Letter from the New Editor

Greetings to all our members and readers. My name is Patricia Stumpp and I am the new editor of the Gotham Translator.

It was a real pleasure to edit the first edition of the newsletter in 2019, the fortieth anniversary year of the founding of the Circle. Several of our members contributed their significant knowledge and expertise to it. I think you will enjoy reading Laurie Truehaft’s recollections of Charles M. Stern, the founder of the Stern Autonomous Grant, as well as my interview with Elizabeth Schneewind and Leonard Morin’s ruminations on making the transition from translation to interpretation. Donald Duffy’s book review and the article on Google Translate should also be of great interest to our members.

As for me, I had a long career in international banking during which time I worked extensively in Spanish, Italian and French, as well as in English, my native tongue. I am a lifelong student of all three languages with a great love of literature. After retiring from banking, I decided to focus on Italian and was pleased to have recently passed the oral interpretation exam in Italian for the NYS court system.

I would like to ask all our members and readers to reach out to me with any articles you have written that you believe might be of interest to the Circle.  It would be great to see your work in future editions of the Gotham.

Yours sincerely,

Patricia Stumpp

Charles M. Stern and the Stern Autonomous Grant

Laurie Truehaft

In this the fortieth anniversary year of the founding of the Circle, your editor Patricia Stumpp met with long-time member and former President Laurie Treuhaft. Laurie graciously agreed to share with us some of her memories of Mr. Stern and of her experiences in the earlier years of the Circle.

One person who is absolutely thrilled to see the Charles M. Stern Autonomous Grant being launched in this anniversary year is former New York Circle President Laurie Treuhaft. Charles Stern, a founding member of the New York Circle, was its Treasurer when Laurie served as President in 1985-1986.

Laurie remembers Mr. Stern as a delightful British gentlemen, a mathematician turned translator, with an aptitude for countless languages. He had a huge library of books and dictionaries and was a puzzle-solver by nature, often cross-referencing multiple dictionaries in multiple language pairings to find the best translation of a particular word.  He had a deep appreciation for the accomplishments of women in translation and in other professional fields. One contributing factor to this may have been that Mr. Stern was raised by women in his native England, women whom he greatly admired. Indeed, his estate attorney, Elaine Friedman, had been one of the few women to graduate from Columbia Law School in 1946. Mr. Stern passed away in 1993.

Charles Stern, who was already in his ‘80s when Laurie knew him, always walked with a cane. Dignified and discreet, he could also be quite the wit. Laurie recalls him commenting on peers in earlier times who claimed to be models of “physical culture” (i.e., “working out”) and urged him to be more diligent about it. “Here I am,” he quipped, “but those people are no longer around to preach to me!”

Charles M. Stern and Vigdis Eriksen

The Charles M. Stern Autonomous Grant is finally a reality 25 years after the funds for it were bequeathed to the Circle. Laurie, who was the Executor for Charles Stern’s will, credits the project’s completion to the thoughtfulness and sensitivity with which the procedure governing the use of the funds was framed and structured by current Program Director Aaron Hebenstreit, and to contributions by other Board members past and present. She remembers with gratitude that former Treasurer Leonard Morin and former Presidents Edna Ditaranto and Valeriya Yermishova reached out to her in years past in the hope of moving things along.

Charles Stern joined the New York Circle the year it was founded by Virginia Eva Berry-Gruby, who later served as an ATA President.  Laurie was introduced to the Circle a few years later when Susana Greiss – a talented multilingual translator who was very active and widely respected in both the New York Circle and ATA – brought her to a meeting.  At the time, Laurie was working as a translator for Marine Midland Bank downtown. Susana had come to the bank to promote a new word processing system tailored to translators and devised by her son – which was truly revolutionary in those days when everyone translated on electric typewriters. As she listened to Susana pitching her son’s creation, Laurie quickly realized that Susana herself was a translator.   The bank never bought the word processing system but the following week, Susana called Laurie and suggested they meet for lunch.

Laurie was Circle newsletter editor in 1983 and 1984. In those early days, the newsletter was produced in hard copy only; had to be folded, stamped and carted to the post office for mailing; and had no name. When Laurie became President, she asked the new newsletter editor, Erica Meltzer, to invite the Circle’s 100 or so members to submit possible names. It was member Leon Jacolev, whom Laurie remembers as “a force of nature”, who suggested the name the “Gotham Translator.” Mr. Jacolev, a technical translator, owned a translation company in New Jersey.

One of Laurie’s goals when she became President was to make member meetings exciting by inviting special guest speakers who were in the arts or advocating for the profession. She particularly remembers Helen Eisenman, known as the “Queen of Subtitlers”, who did the subtitles for the 1985 film “La Historia Oficial” chronicling the activities of the Argentine Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Another prominent guest speaker was New York Times literary critic Herbert Mitgang, who often reviewed translated works.

Laurie recalls that the earliest New York Circle meetings were generally held in restaurants; board meetings were held over dinner at someone’s home. During her tenure as President, her co-Board members in addition to Charles Stern were Regina Gelb, Vice President, and the late Fouad Kheir, Program Director.

Even once meetings regularly featured guest speakers, everyone went to dinner together afterward. As a way of honoring the linguistic diversity of its membership, the Circle made a point of holding each meeting in a different ethnic restaurant. Laurie particularly remembers a Chinese New Year dinner that she organized with help from Circle member Alex Gross – and sidewalks covered with spent firecrackers when they left the Chinatown restaurant that night. In addition, the summer picnic was always an Argentine asado at her family’s home in New Jersey Those barbecues regularly drew about 100 attendees.

Laurie’s love of languages – especially French – blossomed in her teenage years.  She spent high school summers at a French school and entered Yale’s first coed freshman class with dreams of studying French.  Ultimately, she chose to broaden her major to French Studies, which included literature, history and other disciplines.  Laurie thinks that choice must have been driven by “translator instincts”, though she didn’t fully realize it at the time.  She does remember seeing a sign for an “Ecole de traduction” on a lovely lake near Geneva during a trip with the Yale Glee Club and thinking “That sounds likes paradise!”.  Laurie went on to attend the Middlebury graduate program in Paris, earning an M.A. in French, and holds a degree in translation from Ecole Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (E.S.I.T.), Sorbonne Nouvelle. While in Europe, she passed the United Nations translation exam but there were no immediate openings.  She became a translator for Marine Midland Bank, and seven years later, joined the UN English Translation Service, where she worked for 25 years. Now retired, she frequently returns to the UN on freelance assignments. 

Book Review: “Translation Strategies in Global News: What Sarkozy said in the suburbs”

The following review was kindly provided to the Gotham by Donald Duffy. Mr. Duffy began his career in T&I a decade ago in Washington D.C’s diplomatic and legal space and currently translates for companies in New York’s broadcasting and digital media industry.

If there is one immediate impression to be had of journalistic translation in Claire Scammell’s “Translation Strategies in Global News: What Sarkozy said in the suburbs” (Palgrave Pivot, 2018), it is that the translator’s role within the world of news lacks clarity in certain areas. As style guides of major news organizations are found to vary markedly on the matter, we can partially attribute this unfocused objective to the secondary importance granted it in the editing process. There are solutions to this problem which can be found in literature dedicated to Translation Studies and Journalism Studies. The challenge lies in reconciling the discrepancies between the two academic fields and then penetrating the media industry at the policy level with this body of theoretical knowledge. Now, through a case study of the English-language reporting on incendiary comments made in 2005 by France’s then-Minister of the Interior, we have a book that endeavors to meet that challenge.

The very real-world case of translation given to the readers is specific and focused enough not only to explain the author’s policy recommendations, but also to double as an easy introduction to the theoretical elements that comprise her critique. And for those recommendations to have a chance at implementation, media professionals will indeed need to be given some idea of the theory that underpins those guidelines.

Anyone who reads this book will be able to appreciate immediately, for instance, the relevance and hands-on applications of the theoretical debate between “domestication” and “foreignization”, the competing missions of “bringing the author back home” versus “sending the reader abroad” in a translation, as first popularized by theorist Lawrence Venuti in his seminal work, The Translator’s Invisibility (Routledge, 1995). His theoretical framework is not only introduced, explained and applied, but also scrutinized from the perspectives of figures in the Translation Studies community who challenge important elements of it, such as Mona Baker and Anthony Pym. This is far from being a complete overview of the debates and concepts in contemporary Translation Studies that the book touches upon. Nor is the book intent on providing a survey course on the matter; the ideas asserted are original and offered with clear purpose in mind. Generally speaking, the gist of the conclusions drawn is that a relative shift towards “foreignization” would help to achieve greater accuracy and clarity in news translation.

It bears repeating that the book’s most significant virtue is its accessibility to outsiders, which is key if it is to reach news organizations where often the translation tasks are undertaken not by trained translators but by bilingual journalists and editors with other priorities and concerns at the front of their mind. Even so, the book’s readability does not come at the cost of oversimplification. There is, after all, a considerable gap between the ways in which Journalism Studies and Translation Studies perceive translation, and to bridge it requires a nuanced and functional interdisciplinary approach.

Translators working for major Western media outlets in this era’s iteration of post-truth politics have not been immune to the pressures inherent to their industry’s credibility being called into question. In such times, it becomes increasingly important to reexamine the translator’s place within news creation. This is not just to refresh one’s awareness of method so as to minimize the risk of blunder, but also to arm oneself rhetorically with the grounding of theory in order to defend the work effectively in a media landscape that is being met with increasing suspicion.

D.H. Duffy



Meet the Translator: Elizabeth Hughes Schneewind, MA, LCSW

Elizabeth specializes in the translation of German texts into English. Her exposure to German began as a fourteen year old when she lived in Frankfurt for a year. This was followed by attendance at the University of Munich and at Brown University where she completed an MA in philosophy. She is an ATA certified translator.

At Brown, as she was studying the work of the influential German philosopher Franz Brentano, it became obvious that the existing English translations of his work were not of high quality. Rather than working with a substandard translation, she did a completely new translation of one of his seminal works. She later translated some his lectures on ethics at the request of a foundation that had been set up to propagate his work.

Although Elizabeth eventually pursued a career in social work, opportunities often arose that allowed her to use her translation skills. Among the philosophers whose works she has translated are Hans Reichenbach and Viktor Kraft.  Other projects have included the translation of the memoirs of a gentleman who lived in Alsace during the Franco-Prussian war as well as the published book “For the Love of Cats”. A recent project centering on the life of a Swiss national who lived in Russia and experienced the demise of the Soviet Union will be published this spring.

Elizabeth has been a member of the Circle for about 9 years. She has enjoyed the monthly meetings and remembers in particular the discussion on literary translation that occurred last year. Her advice to fledgling translators is to “get the word out” about one’s skills possibly through direct advertising in relevant publications. She also strongly advocates extensive reading of literature in both the source and target languages.

We thank Elizabeth for sharing her translating experiences with the Circle.

From Translator to Interpreter: The Translator’s Edge

Member Leonard Morin, former president and secretary of the Circle, has provided us with his observations on the benefits and the pitfalls of transitioning from translator to interpreter.

The Translator’s Edge

Is a background in translation an asset or a liability to new interpreters?

by Leonard Morin

There are certain aspects of translation that facilitate and others that hinder a transition into interpreting. The act of translating, in the sense of converting one language into another, is common to both. In itself, this underlying skill is complex and requires significant prior training and experience. Written translation is a task that requires close attention to and study of both the source and the target texts. Making this process a habit allows the linguist to work with greater precision. This tends to be an enduring advantage for the interpreter who has had significant prior training and experience as a translator over interpreters who have not. An advantage translators have over non-translators when embarking on a career in interpreting is knowing the tricks of the translation process, such as converting nouns into verbs, reordering sentences, translating or not translating names, converting the idioms of one language into the idioms of the other, and the invaluable asset of ready translation solutions (whether technical or general) in one’s toolbox. These ready translations often represent many hours of prior research.

Besides the benefit in translation solutions of investing many hours in research work, there is the further advantage of becoming a good researcher. Research is no less essential to interpreting than it is to translating. Of course, translators pass their time in their offices with research resources constantly at their fingertips and under significantly higher accuracy requirements that those that apply to interpreters. Translators tend to be better researchers and more computer literate than interpreters without translation experience.

The Translator’s Baggage

Although interpreters ought to engage in research constantly, and translators generally obtain a higher level of precision, certain aspects of prior experience in translation form impediments to becoming an interpreter. Translators have the “luxury” of being able to look up any words for which they do not have ready translations. I put “luxury” in quotation marks here because in reality translators are almost always under tremendous pressure due to deadlines. Translators, however, who reinvent themselves into interpreters will find they have to adopt a drastically different approach to tackling vocabulary. Whereas the translator can look up a word and forget it (which is relative since the translator may need the same translation later), the interpreter has to commit it to memory. While not actually working (although perhaps at work, as in the case of a court interpreter in the courtroom waiting for his or her case to be called), linguists are exposed to vocabulary in either of the pair of languages that they may need to know in the line of duty. While the translator may listen but put off looking up the vocabulary until later, an interpreter is probably best off looking up the word right away. Whether or not the interpreter has a satisfactory solution right away, she will have to note down the correct translation in a glossary and commit it to memory. This means the interpreter’s ears must always be pricked up for new vocabulary.

Whereas the interpreter is always looking to improve vocabulary, the actual interpreting occurs in a limited time span and generally only partially survives in human memory. As a translator, I found that it was helpful to carry the text I was working on with me in my mind even when I was not working and in many cases even after it was done. New interpreters coming from a background in translation may find it hard to adjust to the fact that the work is done in one shot and there is no going back. Translators generally translate the text and then go over it multiple times. For the interpreter there is only one rendition. Of course the interpreter has to learn from each session and work at doing better the next time around (especially at similar sessions), but interpreters render their performance in one session and there is no going back to change it. The translator who is in the habit of ruminating over work done may find a transition into interpreting difficult and taxing. The interpretation rendered is irremediable and irrevocable. On top of that, the level of perfection is below that of a competent translation. Brooding over something patently imperfect that cannot be changed is futile and can be extremely nerve-wracking, but a translator become interpreter is apt to make this mistake and suffer the concomitant anxiety and frustration: frustration for not being able to correct errors or inaccuracies incurred; anxiety about the next performance, which will be subject to the same implacable spontaneity and finality.[1]

A Different Kind of Stress

On the other hand, full-time translators who transition into becoming full-time interpreters may feel that they are relieved from a certain kind of stress. While interpreters are put on the spot to perform and think on their feet, translators live with the gnawing anxiety of unfinished translations and impending deadlines. Successful translators may find that they rarely do not live in the shadow of one or several deadlines. This shadow marks every other activity in the translator’s life. Once they have dedicated themselves full-time to interpreting, this shadow is lifted. Of course, the linguist will now have to deal with the more acute stress associated with a largely improvised performance. And even though the standard of accuracy in interpreting is necessarily lower than in translating, in interpreting the ramifications of inaccuracy may be just as severe if not more so. One need only bring to mind legal, medical, or diplomatic interpreting, in which a single misspoken word can have harrowing consequences.

Translators have to be or become excellent writers in their target language. They must also have the discipline to work long hours in solitude. Whereas a career in translation will intimately involve linguists with their computers and therefore lead to a higher level of computer literacy than most interpreters boast, the latter must master another set of specific skills beyond being a “translator.” Becoming an interpreter is like learning to master a musical instrument. Linguists must learn the three primary modes of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous interpreting and sight translation. Doing so requires study and practice. Other subsets of skills, such as public speaking and note-taking for consecutive, and clear diction, especially for simultaneous, are also indispensable.

Another skill for interpreting is everything that has to do with interacting with people. For me, one of the motivations for transitioning from translating to interpreting, besides higher pay and shorter hours, was social interaction. Although interpreting can offer the translator a refreshing escape from solitary confinement, one may soon find oneself saturated with personal interaction, which is not always pleasant. I think the social aspect is one of the biggest appeals of interpreting. In my branch of the industry, court interpreting, I have near constant dealings with lawyers, court clerks, court officers, defendants, judges, and interpreter colleagues. On the one hand, as a per diem interpreter, you are likely to meet a wide variety of people from different courts; on the other, as a staff interpreter, you are able to develop relationships more deeply while still constantly meeting new people.

The Lotus

Many translators became translators because they were enticed by a life of reflection and serenity. If they are like me, their versatility allows them to appreciate the charm of reclusion as well as that of intense human interaction. Yet I think humans usually find disenchantment in getting what they thought they wanted. So this retreat into interpreting may be more tumultuous than the translator expected. After the initial high of intense, spontaneous human exchanges, the translator-become- interpreter may feel overwhelmed by the deluge of human contact. The stressors are as diverse as the people one comes in contact with. Besides being around people non-stop (and defendants are not the only ones who can be unpleasant), there are anxieties, such as trying to capture every detail of the prosecution’s bail recitation. Translators who contemplate becoming interpreters should understand that interpreting is a rich profession, but the rose has its thorns. Indeed, a good interpreter is like a lotus flower that rises above its bed of muddy water.

Leonard Morin is a staff interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He previously practiced as a freelance translator and interpreter from 2004-2015. Leonard interprets Spanish and Dutch and translates chiefly legal and cartography-related documents from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He earned a propedeuse degree in law in the Netherlands and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Columbia University. Leonard has earned translation and interpreting certificates and won academic prizes for his Spanish and German. He previously served separate terms as president and secretary of the New York Circle of Translators and is currently a delegate of his union Local 1070 to District Council 37.

[1] Save the scarce opportunities that a court interpreter, for example, has to correct the record after making an error. 

“Google Translate” and the Law of Consent Searches

This is an interesting article that was published on The Volokh Conspiracy blog on June 21, 2018. It was written by Orin Kerr. The publisher has given us permission to reproduce the article here.


¿Puedo buscar el auto?
Orin Kerr | Jun. 21, 2018 3:10 pm

Here’s an interesting question I’ve started to see in Fourth Amendment cases: If an officer asks for consent to search from a non-English speaker, using Google Translate to ask for consent in the person’s own language, is the resulting consent valid if there are possible misunderstandings from the translation? And relatedly, does the good-faith exception apply based on the officer’s good-faith reliance on the reliability of Google Translate?

This issue came up recently in United States v. Cruz-Zamora, decided by Judge Carlos Murguia of the federal district court in Kansas. The case involves consent to search a car during a traffic stop. The officer typed in “can I search the car” or “can I search your car” into
Google translate, which came up with a Spanish translation. When put into Google Translate, “can I search the car” translates to “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” The officer then showed the translated text to the driver, who responded by saying “yeah, yeah go.” The officer then searched the car and found a lot of drugs inside it.

The problem is that the English word “search” has several different meanings. It might mean “to look through,” for example, or it might just mean “to look for.” The officer was trying to ask for consent to search assuming the first meaning; he wanted to look through the car. But Google’s translation picked the word “buscar,” which means “to look for.” As the court explains:

“When put in reverse order into Google Translate, “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” translates to “Can I find the car.” Gardner [an expert interpreter] testified that while “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is a literally correct interpretation, it is not the question Wolting intended to ask defendant. Gardner noticed several other instances in the video where Google Translate provided a literal but nonsensical translation. For example, at one point, Wolting likely asked defendant about his driver’s license and defendant responded “Do you have a driver for the license?” as if he was repeating the question as translated. And while defendant could guess the intent of the question, Gardner felt that because Google Translate sometimes provides literal but nonsensical translations, it is not a reliable tool for interpretations.

Both interpreters noted there were multiple times defendant responded that he did not understand Wolting’s questions. According to Gardner, defendant claimed he did not understand the question on nine different occasions during the stop. And in regard to the specific question as to whether Wolting could search defendant’s car, Garcia testified that “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” is not exactly how a Spanish speaker would ask to “search in your car.” Defendant, as a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills, would instead have to make an assumption about what the question actually is.”

The court rules that under the circumstances of this case, the government did not meet its burden to show consent:

“It is impossible to know how defendant translated “¿Puedo buscar el auto?” and whether he was affirmatively consenting to a search of his vehicle or responding to a perceived command. And while he did exit the patrol car and stand by the side of the road without objection while Wolting performed the search, defendant testified that he did not understand the question, and did not know he had a choice when Wolting told him to stand near the side of the road.

Unlike other cases where the defendants’ actions implied that they understood the officers’ questions, here it is not so clear. Yes, defendant did demonstrate some basic understanding of Wolting’s English questions and commands; however, when reviewing the transcript and considering the imprecise translation, the court does not find the government has met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal andspecific and freely and intelligently given.”

The next question was whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule could apply based on good faith reliance on Google Translate. Another case had so held, and the government relied on that case here:

“The government cites a recent case from the Southern District of Texas in which an officer used Google Translate to look up how to ask for consent to search in Spanish and then asked the defendant “Puedo buscar?” while pointing to his eyes and then to defendant’s vehicle. United States v. Salas Antuna, No. 6:16–86, 2017 WL 2255565 at *1 (S.D. Tex, May 23, 2017). In denying defendant’s motion to suppress—in which defendant argued his consent was invalid because of the language barrier—the court acknowledged that but that the officer reasonably relied on the Google Translate translation and that the good-faith exception applied. Id. at *5.”

The court rules that the good faith exception based on the facts of this case, however:

“[T]he court finds that the good-faith exception does not apply as it is not reasonable for an officer to use and rely on Google Translate to obtain consent to a warrantless search, especially when an officer has other options for more reliable translations. The government has not met its burden to show defendant’s consent was “unequivocal and specific and freely and intelligently given,” because defendant claims he did not understand the question, the transcript from Wolting’s in-car camera supports defendant’s claim that he did not understand many of his questions, and the Google Translate translation allegedly used by Wolting was not a precise translation of “Can I search the car?” Even though defendant answered “Ah, okay. Yeah…yeah. Go. Yes,” it is not clear from the evidence what question was asked and what defendant was agreeing to, and the court will not interpret defendant’s compliance with Wolting’s instructions to
stand by the side of the road during the search as implied consent, considering the totality of the circumstances. The court finds that application of the exclusionary rule is appropriate in this case, and therefore grants defendant’s motion to suppress.”

Interesting case. But let me step back a bit.

Off the top of my head, I would be inclined to think that the good faith exception shouldn’t apply to reliance on Google Translate at all. It’s true that in Herring v. United States, the Court applied the good faith exception when the police relied on an incorrect database entry. The idea was that it wasn’t the officer’s fault that the database erroneously said a warrant was wanted for Herring’s arrest, so you can’t fault the officer so much (enough to apply the exclusionary rule) to suppress the evidence following from the arrest.

But I see a big difference between relying on a police database of open arrest warrants and relying on Google Translate for a consent search. The police create databases of open arrest warrants to know who they should arrest on warrants. The police rely on those databases for that purpose, and they’re usually pretty accurate for it.

In contrast, it’s common knowledge that Google Translate gets you in the rough ballpark of a literal translation but no better. It’s a neat service if you have no alternative and want to get a rough sense of what someone is saying. But no one would think that Google Translate is accurate enough to generate an error-free translation or be anything like the equivalent of an expert interpreter. If the government wants to use such an inaccurate tool to get beyond a language barrier, they can try that. But I don’t think the good-faith exception should apply
when an entirely predictable mistranslation occurs.