Knowledge of rare indigenous language allows local scholar to lend a hand

photo by: Kathy Hanks

Cultural anthropologist Laura Hobson Herlihy is a KU lecturer who has been working as a part-time court interpreter for the Miskitu-speaking people of Nicaragua and Honduras. She spoke to the Journal-World at a local coffeehouse on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

The timing was perfect when Laura Hobson Herlihy received a call in early July to work as a court interpreter for immigrants speaking the Miskitu language.

For the past decade, the cultural anthropologist’s summers had been spent taking graduate students to the Nicaraguan rainforest to learn the indigenous Miskitu language and study ethnographic field methods.

However, this summer, because of civil unrest in Nicaragua, the trip was canceled.

“I was sad because I wasn’t there and also because I was out of work,” said Herlihy, a lecturer in the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Kansas.

Even before she learned her class would be canceled, she had offered to volunteer as part of a social network of scholars, lawyers, social workers, psychologists and linguists to help the growing number of immigrants at the U.S. southern border.

“People who know their languages and cultures and the laws were all volunteering,” Herlihy said. “People in Lawrence were volunteering to go down to the border. It was a big movement all across the country.”

Herlihy said this was part of the new wave of immigrants from Central America, mostly coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Her specialty is the Miskitu language, which is spoken in a region along Honduras’ and Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. She didn’t think there would be too many from that rural region immigrating because the majority of the people fleeing are coming from high-crime neighborhoods in urban areas.

“Then, just when I was thinking of driving Uber for the summer, I got the call,” Herlihy said, laughing. “I thought they were asking me to volunteer.”

But it was actual part-time work with a private company known as SOSi, which provides foreign language services to the federal government.

According to its website, SOSi provides services to the U.S. defense, intelligence and homeland security communities. Its global portfolio includes military logistics, intelligence analysis, specialized software development and cybersecurity.

The company was in need of a Miskitu court interpreter. It would hire her for the work, but the Department of Justice would pay her salary.

“They called on a Friday and told me if I accepted I would be sent to a hotel on Monday. They said they couldn’t tell me where, but I would be sworn in over the phone and then do the interpreting over the phone.”

However, she first had to take an online course, which Herlihy, a Fulbright scholar, found challenging.

“Translating is very difficult work,” she said. “You go into the Indian language and you have to go from English to Spanish to Indian. When they don’t have a word in the Indian language, they borrow from Spanish.”

Once she passed the test, she was called when there was a case.

“What happens is, when they have a preliminary hearing, they put me in a hotel here in Lawrence for two days,” she said. “They pay for two days because checkout time might be during the court hearing. They don’t want anyone knocking on the door or interrupting.”

Herlihy said her husband, Peter Herlihy, a KU professor of geography and atmospheric science, couldn’t understand why his wife had to stay alone at a hotel just blocks from their home. But she considers it a perk of the job.

“The phone rings and you swear to the judge to translate properly. You are the voice of the person you are interpreting for; you can’t vary from that,” Herlihy said. “Whatever they say, you have to say. There can be no communication between the interpreter and the defendant.”

She also interprets for final or merit hearings. That’s when she is flown to the city where the immigration court hearing is held.

“Everything is top secret,” she said. “It’s a closed courtroom.” But most of the cases have to do with people seeking asylum and wanting to stay in the U.S.

There are no meetings ahead of time. She is solely there for interpreting and cannot fraternize.

Although she is free to turn down any assignment when it conflicts with her two-day teaching schedule, she doesn’t like to because she finds the work fascinating.

“Indian language is my love,” said Herlihy, a native of New Orleans. She began studying indigenous languages at Tulane University. She considers the northeast coast of Nicaragua her second home, and she has been traveling there since 2004.

Recently, a research project of Herlihy’s on Honduran food, folkways and language, “Hauks, Chip, Grate, and Squeeze: Recipes of the Honduran Bay Islands,” has been revised and digitally published in KU ScholarWorks. It’s free to download for noncommercial use.

As an anthropologist, she has discovered fascinating things about the changing culture in New Orleans as she has begun the interpreting work.

“The immigration court is in the fanciest shopping mall, Canal Place, and you go up in a glass elevator through Saks Fifth Avenue and then change elevators to get in the immigration court where eight or nine different Mayan languages are being spoken during preliminary hearings,” she said.

She was amazed at how many indigenous languages were being represented in the court.

“This was just normal everyday public culture. I wanted to talk to them all,” she said. “I was just so fascinated by their stories. I wanted to ask how they got here, but I couldn’t because of my oath.”


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