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Politically Speaking: Translating A Presidential Debate

Tom Hudson
Cesar Cardoza translated Sen. Bernie Sanders for Univision during Wednesday night's Democratic presidential primary debate.

Cesar Cardoza likes a glass of very cold water when he is working. Cardoza is a translator used to working during live, high-profile events. About 15 feet behind the stage at Miami-Dade College's Kendall campus where Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were taking part in a Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night sat Cardoza and his group of translators. Each one of them had a role to play. Cardoza was Sanders.

"You can call it a performance. This is not a science. This is an art," said Cardoza.

  Cardoza and his crew work in tight quarters. On a fold-up table, vertical partitions were set up, helping isolate each translator. But the partition walls were transparent, allowing them to make eye contact with each other and to see a shared television monitor to watch the candidates themselves. "The most important part for me is the body language. I need to see the person," said Cardoza.

Accent & Words

Cardoza aims for a neutral accent when he translates big events like a presidential debate. He describes a neutral accent as one that is not distracting to the listener. "We all have an accent. We all come from somewhere," he explained.

Vocabulary is another important consideration. The art of translating demands it. There are regional considerations for Cardoza as he speaks to a pan-American Spanish-speaking audience. His example: the word pana. In Venezuela it refers to a friend or buddy. "But there may be other countries," Cardoza said, "where if you said 'I'm talking to my pana.' they wouldn't know what you were talking about."


The one bit of Spanish that came directly from one of the Democratic candidates Wednesday night in Miami came from Secretary Clinton. In response to a question asking if she thought Donald Trump was a racist, Clinton described her reaction to Trump's comments about immigrants as "Basta." 

Here's the English:

And the Spanish translation as heard on Univision:

"From the linguistic perspective," Cardoza said, "you are bridging cultures.  From a perspective as a journalist, this is history in the making and you are in the front row." Or back stage as was the case for him Wednesday night.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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