Letter from the Editor

Greetings to all our readers. I hope you enjoy the latest edition of the Gotham in which we explore a wide range of topics of interest to translators and interpreters.

Thanks go to Amal Alaboud, Bethany Sullivan and Mourine Breiner for their contributions. Amal has written about the Circle’s March 18th panel discussion on languages of lesser diffusion while Bethany, one of the first recipients of the Charles M. Stern scholarship grant, describes her experiences attending the February 16th ATA legal seminar. Mourine’s article focuses on vanishing world languages and the devastating impact this phenomenon has on the world’s linguistic and cultural heritage.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maya Hess, the founder and CEO of Red T, the organization dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters working in war zones and other areas of conflict. I was also able to attend a meeting of the “Entre Dos Mundos” Book Club which explores Spanish language literature that has been translated into English.

Original content like that of Amal, Bethany and Mourine adds a lot of interest to the Gotham and I encourage all our members and readers to contact me with any submissions you think might be of interest to the Circle. You can reach me at:

With best regards,

Patricia Stumpp

Panel Discussion on Languages of Lesser Diffusion

By: Amal Alaboud

On March 18, 2019, I was invited to attend a panel discussion entitled “Languages of Lesser Diffusion” sponsored by the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT). The panel was composed of four professional linguists: Mohamed Abdelhalim (Arabic), Sepideh Moussavi (Farsi), Agnes Niemetz (Hungarian) and Aster Yilma (Amharic).

I was initially surprised to see that Arabic was considered a language of lesser diffusion. Arabic is spoken by more than 400 million people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and is one of the United Nations’ six official languages. The UN celebrates the Arabic language on December 18th of each year as part of its ongoing efforts to promote multiculturalism and the rich history and culture of each of its official languages.

However, despite the worldwide importance of the Arabic language, Mr. Abdelhalim discussed how even some project managers do not know the basics of the language. He recalled that once a project manager returned one of his translations to him after proofreading it and he found that the Arabic text had been shifted so that it read from left to right. Arabic is of course written from right to left. He also expressed the need for more Arabic court interpreters. According to the latest New Jersey Courts interpreting statistics for the year July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018, Arabic (Egyptian Colloquial) was the fourth most interpreted among the 15 languages surveyed. Arabic (Levantine) was ranked 14th.

Sepideh Moussavi spoke of the integration of Farsi and Arabic and how the movement in Iran to eliminate the Arabic language has failed because Arabic is so deeply embedded in the Farsi language. She provides language coaching in her Farsi language Center so as to engage more Farsi linguists in order to meet the industry-wide demand for this language. Being a member of the ATA, she is assisting in establishing certifications between English and Farsi.

Agnes Niemetz spoke of the high demand for Hungarian linguists. She like the other panelists mentioned that being bilingual does not guarantee accurate translations since linguists must also be bicultural. This is especially true for translators brought up in the States where they may be isolated from the culture of the language. Ms. Niemetz has also begun to coach other Hungarian linguists to work in the translation industry.

Aster Yilma related many interesting stories and experiences working as an interpreter. She entered the industry as an Amharic interpreter for a well-known hip-hop artist and accompanied her to Ethiopia along with her family. A more painful story was the time that she had to have oral surgery and couldn’t find an interpreter to cover for her; she had to double up on her the medication and show up for work anyway. Yes interpreters are heroes, too!

The panel underlined the huge need for other lesser diffused language translators in addition to the four languages which were highlighted on the panel. Coaching newbie linguists so they can fully engage in the translation industry also appeared to be a priority for the members of this panel.

My linguist colleagues’ experiences, stories, and challenges are relatable. Hearing from them is always inspiring, enriching, and fulfilling. I believe that by sharing our thoughts about the needs and the demands of the market, we can better welcome new translators to the industry with coaching and training.

Amal Alaboud is a PhD candidate in the Translation Research and Instruction Program at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She holds an MA in Arabic/English Translation from the University of Salford in the UK. She is a project manager at TransPerfect in New York.


Court Interpreting Statistics, On-site Interpreting. 2017-2018.

Official Languages, United Nations.

The Origins of the Arabic Language, Omar Gomaa. 2019. 

The February 16 2019 ATA Law Seminar

By: Bethany Sullivan

I graduated from UConn in 2013 with a degree in Latin American Studies and Spanish. I wanted to do something with language and to be able to travel as much as possible, so when I found out that translation was a viable career option I knew it was the right path for me. Not only can I work with languages and with people from different cultures, but I can also do it remotely, enabling me to go where I want while still earning a living.

I’ve been supporting myself with translation work for the past six months but wanted to explore potential specialization options. Consequently, when I heard about the Charles M. Stern grant and the ATA Law Seminar I was very excited to apply. The Law Seminar was my first ATA event.

The Law Seminar took place in Jersey City on February 16. There were two sessions, each offering an option for translators and one for interpreters. Since I want to be a translator, I attended both of the translation options. Holly Mikkelson led the first session. She has been a Spanish/English legal translator and court interpreter since 1976. She told us that the law profession has many traditions, customs, and rituals and many phrases that date back to Roman times. The profession simply does not want to change or update them, so translators must get used to them while being true to the language and the document being translated. Many times this means that the wording is more concise in languages other than English because other languages don’t necessarily cling to outmoded legal phrases that include redundancies. It came as a relief to me to see that other, more seasoned language professionals in the room seemed as uncertain about some of the terms as I was; I was surprised how much I was able to understand.

Sandro Tomasi led the second session. He is a Spanish/English court interpreter in the Bronx and has written a law dictionary and contributed to others. He also made reference to the complicated nature of legal translation, or in his case, interpretation. He framed it as a ‘filtering process’ that involves taking phrases and filtering them through FOUR different ‘languages’: the source and target languages, and the two law systems in question. For example, if the client is from Brazil but in court in the US, you must consider the Brazilian legal system and the American legal system. He advised us to use the ‘closest natural equivalent’ in the target language; naturally when you are taking four different ‘languages’ into account, there isn’t always a perfect and direct translation. It also stood out to me that his perspective on legal translation echoed Holly Mikkelson’s when he said that talking about translating legal terms is like talking about politics or religion: people are really set in their ways.

The Seminar reminded me how much there is to learn about this vast and complex field, but also showed me how interesting and varied it can be. I would not have been able to attend this event without the Charles M. Stern grant, and I want to thank the New York Circle of Translators Board for selecting me as a recipient of this honor. It was an excellent experience and I learned a lot.

Globalization and the Vanishing Voices of the World

By Mourine Breiner

Language extinction is a slow but sure process. My interest in this topic was rekindled after I watched a performance of Lena Herzog’s “Last Whispers” at the Kennedy Center in DC on February 24, 2019. The work is a three part immersive audio/visual/virtual reality oratorio on extinct and endangered languages. It is comprised of both spoken and sung recordings of about 40 extinct and endangered languages among which are:

1. Ahom, China
2. Ayoreo, Paraguay
3. Bathari, Oman
4. Lxcatec, Mexico
5. Dalabon, Australia
6. Great Andamanese, India
7. Ingrian, Russia
8. Kotiria, Brasil
9. Koyukon, Alaska
10. Ongota, Ethiopia

The presentation reawakened for me the sad reality of endangered languages. Consequently, I could not help but reflect on the causes and effects of the gradual disappearance of our linguistic diversity.

The reality of language endangerment and extinction
According to National Geographic, one language dies every 14 days. Based on that trend, UNESCO predicts that almost half of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken on earth are expected to disappear by the next century. The catalog of endangered languages of UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Project indicates that there are about 3000 endangered languages in 180 countries. Approximately 3000 of the world’s 7000 languages have fewer than 10,000 speakers and are in danger of extinction while over 400 are on the verge of extinction. The Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, Australia and Southeast Asia are expected to lose the most languages. The Explore Language Map on this link is a vivid representation of the severity of language extinction.

Major causes of language extinction
Knowledge of and fluency in a language are largely dependent on one’s environment and education. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, remote languages are losing their former protection, and are giving way to languages that dominate world communication and commerce like Mandarin, English, Russian, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic. Languages of limited diffusion cannot withstand the competition with languages that represent education and overall success. Some languages are even associated with a lower social class and prestige, thereby reducing the interest in learning them.

Climate change, urbanization and the quest for better lives force linguistically diverse rural communities to migrate and assimilate into new communities, cultures and languages. Their original languages are lost in the process. In addition, most remote languages remain unwritten and consequently are not preserved; 85% of languages in general are yet to be documented. When the transfer of a language to younger generations is discontinued, languages are bound to die with the passing of older members of the community. Another proven factor is political persecution. Dozens of distinct dialects, for example, are on the verge of extinction about half a century after China annexed Tibet.

Effects of language extinction
Oral traditions and expressions are used to convey knowledge, beliefs, arts, value systems, laws, custom, traditions and modes of life. Language and culture are, therefore, integral parts of a community’s shared heritage and are believed to be the footprints of our identity. The loss of a language is a loss of cultural and social values as well as identity and the potential for diversity. With every dying language goes the knowledge of and the ability to understand the culture of its speakers. Because speakers of smaller languages generally live in proximity to nature, an endangered or extinct language also has a direct effect on the transfer of traditional and biodiversity knowledge across generations.

Can we preserve our endangered linguistic ecosystem?
Although the forces of endangerment or extinction may sometimes seem stronger than our efforts, there are ways to curb, halt or stop the inevitability of this process. Preservation through translation, cataloging, documenting and storing available information and resources both in audio and visual forms will go a long way in saving endangered languages. The role of technology in this process cannot be over-emphasized. Fortunately, we have the internet and a myriad of platforms and media at our disposal such as online classes, podcasts, dictionaries, YouTube, the TV, and the media. Wikitongues, The Endangered Language Fund and Cultural Survival are examples of great initiatives in that direction.

Promoting and teaching younger generations will go a long way to preserving and revitalizing languages. The will and determination of communities and their pride in their languages, cultural heritage and identity are contributing factors to language preservation. On a larger scale, when the language, culture and identity of minority-speaker communities are respected by national governments, languages of limited diffusion have a better potential for survival. The promotion of bi- or multi-bilingualism through individual and national efforts has proven successful in various regions. While there may not be one single promising solution, mankind can try, just as we seek to preserve our natural environment.

Mourine Breiner, DBA Beyond Words Solutions is a full-time freelance French-English translator based in Dublin, Ohio. She has been translating since 2004 and specializes in international development and business translation. She holds a Master’s Degree in French-English Translation, a BA in French/English Bilingual Studies and certificates in Computer Assisted Translation and Website Localization and Translation. Prior to becoming a full-time translator, she worked for the public and private sectors including the Department of State, the Swiss Cooperation for International Development and two private companies. Mourine is a founding member of Language Solutions for Africa, a collective of linguists with expertise in content for Africa.

An Interview with Maya Hess, Founder and CEO of Red T

Maya Hess


Maya Hess grew up in multilingual Switzerland and began her US language career as a translator and interpreter in German and French. She went on to establish her own translation agency, which specialized in art litigation and terrorism trials. Post-9/11, she founded Red T, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of linguists in conflict situations and other high-risk settings. Maya holds an MA in Journalism from New York University, a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as an MPhil and a PhD in Criminal Justice from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). In 2017, she received the Graduate of the Decade (GOLD) Award from CUNY for her humanitarian and educational work.

The catalyst for the creation of Red T was Maya’s personal experience as head of the court-appointed language agency in a high-profile US federal terrorism trial that resulted in the unjust conviction of an Arabic interpreter for aiding and abetting terrorist activity. This case, as well as reports of linguist persecutions all across the globe, made her realize the vulnerability of some of her colleagues; in response, she drafted Red T’s vision statement of “a world in which translators and interpreters can work free from fear of persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, abduction, torture and assassination” and started building the non-profit.

Aligning with this vision, Red T’s advocacy efforts include the following:

UN petition: Red T’s most pressing initiative is advocating for a UN resolution, akin to those that protect journalists, that will enhance the safety of civilian translators and interpreters working in conflict situations. Currently linguists are not specifically protected by any international legislation. To this end, Maya helps organize informational events at the United Nations and meets with UN diplomats and member-state officials to win their support for the resolution. Several countries have already expressed interest. Red T has been joined in this undertaking by the five major international language associations AIIC, FIT, IAPTI, CLI and WASLI.

Public outreach: Maya speaks domestically and abroad at government hearings, universities and conferences to raise awareness of the vulnerability of T/Is and the corresponding need for protective policies and legal instruments. In addition, Red T maintains an active social media presence on Twitter (@TheRedT) and Facebook and is often asked to contribute to articles and books on the subject.

Individual outreach: To the extent possible, an important part of Red T’s work involves connecting linguists in war zones and those who have become refugees with various resources. Upon request, Maya also writes expert opinions and letters of support in asylum appeal cases.

Open Letter Project: Red T spearheaded a letter-writing campaign on behalf of embattled linguists that is directed at governments. To amplify its voice, the organization partnered with 11 language associations as well as academia (CIUTI) and, depending on the letter’s recipient, often brings in ad hoc signatories from the respective country. Current open letters are available on the website (red-t.org).

Conflict Zone Field Guide: In collaboration with AIIC and FIT, Red T issued the first Conflict Zone Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters. Available in a number of languages, the guide sets forth the rights and responsibilities of translators and interpreters working in conflict zones as well as the responsibilities of those who employ them. Red T and its coalition partners encourage T/Is who are planning to work in high-risk settings to professionalize as much as possible as a form of protection, especially since T/Is in such settings often have little or no translating or interpreting experience. For example, employers may ask for services that go beyond the usual T/I role, and linguists need to be aware of their right to decline such requests.

Database creation: Compiling and disseminating data is an important tool in advocating for policy changes that protect T/Is. That is why Maya and her team are building a database of incidents involving linguists, some of which are listed on the Red T website. These incident reports show how T/Is often suffer devastating consequences for simply doing their job. To augment the data, Red T is collaborating with the Global Language Justice initiative at Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Language and Society (ICLS). Specifically, Maya teaches a Red T module as part of the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar conducted by ICLS in which the students’ assignment is to contribute to the database.

Circle members can assist Red T by signing the petition to adopt the UN Resolution, which is available on the website (https://red-t.org/our-work/un-petition). To date, 47,254 people have signed; the goal is to obtain a critical mass of 50,000 or more signatures. Members are also asked to share the petition as widely as possible via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Moreover, they are encouraged to write letters to their country’s UN Ambassador urging him/her to support such a resolution (note that at the present time, the post of US Ambassador to the UN is still vacant). If you’re interested, email contact@red-t.org and they will provide a template for such a letter.

The Gotham Translator would like to thank Maya for taking the time to explain her vision and alert us to the importance of adding our voices to the movement to protect our T/I colleagues serving so bravely in conflict situations.

A Visit to the “Entre Dos Mundos” Book Club

The NYC Bilingual Book Club (“Entre Dos Mundos”) was co-organized in November 2017 by its two leaders, Circle member and former Program Director Ana Salotti and Circle member Deborah Hahn. Since Ana’s move to California, the Club now has two branches: one in San Francisco, led by Ana, and the one in New York, led by Deborah.

The club is open to native Spanish speakers and people with advanced skills in Spanish interested in Spanish-language literature written in the last seven or eight years that has been translated into English. Its membership includes professional translators and interpreters, doctors, teachers, psychoanalysts, economists and specialists in education, among others. The group meets once a month at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.

The group’s leader Deborah Hahn graciously invited me to the March meeting which was attended by about fifteen very enthusiastic readers. The book discussed was Liliana Colanzi’s Our Dead World. A Bolivian native, the author is considered one of the most promising young writers of Latin America. In 2015 she won the Aura Estrada Prize which is given to female writers under the age of 35 living in the US or Mexico and writing creative prose in Spanish. In 2017 Our Dead World also was a finalist for the Gabriel García Márquez prize. Ms. Colanzi is currently a professor of Latin American literature at Cornell.

The book is a collection of short stories that explore the intersection of the real and the unreal; there are moments when the past and the present meet, when the natural and the supernatural collide and when old traditions and colonial history clash with the modern world. The book is rich in references to indigenous culture and religion. The lively discussion focused on the exploration of these themes and the reactions of the group to the stories, some of which are somewhat sinister in nature.

On April 27, the group was scheduled to discuss Javier Marias’ Berta Isla. He is one of Spain’s most celebrated novelists, his works having been translated into over forty languages. On June 1, the group was planning to discuss the García Márquez novel Cien años de soledad. It was noted during the meeting that Netflix is creating a film version of this famous novel; the executive producers will be the author’s sons Rodrigo and Gonzalo. Given the importance of the book within the Latin American canon, it was expected that there would be a strong turnout for the June meeting.

Any of our members who wish to attend upcoming meetings should send an email to Deborah Hahn at dabhahn@gmail.com. More information is also available through the Bilingual Book Club web site and on their Twitter account @clubdelectyurany.

The Gotham would like to thank Deborah and her group for sharing their enthusiasm for Spanish-language literature in translation with the Circle membership.