Some interpreters in the U.S. may not have an even playing field anymore.

December 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The issues discussed in this post apply to situations lived by many interpreters all over the world. Our profession is growing and fighting for recognition and prestige. For this reason, I think all interpreters should read this story, regardless of the country where they provide their services.

Every interpreter who has worked with the judicial system in the United States knows that court interpreting at the state-level is very different from providing our services at the federal judiciary. We also know that there are sharp differences on how each state procures court interpreters to meet their legal needs. Although most of them pay very little to the certified court interpreter, some pay “better” than others; some treat interpreters better, and some remain ignorant as of the role of the interpreter and its high relevance to the judicial process. This is all widely known; some court systems are infamous for treating the interpreter as an inconvenience rather than a constitutionally-mandated component of the judicial process (in criminal matters). This is not the issue that I want to discuss with you today. I want to talk about something else.

I would like to discuss with you the new scenario that our state-level independent court interpreters in the United States are facing with the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (not a moment too soon) and the financial difficulties and budgetary cuts that many states are dealing with at this time. As many of you know, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act is a federal law that requires all government agencies, regardless of their level, to give access to all services to everyone (including those who do not speak English) if they want to continue to receive financial assistance from the federal government of the United States. This includes courthouses. Until a few years ago, only criminal cases had to meet this requirement because, unlike civil law cases, it was a constitutional mandate. This means that now state-level courts in the United States have to provide interpreting services for all civil and family law cases with essentially the same budget they had for criminal cases only. Many states have struggled with this change and most of them are trying to find the correct strategy to meet their legal mandate while at the same time living within their budget. Of course, there are some obvious solutions that state courts have chosen to ignore even though they would greatly relieve their interpreting case load. I have talked about this issue before and, undoubtedly, I will discuss it again in the future.

The facts show that many states are now more cautious as to where and how they will spend their money (or I should say, their constituents’ monies) This has generated a more “creative” approach in many places where the goal seems to be to comply with the federal mandate by simply providing a “warm body” next to the foreign language speaker at the lowest possible cost. As a result, there are now more qualified top-notch court interpreters with less work than ever before, while there is an unprecedented number of underqualified, mediocre interpreters working the states’ systems for a lower pay and more advantageous conditions for the state’s judiciary. There is plenty to talk about, but my motivation to write this post came from something I learned from a colleague who works as an independent court interpreter with the court system of one of the states in the U.S.

Apparently, just before the beginning of the state’s budget cycle, known in the United States as the fiscal year, this state sent out to all court-certified independent interpreters within the state, a professional services contract that had to be executed and returned before the first day of said fiscal year. The contract was a multi-page document that spelled out in great detail the interpreter’s responsibilities to the courts. It also contained a clause on fee payments that indicated the state’s official fee and some other conditions. Among them, there was a minimum fee guaranteed to all interpreters who accepted an assignment with the state courts. The contract showed two different scenarios. Under the first one, and interpreter could be called in to work at the courthouse for two hours, and if the case or cases were resolved before the time was up, the interpreter would be paid for the guaranteed time. The second scenario operated identically, with the exception that it referred to more complex cases and for that reason the minimum guaranteed fee was of four hours. This seemed to be a fair provision that in fact incorporated into this contract a widely accepted practice followed in that state for many years. The problem was on the next sentence of the same paragraph. The contract established that if the cases the interpreter was called for were to end before the minimum guaranteed period was up, the interpreter had to remain at the courthouse in case something else would happen and interpreting services were required. Up to here everything was fine, but immediately after, the contract indicated that said interpreter could be sent to another courthouse in the state to work off the rest of the minimum guaranteed fee. The interpreter had the right to refuse the second assignment, but in that case he would be penalized with a pay cut as he would only be paid for the actual interpreting time, not for the guaranteed time. In other words, the “guaranteed fee” did not guarantee anything, as the interpreter would be at the mercy of the court who would become, for all practical purposes, the employer, because only employers can dispose of their employees time that way. A client cannot control the time of an independent contractor.

I immediately thought of two scary scenarios: Just imagine for a moment that an interpreter with a sick child agrees to work for two hours at her neighborhood courthouse. She needs the income, so she figures out her schedule, gets a babysitter for a little over two hours, and goes to work from 9 to 11 in the morning. All of a sudden, the cases she was called in for do not go to a hearing because the cases are continued to a future date (this happens every day in all courthouses of the United States) It is only 10 in the morning, so she reports back to the interpreter coordinator; she tells her what happened, and sits down waiting for possible cases between 10 and 11 o’clock when she is going home to her sick child. Unfortunately, the interpreter coordinator has other things in mind and asks her to go to a different courthouse 40 miles away. The interpreter objects and claims that going to that other location will take about 30 minutes one-way. The coordinator states that the 2-hour minimum is not over yet. The interpreter explains that she was counting on working until 11 in the morning, and going to the second location would result in an additional 60 to 90 minutes. The coordinator explains that the interpreter would be compensated for her travel time at the reimbursement rate. The interpreter declines the assignment and the coordinator explains that due to the refusal, she will be paid for one hour of services, not two. This could also happen to another interpreter who has other professional engagements (not with the court) immediately after the time she was hired for. You see? The “guaranteed fee” is not such a thing. The court does not understand that interpreters sell their time and from the moment they commit to an assignment they cannot accept anything else during that period of time.

The same contract indicates that the state shall pay the interpreter for the services rendered within 30 days from the time of filing of the invoice; unfortunately, it also states that the interpreter cannot add any late payment interest or penalties when the courts don’t pay on time. Obviously this turns this contract into a one-sided document with no contractual value but for one of the parties: the courthouse. Interpreters are barred from protecting themselves as they cannot pursue compensation for the damages caused by late or non-payment.

Apparently, this contract was exclusively crafted by the courts, and the interpreters did not have an opportunity to seek legal advice and representation before signing the document. Moreover, there is an advisory body for interpreting matters in this state where independent interpreters are a huge minority since all court players are represented separately: judges, administrators and staff interpreters. In other words, the interests of the state will always have a majority of votes in this advisory body. Obviously, something is wrong with this picture. I am not saying that it is exclusively the courts’ fault, because the interpreters needed to be more assertive. And this takes me to the real root of the problem: A silent careless interpreting community dealing with a court administration that wants to protect its interests (as it should) and will take everything it can as long as the interpreters do nothing about it.

Those of you who have met me in person or regularly read my blog know that I am not in favor of protectionism in any way, shape, or form; you have probably read my opinion regarding “equal assignments for all interpreters” and protection to those who are not up to speed with new technologies. I am totally against these ideas. I do believe that it is up to the individual interpreter to do whatever it takes in order to secure more work with the courts or with any other client. You also know that I am not a big fan of working for the court systems, especially at the state level, because they pay very little and often do not treat interpreters like professionals. The best and permanent solution to this problem, from the interpreter’s point of view, would be to leave the court work and do some other interpretation (including out of court jobs where interpreters can negotiate their professional fee with the attorneys) but for those who do not want to quit the courts, my suggestion would be to seek legal advice and negotiate before signing a contract, to use their professional associations to educate the interpreters and perhaps collectively retain the services of an attorney to look over their interests, not the courts’. I am not saying that professional associations should turn into labor unions, nothing like that; all I am suggesting is that besides continuing education, a member directory, and social events, these organizations should look into these issues not to improve working conditions, but to improve the level and quality of the professional service provided by its members. By doing this, interpreters’ working conditions would be indirectly improved as this is a needed requirement to raise the quality of the professional service. Finally, independent court interpreters must consider the court as a client, not an employer. Dear friends and colleagues, the courts are our clients, and they are not even our best clients; even if you get most of your work from them, they are not the best-paying client; therefore they are not your best client. To consider a client as the best because of how much work they send your way instead of because of how well they pay would be like saying that Wal-Mart is a great clothes store because of its volume, when you have many other businesses that sell better products of higher quality. I invite you to post your comments on this issue, and to share your experiences of what you have perceived as an abusive behavior by a state court; and remember, no names or specifics on the courts or people please.

A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.

I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.

In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.

My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.

A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.

The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.

This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.

That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.

The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.

Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.

November 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

On this Thursday the people of the United States celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays. Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas that is only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.

It is important to distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day. The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. There are documented ceremonies held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities that took place in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.

The first Thanksgiving holiday that we presently observe can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621. During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved to be insufficient. Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons. The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region. This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed. The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had very little in common. The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man. During his years in Europe, this man learned English and had the ability to communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures. He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were extremely valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers. There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead. In fact, his work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. As many as ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event. They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, it is possible that they also had some wild turkeys as they existed in the region. Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.

We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays. Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas. We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades. This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American. Happy turkey day!

How creativity saved the interpretation.

November 21, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I will talk about two topics you are all very familiar with: Creativity and quick thinking. Two necessary elements in every interpreter’s repertoire that are used to solve problems and avoid catastrophes in the complex business of communication among those who do not speak or understand the same language. An individual must possess a series of characteristics to be a professional interpreter; among them: the ability to take a concept or idea in one language, understand it and process it, and then render it into another language with the appropriate cultural context necessary for the listener to comprehend the message without any effort, therefore freeing him to concentrate on the content of the message the orator is delivering in the foreign language. This multitasking requires of a quick and agile mind. The interpreter cannot be slow in thinking, processing, or delivering the message. It is impossible.

Just as important as a quick mind is the capacity and resolve to act when needed, and in the interpreting world where many times we encounter a reality where some of the cultural concepts of the parties are at odds, the interpreter needs to resort to his creativity and sense of improvisation.

I am sure that you all have had your chance to apply these two skills during your professional career. In my case there have been too many instances when my interpreting partner or I have acted with great speed and creativity to avoid a problem; this made it difficult to decide which one I should use for this post. After a long rewind of some memorable experiences, I picked an instance where creativity and quick thinking were enhanced by the interpreters’ teamwork.

Sometime ago I was working the Spanish booth at a conference in a European country. I cannot remember the exact topic, but it had to do with the environment. There were delegates from many countries and there were interpreters with many language combinations. During the fourth day of the event the morning session was uneventful. My booth partner and I finished our shift in the Spanish booth and went to get some lunch. That afternoon the second speaker was from an English-speaking country where people have a very distinctive accent and way of talking. In the speaker’s particular case the accent was very heavy and it took a few minutes to get used to his speech. Some thirty minutes into the presentation, right after I had handed the microphone to my partner, I heard a knock on the door of the booth. It was one of the Italian booth interpreters. She looked frazzled and frustrated when she told me that her booth was having a very hard time understanding the speaker, and from the questions she asked me about the speech, it became apparent that they were really missing a good portion of the presentation. These interpreters were fairly new, I had never seen either one of them before, but from my observations during the first three days of the conference I could see that they were good, dedicated, and professional. I immediately empathized with them as I recalled the many occasions in the past when a speaker with a heavy accent, weak voice, or bad public speaking habits had made me suffer throughout a rendition. It was clear that they were not going to understand much more during the rest of the presentation that still had about two hours to go; it was also obvious that we needed to do something about it.

After some brainstorming with the Italian interpreter, while our respective colleagues worked in the booth, (the second Italian interpreter no-doubt sweating bullets throughout the speech) certain things became apparent: The two colleagues in the Italian booth were professionally trained interpreters with great command of the booth, and with excellent delivery skills. It was also very noticeable that they both spoke Spanish very well. After these facts were spelled out, we both concluded that the solution to the “heavy accent” issue was a relay interpreting rendition. We decided that the Spanish booth would take the feed from the floor in English, interpret the source in that very heavy accent into Spanish, and then the Italian booth would pick up the feed from our booth in Spanish and deliver it into their target language, in this case: Italian. Because of the teamwork, camaraderie, and will to help on the part of all four interpreters, and due to the experience and skill of the Spanish booth, and the great command of the booth and pleasant delivery of the Italian booth, we were able to deliver our service to both: the Spanish and Italian speakers seamlessly. This would have never happened without the interpreters’ professional minds working very fast to find a solution, and without the creativity of the interpreters that made it possible to switch gears in the middle of a very important event already in progress. Once again I proved to myself (and others) that professionalism and formation count. They are important tools that a real interpreter needs to use when the situation demands it. Without professionalism there is no sense of camaraderie, and without that perception that we are all colleagues, the two booths would have never worked together and solved the situation. I would love to hear some of your stories where creativity, a quick mind, or the sense of camaraderie among professional colleagues helped you to overcome a professional obstacle.

Military Interpreting: For many interpreters the least known part of the profession.

November 10, 2014 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) recently published an article I wrote on military interpreting in its official publication “Proteus.”

Military interpreting has always inspired me. I have the greatest respect and admiration for all those language professionals who serve their countries in harm’s way. For this reason, and motivated by my desire to share something about this part of our profession with all those who live abroad and maybe did not see the article, I have decided to post a version of this article with the needed changes to fit a blog format and honor my commitment to NAJIT. On this Veteran’s Day, I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts with the rest of us.

The conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58 BC, Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BC, the defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, the Mongol invasion of China in 1279 AD and Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition in 1805 have at least two things in common: They are among the greatest military campaigns in the history of the world, and they all involved two or more nations that spoke different languages. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at a small courthouse to meet with General Robert E. Lee. After four years of war Lee had come to Grant to bring the American Civil War to an end. The two generals had a quick chat about a time they met each other in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, politely negotiated the terms of surrender, signed the agreement, and then waved each other off. The whole thing was over in just a couple of hours. Surrenders can be much easier when both parties speak the same language.

The first interpreter appears in history some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens first met the Neanderthals and realized that they could not communicate. That first interpreter could have been a commercial/trade interpreter (unlikely) or a military interpreter that helped negotiate territorial borders, travel rights, and other related matters; perhaps a surrender, maybe a declaration of war. We all know what is the oldest profession, but unlike translation that appears when humans develop a writing system, I am convinced that interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession in the world. Ever since that time, human groups have made war and they have used the services of soldiers and sailors who spoke the enemy’s language. Military interpreting is as old as humans.

What is military interpreting?

military interpreter is a commissioned officer of an armed force who interprets and/or translates to facilitate military operations. According to the United States Army careers and jobs description, a military interpreter is an individual primarily responsible for interpreting and sight translating between English and a foreign language who will first require nine weeks of basic combat training followed by advanced individual training to learn the skills that are required to perform interpreter support in several areas such as checkpoints, medical support, training host nation armed forces, VIP escort, and cultural awareness.   Interpreter officers are used extensively in multinational operations in which two or more countries do not share the same language, or in expeditionary missions where communication with the local population is crucial. Interpreter officers also work in the intelligence gathering and analysis together with civilian interpreters, translators, and analysts. In other words, military interpreting is an essential activity within a country’s armed forces during war and peace times.

A military organization’s demand for interpreters and translators changes according to the location of the military conflict. During the Cold War years the United States military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on Russian, German, and other languages spokes behind the iron curtain. After September 11, 2001 the demand shifted to Arabic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. In recent years there has been a resurgence of the need for French interpreters and translators because of the developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The armed forces need for interpreters and translators also changes depending on the type of war being fought. During World War II the orders were to shoot all soldiers wearing an enemy uniform and interpreters were needed to interrogate prisoners of war, sight translate intercepted messages, and negotiate with enemy commanders. During the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan things were quite different, U.S. personnel were fighting against guerilla armies with no identifiable uniforms; for this type of military action interpreters are required to develop a close and trusting relationship with the locals; this requires a certain knowledge of the culture and social structure of those whose trust the interpreter needs to gain. In a war zone an interpreter could mean the difference between life and death for soldiers and sailors. The interpreter could overhear, as it has happened, part of a conversation about an ambush or an assassination. Spanish language military interpreters are generally used for natural disaster relief operations and for security checkpoints. Although the United States has no armed conflict with any Spanish speaking country, the fact that there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States who do not speak English, and its geographical location, make of Spanish a very important language for military interpreting and translating.

Behind the lines interpreters play an important role in logistics and diplomacy. When an elected official visits a military base, military interpreters serve as escort interpreters for said dignitaries. They also participate in media relations with local news agencies, and in the acquisition of supplies from local merchants. Interpreters also listen to radio reports, watch local TV stations, and skim newspapers to gather information about local issues.

Who are the military interpreters?

Military interpreters have been essential to most historical events in the world. Besides the examples mentioned above, we can think of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru where interpreters like Malintzin and Felipillo played a prominent role during the conquest. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first met Malintzin after he defeated the Maya-Chontal forces in what is now the western part of the Yucatan peninsula. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation. After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors got to the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires.

Military interpreters come from all walks of life. In the United States they mainly come from three different places: The military officers and regular members of the armed forces; civilians who have some foreign experience and language skills such as former foreign service officers who have spent time abroad working in embassies and consular offices; and local foreigner civilians from the conflict area who speak the required language as their mother tongue and have proficiency in English.

In the United States the 223rd. Military Intelligence Battalion provides interpreting, translating, counter-intelligence, and interrogation services, supporting the Army and the rest of the intelligence community. Many of the civilian and military officers who want to become interpreters attend the Defense Language Institute, a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution which provides linguistic and cultural instruction. The Defense Language Institute’s (DLI) primary foreign language school and training of trainers center are at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and it issues Associate of Arts in Foreign Language degrees to those students who come from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and law enforcement agencies to study one of over 40 languages that are taught at this facility. DLI (through the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State) has a facility in the Washington, D.C. area where it provides training in languages not taught at the Presidio of Monterey, and a location al Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years the United States Department of Defense has held some innovative courses like the Military Translation and Interpretation Training Pilot Program developed by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute. The United States Army currently has 14,000 “soldier-linguists” stationed around the globe. Compare this figure to the mere 1,000 interpreters who are certified to work in the United States Federal Court system in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo. Of late, the U.S. Armed Forces have been relying more on outsourcing these services to private contractors. This is big business if you consider that in 2007 one of the largest language services contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 interpreters and translators. Many of these interpreters are excellent and their language pairs are in high demand, so it is expected that once they leave the Armed Forces they will definitely impact the civilian language services market in the United States and abroad

What do military interpreters do?

Like all interpreters, military interpreters do consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation; however, the way the services are rendered and the environment where they are provided are very different from other types of interpreting. Sight translation is a very important part of their work. There are two kinds of sight translation: The “traditional sight translation” used primarily for strategic and intelligence purposes, and the more widely used summary sight translation. This type of sight translation is used during house searches, enemy searches and searches of local civilian population. The interpreter looks at the document, skins through it, and summarizes its contents for his superior officer. Then the superior officer decides, based on the information provided by the interpreter, if the document merits a more detailed sight translation or even a written translation. Keep in mind that many times during a search soldiers may come across a foreign document written in a language that does not use the Roman alphabet; summary sight translation helps the officer to differentiate a laundry ticket from the directions to build a bomb.

The most commonly used interpretation is a combination of simultaneous and consecutive rendition. When negotiating with the local elders or with enemy forces, interpreters often simultaneously interpret to their superior officer what the counterpart is saying. They do this by whispering into the superior officer’s ear; next, they interpret the superior officer’s words (questions and answers) to the counterpart using a consecutive rendition. Of course, this can vary depending on the number of officers the interpreter is interpreting for; if there are several, then the interpreter will do everything consecutively. The interpreter’s courage and skill are admirable as very often they perform the work under adverse circumstances such as choppers flying over their heads, shots being fired at them, or being surrounded by wounded people crying for help. All of it as they try to interpret and carry a weapon at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the role of the military interpreter throughout the film. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.

Essential principles of military interpretation (Ethical considerations)

Because of their function, military interpreters work under a different code of professional responsibility. Yes, they are ethically bound to do a professional job, to interpret with accuracy, to prepare for the assignment and to interpret to the best of their ability. They are also ruled by a different set of values and constraints: A military interpreter’s top priority and obligation is to his country and to his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. His rendition can and should suffer when he must take care of other priorities such as cover a fellow soldier, take cover himself, assist a wounded soldier, or comply with an order from a superior officer. Their loyalty is to their platoon or battalion. They are not neutral communicators; they are partial and serve one side: their armed forces. Military interpreters are required to interpret everything that the enemy or counterpart says, but they should only interpret back what they are told to interpret. If a superior officer tells them not to interpret to the counterpart either a portion of a speech or a paragraph of a letter, they must remain silent. They are always on duty as they may come across valuable intelligence at any time. It is important to understand that military interpreters are the only interpreters who work in an environment where one of the parties may be the enemy, and may want to kill him. Other interpreters, even court and diplomatic interpreters work in scenarios where there is an adversarial situation, but never with an enemy. Military interpreters are the only ones who hold a weapon while doing their rendition, and the only ones who, if necessary, have to be prepared to shoot one of the persons they are interpreting for. Military interpreters are motivated and moved by the highest principles of love of country and protection of their fellow citizens. This is important because the ethical justification to their job comes from this top values that most societies embrace. Military interpreters go to work every day ready to give their life for their country, and indeed this is common occurrence. Native military interpreters work under tremendous pressure and face incredible danger. They are repudiated by a big chunk of their communities, and are considered traitors by many. American military interpreter officers and enlisted personnel are at constant risk of fire and roadside bombs. Not long ago State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and her escort military interpreter were killed in Afghanistan while participating in a book give-away to local Afghan kids. She was 25.

The future of military interpreting.

A very pressing issue about the future of military interpreting has to do with another ethical and moral question: Should the nations who hire local military interpreters protect them after the conflict is over, and should these governments take the interpreters with them when they leave? This is a question that many military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking and to this day they have not received a clear answer. Countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Australia need to decide how they are going to handle this delicate situation. A negative or an affirmative answer that comes too late could have an impact on the recruitment of local military interpreters in the future.

As already stated, military interpreting has always been around and it is expected to continue to be an essential component of the armed forces. Languages may change and tactics could differ, but the profession as such will remain basically the same. One day military interpreters may not need to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. military already has automated airplanes and it is working on the development of a robot interpreter. In April 2011 the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a robot interpreter that must be able to perform sight translations and interpret local gestures as well. It is unlikely that the armed forces will turn over their military duties to a machine, especially in the near future, but maybe space travel will be a place where robotic military interpreters will star their careers as the new “rookies” in the profession.

Although the Pentagon will not turn over its military interpreting and translation services to a machine or to a computer programmer in the near future, military interpreters will have an unprecedented impact on our profession during peacetime. Every day very capable military interpreters are coming back to civilian life, and they are joining civil society with language pair combinations that not long ago were next to impossible to get. These professional interpreters will flood the market with a new kind of interpreter: one who is used to work under a lot of stress and in very tough conditions, one that will bring to the table language skills and the cultural knowledge of their clients; if the government lives up to its promise and does not abandon those local military interpreters who served during the war, we may be able to choose native speakers for these assignments. That would certainly be a wonderful way to write the final page on the armed conflicts that we have lived now for over a decade, and a way to thank our military servicemen and women who worked as military interpreters, and at the same time render tribute to this little known but vital part of our profession. Now I invite you to share your thoughts on military interpreting with the rest of us.

Trick or treat and America’s own monsters.

October 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every year the Halloween season reaches more countries, adapts to its people, and becomes part of their culture. In the United States, a country where the decorations of our homes for this event are only second to Christmas, the main activity is called “trick or treating.” Americans decorate their homes with fake spider webs, plastic monsters, and Jack-O’-Lanterns. That evening in every city and town in the United States children of all ages dressed as scary creatures, fantastic heroes, and beautiful princesses, go door to door asking the same question: “trick or treat?” The adults answering the door respond by giving away candy to the little monsters.

Much of the American Halloween comes from old English and Irish traditions. Much is one hundred percent American. Something is American (as from the United States) when it comes from somewhere else, it is accepted, it is assimilated, and then it is molded to the American taste and culture. That is exactly what happened to our very own Halloween. Let’s take the term Jack-O’-Lantern for example: It comes from East Anglia’s “foolish fire” known as “will-o’-the-wisp” or “Will-of-the-torch.” Will was replaced by Jack and it became “Jack of the lantern.” “Trick or treating” comes from the old country’s “guising.” Back in Great Britain and Ireland during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, children and the poor would go “souling”: Singing and paying for the dead in exchange for cakes.

Since the 1950s on October 31 American kids go trick or treating from around 5:30 pm to 9:00 pm. This tradition has been exported to some countries. Kids in Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland also “trick or treat.” Kids in many parts of Mexico ask for their “calaverita.”

The Halloween tradition in the United States includes costumes of some very American creatures whose job is to scare our kids all year long. Of course, universal monsters also show their face on Halloween. Although Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the wolf man and the mummy are popular characters, we have our home-grown, and sometimes home-adopted, favorites. These are some of our monsters:

The ghoul: A folkloric monster or spirit that roams in graveyards and eats human flesh.

The boogeyman: A mythical creature with no specific aspect that was created by adults to frighten children.

Matchemonedo: An invisible bear-god that congeals the plasma of those who are unlucky enough to run into this beast in downtown Chicago where it lives.

The headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow: the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was shot off by a cannonball during the American War of Independence. A creation of Washington Irving, this creature rides tirelessly in search of his head.

Michael Myers: A hellish creature created by filmmaker John Carpenter. As a child, Michael killed his older sister and now every Halloween he returns home to murder more teenagers.

El cucuy: A mythical ghost-monster from Hispanic heritage that hides in closets and under beds and eats children that misbehave or refuse to go to bed when they are told to do so.

The creature from the Black Lagoon: An American amphibious humanoid that lives in a lagoon of the Amazon Jungle where time has stopped. He preys on pretty young woman who dare to swim in his pond.

La llorona: A Mexican legend of a weeping female specter trapped in between the living world and the spirit world that ceaselessly looks for the children that she drowned. She takes those kids who resemble her dead children and those who disobey their parents. La llorona is now a very well known creature and her tale is shared with all kids in the United States’ southwest.

These are some of the most popular characters who will undoubtedly show up on your driveway on Halloween asking for some candy. I now invite you to have some fun and tell us about your favorite Halloween creatures from the United States or anywhere else in the world… unless you are afraid to do so…

Dealing with certain kind of difficult interpreters on a professional level.

October 23, 2014 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This time I am going to refer to a problem that many of us have encountered during our careers: The individual who is also an interpreter and he or she is difficult to deal with at the professional level, not when we go out and socialize, but when we are doing our job. I am not talking about the lazy interpreter, the self-centered know-it-all interpreter, the bad interpreter, or even the vulgar disrespectful interpreter. My colleagues, this time I want to discuss a situation where a colleague gets an assignment, job, or promotion and has a personality change.

We all know colleagues who have made career changes or have received a promotion; that is great if that is what they wanted to accomplish and I think we would all agree that this makes us happy for that person. In fact, many of these changes have benefited the profession at large because these colleagues are now using their new position or status to improve the quality of the service and the working conditions for all of us. They recognize that one of the reasons for their hiring or promotion was the fact that they have been interpreters in the past: they have walked the walk. These changes have contributed significantly to the advance of our profession. Unfortunately, not everybody reacts the same way.

Some time ago I was in an interpreter social gathering with many old and new friends. As it often happens, some colleagues began to talk shop and it was not long before quite a few of them were talking about an interpreter who had recently been hired or promoted (I did not get all the details) to a position that now rendered this individual as the one with the power to hire interpreters for assignments; This person was now in charge of assigning interpreters, negotiating pay and other labor conditions, and setting protocol and procedure for those who wanted to work with that organization. Apparently, this person had been another freelancer until recently and had been a good colleague, maybe not the best interpreter, but certainly a very reliable one. The person was well-liked by the professional community, so the hiring (or promotion) was received warmly by the other interpreters. It all seemed to indicate that this was going to be an excellent choice for everybody; one of those changes that I was referring to at the beginning of this piece. Unfortunately, it did not happen that way.

Apparently, the freelance interpreters saw many changes once this person was hired and became part of the company’s staff. They all received innumerable emails with memos that were setting rules and policies for everything imaginable: How to report the status of an assignment (right in the middle of the event!) how to get paid, how to invoice, how to write a cover letter, how to dress for work, and many others. These interpreters were not happy. Remember: They were no rookies; most of them were practicing their profession way before this newly hired individual decided to become an interpreter, and they were doing a good job; there were no complaints.

When some of them questioned the newly hired “supervisor” on these changes, the person responded by saying that these changes to the system would help the company’s clerical staff as they would make it easier for them to understand what the interpreters were doing. He never even addressed the fact that this would require of more of the freelancers’ time because they were being asked to do part of the employees’ work for the same fee. Everyone knows that to a freelancer time is equal to money.

According to this policy, they now had to do extra work for the same pay. In other words, by implementing all these bureaucratic rules and policies, the first thing this person did in the new job was to give the interpreters a pay cut. This reminded me of the time when, for a brief period of time, I was part of the system and the first thing I was told was that from that moment on I was a corporate entity and all my decisions and actions should be geared to protect the employer, regardless of what happened to the interpreters. I was told that it was us against them. Needless to say, under that philosophy, I barely lasted a blink of an eye at that job.

After listening to this heartbreaking story, I told the interpreters at the social gathering to diversify even more, to try to work for that individual as little as possible, to reject the bureaucratic memos, to continue to provide a quality professional service, and to keep in mind that although time is money for the freelancer, the rule does not apply to those like this person who will make the same paycheck regardless of how they spend their time. I mentioned that even though this person may be socially friendly and nice to them, they must remember that somewhere deep inside, these individuals are always aware of their professional limitations, and consider that promotions, like the one the individual got in this case, are the zenith of their career; I reminded them that even when we don’t see their job that way, they do, and they will defend their newly acquired status with everything they have. I told them that this strategy of versatility and widening our scope of practice is exactly what I have been doing throughout my career. Eventually, we should always use these nonsensical circumstances as motivation to grow as professionals and look for newer and better professional opportunities. I now ask you to share your personal experience with individuals in similar circumstances to the ones described in this post, and to tell us what you did to either adjust and cope with the circumstances, or to get out of this situation.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,435 other followers