Enigmas of Cuban Spanish – pitfalls for interpreters

We spoke with Tony Rivas about his presentation – the Enigmas of Cuban Spanish – which took place as part of the 11th annual CFI conference that was held in Oakland this past weekend.

Tantalized by his use of the word “enigmas,” we challenged Rivas to help us non-interpreter “lay people” to understand the premise of his talk.

“Easy,” said Rivas, “Cuban Spanish is difficult for non-Cuban speakers to understand because of rapid speaking, different speech sounds, and different meanings, at times, of identical Spanish-language words.”

We got it immediately: If you are a certified court interpreter working in the California courts and your forte is Spanish, you are probably used to Mexican or Salvadoran Spanish, which is used by 90 percent of Spanish speakers here.  If you encounter a speaker of Cuban Spanish, you will probably be thrown for a loop without specialized training.

California court interpreters work almost exclusively in the criminal courts (which requires state certification, unlike civil courts).  So, an interpreter will probably encounter a Cuban Spanish speaker when the individual is accused of a crime. As Rivas explains, “Certain Cuban people that are more prone to crime use rapid speech, a lot of slang, they use criminal-type terms, and also words involving African roots which are used by people of lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

Here are some pitfalls that court interpreters should be aware of: Besides the rapid speech, Cuban Spanish defendants might use words differently than their traditional meanings.  For example,

  • Ahora in Mexican Spanish means “today.”  In Cuban Spanish, it means “now.”
  • Hablar in Mexican Spanish could mean to talk on the phone. In Cuban Spanish, it only means “to speak.”
  • Rastro in Mexican Spanish means “slaughterhouse.”  In Miami Cuban Spanish, it means “junkyard.”
  • And for all those criminal salespeople out there, kilo in Mexican Spanish means “kilogram.” In Cuban Spanish, kilo means “penny.”

The other pitfall for interpreters to know about: speech sounds.  Criminals switch or hide syllables so that they are not easily understood (although lots of law-abiding folks like lotto “Cuban style” too). They do it on the spot, depending on the circumstances.  So while they may not deconstruct words on the witness stand, they certainly do during telephone conversations, for instance, which may be taped. They also tend to cut off Ss and assimiliate consonents R and L to the next speech sound that begins the following syllable.

A final point is that criminal Cuban Spanish speakers play the “Cuban numbers game,” or La charada Cubana. If you hear such a speaker use Diego, he is probably not referring to a guy.  Rather, the slang use of that word means 10.  Notice that 10 in Mexican Spanish is diez.  Diego has the same root.  Likewise, a criminal Cuban Spanish speaker who says ventana, is probably not speaking about a window.  That word means “20” – the root being veinte, as used in Mexican Spanish.

Finally, there were 73,711 Cubans living in California in 2004. The California city with the highest number of Cubans is Downey, and most California Cubans are in the Los Angeles area.  Others have settled in Oakland, San Francisco and a few in Sacramento and San Diego.

Tony Rivas’ presentation at the CFI conference was on Saturday, October 12 at 1:50 pm.  Find out more about the conference by visiting http://www.calinterpreters.org/conference/schedule/



Enhanced by Zemanta
Author Image
Michael Applegate

Pacific Media Workers Executive Officer