Translation and Interpreting in Mexico: Uncharted Territory, Rich Waters

Featuring 100 pages of demographic data, earnings information, language combinations, and educational backgrounds—the 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico sheds light on the fascinating depth and breadth of translation and interpreting in Mexico.

In September 2017, the first Lenguas conference was held in Mexico City. Lenguas is an international forum for interpreters and translators with the goal of bringing professionals in these two fields under one roof to discuss best practices, learn about the language services market, and receive practical training.

As a central element of the inaugural Lenguas conference, the Italia Morayta Foundation, InterpretAmerica, and the Association of Public Service and Community Interpreters and Translators (ITSPyC) published the results of a groundbreaking initiative, the 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico.1 Featuring 100 pages of detailed information compiled from more than 1,000 translators and interpreters across Mexico—including demographic data, earnings information, language combinations, and educational backgrounds—the survey sheds light on the fascinating depth and breadth of translation and interpreting in that country.

The Mexico survey report is the result of nine months of intense work by an independent research team, garnering support from multiple institutions and industry professionals who not only helped spread the word about the survey, but also provided crucial input on its design. As the leader of the research team, I want to share some of the incredible lessons we gleaned from this maiden voyage, and the shift it caused in all of us along the way. You’ll also hear directly from key members of the team (Gonzalo Celorio Morayta, Ana Lucía López Mendoza, and Alejandra Hernández León), whose perspectives are interspersed in the sidebars throughout this article.

Fish Out of Water

On October 6, 2016, I received a call from Gonzalo Celorio Morayta, the president of the Italia Morayta Foundation, which works to professionalize and celebrate the interpreting profession. The Foundation is named after Gonzalo’s grandmother, Italia Morayta, Mexico’s first simultaneous interpreter.2 Gonzalo is also the director of CM Idiomas, a language services provider for heads of state and other high-profile figures whose history goes back to 1948. Gonzalo is an experienced translator and interpreter who laughs easily and speaks English with an endearing British accent as he tirelessly advocates for his colleagues and the field at large.

Gonzalo and I discussed the need for a better understanding of Mexico’s translation and interpreting professions. We wanted to know who engaged in these activities and the details of their work. Gonzalo wanted to conduct a nationwide survey to find out. The results of this unprecedented effort would then be unveiled within the framework of another first in the field: the 2017 Lenguas conference, Mexico’s inaugural nationwide conference for both translators and interpreters.

In the U.S., interpreting professionals are fortunate to have a good lay of the land thanks to InterpretAmerica’s trailblazing The Interpreting Marketplace: A Study of Interpreting in North America, carried out by Common Sense Advisory in 2010. This survey demonstrated the power of data in setting priorities, convincing stakeholders, and helping translators and interpreters make sound decisions about the future direction of the profession.3

But, as Gonzalo pointed out to me, that baseline data didn’t yet exist for Mexican interpreters and translators. Without hard data, the future of the industry in Mexico would remain subject to the quicksands of assumption, anecdote, luck, and, in some cases, special interests.

It was clear a survey was needed, but why had Gonzalo reached out to me? Perhaps it was because of my experience in several areas of the industry, including interpreter training and emerging interpreting technologies. But beyond that, the Foundation and its partners, InterpretAmerica Co-Presidents Katharine Allen and Barry Slaughter Olsen, believed an impartial outsider—someone blissfully unaware of existing factions and fault lines—would have greater success reaching the Mexican translation and interpreting community as a whole. So, I accepted Gonzalo’s offer enthusiastically and set out, determined to build a ship where all factions of the industry could feel comfortable on board.

Assembling the Crew

Anchored by Gonzalo, Katharine, and Barry, it was time to round out the crew. Ana Lucía López Mendoza, an interpreter and researcher based in Mexico City, came on as a research assistant to provide ground support and know-how. Gibrán Mena Aguilar, a data journalist, joined to assist with the survey design, monitor for data bias, and analyze the resulting raw data.

It also became clear early on that to reach a highly under-documented sector of the industry—indigenous language translators and interpreters most often working in legal, health care, and community settings—we would also need real expertise in indigenous community outreach. For this we reached out to sociologist Alejandra Hernández León of Mexico’s recently-formed Association of Public Service and Community Interpreters and Translators (ITSPyC). Alejandra would design an outreach strategy and consultation process with indigenous communities.

Building the Ship

We needed the survey to be relevant to both translators and interpreters who work in indigenous, foreign, and signed language combinations in varying specialties and settings—each with their own lexicons and ideas about their profession. (Despite our efforts to make the survey relevant to sign language interpreters, the response was not as enthusiastic as we had hoped.)

This resulted in a highly labor- and time-intensive survey design process. We went through several rounds of edits before we finally launched the survey in April 2017. The next step was to get the word out about the survey, which led to several interesting and unanticipated challenges.

Challenge 1—Overcoming Mistrust: The first hurdle to overcome was mistrust. As we moved forward, the research team was immediately met with questions, such as “How can you guarantee my privacy will be protected?” or “What will the data really be used for?” The fact that that the survey was anonymous, requested no identifying information, and that we sought to merely gather the data for anyone in the field to leverage for the benefit of the industry seemed to raise more concerns than it quelled.

I began to perceive that a complex soup of historical, cultural, and political factors had resulted in a hesitation to share anything perceived as private information. Furthermore, much like their counterparts all over the world, translators and interpreters in Mexico struggle with the profession’s rapid pace of technological change and fierce competition in a fractured market. I certainly wasn’t qualified to parse out the root cause of the skepticism, but I quickly realized that if it wasn’t met head on, all of our painstaking efforts to create an accessible, inclusive survey would be dead in the water.

So, we invested a significant amount of time answering questions, communicating the survey’s purpose, and emphasizing the privacy and data handling measures we had put in place. We also came to accept that any project of this scope would inevitably have its gaggle of naysayers.

Challenge 2—Old School versus New Tech: A second challenge involved technological limitations. Limiting our efforts to an internet–based campaign and survey would almost certainly result in a respondent bias. In the capital and other major cities, translators and interpreters are well connected and face fewer barriers to online participation. However, Mexico’s politics and varied geography mean that individuals in smaller, more remote locations often have limited access to the internet. Computers and other devices are also expensive for many practitioners. The team worried that translators and interpreters working with indigenous languages would run the risk of being excluded from the survey.

To address this, we designed a system to administer the survey over the phone. Ana Lucía began recruiting a team of volunteers and, with the assistance of Alejandra and the team from ITSPyC, created a guidebook with information about the survey, team responsibilities, our confidentiality policy, and a phone script. The detailed phone script was designed to communicate the purpose of the survey in a clear manner, including its non-commercial nature, confidentiality protections, and the full set of survey questions, each one with additional notes and culturally-adapted phrasing suggestions.

Local academic institutions also pitched in by helping to recruit volunteers and hosting training. With our volunteer team in place, we needed a way—really multiple ways—to reach the indigenous constituency. Mexico has a long history of mistrust between government institutions and indigenous communities. As a result, we worked to create a communication strategy that focused on existing, trusted indigenous community institutions that embodied the principal of “free, prior, and informed consent,” and that left room for cultural norms that might differ from our own.

This is where Alejandra’s deep understanding of indigenous community relations became crucial. Armed with the online, over-the-phone, and in-person methods of responding to the survey, she launched a multi-pronged, ground-up effort that included the following: consultation and relationship-building with indigenous leaders; a subway and bus advertising campaign; procurement of indigenous translator contact information databases; and even in-person travel to key indigenous communities in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas. The entire effort was capped off with the convening of a National Indigenous Translator and Interpreter Forum to consult the community about the survey in person. After navigating these early technological challenges, the survey data started rolling in.

Challenge 3—The Ticking Clock: The National Indigenous Translators and Interpreters Forum Alejandra organized took place at the time the survey period was scheduled to end, so we elected to push back the survey’s closing date. Happily, this move allowed for more participation, but we realized that we had also put ourselves in a bind. The data needed to be analyzed, transformed into graphs, and the final report written and edited in time for the Lenguas conference, which was only nine weeks away!

Then, a week before the conference, the devastating earthquake that nearly shut down Mexico City struck. The study would have to wait. There were bigger fish to fry: missing family members, injured victims, homes in tatters, power outages. But storm-battered and sea-weary, the ship we created to convey the survey made it to port without a minute to spare.

Land Ahoy

Finally, it was time to share with the world what Mexico’s translators and interpreters had so generously shared with us.

We had many powerful revelations to present. For example, the survey revealed that translators make more from translating than interpreters make from interpreting, but neither group is able to live exclusively from their craft. We also found that nearly 50% of indigenous language interpreters go unpaid for their work. In addition, the majority of translators who responded work in both directions in their first combination.4 As you can imagine, choosing which findings to highlight in our short hour was our final challenge.

On September 28, 2017, buttressed by our research advisors—Gonzalo, Katharine, and Barry—and surrounded by multiple individuals and organizations who had stuck their necks out to make it all possible, the research team took the stage and shared the survey results. Here are some of the highlights:

Language Combinations and Services
  • Besides Spanish, the next most common target languages among translators are English, French, Náhuatl, Maya, Tseltal, and Italian (page 46). The vast majority (84%) work bi-directionally in their primary combination (page 47).
  • On the interpreting front, the most common combinations, measured in working days (20 or more days per month), are Spanish plus one of the following languages: English, Náhuatl, and Mexican Sign Language (pages 69–70).
  • Though conference interpreting may be the most prominent work setting, interpreters also work as escort interpreters and in community settings with greater frequency (page 72).
Education, Training, and Technology
  • The majority of translators and interpreters surveyed have completed higher education in some subject area. Over 50% have a bachelor’s degree, 27% a master’s degree or equivalent, and 4% have a doctorate.
  • 74% of indigenous language translators and interpreters have a bachelor’s degree or higher (page 26).
  • Over one fifth of translators are self-taught, having not participated in any translation-specific workshops, courses, or programs. However, many are formally trained in related fields such as languages or interpreting (page 63).
  • The most common types of interpreting training are courses (20+ hours), diploma programs (120+ hours), and conference workshops and presentations. A significant portion (16%) of interpreters do not have any sort of training in the field (page 81).
  • CAT tools, machine translation, and voice recorders are the most commonly used technology tools among translators of any age (pages 66–67).
  • Nearly half of the interpreters who responded state that they do not use technological tools in their work (page 84).
Income, Income Sources, and Professional Associations
  • Translators and interpreters do not live exclusively from their work in these fields. Other sources of work supplement their income (page 30).
  • Translation and interpreting agencies are not the most common source of income, but rather direct clients. 78% of translators and 64% of interpreters derive a portion of their income from direct clients (page 34).
  • 60% of translators, including those who work with indigenous languages, have at least one client located outside of Mexico, while around 7% depend almost exclusively on foreign clients (page 56).
  • Interpreters and translators believe that the primary factors that negatively impact their income earning potential are competitors that charge lower rates, lack of respect for the profession, and lack of awareness about the importance of translation and interpreting services (pages 42–43).
  • Most translators and interpreters (69%) state that they do not belong to any professional associations.5
Obstacles to Professionalization

Survey respondents also had an opportunity to leave comments regarding their perspectives on the profession. Many of these comments concerned barriers to professionalization, including the areas listed below. (Please note that I translated the comments that appear here from the original Spanish.)
Inadequacy and lack of enforcement of existing linguistic legal frameworks and protections: “Translation and interpreting services are required by linguistic rights legislation, but these rights are denied. Furthermore, indigenous language translation and interpreting services are undervalued” (page 89).
Lack of training programs that would allow for continued professional development: “[…] Translation is thought of as an informal trade rather than a profession. [In my state,] there is no well-known, accessible formal degree for those who are in this stage. The belief persists that speaking two languages is enough to translate” (page 90).
Lack of awareness of and respect for the profession: “Bilingual amateurs who are not trained in translation and charge low rates are saturating the market” (page 89).
In response to the obstacles highlighted above, several respondents called for:

  • An increased awareness of the translation and interpreting professions, including those who provide these services.
  • The creation of new linguistic rights legislation for unregulated aspects of the profession and the enforcement of existing regulations.
  • Expanded online and in-person training options that focus on more language combinations, specialties, and modalities, and that ideally result in recognized certification (pages 93–94).

In spite of the challenges to the profession, many respondents expressed personal and professional satisfaction, as evident in the following comments: “It’s hard work, but people are very grateful. Many say: ‘I don’t know what I would have done without your help! The physician wouldn’t have seen me.’” (page 94)

Shining a Light on Hidden Corners

Boarding the plane back to Brazil, with the luminescent and vibrant Mexico City at my back, I reflected on what had been accomplished. By translators and interpreters having shared their experiences, we had managed to shine light on previously hidden corners of our industry.

At the end of the day, we’re all laboring arduously to improve this complex and noble act we call communication. The 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico gives us the concrete and powerful information needed to do so. The next Lenguas conference in January 2019 will be one place to make good use of it.6

Both the executive summary (English/Spanish)7 and the full report (Spanish)8 are available for free download.

(Acknowledgement: Thanks to Gonzalo Celorio Morayta, Ana Lucía López Mendoza, and Alejandra Hernández León for their contributions to this article, and to editors Katharine Allen and Lauren Stephenson.)

Bursting the Bubble

Gonzalo Celorio Morayta, Research Sponsor
A little over a decade ago, at one of the first InterpretAmerica meetings, I discovered there was a translation and interpreting community out there that had been unknown to me previously. I had been living in a bubble that included only conference interpreting and literary translation.
I was struck by this larger community’s commitment and courage. I understood that their work was quite similar to the conference work with which I was familiar, but it was done without the protection of a cozy booth or aid of a computer. Not only was there a lot that I could learn from these interpreters, but, with the luxuries afforded to me, I would also have something to share.
In that moment, the dream of uniting Mexico’s disparate interlinguistic communication sub-sectors under one umbrella was born. The survey results presented at the Lenguas conference was a first step toward going beyond helping others communicate to learning to communicate amongst ourselves.
Seeing the sheer depth and breadth of data analyzed, the research team’s enthusiasm following new discoveries, the survey’s reach, and witnessing the transformation as translators and interpreters across Mexico began to recognize themselves in the findings have all been among the most moving experiences of my life.

Fighting for the Little Fish

Ana Lucía López Mendoza, Research Assistant
I’ve always liked to think of myself as a communications advocate, but beyond the areas of immigration and refugees, my understanding of how to fight the battle was limited. Concepts such as indivisibility, interdependence, and demanding one’s rights were theoretical for me. However, they became real after interviewing indigenous language translators and interpreters for the survey. It was clear that the indigenous interviewees practiced these concepts daily.
In Mexico, respect for rights is not a given—even for translators and interpreters. Yet, many of those interviewed were willing to push forward with their work, often without remuneration, because of a conviction that social responsibility trumps individual well-being. This has inspired me to reflect on the role of interpreters as agents of the change we wish to see around us.

Moving with the Tides

Alejandra Hernández León, Indigenous Languages Coordinator
With sign, indigenous, and language translators gathered under one roof at the Lenguas conference, we announced that 40% of survey respondents came from the indigenous language sector. I remember several months ago when, with excitement and hope, I outlined a plan to invite this community—not known for their affinity for new technologies—to participate in an online survey.
The indigenous language subsector presents many unique challenges. It’s governed by its own dynamics and timelines that often run counter to those held by other translation subsectors. Community comes first. But documenting this kind of diversity was at the heart of the survey. That’s why I, as well as the Association of Public Service and Community Translators and Interpreters, decided to take on the project in the first place.
The incredible response rate has reinvigorated me to leverage the new data that we were so desperately lacking to continue pushing for indigenous language rights.

Links for More Information

2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico
http://bit.ly/Mexico-survey

Association of Public Service and Community Interpreters and Translators
www.interpretesytraductores.org

Italia Morayta Foundation
http://italiamorayta.org/en/italia-morayta

InterpretAmerica
www.interpretamerica.com

Lenguas
http://lenguas.org

Notes
  1. 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico, http://bit.ly/Mexico-survey.
  2. For more infromation on Italia Morayta, please see http://italiamorayta.org/en/italia-morayta.
  3. The Interpreting Marketplace: A Study of Interpreting in North America, http://bit.ly/interpreting-marketplace.
  4. Please consult page 80 of the 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico (full report in Spanish), http://bit.ly/Mexico-survey.
  5. See http://datamx.io/dataset/eitmx17.
  6. Lenguas2019, www.lenguas2019.com.
  7. Executive summary of the 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico: English (http://bit.ly/summary-English); Spanish (http://bit.ly/summary-Spanish).
  8. 2017 Survey on Translation and Interpretation in Mexico (full report, Spanish), http://bit.ly/Mexico-survey.

Laura Vaughn Holcomb has been a health care interpreter and conference interpreter for nearly a decade. An interpreter trainer, curriculum developer, remote interpreting/training consultant, and English for interpreters coach, she has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from Glendon College. She is an adjunct professor of the Virtual Healthcare Interpreting Practicum at Glendon, and launched CoLAB Toronto, a peer-driven conference interpreting practice intensive. In 2017, she directed Mexico’s first nationwide survey of translation and interpreting professionals on behalf of the Italia Morayta Foundation and InterpretAmerica. Contact: laura@lauraholcomb.com.

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