Ancient Mayan languages are creating problems for today’s immigration courts

A Mayan language interpreter, meets with Vinicio Nicolas, 15, outside the federal immigration court in Anaheim before Vinicio's asylum hearing. Vinicio speaks Kanjobal, the language used in his village in the highlands of Guatemala

A Mayan language interpreter, meets with Vinicio Nicolas, 15, outside the federal immigration court in Anaheim before Vinicio’s asylum hearing. Vinicio ONLY speaks Kanjobal, the language used in his village in the highlands of Guatemala

With the stakes so high, he wanted someone who spoke his native tongue. He had arrived in the U.S. just eight months before, and his English wasn’t good. But neither was his Spanish.

The language the 15-year-old needed an interpreter to wrestle with — for the sake of his future — was an ancient Mayan one called Q’anjob’al, or Kanjobal.

Before entering an asylum office in Anaheim, interpreter Aldo Waykam asked Vinicio how he was feeling: “Tzet x’i a kul?”

Watx,” the teenager replied. Good.

Spoken by almost 80,000 people in mostly rural municipalities in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Kanjobal is common in places like Santa Eulalia — where Vinicio grew up — but rare everywhere else.

Mam, a Mayan language spoken by more than 500,000 people in Guatemala, ranked ninth in the top 10 languages spoken in U.S. immigration court last fiscal year. Quiché ranked 11th. Both surpassed French, according to the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review.

Five years ago, Quiché and Mam didn’t even break the top 25 languages spoken in immigration court.

Like most Mayan language interpreters, Matias does what’s called “relay interpreting.” That means another interpreter provides the English-to-Spanish translation while Matias translates from Spanish to Mam.

Although he speaks English reasonably well, he said he doesn’t feel comfortable enough to provide direct English-to-Mam interpretation.

“It has to be a perfect translation, and we’re talking about someone’s life on the line, including that person’s family,” he said.

Matias is a naturalized U.S. citizen (yet can barely speak English himself), but others who could do translation are in the country illegally and don’t want to get near immigration court. At times, the interpreter is working from a remote spot in Guatemala with spotty phone service.

L.A. Times Story

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