Interview with Gennike Mayers
by Jonathan Goldberg
Every month for 10 years, Jonathan Goldberg’s French blog, Le mot juste en anglais, has featured interviews with translators, interpreters, and other linguists – some world-renowned, others rising stars – from Lebanon to Serbia, and from Wales to Canada. Some of these interviews were conducted in French and others in English. For the latter group, the English versions were posted on WordsmithsBlog.com with a French translation on Le mot juste en anglais. Jonathan states:
I have developed a good nose for finding fascinating, erudite, and articulate interview candidates. After reading about Gennike Mayers, it was clear to me that she met those criteria. Both in our initial conversation and in her written replies, Gennike proved to be a ball of energy, talent, and achievement, not least on account of her international academic credentials.
Gennike’s network of colleagues stretches from the tiny island of Tobago to many other locations around the globe, and her experiences in numerous developing countries make her a true global citizen.
For readers of Translorial who may have gone from translating or interpreting on an individual basis to owning their own agency, or those who may have such a career change in mind, the career exploits of our interviewee will, I hope, prove instructive and motivating. The interview was translated into French by Gennike herself, and the first part of it appeared in Le mot juste en anglais with Gennike introduced as our Linguiste du mois.
The following interview was conducted by Skype between Los Angeles and Hope Bay, Tobago. 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 region consists of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, The Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos, Trinidad and Tobago, the British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands (all of which have 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 the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba (Spanish-speaking).
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 other languages?
Yes. The two form the Republic of Trinidad and 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 such as Bossa Nova, Samba, Bolero, and Salsa in Spanish. My dad was a fan of Julio Iglesias, so that music was often played at home and in the family car. Also, Trinidad and 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 was 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.
English, French, and Spanish, in which you are fully conversant, are at the heart of your present life and profession. You reached your current life goal 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 and 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, both in person and through distance learning, 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 on the American SATs, I didn’t secure any scholarships to study anywhere.
This was a blessing in disguise as I was recruited at age 18 as a trainee journalist with AVM Television Channel 4, a local television station. 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 in 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 recognized 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: a bachelor’s degree in French, at the University of the West Indies (UWI), 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 program 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 reveled 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 Ministry of Education’s foreign language assistant program. While most UWI French graduates opted to go to metropolitan France to pursue master’s degrees, I opted to stay in the sunny Caribbean.
For three years, I taught English in primary and secondary schools. After school and during vacations 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 my 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, a radio show host, a freelance writer for a tourism-oriented magazine, and a 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 businesspeople I had met as a journalist. Outside of my 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.
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 not only my full range of skills in foreign languages, journalism, and communications, but also my intimate understanding of the cultural specificities of 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 program of study because I had found myself serving as an interpreter for meetings without formal training. I recognized my limitations and the need to be properly trained, prepared, and certified. And so it was that I graduated with a postgraduate degree in Interpreting from UWI in 2007.
Perhaps my most beautiful memory as an Interpreter was my first real conference – the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Ministers of Agriculture Forum – where I stepped into the booth trembling next to my mentor and examiner. As part of the interpreting program, 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 check 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 interpreters, thanks to trade links with Latin America and an initiative by the government to institute Spanish as the first foreign language of Trinidad and 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 recognized 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. 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. French and Spanish were of no use to me while working as a Communications Delegate in Cox’s Bazar – but 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 a rigorous program with the University of Malta and DiploFoundation in 2019 aiming for a postgraduate diploma. Eighteen months later, I had finished the full course and submitted a dissertation to complete the requirements for a master’s degree, albeit with a six-month extension. It was tough balancing work in an emergency operation with intense studies and assignments. I started the program with a face-to-face induction residency in Malta, continued in Bangladesh, and submitted assignments from Barbados, Guadeloupe, Malaysia, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Zimbabwe while travelling for work. 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, and my connection with people – all facilitated by my ability to connect across language barriers.
I’ve always thought of the Caribbean as my playground. So, writing a book about how the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) regards our South American neighbor, given the ongoing political and economic crisis there, seemed obvious. For those who may not be familiar with CARICOM, it’s an organization established in 1973 by the Treaty of Chaguaramas signed by founding members Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago to promote economic integration and cooperation. The organization currently consists of 15 Caribbean nations and dependencies. These Member States are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Montserrat (a British overseas territory in the Leeward Islands), Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
In addition to the community’s full members, there are five associate members and seven observers. The five associate members are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos. The role of the associate members, which are all British Overseas Territories, is not established yet. The observers are states which engage in at least one of CARICOM’s technical committees.
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 until recently 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 organizations. It was also a privilege for me to have access to bodies of specialized 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.
What are your favorite extracurricular 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 kickboxing as a form of stress relief. In the Dominican Republic, I learned to dance Salsa and Merengue. In Martinique, I learned 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, snorkeling, 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 lasagna, sargassum pizza dough, and sargassum brownies. All delicious!
Jonathan Goldberg is a member of NCTA and a registered interpreter with the Judicial Council of California (Hebrew/English & French/English). He is approved as a sworn translator by the Consulate-General of France in Los Angeles. He has lived on four continents and spent a year in Paris, where he obtained a Diploma in Civilisation française from the Sorbonne – which might qualify him as an opsimath, given that he had never previously studied French at school or during the period in which he pursued studies in Business Administration and Law. He was a member of the Bar (or the equivalent thereof) in South Africa and Israel. In 2017, Jonathan translated RÉVOLUTION, the autobiography and political manifesto of Emmanuel Macron. Jonathan should not be confused with an even older creature, a tortoise named Jonathan (aged 188 years) which lives on the Island of Saint Helena, to which Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled. Both of them (Jonathan and Jonathan, not Jonathan and Napoleon) met when your intrepid translator visited the island many years back. For a humorous take on Jonathan written by himself, see https://bit.ly/38yjEgc