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Simultaneous Interpretation Drives the LA Tenants’ Movement

Meetings at Hillside Villa are conducted simultaneously in Spanish, English, and Cantonese.

a box of simultaneous translation gear including headphones, microphones, and clorox wipes for sanitation sits on a stone table
(Image: Jack Ross | Knock LA)

One of the quirks of the booming tenant power movement in Los Angeles is that, thanks to simultaneous interpretation, Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) meetings can look uncannily like meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. Tenants clutch earpieces to their heads while their neighbors speak, resembling ponderous heads of state as interpreters beam in real-time interpretations.

“English is on channel B, Spanish is on channel A,” one organizer explained at a meeting last year at the Hillside Villa apartments, an affordable housing complex in Chinatown where meetings are conducted in Spanish, English, and Cantonese. Tenants in the courtyard nodded and fiddled with their radios, knowing the drill. “This is the sign to slow down,” the organizer said, pulling their fingers apart like they were stretching dough for noodles. “This is the sign to speed up,” they said, crunching their hands together. 

The labor of interpreters — and the earpieces and radios purchased with tenant union dues and supplied to each tenant association in LATU — is critical infrastructure in a tenant rights movement challenging real estate power in LA County, a region home to more than 3.7 million Spanish speakers, more than 380,000 Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, and approximately 170,000 Korean and Armenian speakers. 

Simultaneous interpretation over radio in LA dates back to at least 1996, when Union de Vecinos picked up the practice, though organizers say the practice predates the Boyle Heights union. When LATU formed seven years ago, implementing the technology was a clear first-step for its language justice committee.

The work is not easy. Simultaneous interpretation is so difficult, in fact, that a team of researchers in Geneva has studied its effects on the human brain and tenant organizers say they can only do it for 20 minutes before tapping out. (It is possible to go longer, says LATU VyBe co-founder Trinidad Ruiz — it just sucks.) 

Scans of the brain during simultaneous interpretation show spiking activity in the caudate nucleus, the brain’s “conductor” that coordinates brain activity between different regions. It’s the part of our brains that is responsible for multitasking, and simultaneous interpretation lights it up like a Christmas tree.  

two people wearing masks and social distancing from one another speak into microphones and listen through headphones at a los angeles tenants union meeting
(Image: Jack Ross | Knock LA)

The task demands interpreters do three things — listen in one language, compose an interpretation in another, and then speak the interpretation — at the same time. This is only possible if the interpreter completely tunes out their own speech, organizers say. If you start to hear your own voice, you’re toast. 

“Every moment where I could practice, I would,” says Ruiz. “When I was beginning my translation work with the tenants union, I would sit at home, watch Mexican soap operas, and translate what they were saying into English in my head or out loud.” 

Memorizing specialized vocabulary beforehand is crucial because not knowing the exact word means you have to translate its definition, which takes too much time and threatens the balancing act. Like Ruiz, Hillside Villa tenant Leslie Hernandez makes sure to practice before meetings, looking up vocabulary like “councilmember,” “city hall,” and most importantly, “eminent domain,” — la expropiación — the promised land toward which the Hillside Villa Tenant Association has been organizing since landlord Tom Botz backed out of a ten-year extension of the building’s affordability covenant. 

“When you have some alone time, sit in front of a mirror and record yourself,” Hernandez says. “It helps with confidence. You can be shy. There might not be too many people at our meetings, but if you’re a shy person, it’s definitely hard to have so many eyes looking at you.”

an interpreter with the los angeles tenants union speaks into a microphone while wearing a black mask with a floral pattern
(Image: Jack Ross | Knock LA)

Simultaneous interpretation originates with the League of Nations, the EU-like coalition that formed in the wake of World War I. The Nuremberg Trials, however, when Nazis were tried for genocide in 13 hearings between 1945 and 1949, were the first major experiment in the technology. Before Nuremberg, diplomats typically used consecutive interpretation, when an interpretation is repeated in full after the speaker concludes, or chuchotage — French for whispering — when an interpreter crouches next to a listener and whispers interpretation into their ear. 

Officials at the time were still unsure that simultaneous interpretation could work at all, but the trials necessitated the interpretation of testimony into German, French, English, and Russian. Even though some consecutive interpreters at the time were famous for being able to convey 90-minute speeches verbatim and without notes, consecutive interpretation would have turned the Nuremberg trials, called “the trial of six million words,” into the trial of 24 million words. 

LATU has 15 locals and over 5,000 dues-paying members. Though not all affiliated with LATU, tenant associations in Los Angeles run meetings in at least seven languages: English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, and Armenian. 

Ultimately, the most important responsibility of a tenant union interpreter is not just to facilitate communication between members, but to effectively relay the meaning of political speech. The interpreter’s language must inspire, strengthen, and motivate listeners, according to Jo Zhou, an organizer and interpreter with the Hillside Villa Tenant Association and tenant rights group Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. To do so effectively requires thinking more like the translator of a literary text than like an interpreter. 

“Sometimes chants and slogans can be difficult [because] they come with a rhythmic aspect,” says Zhou. “You think about the term, ‘we keep us safe.’ How do you translate that without it being awkward? We went through so many. ‘We protect ourselves.’ That sounds like no one is looking out for us, so that’s not quite right. ‘Only we can protect each other.’ That’s better but it didn’t have quite the ring to it of ‘we keep us safe.’”

a text exchange between two translators trying to figure out the best way to translate "affordable housing"into chinese
(Image: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Tenants Union | Knock LA)

Translating “Black Lives Matter” was especially difficult. Chinese media uses the phrase “Hei ming gui,” which maintains the rhythm of the original phrasing, but translates roughly to “Black lives have value.” To make matters worse, “Black” in Cantonese often refers to objects or negative qualities, like corruption. Organizers also worried the translation could be construed as meaning, “Black people are expensive.” Ultimately Zhou and others settled on “hei ren sheng ming zhen gui,” which means “Black people’s lives are precious.”

“For tenants, it’s one thing to communicate, but it’s another thing to be understood,” says Ruiz. “Our tenants have a lot of pent up emotions and they need to be heard.” 

“You know when you go to church and there’s this uplifting feeling? I think that’s what the tenant movement is about. You need to be connecting with people in that way. And interpretation needs to get tenants there, to that feeling — that aspect of release and that aspect of being understood.”