New degree course focusing on the translation of indigenous languages

7 January 2019

In cooperation with the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is planning to launch a specialized degree course in translation and interpreting of Mexican indigenous languages. Professor Martina Schrader-Kniffki of the JGU Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies (FTSK) in Germersheim is in charge of the project, which is currently entering a decisive phase.

"I tried looking for a comparable degree course, but could not find one anywhere else in the world," says Professor Martina Schrader-Kniffki. "So it seems that what we are offering is the only one of its kind." In her office, there is a board covered with notes in Spanish. Recently, a delegation from the Mexican state of Oaxaca visited JGU's Faculty in Germersheim to discuss how the collaborative project was to progress.

"It was a complex process, and we had to clear bureaucratic hurdles," adds Schrader-Kniffki. "But we now look set to receive accreditation from the university in Mexico this year and state accreditation next year." That would pave the way for the first Master's degree program in translation and interpreting of indigenous languages at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca.

Mexico's linguistic diversity

Mexico is home to more indigenous languages than almost all other countries in the world. "There are more than 300 indigenous languages in Mexico, of which 15 to 17 are spoken in the federal state of Oaxaca," points out Schrader-Kniffki, a Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Linguistics and Translation Studies at the JGU Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies (FTSK). The difficulty lies in clarifying which qualify as simply variants or dialects of others and which should be considered independent languages. But, even if some of the languages are similar, there is a huge spectrum of variation. "They do not even all belong to the same family. They include, for example, tonal languages in which completely different meanings are expressed through changes in pitch." In addition, there are some languages that have little or no formal writing system and often lack words for technical terms that are important in the modern world.

Since 2003, the Mexican state has recognized 62 of these languages as national languages alongside Spanish. They are not just used in everyday life. The indigenous population has the right to use these languages in administrative procedures, in court, or in hospital, for example. "However, the problem is that, in practice, Spanish is the language of choice in these institutions, and there is a lack of qualified translators or interpreters," explains Schrader-Kniffki.

There is an NGO, the Centro Profesional Indígena de Asesoría, Defensa y Traducción (CEPIADET), which defends the rights won by indigenous people and organizes interpreting courses, but a great deal is still done on an informal basis, if at all. The onus to provide the necessary services is on bilingual family members or friends; in other words, on people with no specialized training or qualifications, whose actual linguistic skills have not officially been established. "The state has affirmed its commitment to uphold language rights, but implementation is difficult in many places. Indeed, there are still people in prison in Mexico because no one could be found to interpret for them. They simply were not able to defend themselves."

Funding from the German Academic Exchange Service

The new Master's degree program is an important step towards remedying the situation, putting translation and interpreting services on a professional footing. It represents the first time that academic training in the field would be offered.

Finding a local partner was essential before it became possible to embark on such a project. An offer came from the Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas. Schrader-Kniffki applied for funding from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) on behalf of JGU, which was promptly approved. However, frequent staff changes at Chiapas subsequently hampered the collaboration.

"So I recruited another university, with which I have had very close contact for years." That is how the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca became involved. The plan is to base the degree course there. "The state of Oaxaca is strongly characterized by its indigenous population, which constitutes a particularly large percentage of the inhabitants. It is even marketed that way as a tourist destination." The need for interpreting and translation services is correspondingly high. "Our colleagues at the local university are extremely interested in the course."

Expertise from Germersheim

At the same time, the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics, and Cultural Studies at JGU represents a partner with a wealth of expertise on the wide-ranging challenges associated with the project. "Community interpreting, for example, will play an important role," says Schrader-Kniffki. "This is not just a matter of accompanying people and interpreting for them; cultural differences also need to be taken into account. That is where our experience comes in."

The Mexican Master's degree program will be designed to appeal to the indigenous population, from whose ranks students who speak at least one indigenous language are to be recruited. "In other words, we will be working with a very heterogeneous group. It is quite possible that all the students may speak different languages in addition to Spanish. This is something we are very familiar with at Germersheim, because we do have a similar situation in our discipline of Intercultural German Studies. The students of this program also speak a multitude of different languages. We have developed teaching strategies to deal with this, which we will undoubtedly be able to use for the new course."

The syllabus of the Master's degree program has already been drawn up. "There will be courses on Spanish linguistics and the linguistics of indigenous languages. Furthermore, students will receive tuition in interpreting and note-taking, legal issues, medicine and health, and the ethics of interpreting," explains Schrader-Kniffki.

Cooperation as an intercultural experience

"But we also intend to undertake a bit of research at the same time. We will be getting records of court hearings and medical consultations in hospitals. The necessary agreements have been concluded." Court proceedings, in particular, are usually filmed with several cameras, partly to ensure that the proper procedures are followed. "We will be carefully anonymizing the material before we transcribe it. Courtroom sketches will also be included with the transcripts, as knowing where interpreters are placed in the courtroom is an interesting aspect." This will be of practical benefit to the course. "It will allow us to develop practice-oriented teaching aids."

In the 2019 summer semester, three colleagues from Oaxaca will visit Germersheim. "They will later teach the new course in Mexico. During their visit at FTSK, they will be able to develop a wide range of skills – from interpreting to didactics."

For Schrader-Kniffki and her team, the intensive cooperation with the university in Oaxaca is both an enrichment and a challenge: "It will be a terrific intercultural experience. In some respects, we do have completely different ways of working – and that means we need to be patient with each other. But it's worth it. The course opens up completely new territory for both universities. We had a lot to discuss. In the end, we tried to eliminate ideological aspects as far as possible. The fact is that there is an urgent need for interpreters. We need to identify the best way of training them. That's what's important."