E x c l u s i v e i n t e r v i e w
The following interview was conducted by Skype between Hope Bay, Tobago and Los Angeles.
By way of a brief description, the Caribbean archipelago is a chain of idyllic islands in North and South America, surrounded by the Caribbean Sea. Essentially, the Caribbean consists of Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, The Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos, Trinidad and Tobago, the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands (with English as the predominant language), Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and St. Barthélémy (predominantly French-speaking), Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, and Suriname (Dutch), Haiti (Haitian Creole and French) and Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba (Spanish-speaking).
Jonathan G. : You were born and grew up in Trinidad (like your parents), with English as your mother-tongue. You later moved to Tobago. When were you first exposed to foreign languages?
Yes. The two form the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. Both my parents are from T&T and this is where I grew up. It’s a country with a rich history that changed hands several times between the Spanish, French, British and even Dutch colonial powers. The result is that today we have town names and family names that reflect this diversity. For example, the capital of Trinidad is Port-of-Spain. The capital of Tobago is Scarborough. The second largest city in Trinidad is called San Fernando while in Tobago, I shop in a village called L’Anse Fourmi,
As a child I was exposed to music in foreign languages such as Bossa Nova, Samba, Bolero and Salsa. My dad was a fan of Julio Iglesias so that music was often played at home and in the family car. Also, Trinidad & Tobago’s Christmas traditional music known as “Parranda” or parang, in English, is sung in Spanish. It’s actually folk music from Venezuela that made its way into our Christmas house-to-house caroling traditions through successive waves of Venezuelan migration. My mom is a parang fan so at Christmas this is what played on the radio and we’d sing along with the popular “Río Manzanare, dejame pasar, que mi madre enferma me mandó a llamar…” So I’ve had an ear for foreign languages without quite understanding what I was hearing.
My first formal encounter with foreign languages was at age 11 upon entering secondary school. I went to a prestigious all girls’ school where there were no boys around to distract us from studies. Our Headmistress, Dr. Anna Mahase, was a single woman, a feminist who raised generations of smart, savvy young women who have gone on to build families and build our society. Beyond the academics, she demonstrated what beauty, boldness, brain and brawn could look like in one woman. She was one of my earliest role models.
At St. Augustine Girls’ High School (SAGHS) French and Spanish were mandatory for the first three years. This is where I had a eureka moment as the musical sounds I had stored in my mind started to make sense. I could finally understand what some of these songs meant and realised I’d been singing them wrong all along!
I had a natural flair for foreign languages so learning was almost effortless for me. I also admired my French teacher Mrs. Gosine who was passionate about all things French. She was très chic and her bold fashion statements straight out of Paris Match magazine in a fairly conservative school resonated with my inner rebel. I’d never seen anyone mix stripes and polka dots or plaid with animal prints! She is single-handedly responsible for causing me to fall in love with French fashion, food, music, poetry and the language as a whole. My ears discovered French through her sultry French voice. It was music to my ears.
I loved Spanish too and was very good at it but it was a different connection. French language learning opened up a world I knew nothing about whereas Spanish confirmed familiar things.
For example, as a teenager my family hosted exchange students from Martinique and Guadeloupe every July/ August vacation period through the Alliance Française. While my family didn’t have the means to send me overseas, I was able to interact with these native French speakers for two months every year. While learning standard French at school, I discovered that these French Overseas Departments (DOMs) had their own language known as Creole.
Their popular music, zouk, was Caribbean flavoured rhythm but sung in Creole compared to the French metropolitan hits from Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf and more modern Vanessa Paradis. This was a whole new world for me. Beyond learning the fundamentals of French language and Literature in school, I was learning about the dynamics and dichotomy of French metropolitan and French West Indian culture and politics through these relationships being nurtured via student exchanges and correspondence. Those were the days of pen pals and postcards!
Comparatively, I was already familiar with some elements of the hispanophone cultural traditions. One of my aunts was a high school Spanish teacher and I had the privilege of accompanying her and her students to neighbouring Venezuela when I was about 14. I recall my first time there felt familiar. Curiously enough, while I was there, I met a group of French speakers at the hotel lobby where we stayed. There was some misunderstanding with the receptionist, and I attempted to translate for them, only to be humiliated because a man said he didn’t understand my French. That was a defining moment for me as I told myself I would one day speak French so well that no-one would know I’m not French. There I was in Spanish-speaking Venezuela, proclaiming into the atmosphere, almost prophesying my life today.
English, French and Spanish, in which you are fully conversant, are at the heart of your present life and profession. You reached your current lifegoal by what you call a “scenic route” (side routes, not the beaten track)– a somewhat winding path you followed until you settled down in Trinidad & Tobago and became engaged full-time in providing translation and interpreting services directly and through other people and companies. You did this by studying in Trinidad and abroad, in person and digitally, and by obtaining university degrees and work experience in journalism, languages and diplomacy. Describe your academic path and your areas of work, and how you were able to combine the above three professional fields synergistically.
I describe my journey as the “scenic route” because it was far from linear and I travelled at my own pace taking the time to stop and smell the proverbial roses as I diverted off onto little-known unexplored footpaths while many of my classmates pursued an accelerated academic life along the Bachelors- Masters- Doctorate highway. After being schooled in a very competitive high school alongside brilliant national scholars, many of whom won scholarships to pursue university studies in the US, UK and Canada, I started working immediately. My parents didn’t have the means to send me to university and despite my best efforts writing the American SAT exams, I didn’t secure any scholarships to study anywhere.
This was a blessing in disguise as I was recruited as a trainee journalist with AVM Television Channel 4, a local television station, at age 18. It was a sort of incubator for Caribbean journalists. This was yet another eye-opening and rewarding experience for me as I was perfecting my native language skills, conducting interviews, writing news stories and documentaries, voicing scripts and interacting with movers and shakers of society. During my two-year stint, I met a business delegation from the Martinique Chamber of Commerce that visited T&T on a trade mission. I was able to interact with and interview them in French. They were impressed and I recognised there and then that French was my superpower, a key that could unlock business relationships and job opportunities. I felt ready to explore the hallowed halls of a university as it became clear that in order to advance beyond trainee journalist, I needed a degree in something. I chose the easiest ‘something’ I could find: Bachelor’s degree in French, at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. It was a stone’s throw away from my former high school.
Little did I know that signing up for French at UWI would open the doors for me to finally set foot in a French- speaking country. The French government sponsored a semester-abroad programme that enabled me to study at l’Université des Antilles-Guyane in Martinique for one semester. That was my first linguistic immersion after hosting native French-speakers in T&T for years! I revelled in this new experience and it boosted my confidence in my language skills. After that semester I returned to UWI to complete my BA then upon graduation, another opportunity arose to return to Martinique as an English language assistant through the French Government’s Ministry of Education foreign language assistant programme. While most UWI French graduates opted to go to metropolitan French to pursue their Master’s, I opted to stay in the sunny Caribbean.
For three years, I taught English in primary and secondary schools. After school and during the vacation I went trekking through hiking trails, discovering beautiful beaches, sampling all the local food and living life at my own pace. I needed a break from studies and I took full advantage of my free time to explore the country. At the same time, I was invited to do freelance work as a bilingual journalist, radio show host, freelance writer for a tourism oriented magazine and freelance English teacher at a beauty school. This was my three-year Master of Arts in living life to the fullest! Those three years in Martinique afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with the French business people I had met as a journalist. Outside of studies, I was being invited to business and networking events, cultural shows, association activities, and local family functions. Very quickly I became assimilated into the French West Indian culture.
The words I spoke as a 14 year-old in Venezuela came to pass. On one of my trips back from T&T, Martinican immigration officials were hard-pressed to believe that I was not from Martinique and questioned me about my T&T passport and how I spoke French and Creole so well.
After falling in love with the French language, it was no surprise that I fell in love with a French man. We got married and that led me to another French island, Guadeloupe where I lived for three years. There other doors opened for me to pursue a Master’s degree in Communications with l’Université de Versailles St. Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ). It was the right time and the perfect opportunity to combine my work experience as a journalist with my undergraduate studies in French. Fortunately for me I was able to pursue this degree in the tropical warmth as the professors from Paris came to Guadeloupe to teach the different modules of the course.
As the seasons of life got stormy, I opted to return to my homeland. Armed with a degree in Communications I landed a wonderful job in Public Relations with a marine research institution that liaised frequently with partner agencies in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Cuba on scientific research projects. How privileged I was to be able to bring to the new job my full range of skills in foreign languages, journalism, communications but also my intimate understanding of cultural specificities in other islands. At the same time, just as I returned to T&T in 2005, the University of the West Indies launched a part-time Postgraduate degree in Interpreting. I jumped at the opportunity to pursue this formal programme of study because I had found myself serving as Interpreter for meetings without formal training. I recognised my limitations and the need to be properly trained, prepared and certified. And so it was that I graduated with a PGD in Interpreting from UWI in 2007.
Perhaps my most beautiful memory as an Interpreter was my first real conference- the CARICOM Ministers of Agriculture Forum- where I stepped into the booth trembling next to my mentor and examiner. As part of the Interpreting programme, we worked for a live conference, with real people listening to us. The fact that these were Ministers from around the region made it all the more nerve-wracking but there I was doing what I had been trained to do, loving the adrenalin and in the end being congratulated and paid for a job well done! I will never forget the cheque from my first CARICOM conference, which reimbursed my studies.
Though I had this new degree, I wasn’t able to earn a living from Interpreting, so it remained my side hustle while I pursued career opportunities in communications. In T&T there were far more opportunities for Spanish/ English interpreters than French/ English thanks to trade links with Latin America and an initiative by the government to institute Spanish as the first foreign language of Trinidad & Tobago. Thankfully among the many opportunities that came along, I was able to use my foreign language, communications and journalism skills. For instance, I was selected as a Caribbean journalist to attend the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in 2008 where I interviewed stakeholders in Spanish and was able to amplify their message in English for local audiences back home. Likewise, I was able to lead a special project partnering with the Panamanian Embassy in T&T to celebrate and broadcast festivities from the first ever Día de la Etnia Negra in Panama City. This was only possible thanks to my language superpowers. Later I stepped into the field of humanitarian communications with the largest humanitarian network in the world, based in their Caribbean office in Port-of-Spain. When the devastating 2010 earthquake struck Haiti, despite my lack of emergency response experience, I was deployed to the frontline because of my mastery of French, hands-on journalism experience and familiarity with Creole. I would eventually stay in Haiti for close to three years.
In the midst of this life-changing experience, I recognised the need for another critical skill set: diplomacy. Humanitarian diplomacy was an emerging field where the boundaries between communications, advocacy, diplomacy, international law and politics were all muddled. In 2013, I completed a short course in Humanitarian diplomacy with DiploFoundation which helped equip me for future complex disasters. Without wishing, the next major disaster for me came in the form of the Rohingya refugee crisis where ethnic Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar to seek refuge in Bangladesh. While French and Spanish were of no use to me while working as a Communications Delegate in Cox’s Bazar, humanitarian diplomacy was. While working in this complex man-made crisis triggered by political violence, the opportunity arose to pursue an online degree in Contemporary Diplomacy. It seemed timely and I felt it would help me transition from my Communications portfolio to Humanitarian Diplomacy where I could fully use my skills to influence decision-making that could save lives. I sat in the same office with a colleague who was the Humanitarian Diplomacy Liaison and we had heated discussions about seemingly self-serving politics that created disasters rather than resolving them.
I started this rigorous programme with the University of Malta and DiploFoundation in 2019 aiming for a postgraduate diploma. I started the programme with the face-to-face induction residency in Malta, continued in Bangladesh, submitted assignments from Barbados, Guadeloupe, Malaysia, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Zimbabwe while travelling for work. Eighteen months later, I completed the full course and submitted a dissertation to complete the requirements for a Master’s degree.*
Coming out of this dissertation, I published my first book in January 2021 titled,« CARICOM: Good Offices, Good Neighbours: Explaining the diversity of CARICOM Members States’ approaches vis-a-vis the Venezuelan crisis ». This is the culmination of varied areas of interest in humanitarian service, diplomacy, my passion for Caribbean affairs, my connection with people facilitated by my ability to connect across language barriers.
While you were a salaried employee, for example working with the Red Cross in Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Panama, etc., you received permission to do some freelance work, in particular as a conference or group interpreter, with your principal language pair being English and French. Describe the places and conditions in which you performed that “gig-work”.
While languages are my all-time passion, Interpreting has been my side gig. While I was employed in various full-time positions, I informed my employers in advance, and negotiated where necessary, that I could take leave days to work as an Interpreter in order to maintain my special skill set. For the most part, there was no issue with this as my supervisors understood the value of these skills and how they added value to these organisations. It was also a privilege for me to have access to bodies of specialised knowledge that I encountered as an Interpreter. There was a cross pollination of fields where Interpreting was nurturing my communications portfolios and communicating with people from all walks of life, in different languages was consolidating my language skills.
Thanks to this flexibility I’ve been able to interpret for conferences hosted in Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia and at home in Trinidad and Tobago. This involved getting on a plane to go to work which sometimes seems exotic, but the reality is it can be stressful because you’re never entirely certain that the flights will be on time. Flight delays or cancellations can throw you off entirely which is why remote simultaneous interpreting technologies have positively changed the game.
It appears that your decision to establish your own translating and interpreting agency was very timely, because since the outbreak of Covid, platforms that allow distance interpreting to individuals and groups, have become very prevalent.
Absolutely! Interpreting Your Needs has its own journey that started in October 2011 in Guadeloupe where it was first established. Then when I moved back to Trinidad in 2015, I registered a legal entity here by the same name though other full-time opportunities came along that held my attention. So it remained dormant until 2020 when I returned home from Zimbabwe in the midst of the pandemic determined to work from home. For personal reasons, I felt unsafe and decided to leave a full-time job with the UN to return home, though with T&T borders closed I wasn’t quite sure when I would actually be allowed to set foot on home turf.
In taking that leap of faith, I was determined to revamp Interpreting Your Needs and make it my mainstay. With COVID raging across the globe I no longer had an appetite for travel and overseas work. After all the years of living somewhat like a student in shared accommodation with colleagues, sleeping in tents, retrofitted containers and hotel rooms, I just wanted to be at home, enjoying the comfort of my home, making a satisfactory living from home.
In the context of COVID, so many businesses were caught off-guard and forced to move online. In my case, I was ready to flourish online because I’ve been studying in online environments and networking with colleagues around the globe for many years. So this is a natural progression for me and my business services.
Having my own business means I wear different hats on different days. I’m more than a freelance Interpreter. I am also responsible for marketing my business services, financial accountability, business administration, quality assurance, customer care and project management. At the same time, working from home means I am able to enjoy quality time with my dogs and spend a lot of time in my garden growing organic food to keep my mind and body healthy. It’s a lifestyle choice that is very different from the life I’d been living for years where I was running to disaster zones, eager to serve others but ultimately neglecting my own needs which led to burn out.
Since I changed my focus and committed to developing my own business, I have been fortunate to attract many opportunities to serve, but this time it’s service by bridging language barriers. My language skills help people to connect, communicate and collaborate towards problem-solving. This is my passion. This is what motivates me daily.
As I expand my network via platforms like Linked In, I have been blessed to meet very interesting people with whom I have found great synergies. We support each other in our entrepreneurial path, barter skills and services, recommend and promote each other’s expertise and generally maintain good healthy relations. Through these online relations, many doors have been opened to me including speaking on various panels, remote simultaneous interpreting for conferences, translations for customers far away.
I’ve also been able to sharpen my RSI skills as I’ve been pursuing certification with the KUDO multilingual platform. This technology is innovative and timely. It has revolutionised how Interpreters work and has made available a marketplace that potential clients can tap into to book interpreting services on demand for multilingual meetings.
You have recently published a book entitled “CARICOM: GOOD OFFICES, GOOD NEIGHBORS in which you explain the diversity of approaches of members of the Caribbean Community vis-à-vis the Venezuelan crisis. Who are the member states of CARICOM?
La Communauté des Caraïbes (CARICOM) est une organisation créée en 1973 par le Traité de Chaguaramas, signé par les membres fondateurs (Barbade, Jamaïque, Guyana et Trinité-et-Tobago) pour promouvoir l’intégration économique et la coopération. L’organisation se compose actuellement de 15 nations des Caraïbes et de dépendances. Ces États membres sont Antigua-et-Barbuda, les Bahamas, la Barbade, le Belize, la Dominique, la Grenade, le Guyana, Haïti, la Jamaïque, Montserrat (un territoire britannique d’outre-mer dans les îles Sous-le-Vent), Saint-Kitts-et-Nevis, Sainte-Lucie, Saint-Vincent-et-les-Grenadines, le Suriname et Trinité-et-Tobago. En plus des membres à part entière de la communauté, il y a cinq membres associés et sept observateurs. Les cinq membres associés sont Anguilla, les Bermudes, les îles Vierges britanniques, les îles Caïmans et les îles Turks et Caïques. Le rôle des membres associés, qui sont tous des territoires britanniques d’outre-mer, n’est pas encore défini. Les observateurs sont des États qui participent à au moins un des comités techniques de la CARICOM.
You are one of the go-to translators for the Caribbean Interpreting and Translation Bureau (CITB) of the University of the West Indies. https://sta.uwi.edu/fhe/dmll/citb.asp
The CITB is an arm of the University of the West Indies which provides, as the name implies, interpreting and translation services to public and private clients. Since UWI offers an Interpreting degree, successful graduates of the course are contracted as freelancers for client jobs. I’ve been fortunate to work as a freelancer with CITB since 2007 when I graduated from the postgraduate diploma. Most rewarding of all, my lecturers in the PGD programme have become mentors and friends with whom I still work today.
Trinidad is the busy commercial and industrial hub while Tobago is the laid back, almost sleepy touristic island. Together, Trinidad and Tobago offer visitors a balance of business and pleasure. Trinidad and Tobago is considered as the economic hub of the English-speaking Caribbean because of its oil and gas production and solid manufacturing sector which exports much of its merchandise to CARICOM neighbours, South American trade partners and the USA.
What are your favorite extra-curricular activities?
I’ve had different hobbies at different stages of my life because I was always trying out new activities in the countries where I had the chance to live, study and work. In Haiti I took up kick-boxing as a form of stress relief. In the Dominican Republic, I learnt to dance Salsa and Merengue. In Martinique, I learnt to dance zouk and the traditional dances like Gwo Ka, Biguine and Mazurka. In Guadeloupe, I joined a cycling club and practiced a range of water sports which were easily accessible (kayaking, snorkelling, swimming). In Barbados, I took surfing classes. Now with the COVID-19 related restrictions imposed in my country, including the closure of beaches, I’ve been spending a lot more time in the garden doing subsistence farming and reading in the hammock. I’ve also been experimenting with sargassum seaweed recipes in the kitchen. So far I’ve created sargassum lasagne, sargassum pizza dough and sargassum brownies. All delicious!
* Gennike has since received her Masters degree.