Can the interpreter’s simultaneous rendition be distracting?

April 11, 2014 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with some of the very best in the profession, and yes, sometimes I have worked with some colleagues, thankfully very few, who would fall short from that rating. As many of you know, I have worked all over the world and I have worked conference, diplomatic, court, and escort interpreting for many years. During those years I have observed and learned many things from this spectacular interpreters and I have also seen so many different styles.

One of the things that many colleagues do when simultaneously interpreting is that they close their eyes and gesticulate a lot. They use their hands to express what they are saying and to understand the concepts they are absorbing from the speaker. This works fine for them. Their renditions are impeccable. After years of working in a booth next to some of them I have become used to their style. I interpret differently. I do not use my hands or head to express what I am saying. I just sit there without any gesticulation. This works for me just as well as the opposite works for many great colleagues. I have no problem with either style when you are working in the booth and you are out of sight; in fact, I applaud those who have found this to be a tool to improve their interpreting skills. The important thing is to provide a good service and bridge the communication gap between the speaker and his audience.

Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that this effusive style is as effective in court as it is in the booth. Interpreters who work in the courtroom are not shield by the booth. Even if they work with equipment they are not out of sight. The equipment is usually of the portable kind, and even though many courts use wireless transmitters and receivers, the interpreter sits at the table next to the defendant or somewhere else in the courtroom in plain view of all participants: judge, jury, attorneys, witnesses, and defendant.

As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants. The jury’s attention has to be focused on those testifying or arguing the law. The non-English speaker needs to understand what is going on in the courtroom and for that he often has to concentrate. Because of some of my professional interests, I often attend court hearings in different parts of the world and as an observer who is not involved in the process, I have noticed that gesticulating interpreters can be distracting. I have noticed how members of the jury are sometimes more interested and amused by the interpreters hand movements than by the witness’ testimony. I have seen how defendants pay more attention to what the interpreter does than to what the interpreter says. I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the interpreter who is working in the courtroom has to be aware of the fact that he cannot be the center of attention; that unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters are visible to all. I understand that this may be their natural way to communicate, that they may need to do this to understand the message they are about to interpret. Unfortunately, I do not think that most jurors, attorneys, and litigants can just ignore their gesticulation and focus on the testimony. I think court interpreters should learn to control these movements and concentrate on accurate interpreting while being inconspicuous.

I find this to be a fascinating, delicate, and frankly touchy subject that is not easy to discuss with our colleagues. For a long time I hesitated to write this blog, but I finally did it because I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I ask you to please avoid personal attacks and comments about how gesticulating helps the interpreter. Instead, I invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts on this issue: Is this interpreting style distracting to those participating in a court procedure?

The ten worst things that interpreters can do to themselves.

April 1, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have used this series to underline some of the problems that we face when practicing our profession; we have vented a little, laughed a little, but most importantly, we have discussed short-term and long-term solutions to all of these problems. It is now time to look in the mirror and list those things that we do to ourselves, sometimes without even realizing it, that can personally harm us and sometimes even hurt the profession as a whole. Let’s take a peek:

  1. Lower your fee to keep the client. This is the worst of the worst of the worst thing any professional can ever do. Interpreters are professionals and their service commands a professional fee. We are not talking about general labor, this is specialized complex work. Sadly, many of our colleagues are afraid of losing the client and in order to keep the cheap client happy they are all too-ready to drop their fees to the basement. Dear colleagues, I don’t know about you, but I am in the business of working less and making more. I rather work two days a week and make the same money that other interpreter makes in five days. I can find plenty of things to do on those other three days, including looking for more business and having availability for those well-paying last minute assignments. I know some staff interpreters argue that this does not apply to them because they have a fixed income, but it does apply to them because they also interpret on weekends, after hours and during their vacation time. Others may say that sometimes we have to lower our fee because the client truly cannot pay what we ask. For those situations you need to remember that our services are expensive. This is not something for people to pay with their left over income. We provide a service that is paid with saved or even loaned money. That is just how it is. As far as “feeling guilty” in a particular situation, my suggestion is to donate your work for free in those cases. It has worked better for me, and when you ask for a receipt, in many places it is tax deductible as a charitable contribution. Never lower your fee because that harms you and it also hurts the profession. The client has to get used to the fact that interpreters are professionals providing a professional service, but we can only achieve this goal when it is us, the interpreters, who believe that we are professionals and provide a professional service.
  2. Be unprepared. The best way to make sure that a client will never call you again is to show up unprepared. Interpreting is a very difficult profession because we are one of the very few professions where we are required to know our craft and to have a very detailed knowledge of the client’s occupation. It is never enough to go to work as a good simultaneous or consecutive interpreter; it is never acceptable to go to work as a true bilingual individual. We need to be those things and we also need to know the subject matter to be interpreted, the work and background of the presenters, the educational level of the audience, and the basic technology needed to operate the interpretation equipment in the booth. Those colleagues who are afraid to ask for presentations and other materials ahead of time are killing themselves. Unless they already know the topic, those who choose not to study or at least read about the issues to be covered by the presenter are simply committing malpractice.
  3. A nightmare in the booth. Among interpreters there are very few things more detrimental to an interpreter’s reputation than bad behavior in the booth (or the courtroom, the hospital, the gala dinner, or any other place where we render our services) Always remember: Interpreting is a team sport. We need to have the support of our colleague in the booth as much as they need to have ours. Always be courteous to your teammate, because we practice a team and not a tag-team profession, be alert and ready to help when you are not interpreting, do not leave the booth or abandon your interpreting station unless it is an emergency, before you start an assignment talk with your booth-mate about little things such as shifts, where to sit, having the lights on or off in the booth, uniform terminology, and all other details necessary to have a successful rendition. The nicer you are to the other person in the booth the more people will want to work with you, and more people translates into more work.
  4. Stay away from social media. This is a relatively new addition to my top ten but it is becoming more important every year. In a global economy where technology allows for fast travel, remote interpreting, and instant communication, your name needs to be out there for all to see. The least expensive and a very effective way to stay competitive is to get involved in all kinds of social media. It is easier to develop networks when you do Twitter, you establish connections through Linked-in, you create and maintain a professional page on Facebook, Google+, and so on. At least try to keep up with some of them. Write a blog or at least comment on other colleagues’ blogs to stay visible. It is essential to have a website for clients to find you, learn about your background and experience, and to pay you by credit card or PayPal. Those who stay away from social media will stay away from main stream interpreting and will eventually be forgotten.
  5. Unwillingness to travel. Good interpreters must be flexible. We are in a profession that cannot be practiced from an office, cannot be practiced from a single city, and at certain level cannot be practiced in one single country either. Unless you are a staff in-house interpreter somewhere, or as a freelancer you have decided to settle for a certain professional level (that is not even remotely near the top of our profession) then you have to be willing to travel everywhere, anytime, for as long as needed, and on very short notice. Unfortunately these are the rules of the game. Unlike translators, we need to be on the move. This is something you need to ponder long and hard if you are truly committed to be a first-class full-time interpreter. Of course, this is not for everybody. Many people decide to practice a less involved version of the profession and choose to remain in a single town and only work within a geographically limited area. Others prefer to travel once or twice a year, or maybe want to have notice way before the assignment. This is fine if you want practice the profession at that particular level and you make it well known. Those who try to have the two lifestyles of staying at home and pretend that they are willing to travel will eventually hurt their career as sooner or later it will be common knowledge that they are not really that flexible.
  6. Ignore technology. One of the most exciting aspects of practicing our profession in the twenty first century is the technology we now have. Staying away from electronic dictionaries, internet search engines, and other technological advantages we now have over our colleagues who worked 20 years ago will soon put you on a “B” list. We must understand and embrace change. It is so convenient to take notes on an iPad, to interpret in a booth with a console that rewinds the last few seconds of a speech, to have all your research materials and presentations stored in the cloud, that every day we see more of our colleagues doing it. The day when hard copy dictionaries and steno pads will be a vanished species is practically around the corner. And speaking of the corner, video remote interpreting already turned the corner and it is coming towards you at the speed of light. Instead of fighting it and resisting it, we need to embrace it, we need to be a part of this technologies’ development process. There will always be a need for live “in-person” interpreting, but most work will be done remotely. Technology allows it in many different settings and the market wants it. Warning: Do not be like those interpreters who fought against simultaneous interpretation equipment 60 years ago because you could end up like them.
  7. Avoid interpreter conferences. Unfortunately many colleagues have decided not to go to professional conferences; many more go to the minimum required to keep their professional certifications, accreditations and licenses current, and a great number of interpreters are willing to attend a conference provided that it is near their hometown. We have heard many excuses and explanations to justify this reluctance to attend conferences and workshops: The program is not attractive, I know more than the presenters, it is too expensive, they are boring, you don’t learn anything… Sadly, those who view professional conferences this way have it all wrong. Our conferences at all levels: international, national, regional and local, are all beneficial. Not everything presented will always be new to you, but there is always something to learn. You may have more professional experience than some presenters, but they may have done some research that will increase your vast knowledge. Some are more expensive than others but they last longer and therefore may be enough to meet the year’s continuing education credits requirement, and they are also tax deductible in many countries. Conferences are never boring if you really understand their value: You attend them to develop a professional network. Yes, you go to a conference with your business cards and a few one liners to break the ice so you can get more work, get a better deal on the purchase of interpreting equipment, buy the newest dictionaries and textbooks, and as an added bonus: You go to have fun. Avoiding professional gatherings make you invisible to your peers, to the agencies, and to the rest of the world.
  8. Be timid when negotiating work conditions. Once again, those who are timid or afraid will rarely get excellent work conditions to do their job. It frustrates me to see a good interpreter working under terrible conditions and it happens all the time because many of our colleagues are afraid to ask for the right booth, the full-time technician, the best booth location, all conference materials, and so on. It really saddens me to see how some very capable interpreters are willing to accept an assignment without paid travel days, Per Diem, and a fair cancellation fee. By accepting these substandard working conditions the interpreter hurts his career and he harms all of us as a profession. There are plenty of good clients willing to pay what we deserve, but every time that somebody works under this less-than-acceptable conditions it gets more difficult to convince the agency or the ultimate client that the standard conditions are needed to get the best human talent and the best service. Don’t be afraid of losing the bad client. A cheap client is only a good client when the word client goes after the word “former.” Always remember: If you go along with this substandard conditions only once you will never get the full standard working conditions again.
  9. Mistreat the new interpreters. Even with all the new technology interpreting is a human being profession. The problem is that we are not eternal and eventually, because of the growing market, or due to our aging process, new blood will need to come into the profession, just like we once did. Those of you who know me or follow the blog know that I am all for teaching and sharing with the newcomers to the booth, the battle field, the courtroom, the medical office, and elsewhere. Clients and agencies want to keep the quality of the interpretation in their events, and the only way to ensure that continuity is to hire and train the next generation. The label of “problematic” goes to those veteran professionals who ignore, scold, or patronize young interpreters. As you know, clients are not very willing to hire a problematic interpreter for an assignment. They rather skip their name and move on to the next one on the list. If you care for the profession, if your reputation matters to you, and if you want to work until you decide to retire, just be nice to the new ones. In fact, just as you can teach them a thing or two, they can also teach you technology and help you become more marketable. It is a win-win situation.
  10. Wait for the assignment to come to your doorstep. Understanding the market is a requirement to be a successful interpreter. The good assignments will come to you if you go out there looking for them. I will never understand those colleagues who sit at home waiting for the agency, the courthouse or the hospital to call. A true professional has to look for work. You need to be a good interpreter, a knowledgeable individual, and a reliable professional, but unless you let others know that you are all of those things the world won’t even know that you exist. The career of an interpreter includes interpreting, studying, and marketing. Remember, this is a profession but it is also a business. Never lose sight of it. An interpreter who does not look for work is a lazy interpreter, and a lazy interpreter is a failure.

Dear colleagues, I am aware that there are many other bad things that we do to ourselves. These are some of the ones that in my opinion require of our attention. We have to avoid them and correct them. Please feel free to share with us those things that we do to ourselves and in your opinion hurt us as professionals or harm us all as a profession.

Great news: Awaited changes for Spanish court interpreting are finally here!

March 24, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

As many of you know, over the last few years there has been a tendency among Latin American countries to switch from their traditional, and much slower, inquisitorial written procedural legal system, based on Roman and Napoleonic Law, to the quicker adversarial oral Common Law system followed by many Anglo-Saxon countries, including the United States. These changes have been difficult and have required a long time. For many decades, and more so within the last twenty five years, many Spanish speaking individuals have been forced to seek the protection and advantages of the American adversarial legal system to assert their rights, exercise their defenses, and create brand new legal obligations. Differences in the two types of systems, and specialized terminology exclusive to them, made it difficult to communicate with accuracy and legal precision complex concepts that are essential to prevail in a contractual situation and in court. It was then that many concepts and terminology were created out of necessity by translators and interpreters in the United States and Latin America. In many cases with plenty of good intentions and in good faith, but without even considering legal figures and concepts. This is how we got the “first generation” of bilingual “legal terminology” born from a linguistic conception without a legal perspective.

Globalization, immigration, and the exchange of goods and services between the United States and Latin America, especially Mexico, brought us a more coherent and consistent terminology and legal doctrine based on comparative law. This made it possible for interpreters and translators (in the United States and Latin America) to work with attorneys and law firms that required an interpreter/translator with a more sophisticated knowledge of the subject matter and correct terminology than a defendant in a criminal case with no formal legal or business background. It is from this point in time that we see translations and hear renditions that make sense to the legally-trained individual, and use the same language and terminology that lay individuals used to hear back in their country of origin.  These terms and legal figures were correct and they could be found in the law; however, they still required of a legal expert interpretation to be correctly matched to their legal counterpart in the other legal system.

Finally this all changed. Due to the tremendous judicial backlog and the need for more transparency in the administration of justice, several Latin American countries decided to reform their procedural legal systems shedding the old written inquisitorial system and replacing it with the faster and more transparent adversarial system where proceedings are oral and open to the public.

There were many that debated the change but Chile and Mexico undertook the greater changes. Chile decided to create a new system based in part on the German legal system. Mexico decided to base its reforms on the legal system of the United States.

Dear friends and colleagues, the journey to an acceptable, accurate and coherent translation and rendition is finally over: On March 5, 2014 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law the new Federal Code of Criminal Proceedings applicable throughout Mexico.  This new legislation will apply to all criminal proceedings at all levels: local, state, and federal. This new system embraces an adversarial system similar to the one applied in the United States with public and oral hearings, rules of evidence taken from the American legislation and adapted to the Mexican culture, and a sentencing system based on the one used in America. The biggest differences between the Mexican and American systems are found in the trials. Mexico will only have court trials, the U.S. has both: court and jury trials.

These new legislation gives us the equivalent legal figures, procedural stages and terminology necessary to do a precise rendition and an accurate translation. Moreover, by integration, reference and interpretation, all substantive terminology contained in the criminal, civil, constitutional, and administrative legislation will now make it easier for any interpreter or translator to use the correct terminology and legal concepts. This legislation has been analyzed and drafted by legal professionals; it contains all required legal concepts and structures needed to have a coherent product, and creates, just like American legislation, a separate but precise legal terminology derived from legal concepts and not linguistic considerations. Remember, this is not English, this is not Spanish. We are talking about legal English and legal Spanish. In fact, we are referring to American legal English and Mexican legal Spanish. Translators and interpreters will be able to communicate the legal message to their clients without any ambiguities. No more “agreement/ contract/convenio/acuerdo/contrato salad.” We now have the correct legal figures for each situation. This new terminology is the one that the brand new Mexican court interpreters and legal translators are learning and will use during the proceedings down there.

Some of our colleagues may resist this change but it is inevitable. Arguments that the terminology is too technical and their clients will not understand it do not apply anymore. This is the same terminology they will hear in their own countries, at least the overwhelming majority of the litigants who are from Mexico, or have a connection with Mexico.  We have to keep in mind that we have been using a combination of terminology that was never correct and some valid terms that are now obsolete. You cannot continue to say something wrong and make it right by mere repetition. It is also important to remember that good court interpreters should widen their practice, and only those who can be understood will work with Mexican attorneys. Even attorneys and judges from other Spanish speaking countries will favor the Mexican terminology as it is legal terminology and not just a translation with no legal foundation. Those of you who may consider taking the Mexican court interpreter certification (not in place yet) in order to work in court south of the border, and even those of you who may want to do depositions in Mexico will need these new legal terms. This is the time to learn and grow. This is the time to be ahead of the rest and find your place in the new market. Unfortunately, this is also the time to become obsolete and irrelevant.

Although the law is already gone into effect, the new legal system will be fully implemented by 2016 so there is time for all of us to learn and be ready.

For all of these reasons I have been studying the new legislation, and because of my unique position as an attorney who knows both, the American and the Mexican systems, and as an interpreter who has plenty of experience in both systems, I have designed a series of workshops on this subject. I will teach the first two workshops based on this brand-new Mexican legal system in Mexico City on March 29 & 30, and in Guadalajara Mexico on April 5. In the United States I will teach these legal changes for the first time on May 16 as an all-day pre-conference workshop within NAJIT’s annual conference in Las Vegas Nevada. I invite you to attend these or other workshops that I will be teaching on this subject, and I invite your participation and comments on this issue right here on the blog.

Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field.

March 16, 2014 § 17 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year I interpreted for several medical and pharmaceutical conferences.  Some were presentations of scientific papers before an audience of  peers, others were geared to non-physicians who work in the pharmaceutical field.  All of them were interesting and they all paid well.  They also had something else in common:  There were absolutely no medical interpreters or former medical interpreters in any of the booths.  As I sat in the Spanish booth during a conference on the 98th floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago, I examined all the booths for the other languages and realized that there were excellent, very dedicated professional conference interpreters everywhere.  I knew the interpretation was going to be top-notch, but I couldn’t help but notice that there were no medical doctors, registered nurses, or medical interpreters anywhere.

My friends, conference interpreters are second to none as far as quality and professionalism; they prepare for every assignment and show up to work equipped with the experience, knowledge, and skill needed to take care of just about any possible situation that may arise during the assignment.  A conference where real conference interpreters are hired to work could not be in better hands.  However, even though the same can be said of any other subject matter, in the United States, and other countries, you can find former attorneys and court interpreters in many events that deal with legal and business issues.  Medical interpreting attracts hundreds of interpreters in the United States alone.  Every day these professionals work in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, and medical offices, so the logical question is: Why this does not happen in the medical conferences?

I do not have a general answer, but based on my observations and years in the profession I can bring up the following factors:

There are several very capable medical interpreters who regularly work as conference interpreters.  I know this because some of them are my friends and I have shared the booth with many.  The problem is that there are not enough of them.  Please understand that here I am referring to what is generally recognized as conference interpreting, and purposely excluding community interpreting even though some colleagues, in my opinion erroneously, on occasion refer to this boothless informal interpretation as conference.

Compared to legal interpreters, medical interpreters have a tougher time “breaking away” from medical interpreting because there is a widely shared concept that medical interpreters are not good or professional.  This is a belief that many agencies, and even other interpreters, share.

Now, we have to recognize that this characterization of the medical interpreter profession has some truth to it.  At least in the United States until fairly recently there was no regulation or minimal standards in medical interpreting.  Many bilinguals who failed the court interpreter certification went to the medical field because there were no rules and often no quality control.  Because the conditions were so poor in this unchartered territory, many language agencies filled the void by taking over most of the things needed to provide a medical interpreting service.  They were setting policy and criteria as far as who could work, how they could work, and more importantly, how much these interpreters would be paid.  For years I heard this all over the United States: “Medical interpreting? No way! It pays nothing.”  Unfortunately my friends and colleagues, that was (and regrettably still is) the case.

So there you have it.  Most interpreters who had invested time and money studying and getting themselves ready to practice their profession did not want to work for very little pay.  This scared many good people away from the field.

There is much to be done at this time. Too many doctors and hospital administrators to educate, too many bad agencies to expel from the field, and too many mediocre interpreters to push to the side so there is room for those, new and experienced professionals, willing to play ball under the new rules of certification, ethics and uniformity.

It is certain that the profession will continue to grow and will eventually catch up with older interpreting fields such as conference, diplomatic, court, and military interpreting.  As this happens, medical interpreting will attract more capable professionals, competition will be brutal like in all profitable professional environments, and interpreting fees will dramatically increase.  In the meantime during the process, and in my opinion, to enhance our professional versatility and skills, good medical interpreters who want to elevate their profession, better themselves, and receive a fair decent compensation for their service will have to look at expanding their practice.  To achieve this goal you basically have two options:  The less complicated possibility of doing medical-related work that up until now, with some exceptions, has been handled by court interpreters:  interpreting for independent medical examinations and evaluations specifically done for litigation purposes in the area of worker’s compensation and civil law.  Medical interpreters should be able to learn and provide these services by taking advantage of their medical knowledge.  The sad part is that this field, like most of the medical interpretation field, is controlled by agencies that pay very little. In fact, they are many times the same agencies that hire interpreters for medical work.

The second option, and my motivation for writing this piece, is conference interpreting.  Undoubtedly a more difficult goal.  Medical conferences require of knowledge in the medical, biological, and pharmacological sciences.  Good medical interpreters should already have it, especially if they have a medical or nursing background.  It also requires familiarity with the “medical culture.”  Medical interpreters come in contact with it on a daily basis.

Conference interpreter also requires that the professional providing these services be able to do it simultaneously. It demands agility of mind and speedy thinking while handling very complex concepts and precise terminology.  It requires of booth etiquette and assignment preparation, and it must be performed as a team.  Most if not all of these characteristics are not part of an everyday medical interpreter repertoire.  It sounds hard and complicated because it is very difficult and extremely sophisticated work.

However, my dear friends and colleagues, the rewards are enormous: you get to develop as an interpreter by acquiring the master key that opens the door to all interpreting work: simultaneous rendition. Working as the interpreter for a medical conference you will earn amounts never seen in the medical interpreting field, and you will learn about the science and policy that is applied to hospitals, medical practitioners, and insurance companies every day.  As conference interpreters you will experience the satisfaction of doing a job that is understood by all those who are listening as part of your sophisticated audience.  Now, you may say that conference interpreting will not give you the satisfaction of helping to save a life, of being a part of preventing a disease; that you decided to become a medical interpreter for this reason.  That is not true. As a medical conference interpreter you will be right in the middle of saving lives as the interpreter who reveals a medical breakthrough for the first time in your language pair; you will be the voice of physicians who will ask questions about a new drug or procedure; and of course, keep in mind that you will not stop medical interpreting. You will diversify your practice and widen your clientele.  I look forward to the time when I regularly get to share the booth of a medical conference with a professional and highly capable interpreter with a medical interpreting background.   I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions about this very important professional aspect of our profession.

Procrastinating federal judges hurt justice and interpreters.

March 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

If you are a federally certified court interpreter in the United States you have surely provided interpretation services at the request of private attorneys, who are part of a panel kept by that district, according to the United States Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to as the CJA (18 U.S. Code § 3006A)  These attorneys, and I will refer to them as CJAs in this posting, are private lawyers appointed by a federal district court judge, or a federal magistrate, to represent a party who cannot afford his own private attorney in cases where representation by the Office of the Public Defender is not possible because of the physical location of the defendant or due to a conflict of interest.  In other words, when there are codefendants and one is represented by the federal public defender, all others must be represented by private counsel or by a CJA panel attorney.  CJA attorneys are known to most court interpreters because they are always at the courthouse, just like the public defenders. They have a big caseload, and many of their clients do not speak English.  Because of defendants’ constitutional rights and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 these non-English speakers have the right to an interpreter that is also furnished under the same Criminal Justice Act: “…Representation under each plan shall include counsel and investigative, expert, and other services necessary for adequate representation…” (18 U.S. Code § 3006A) Federally certified court interpreters are asked to interpret during client-attorney office interviews, trial preparation, jail visits, and similar services requested by the CJA attorney.  After the service is performed, the interpreter must prepare and submit to the District Court a CJA invoice form that the panel attorney signs.  Once the form is submitted and verified for accuracy and completeness by the court’s financial department, it is sent to the federal district court judge or magistrate who has been assigned to that case for approval and signature.  It is only after the judge signs the form and returns it to the court’s financial department that the interpreter gets paid.  This process can take, depending on the district court, from one week to a month in average.   All interpreters know this and accept it as part of the life of a freelancer.  I should mention that this seemingly bureaucratic process is attractive to the freelance interpreter because of volume.  In fact, in districts where there are several staff certified court interpreters this may be the bulk of the freelancers work for the courts.

Unfortunately, there are certain cases where this simple and straight forward payment process is unconscionably delayed.  There are federal district court judges in the United States who hold back payment for incredibly long periods of time and there is no apparent reason or justification for this delay.

Dear colleagues, I am not talking about late filings or incomplete voucher forms; I am talking about withholding of invoices for no cause.  I am afraid that there may be more that one judge following this practice; there is one among them, who shall remain anonymous in this blog, who has generated comments from colleague interpreters such as: “…Oh, that judge! One time it took well over a year to get paid for a half a day interpretation…he just didn’t approve the form any sooner…”  And this one depicting the interpreter’s feeling of impotence: “…it always takes many months to get paid, but nobody dares to say anything because…well judges are appointed for life…”  Finally, an interpreter summarized it very graphically in these words: “…the judge doesn’t care. There may be other priorities, but unlike federal judges, we cannot afford to go months without payment. We have to put food on the table for our families…”   This particular judge has been on the bench for many years, by all accounts seems to have a good grasp of the law, but when it comes to other judicial skills, this judge has received poor reviews from a judicial evaluation commission such as: “…(the judge has exhibited) slowness when it comes to ruling on motions…” or:  “…lack of punctuality to convene proceedings…” and even “…(having) poor judicial temperament while on the bench…” The judge was described as: “impatient,” “a yeller from the bench,” “mean spirited,” and “angry.”

I want to make it very clear that most judges and court clerical staff do a very good job at processing invoices and making sure interpreters are paid on a timely manner.  Judges like the ones described above are the exception to the rule; but they exist and will continue on the bench.

Faced with this reality what can interpreters do to get paid on time?  First the interpreter needs to make a distinction between those cases where the interpretation services have been rendered and the judge is procrastinating, and the cases where no service has been rendered yet.

For the first scenario there are the usual remedies that we all know:  Talk to the chief staff interpreter once again, write to the clerk of the court, file a duplicate form with the court’s financial department; even talk to the judge’s clerk and explain your situation.  This may accomplish the objective in some cases, but unfortunately it will fail most of the time because the approval of the form is not being delayed by any of these people. It is the judge who created the problem.  So what is there left to do?  Well, there may be a legal answer:  The American legal system contemplates situations when the authority does not comply with its duty of doing or abstaining from doing something: The Writ of Mandamus.  This may be an option available to the interpreter. The request for a Writ of Mandamus can be filed with the Court of Appeals having jurisdiction over the procrastinating district court judge asking the higher court to order the approval or denial of the interpreter’s invoice. “…(Courts) may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law…” [28 U.S. Code §1651(a)]  Of course, before the interpreter decides to take this step, he must consider the consequences: (1) Because this blog is not giving any legal advice to anybody, the interpreter must consult with an attorney to see if a writ of mandamus is possible in that specific case; (2) The district court judge may simply deny the invoice.  The writ can order that the authority take action but not the outcome of this action.  Of course this may open other channels to the interpreter to appeal the judge’s decision on the invoice and that way get paid; and (3) The practical consequences of filing the petition including the possibility of being branded as a “troublemaker” by others, which could result in the loss of business and therefore the loss of income.

When the interpreter has not provided any interpretation services yet, that is, when interpreters are first contacted by the CJA attorney (or by the district court depending on the district) to request the interpretation services, the interpreter should always ask who is the judge in that particular case, and if it turns out to be a procrastinating judge’s case, the interpreter should refuse the assignment.  Remember, you are a freelancer. Freelancing means that sometimes you may have to wait forever to get paid on a CJA voucher, but it also means that you are free to ban all procrastinating judges if you want to.  The best way to avoid late payments is to avoid those clients who are always late.  In fact, the interpreter should explain to the CJA attorney the reason for declining the assignment and reassure him that cases from all other federal judges will be accepted as usual.  This should solve that interpreter’s problem.  It may be very difficult to fix this procrastinating judges situation for all interpreters in all cases, but at least you will get paid on time.

Finally, I remind you again that this posting is not giving any legal advice to anybody, and I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences and solutions to this terrible problem, and please do not mention any names.

The Academy Awards and those who watch them from a booth.

February 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are just a few days away from that very American ceremony that the world has made its own turning it into an international event: The Academy Awards, or as it is better known: The Oscar.

There are very few broadcasts that depend more on the services of an interpreter than the Oscar ceremony. It is a fact that people will be watching, again, all over the world.  Although most of them do not speak a word of English they will have people over for food and drinks, perhaps will dress up for the occasion, and will tune in for the broadcast that will be simultaneously interpreted into their native language by a team of very skilled interpreters from a booth in Hollywood or from a TV studio somewhere else in the world. Because dear colleagues, not all interpreters will be lucky enough to be working from California; many of them will do their job from a small TV studio somewhere in their own countries where they will pick up the American feed and “pretend” that they are broadcasting from the site of the event.    The Oscar is also an important event to the interpreter community at large because let’s face it; in many countries we are part of that very small group of people who watch what Americans refer to as foreign language films (for the rest of the world: movies that are not in English) If you add the fact that a film in your own language, or even from your country, may be nominated for this coveted award, then you will have a most memorable night. But, what is the Oscar? Where did it get its nickname?

The Academy Award statuette was designed by an MGM art director named Cedric Gibbons and a sculptor named George Stanley in 1928.  At that time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences referred to it as the Academy Award of Merit. That was its original name.  It was in the 1930s that the trophy got its nickname: Oscar.  There are several tales on how the statuette came to be called Oscar.  The Academy endorses the following: A librarian who worked for the Academy in the 1930s named Margaret Herrick thought that the statuette had a physical resemblance to an uncle of hers. The uncle’s name was Oscar.  Columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when she made the remark, and he seized the name in his famous byline: “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar’.”  (Levy, Emanuel [2003].  All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Burns & Oates. ISBN 978-0-8264-1452-6) others claim that it was Bette Davis who named the statuette Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson.  One of the earliest recorded mentions of the term Oscar goes back to a Time Magazine article about the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony.  Even Walt Disney is quoted in 1932 as thanking the Academy for his Oscar.  Others claim that it may have been named after Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.  Whatever the origin of its now world-famous name, the trophy was officially referred to as the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Regardless of the language combination, the Oscar ceremony presents two interesting problems for the interpreters working the event: (1) the sometimes local expressions and politically incorrect speeches by the recipients of the award, which incidentally might not be suitable for some audiences depending on each country’s censorship legislation. Although much of this has been taken care of by the broadcast delay rule that exists in all live broadcasts originating from the United States (motivated by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunctioning during a Super Bowl halftime show); and (2) The title, different from its original, that a film gets depending on the country and language where it will be shown.

Regarding the recipient’s speech I had one of these situations during the Golden Globes, not the Oscars, when Meryl Streep uttered a bad word. Fortunately for me, because of the delay policy, I did not have to worry about that rendition as the exclamation was edited out. But it was not always like that, and I can just imagine what our colleagues went through in the past when many actors used the Academy Awards as a channel to protest and criticize governments, policies, and philosophies; not to mention Jack Palance’s push-ups routine when he got the Oscar for his performance of “Curly” in “City Slickers.” The issue of different titles is tough, really tough. It was more difficult in the past before globalization because at that time many interpreters had not even watched the movies as they had not opened in their home countries yet, so they could not even “guess” the movie.  Titles like “The Sound of Music” that was renamed: “La novicia rebelde” in Mexico, or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was named: “Atrapados sin salida” had to be tough to interpret when you had no idea what the movie was about. At least naming “Jaws” “Tiburón” was easier to figure out.  Now I invite you to share with all of us your personal experiences interpreting the Academy Awards, or to bring up other movie titles that were tough to translate. Finally, I would like to end this piece with a big thank you to all the interpreters who through the years have made it possible, and many times under very tough conditions, for the entire world to sit down in front of the TV set and for one evening every year root for their favorites based solely on one criteria: how they acted, directed, produced, or in any other category contributed their talents to the greatness of a film.

What do Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  As you know, the United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday” we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique and diverse holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

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