Interview with Abdelhafid Missouri, Arabic Interpreter

My guest today is Abdelhafid Missouri, a U.S. citizen who was born in Morocco. He has been an Arabic<>English conference interpreter with the U.S. Department of State since 2010.

One of his most high-profile assignments was in May 2017, when he accompanied President Donald Trump’s team to the summit between the U.S. and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Abdelhafid was also on the White House interpreting team at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014. He has interpreted for various American secretaries and undersecretaries, and has worked in military settings as well.

Abdelhafid studied at the King Fahd School of Translation in Tangier, Morocco, in 1993. In 1994, he earned a BA in English language and literature from Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fes, the central Moroccan city often referred to as the country’s cultural capital. He then earned an MA in foreign language teaching at L’Ecole Normale Superieure in Rabat, Morocco, in 1997. He moved to the U.S. and settled in Philadelphia in 2004. He earned a certificate in politics from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010.

Abdelhafid was a professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Asian and Middle-Eastern Studies Department and College of General Studies from 2004 to 2005. More recently, he was a professor of Arabic at Temple University (Center City Institute) in Philadelphia from 2005 to 2010.

Thank you, Abdelhafid, for joining us today. Let’s start with a little background. You were born in Morocco?

I was born in Berkane, which is in northeastern Morocco, a 30-minute drive from the beautiful beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. But when I was five, my father moved us to his birthplace, Missour, the capital of the province of Boulemane, about 125 miles east of Fes.

Where and how did you learn English? Did you speak English at home? What other languages do you speak?

I began studying English in the tenth grade in 1987. My teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, told me, “You’re doing very well. You should continue to study English.” That did it. From that point forward I spoke only English, even at home. I also watched shows on the Dish Network incessantly, the BBC constantly, and insanely sought out anyone with whom I could practice my English. It turns out that my decision to speak English was not such a crazy one after all. Now, all over Morocco, everyone, especially the younger generation, wants to learn English. I also speak French, to which I was formally exposed in the third grade.

How did you become interested in languages?

Morocco is multicultural and multilingual by nature. Moroccans don’t necessarily expect a foreigner to speak to them in their native language. They accept foreign languages so readily that they enjoy meeting people from other countries and are always pleased to engage others in their languages. As a Moroccan, I started learning formal Arabic in first grade, French in third grade, and, as I mentioned earlier, English in tenth grade.

What prompted you to study translation? Was it a popular field of study at that time and place? Did you specialize in any particular kind of translation?

By ninth grade I was good at French and started wondering why the English I would soon be learning in tenth grade uses the same alphabet, and even more or less the same sounds, but is a different language. This curiosity made me think about the structural and semantic similarities and differences between languages. So, in 1992, I decided to apply to the King Fahd School of Translation in Tangier, Morocco. I passed the exams and was admitted.

As to whether translation was a popular field of study at that time, I can say that it was seen as a way to attain a good position and status. After all, Morocco is only about 10 miles from Spain. Translation has always been a promising field in North Africa, but the King Fahd School of Translation in Tangier is the only well-established school in the country.

As for specialization, students at the King Fahd School are given a wide range of material with which to work, including legal terminology and reports on world affairs. The school boasts of having Moroccan, Sudanese, British, and Iraqi teachers who provide a wide range of perspectives and methodologies.

Did the King Fahd School of Translation also teach interpreting? Was their curriculum based on Modern Standard Arabic?

The King Fahd School of Translation is an ideal place to learn the secrets of our profession. The curriculum is taught in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), so there are no dialects involved. While I’m sure the school has made numerous changes to their curriculum since I was there in 1992–1993, I remember that even though we mainly worked on translation, we had many opportunities to practice interpreting. I remember, for example, that a United Nations interpreter would come from time to time to teach us about working for international organizations, which made me think of interpreting as an introduction to elite discourse and world affairs. The school offers many programs, including an MA in simultaneous interpreting.

What was your first interpreting assignment?

In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time as an amateur interpreter with Peace Corps volunteers in Missour, but my first professional assignment was at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After that, I worked as a contract judiciary interpreter in civil, criminal, and family divisions for the court systems of Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey. For me, this was an essential and gradual progression toward becoming a professional interpreter. Once I got a good grip on my working languages (Arabic and English), the courts introduced me to a world of legal systems, processes, and terminology unlike anything I had ever experienced.

What brought you to the U.S.?

My Peace Corps volunteer English teacher planted the promise of the American dream in my head in 1987. Having been raised in a poor village, of which I’m very proud, I felt I needed to learn more about the place known as the most powerful country in the world, the country that supposedly addresses injustices, redresses grievances, welcomes immigrants and refugees, and gives everyone a chance.

The Middle East is a large, diverse region. Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages, but there are other important languages and dialects there as well: Farsi, Hebrew, and so on. Arabic is an ancient language and I understand that it’s fairly similar to Hebrew, but not so close to Farsi. Would a speaker of MSA be able to interpret in most of the countries in the region?

The Middle East is indeed a very diverse region where you’ll meet Arabs, Iranians (Persians), Jews, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Nubians, Greeks, and Azeris. There are 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the Arab World, located in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region. In each of these countries, you’ll find three levels of Arabic. Classical Arabic, as found in the Qur’an or the conversation and writings of learned men, is the domain of religious scholars and students. Muslims—both elites and commoners—often quote from the Qur’an in their everyday conversations. That’s why those who lack a good command of Classical Arabic or who are unfamiliar with the Qur’an risk committing atrocious blunders when interpreting.

The second level of Arabic you’ll find in the Arab world is Fus-ha, or Modern Standard Arabic, which is the language of the media, whether state-owned or independent. Even on social media, educated people post in MSA, given that millions of Arabic speakers around the world will understand it. MSA is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

The third level, the colloquial version of the language, is the local dialect. Every Arabic-speaking country has at least one dialect.

It’s true that Arabic has much in common with Hebrew and with other languages of the region. But you have to learn Hebrew to communicate in Hebrew, and you have to learn Arabic to communicate in Arabic. These languages are not mutually comprehensible. To answer your question, there is only one language common to all 22 Arabic-speaking countries. An educated interpreter can interpret at regional events as long as the speakers stick to MSA.

A little more than 400 million people around the world speak Arabic, and it’s the sixth most-spoken language on the planet. How widely spoken is it in the U.S.?

A recent study by the Pew Research Center concluded that the number of Arabic speakers in the U.S. rose from 615,000 in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2014.1 Of course, Arabs are not all concentrated in one area. Just like any other immigrant group, they are spread across the country. But since many of them seek to better their economic status, they tend to settle in major urban centers.

Do you interpret at events here where Arabic is a dominant language? If so, what kind of events?

I don’t think there are events where Arabic is the dominant language requiring interpreters. There are cases where a non-English-speaking person needs an interpreter, and emergency situations (e.g., the mobilization to repatriate people stranded in Lebanon as a result of the 2006 war). But other than these temporary emergencies, I’ve worked mainly for the courts and hospitals in Philadelphia.

Arabic is written from right to left, in a cursive style, and its alphabet has 28 letters, two more than English. What can you tell us about translating Arabic into English and vice versa? Are there the usual grammatical, stylistic, and syntactical challenges that translators face in any language, or are there difficulties specific to this combination?

Translators from the Middle East and North Africa region can write in cursive from left to right, as in English, French, Spanish, and so on, and from right to left, as in Arabic, Hebrew, Pashtu, Dari, etc. This process requires the translator or interpreter to make numerous mental adjustments to understand items correctly and put semantic equivalents in the right place. For example, Arabic is very derivational and inflectional, which means that translators and interpreters have to deal with multiple shades of meaning. As in some other languages, words in Arabic agree in number and gender, and the noun comes before the adjective. No less important is that Arabic relies heavily on quoted speech. Arabic speakers and presenters usually draw from their own cultural, historical, and religious background, which can be a challenge for the interpreter.

Do the differences between the three levels of Arabic mean that register is a particular concern? How about regional influences?

No reasonable translator or interpreter will deny that register is of great importance in our profession. I believe those who have mastered MSA must have also been exposed to the dialects of many of the countries in this region, and will therefore do a good job even when the register drops from the Classical or MSA level to a dialectal colloquial one. It should also be noted that when North Africans (Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Libyans, or Mauritanians) switch to their local dialect, Middle Easterners (from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan) will probably find them difficult to understand. However, given that North Africans have long been exposed to those Middle Eastern dialects on television, most of them can switch easily to Egyptian or Levantine when talking to someone from those regions.

What about machine translation? Can you tell us what’s happening in the Middle East in the area of computational linguistics? Is translation software as widely used there as in the West?

Like every other profession, translation has gone global. Technology has made it easy for companies to outsource or subcontract their products. If you check any directory of translators or interpreters, you’ll see that foreign membership represents a significant portion of the subscribers. There is now an abundance of translators in the Middle East. They have at their disposal modern translation technology such as Trados, Déjà Vu, and other software tools. For example, at an International Association of Conference Interpreters event in Casablanca, Morocco, in January 2017, most of the interpreters I met asked me the same question one is asked in the U.S. (“What software do you use?”). These days, translation software is used in the remotest corners of the world.

How would you say that digital communications are affecting the Arabic language? Is Arabic being infiltrated by the same sort of shorthand (abbreviations and acronyms) that is used in texting and email in English? In what way?

As the Arab Spring political movement demonstrated in 2010, Arab youth has gone digital.2 In fact, everyone is communicating digitally: the older generations are surrounded by their grandchildren, who cannot be pried away from their electronic devices. There are millions of Twitter and Facebook accounts that communicate in Arabic with audiences beyond their traditional geographical boundaries. Losing their followers to digital platforms, conventional print media have turned to the internet to keep their audiences. Digital communication has revolutionized the Arab world and there is no stopping it.

As to your second point, we don’t use that kind of shorthand in Arabic just yet. There is no abbreviation system in place. I can think of only a few abbreviations that are used in Arabic, such as NATO, FAO, and Da’ish. This is because words in Arabic are never written in partial form. They simply wouldn’t mean anything if expressed in that way. That may partly explain why Arabic sentences tend to be longer. In Arabic, common Western abbreviations such as WHO, UN, NATO, and EU simply don’t exist because we use complete words.

Can you tell us something about your work? Do you do any interpreting or translating for agencies or the court system?

I’m an independent contractor. I’m nobody’s employee, even though I work mostly for the Department of State. My work involves a lot of reading. One thing that prospective, amateur, and professional interpreters should be aware of is that language is but a container of culture and knowledge. Words are tins filled with meaning. If you know a word but are unaware of its cultural baggage, then you only know words in a vacuum. This is no good at all. Words carry much cultural, social, and political significance. Good interpreters have been to places and have come into direct contact with the physical, emotional, and affective meaning of words. Therefore, like a psychic, they see things, or parts of them, before they happen. Because of their thorough background knowledge, professional interpreters know the landscape and, like tour guides, can maneuver across the terrain of meanings attached to words and produce an accurate replica of the landscape in another language. Yes, I interpret and translate for many agencies and also for television. As long as one is a freelancer, one always has ample room for self-improvement and development.

When you interpreted at the U.S.-GCC Summit in Riyadh in May 2017, were you working as part of a team or with a colleague?

I interpreted President Donald Trump’s speech in simultaneous mode to the delegations gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was also broadcast live on many channels around the world. Unlike conference programs that last for hours, the president only spoke for about 35 minutes, so I worked alone.

Do the leaders of the Gulf States have their own interpreters?

When leaders are being interpreted in consecutive mode, they each have their own interpreters. You can see this on television during a press conference, for example, where interpreters sit very close behind the dignitaries. A press conference is one of the rare occasions when the interpreter can be seen.

Interpreters must always be conscious of cultural differences wherever they work. There are different levels of formality and subtleties in interpersonal dealings. What can you tell us about the cultural differences or difficulties you had to deal with on the trip to Saudi Arabia?

This question relates to two things: the professional ethics code interpreters follow, and cultural differences. The code of ethics applies wherever an interpreter goes. Of course, the level of formality is extremely important. There is a discourse or style of speech that’s appropriate to every setting. It all starts with a good understanding of how to address people according to their titles and positions (e.g., Excellency, Your Majesty, Honorable, and Your Honor).

As for cultural differences, like any country, Saudi Arabia has rules and regulations by which foreigners must abide. Everyone is expected to respect the Islamic customs and traditions of its people. Alcoholic beverages, narcotics, illegal drugs, and material or publications that violate social norms of decency or disrespect religious beliefs or political orientations are prohibited. Smuggling narcotics or other illegal drugs into the kingdom is punishable by death.

How about the Africa Summit in 2014? What languages were interpreted during that event?

The United States–Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington, DC in August 2014. It was hosted by President Barack Obama and attended by leaders from 50 African nations. The summit’s focus was primarily trade, investment, and African security. I was one of the interpreters at that event. The primary languages were Arabic and French, since, at an international level (other than English), Africa speaks Arabic, French, and Portuguese.

What can you tell us about the interpreting you’ve done in military settings?

The U.S. military has six regional commands around the world: United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), U.S. Central Command (Centcom), U.S. European Command (Eucom), U.S. Northern Command (Northcom), U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), and U.S. Southern Command (Southcom). There is a wealth of opportunity for professionals who have the will and the ability to promote understanding through language skills around the world. While I’ve interpreted for the National Defense University at events such as the Young African Leaders’ Initiative and the Next Generation of African Security Sector Senior Leaders Seminar, I’ve mainly worked at U.S. Central Command events.

Finally, do you have any advice for those who may be considering a career as an Arabic interpreter?

My advice to them is to always seek to be the best in their field. They should study and work hard to improve themselves and better their abilities. They should read constantly in their languages. They should travel and try doing things “the other” way. They should immerse themselves in the culture of the languages they speak and develop native or native-like fluency. They should master their craft and become professionals who are worthy of being hired.

Thank you, Abdelhafid, for your insights and your excellent advice.
Notes
  1. Brown, Anna. “The Challenges of Translating the U.S. Census Questionnaire into Arabic (Pew Research Center, July 2016), http://bit.ly/Arabic-census.
  2.  The Arab Spring, also referred to as the Arab revolutions, was a revolutionary wave of both violent and nonviolent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution. For more information, see: http://bit.ly/Arab-Spring.

Tony Beckwith was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, spent his formative years in Montevideo, Uruguay, then set off to see the world. He moved to Texas in 1980 and currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he works as a writer, translator, poet, and cartoonist. Contact: tony@tonybeckwith.com.

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