpreting for about one year. In fact, these interpreters were used as small-group facilitators in the subsequent course that was offered for Guatemalan indigenous-language interpreters.

Results of First Training

According to a report written by one of the course organizers,

“The trainees’ progress was remarkable in the course of the exercises. They increasingly grew in self-confidence and skills in interpreting, e.g. learning how to interject diplomatically to the Judge for clarification; interpreting in the first person rather than third; maintaining compassion but impartiality towards clients; explaining to clients their limited role and ethical duties as an interpreter. The interpreters also developed a strong esprit de corps and respect for one another bolstered by their time and (the) work they did together as well as the project’s mission. (Nugent, 1997)

As soon as the course was over, press releases announced the availability of the interpreters, and the Frente, CRLA, and the IIRC began receiving calls from court officials seeking indigenous-language interpreters. The interpreters themselves participated in press conferences and outreach efforts in indigenous Mexican communities throughout the state, and some were interviewed for newspaper articles and news programs in California and Mexico. The goal was not only to alert state institutions to the need for and availability of indigenous-language interpreters, but also to make indigenous-language monolinguals aware of their right to an interpreter.

The number of interpreting assignments received varied considerably among the interpreters, depending on their location, language, and employment status (some had full-time jobs that made it difficult for them to take time off for interpreting). In September 1997 the interpreters held a meeting at which they assessed their progress. Although they were pleased with the training they had received, some problems were identified:

The difficulties we have contended with in generating, securing and maintaining a solid flow of contracts for the interpreters have been: a) the competition for services from other untrained interpreters Courts have become accustomed to using; b) the fact that Courts prefer to contact the interpreters directly rather than through our service; c) the fact that many indigenous remain unaware of their language and interpreter rights or else erroneously believe that they are proficient in Spanish; and d) the need for expanded outreach to administrative agencies, schools, hospitals and the federal system. (Nugent, 1997)

These conclusions were confirmed by a follow-up telephone survey of the indigenous-language interpreters conducted by the IIRC in December 1997. Nine of the 15 trainees responded to questions about their opinion of the training and their experiences in the ensuing months. The respondents reported that they were not hired very frequently for interpreting assignments (only two reported more than 10 assignments) and that it was difficult for them to take time off from their regular employment to accept the few jobs that came their way. Sometimes they had to travel long distances to perform services. A few stated that they still felt pressure to provide interpreting services on a voluntary basis rather than receiving pay. None of those surveyed was making a living exclusively from interpreting (Mikkelson, 1998).

Phase Two

In October 1997, another grant was secured from Oxfam America to train indigenous-language speakers in relay interpreting. This time the grant recipients were The Chicano Federation (replacing CRLA), the Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional, and the IIRC. The trainees in the second phase were speakers of Guatemalan languages, and the training was focused more narrowly on immigration court proceedings. There was some urgency in scheduling this training session, because a large number of Guatemalan refugees were facing deportation hearings. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had decided that because of the signing of the peace agreement in Guatemala, it would be safe for refugees to return home and they would no longer need asylum in the United States. Because a large percentage of the refugees were monolingual indigenous-language speakers, there was an urgent need for relay interpreters. Accordingly, screening of applicants took place in December 1997 for a training session planned for February 1998.

Recruitment and Screening

The recruitment effort took much the same form as the previous effort for Mexican indigenous-language speakers, through announcements in Spanish media outlets targeting immigrant communities, as well as word of mouth. Interested persons were asked to fill out a questionnaire indicating their languages, educational and employment background, and immigration status. Those who were fluent in at least one Guatemalan indigenous language, literate in Spanish, and legally present in the United States were asked to appear in person for screening tests.

Again, the screening was very similar to that which had been applied to the Mexican indigenous-language speakers. The same instruments were used to measure Spanish reading comprehension, listening comprehension and memory, and analytical skills. The candidates’ indigenous-language skills were evaluated by experts from the Academia de Lenguas Mayas in Guatemala City, who conducted telephone interviews. Of the 70 candidates who were screened, 30 were selected for training (Nugent, 1998). The languages represented were Quechi, Chuj, Kacchiquel, Mam, Aguateco, Zapotec, Kanjobal, and Quiche. In general, the Guatemalans proved to be stronger candidates than the Mexicans had, because they had more years of formal education and thus were more literate in Spanish (many had been teachers in Guatemala before being forced to flee). In addition, the Guatemalan immigrants had lived in the United States for longer than their Mexican counterparts, and had better employment because of their education level and refugee status. Unfortunately, job commitments prevented many of the most qualified candidates from signing up to become interpreters.


Because of the narrower scope of the training and the urgent need for interpreters, the Guatemalan indigenous-language speakers were given only two days of instruction. The venue was once again a retreat center, where the interpreter trainees spent a weekend. Mexican indigenous-language interpreters who had participated in the previous training were invited to act as facilitators for this second training session.

On Friday evening the participants were addressed in Spanish by an immigration judge and an interpreter on court procedure in the immigration courts. They learned about the different types of hearings that take place in this jurisdiction (e.g., exclusion, rescission, deportation, or asylum) and about legal concepts such as “order to show cause” and “adjustment of status”. Saturday morning they heard from a Spanish-speaking attorney specializing in representing clients in the immigration courts, who went into detail on various options available to immigrants seeking permanent residency and citizenship. Then the participants were shown a Spanish video on asylum cases. After a review of important terminology, the participants divided into language groups for glossary building. Saturday afternoon they were given a lecture on the code of ethics and courtroom protocol, and they heard a presentation from Berlitz Interpretation Services, the agency that hires all contract interpreters for the immigration courts. Once again, all of the instruction was given in Spanish.

Saturday evening the interpreter trainees held an organizational meeting at which they discussed some of the practical issues that would arise in providing interpreting services. They elected leaders and arranged regional follow-up sessions for further practice and glossary building. On Sunday morning, two Mexican interpreters gave a demonstration of relay interpreting and talked about their experiences. Then the participants spent three hours interpreting role-playing scenarios in their respective languages, with the Mexican interpreters acting as facilitators. It should be noted that the role-playing exercise was particularly traumatic for the Guatemalan interpreter trainees, because they had to describe incidents of persecution, torture, and murder that coincided with their own experiences. At the conclusion, each group gave a demonstration of an interpreting scene involving its particular indigenous language. Participants were then given certificates of completion, and many of them expressed their heartfelt thanks for receiving the training to enable them to provide a much-needed service. The weekend ended on a high note with songs, gift-giving and pledges of solidarity.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This writer embarked upon the indigenous-language interpreter training project with great trepidation, given the multitude of languages and dialects involved, the participants’ lack of formal education, the factors that precluded some of the most qualified candidates from participating, the limited time and resources available to invest in the project, and the uncertain job market in which the interpreter trainees would be working. The participants had to overcome many obstacles to receive the training: obtaining leaves of absence from their regular employment, leaving family behind and going to a strange place for a week, and suddenly being asked to demonstrate proficiency in a language which in the past may have been treated as a source of shame rather than pride. Thus, the trainees were preoccupied by other concerns during the session, and it was difficult for them to concentrate. Because indigenous languages have been suppressed for so long and very few reference works are available, they had no definitive resource to determine what was correct usage, and they had to rely on each other. Many vowed to consult further with relatives about terminology and usage when they returned home. Consecutive relay interpreting is by nature a time-consuming process, and given that we had only a week to cover a great variety of topics, the trainees were not able to spend as much time as they should have on glossary-building and interpreting practice. Those who did not share a dialect with anyone else did not receive any language-specific feedback.

Despite all those concerns, the project can be considered a qualified success. The trainees came away with a better understanding of what interpreters can and cannot do, and a sense of professionalism that encouraged them to seek help from colleagues and strive for constant improvement. The publicity surrounding the training project heightened awareness among the public, government institutions, and professional interpreters of the presence of indigenous-language speakers in our midst and the need to provide interpreters for them.

To be sure, crash courses and relay interpreting itself are mere bandaid solutions to a serious and lasting problem. Eventually, as the children of indigenous-language speakers come of age and receive a solid education in English (or the official language of whatever host country they may reside in), they will be able to undergo formal training so that they can interpret for their elders and newcomers alike in traditional two-way interpreting. It is unrealistic to expect, however, that migration by speakers of minority languages will cease, and as long as there are monolingual speakers of languages of limited diffusion immigrating to host countries, there will be a need for expedients like short-term courses in relay interpreting. Such courses can be effective with proper screening, adequate resources for materials development and training facilities, language-specific instruction, and outreach to educate the users of interpreter services about the appropriate ways to avail themselves of this resource.


Alvarez, Fred (1995) ‘The Mixtecs: a Grim Life in the Fields’, Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1995.

Bedell, Christine (1997) ‘Tongues lagging: Newly arrived languages create new challenges’, Santa Maria Times, November 30, 1997.

Bingham, Janet (1997) ‘Some face double barrier: Differences in cultures an obstacle, too’ The Denver Post, May 18, 1997.

Caribbean Update (1997) ‘Business Opportunities after Peace Accords: Education’, October 1, 1997, Information Access Company.

Cearley, Anna (1997) ‘Crossing language’s barriers’, San Diego Union Tribune.

Crystal, David (1997a) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Mass. USA: Blackwell.

----- (1997b) (ed) Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Economist ‘Russia: Speak, memory’, March 1, 1997.

Gentile, Adolfo, Ozolins, Uldis and Vasilakakos, Mary (1996) Liaison Interpreting: A Handbook, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Kartunnen, Frances (1994) Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors, New Brunswick, NJ USA: Rutgers University Press.

Kearney, Michael (1995) ‘The Effects of Transnational Culture, Economy, and Migration on Mixtec Identity in Oaxacalifornia’, in Smith, Michal Peter and Joe R. Feagin (eds) The Bubbling Cauldron: Race, Ethnicity, and the Urban Crisis, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Matheson, Agnes Subiros (1997) ‘The Amazing Relay Switch’ ATA Chronicle, July 1997.

McDonnell, Patrick J. (1997) ‘Group Calls for Indian-Language Interpreters’ Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1997.

Mikkelson, Holly (1998) Indigenous-Language Interpreter Survey, unpublished report, Monterey, CA USA: Monterey Institute of International Studies.

New Jersey Court Interpreting, Legal Translating, and Bilingual Services Section (1997) Standards for Court Interpreting, Legal Translating, and Bilingual Services, Trenton, NJ USA: Administrative Office of the Courts.

Nugent, Chris (1997) Mexican Indigenous Farmworker Interpreter Project: Progress Report to Oxfam America, unpublished report, September 11, 1997.

----- (1998) ‘Nuevos intérpretes en las cortes’ El Latino, February 1998.

O’Malley, Michael (1997) ‘Refusing to Let Hate Take Hold: Tuscarawas County Residents Band to Help Guatemalan Refugees Settle into Amish Country’, Plain Dealer Reporter, December 7, 1997.

Roberts, Roda (1994) ‘Community Interpreting Today and Tomorrow’, in Peter Krawutschke (ed) Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association, Medford, NJ USA: Learned Information.

United States Immigration & Naturalization Service web page, (April 19, 1998).

Appendix A. Screening Test

The screening test was conducted in Spanish. It is presented here in English translation.

Division of Candidates into Language Groups

Initially, candidates were divided into language groups consisting of five or six persons each, and spent about 30 minutes discussing language issues and the role of the interpreter. Each person was asked to introduce himself or herself, including place of origin, current residence, and occupation.

Then the facilitator asked the following questions of each person, and encouraged others to comment:

What languages do you speak? How did you learn them, and where do you speak them now (at home, at work, etc.)? How often do you speak each language?

Which languages do you read in? How often do you read, and what kinds of materials?

Tell us something about your people and your culture (music, food, customs). How do they differ from Mexican culture? How is your language different from Spanish? Can you give any examples of differences?

Why do you want to be an interpreter? What does an interpreter do? Do you have any hesitation about your ability to work as an interpreter?

The remaining parts of the screening test were administered individually, in Spanish.

Listening comprehension and memory

Instructions: Listen to the story and try to repeat as many details as you recall.

[recorded passage is played]

Every day in the wintertime, the little Italian mountain village of Orasso, near the Swiss border, experiences two dawns and two dusks. This phenomenon is caused by a nearby mountain that has two peaks spaced far apart. When the sun appears for the first time, it comes up over one of the slopes. At about noon, it goes behind the first peak, causing the first dusk, and all the lights come on in Orasso. The sun reappears after reaching the valley between the peaks, allowing natural light to come in and causing the roosters to crow once again. When the sun reaches the second peak in the afternoon, the sun disappears for the rest of the night.

Reading comprehension, vocabulary, analysis

Instructions: Read the paragraph aloud. Replace the underlined words or phrases with another word or phrase that has the same meaning. After reading the paragraph, summarize it in your own words.

According to officials of the National Police who fight crime in the capital, about 20 pickpockets go out every day to empty someone’s pockets. These assertions are backed up by confidential reports compiled by specialists in criminal investigation and by the number of complaints filed at police stations. Experts in crime prevention have devised a plan that has been implemented successfully over the past few months. The police tactic consists of accumulating evidence on subjects with prior convictions for pickpocketing. Suspects are detained as part of a well-coordinated operation carried out at bus stops, which reports indicate are the most common sites of robberies. Investigators have confiscated jewelry and other property belonging to the victims in the homes of some of these individuals. The seized property is then used as evidence for criminal prosecution.

Reading comprehension

Instructions: Read the text and answer the questions that follow.

Memories of Earthquake Live On in Mexico

Maria Elena Gonzalez, her face disfigured by constant crying and her voice full of anguish, says she will never forget what happened that fateful morning of September 19, 1985, the day when she lost her two children forever. They were two of the many children who were killed by the earthquake in Mexico City that day. As she lights a candle at the foot of the now restored building and tries in vain to hold back her tears, Maria Elena travels back in time to 11 years ago, the period she considers the saddest time of her life.

It was 7:19 am when the ground began to shake violently. At that time, Maria Elena was returning home from walking her oldest daughter to school. She was crossing the street, holding the hand of her other daughter, hurrying because of the quaking ground. She arrived too late; the building fell right before her eyes. In her apartment on the 11th floor, she had left her mother-in-law, her servant, and her two younger children asleep.

The earthquake caused the Nuevo Leon Building to collapse, leaving an official death toll of 472; according to residents, the real total was 1,100 dead. Eleven years after the quake, at least 700 homeless families are still living in 27 camps scattered around Mexico City. The tremendous housing shortage will not be solved with the 500 dwellings the city government plans to have completed by the end of this year to make available to the families made homeless in the ‘85 earthquake.

With approximately 9 million inhabitants and a transient population of a similar number, vast industrial areas, and myriad underground tunnels, quake-prone Mexico City is very vulnerable. The earthquake of September 1985 made it obvious that government agencies are ill-equipped to respond to the population’s needs in a large-scale emergency.


  1. What was Maria Elena doing when the earthquake began?
  2. Who else was in the apartment with the two children who died?
  3. According to the government, how many people were killed when the building collapsed?
  4. Have all of the homeless families found new housing by now?
  5. What did the 1985 earthquake tell us about Mexico City?

Listening comprehension, analysis (cloze)

Instructions: Listen to the passage, and when the reader pauses, supply the missing words.

Children and Discipline

Every month at my sons’ school, there is one day when no homework is assigned. On that day, rather than doing school work when they come home, the children are supposed to engage in a “family task” in which they discuss an issue such as respect, consideration for others, forgiveness, or truth and _________. The purpose of the family task is to stimulate dialogue between parents and _________ about human values and how members of the family apply them in their relations with _________. For example, this week we talked about respect. My husband and I started the dialogue by asking the children to give us examples of what they considered an act of respect and an act of ______________. They both mentioned acts that showed a lack of respect for themselves or for us, and they promised to be better about correcting _____________. As parents, we also accepted that there are times when we have behaved ____________, and we promised not to do it again. We parents should not ignore the importance of teaching our children from a young age to treat others with __________, especially their teachers and __________. Any discourtesy, no matter how insignificant, distracts the class and disrupts _________. For example, if a child enters the room making a lot of ________, or is constantly talking _________ and interrupting the teacher, or takes things that do not ___________, all of these acts could be prevented if the parents helped their children learn to practice at school the obedience and respect they are taught __________.

Appendix B. Syllabus for First Training Course
International Interpretation Resource Center
Relay-Interpreter Training
Course Outline


 9:00    Welcome, introductions, overview
10:00    Interpreter ethics, role of the community interpreter
           Speaker:   Alee Alger-Robbins
 12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Role playing of ethical issues
  3:00    Dialect intelligibility criteria Speaker: Alejandro Avila
  4:00    Interpreting exercises (impromptu speeches)
  5:00    Adjourn


  8:30    Interpreting in civil cases, state agency hearings - terminology
           Speakers: Hector de la Rosa, Luis Jaramillo
10:00    Interpreting exercises (role-playing scenarios - social services, unemployment)
12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Labor and employment (video) - terminology
  2:00    Interpreting exercises (employment, unemployment, ALRB)
  4:00    Sight translation of social services, unemployment documents
  5:00    Adjourn


  8:30    Interpreting in an educational setting (video) - terminology
           Speaker: Abel Valdez, Principal, El Sausal Middle School
10:00    Interpreting exercises (educational )
12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Motor vehicle and traffic law (video) - terminology
           Speaker: Hollister Police
  2:00    Interpreting exercises (traffic stops, DUI)
  4:00    Sight translation of education, motor vehicle documents
  5:00    Adjourn


  8:30    Hospital interpreting (video) - terminology
           Speaker: George Donald
10:00    Interpreting exercises (hospital admissions, surgery, release)
12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Health care settings (video) - terminology
  2:00    Interpreting exercises (medical exams)
  4:00     Sight translation of medical documents


 8:30    Legal settings (video) - family law terminology
           Speaker: Lydia King
10:00    Interpreting exercises (landlord-tenant, child support, domestic violence)
12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Criminal law (video) - terminology
            Speaker: Ofelia Cuenca
  2:00    Interpreting exercises (court proceedings)
  4:00    Sight translation of court documents
  5:00    Adjourn


  8:30    Sex offenses - terminology
            Speaker: Estela Aguayo
10:00    Interpreting exercises (domestic violence, child molestation)
12:00    Lunch
  1:00    Review of ethical issues
  3:00    Awards ceremony, conclusion

Appendix C. Sample Scenario for Role-Playing

Civil Law - Scenario No. 3

You have had problems with your landlord. The apartment needs a lot of repairs: The roof leaks, the toilet is broken, and the front door does not lock properly. You have complained several times to the landlord, but he does nothing. You had to buy a new toilet and pay a friend to install it, and the landlord refused to reimburse you the $400 it cost you. He keeps promising to fix things, but he doesn’t do it. In addition, he says your family is too big for the apartment, because it only has two bedrooms and there are eight of you. In spite of everything, you always pay the rent on time, $570 a month. The landlord says he wants to raise the rent, but you think $570 is already too high. Then, on April 15, the landlord shows up with a letter written in English, which you don’t understand. He tells you you have to vacate the apartment within 15 days, and if you don’t get out, he’ll call the police to evict you. You don’t want to leave the apartment because you like the neighborhood and you get along well with the neighbors. You go to Legal Aid to request the help of an attorney.


  1. Do you rent a house or an apartment? How many bedrooms does it have?
  2. Have you signed a lease?
  3. When you rented the apartment, were you given anything in writing that imposed any restrictions on how many people could live there?
  4. How many people are living in the apartment?
  5. Have you had any problems with the apartment?
  6. How much have you spent on repairs?
  7. Have you asked the landlord for reimbursement?
  8. Have you ever been late in paying the rent?
  9. When did the landlord give you the eviction notice?
  10. Have there ever been any complaints about noise in your apartment?