Empowering Mayan Voices: A Journey into Interpretation with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim

In April 2024, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim asked me to teach an introductory course in court, community, and medical interpreting for beginning and intermediate Mayan interpreters. Pixan Ixim is a grassroots organization based in Omaha, Nebraska whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of the Maya people through community development strategies in Omaha, Nebraska and the Maya Q’anjob’al territory. These efforts are consistent with the Maya Q’anjob’al system of social organization, honor relationships with sovereign U.S. tribal nations, and adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP). They envision a thriving Maya community in Nebraska, the United States, and Maya Q’anjob’al territory that contributes to the cultural, economic, and social well-being of our shared world1.

The four-day workshop kicked off with warm welcomes and introductions, setting the stage for a comprehensive exploration of interpretation ethics, protocols, and role orientations. It was a real treat to have attendees speaking different Mayan languages, including K’iche’, Ixil, Q’anjob’al, and Mam. Pixan Ixim staff members Domingo, Cande, Sandra, and Lola were there to guide participants through an enlightening journey. They started with a brief historical overview of Mayan languages and then dove into the fundamental distinctions between translation and interpretation. Ethical principles formed the cornerstone of the discussions, emphasizing confidentiality, impartiality, respect, professionalism, accuracy, and cultural responsiveness.

On the second day of the workshop, we took a moment to recap the lessons from the previous day. This helped us to reinforce the key concepts and then we moved on to explore the different roles and responsibilities of interpreters in different areas. We talked about the different types of interpreters, from court interpreters to medical and community/social services interpreters. We also explained that each of these roles requires a different set of skills and different types of certification. Participants were given a great insight into the rigorous certification processes and the many different training avenues available to aspiring interpreters. This gave them the confidence and competence to navigate the complex landscape of interpretation. Through engaging discussions and interactive sessions, the workshop fostered a deeper understanding of the multifaceted challenges and responsibilities inherent in the interpreter’s role. This ultimately paved the way for enhanced language access and communication equity in diverse communities. Some consecutive and sight translation practice from Spanish into Mayan languages was also part of this session.

On day three, we had a great time learning about how to start their careers in interpreting by creating resumes and gaining experience through Indigenous-led organizations. We talked about some of the essential tools like dictionaries, digital note-taking devices, language learning apps, and professional development resources. We also talked about the importance of soft skills such as active listening, memory, public speaking, and ethics. We chatted about all the different ways interpreters can get paid, like through interpreting agencies, government jobs, freelancing, and nonprofit organizations led by Indigenous people. We also talked about the pros and cons of each option. We clarified the differences between contractors and employees, focusing on the autonomy and responsibilities of contractors versus the structured benefits of employees. Finally, we covered the steps to start their own interpreting business, like choosing between a sole proprietorship or LLC and completing the forms you need for agency contracts.

On the final day, we were treated to a delightful presentation by the International Mayan League. Their Maya staff members, in collaboration with experienced interpreters, have been training indigenous interpreters since 2020. They’ve equipped them with the right tools to start a career in interpreting and help their communities to assert their language and human rights in immigration/asylum proceedings, court proceedings, and healthcare appointments.

A huge thanks to the Pixan Ixim team for putting together this amazing event! And a big shoutout to Domingo Alvaro for his visionary efforts and for making the right connections to help improve the lives of the Maya community in the US.

[1] “Mission and Vision.” Pixan Ixim, accessed June 5, 2024, https://pixanixim.org.

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