The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 2.

September 11, 2014 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. Last time we talked about some of the things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult, and I shared with you my first five; today we will discuss the rest to complete the list of ten. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with them all, some or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Here we go:

SIX.  When the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, and there is nothing to interpret. Sometimes we run into speakers who have worked with interpreters in the past, but those interpreters were of a different level. They have given speeches or presentations using the services of interpreters who deliver their rendition consecutively; that means that the speaker is used to start and stop many times during the speech. This should not be a problem and the transition to a simultaneous interpreter should be smooth when the speaker worked with good interpreters in the past. There are excellent diplomatic interpreters who work the consecutive interpretation magnificently; the orator can talk in complete sentences and ideas, and he can do it for a long time without having to worry about the interpretation being deficient. This speaker can adapt to the simultaneous interpretation used in conferences easier. The real problem is when the speakers have used the services of not-so-skilled interpreters before: sometimes low-level agency interpreters, sometimes a relative or a friend who is not even a professional interpreter, and they have been told to stop their speech frequently so that the interpreter can render a few words at a time (often sounding nonsensical and monosyllabic) Because the service providers’ professional capacity was so limited, the speaker just assumes that this is the way it needs to be done. The consequences of this type of speech are nefarious. All interpreters know that it is impossible to interpret what has not been said yet, and in these cases, when the speaker stops in the middle of a sentence, half way through an idea, or right after a “difficult” name or technical word, the interpreter is being left defenseless. There is nothing to interpret because the speaker has not said anything yet. Even when the main idea has already been expressed in the source language, or even when the words already uttered make for a good beginning of a sentence in the source language, the interpreter may be unable to say a word because of linguistic or comprehension reasons. The interpreter will not be able to start his rendition when the syntax in the target language is different because the interpreter does not know yet how to start the sentence. Interpreting requires that the interpreter understand and process an idea spoken by the presenter in order to find the right words in the target language; to do this, we as interpreters need to understand that idea. Of course, this is impossible when the interpreter only gets half of the idea. These two realities that interpreters work with all the time, make it impossible to interpret what the speaker has said. Of course, there are agencies, speakers, and unfortunately even interpreters, who will tell you that interpreters must interpret what is being said, that if the speaker is not making any sense, the interpreter should interpret nonsense as well. I am sorry to tell those who subscribe to this theory that they are wrong. The interpreter is never meant to sound like a telegram or a broken record (I understand that this last analogy may sound strange to those of you who were born after records were gone, but I did not find another updated expression that accurately conveys what I am trying to express) One thing is to work in court where the interpreter’s job is to interpret everything because the rendition’s goal is to assess the credibility of the speaker, but that has nothing to do with the job of the conference interpreter who has to act as a bridge between two languages and two cultures to facilitate mutual understanding and comprehension. This can only be achieved when people express themselves in a coherent fashion. Once again, if this is happening during the presentation, the interpreters need to let the speaker know that this is not working and they need to ask him to speak naturally, without any pauses and ignoring the presence of the interpreters in the booth. To prevent this from happening, when we meet the speaker and we learn that this person has only worked with consecutive interpreters, we need to briefly explain simultaneous interpretation to the speaker, and ask him not to pause the way he does when he works with interpreters who do not do a simultaneous rendition. Speakers are usually smart people and they understand the absurdity of speaking like a telegram.

SEVEN.  When the speaker uses metaphors unknown to the audience. A very common occurrence is when in the middle of a presentation the speaker uses an analogy, quotes a character, or resorts to a metaphor that has no meaning or relevance in the culture of the foreign language audience. These are tricky situations because the interpreter has no way to know ahead of time that this will happen, unless the speaker is well-known for turning to these practice in which case the interpreters must discuss it with him ahead of time. This is the permanent solution: to educate the orator so he knows and understands that his message could get lost because of the examples or cultural references he is making during the speech. Once they understand this point, they should be encouraged to omit the allusions, or if that is impossible due to the nature of the message, to at least replace the metaphor or the example with something from the local culture or with something universally known. If the speaker does not like these options, then the interpreter should at least ask him to put his analogies and metaphors in context and to explain what they mean. Going back to the main problem: What is the interpreter to do when the speaker brings up the culturally unknown example or story right in the middle of the speech? Because the interpreter’s job is to facilitate communication between speaker and audience, in my opinion the interpreter can do one of two things: Either find an acceptable equivalent in the audience’s language and culture, or at least explain and put in context, when possible, what the speaker just said. I will give you some examples: Americans are very proud of what they call “Americana,” (American culture and lifestyle) and sometimes they assume that it is universally known. For this reason, many great American speakers use “Americana” during their speeches; one typical example is baseball. Americans love baseball, it is their national pastime, you can find 10 to 15 professional games on TV every summer night, they grow up with the sport, its terminology, its analogies, and its heroes. As far as the rest of the world, unless you come from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, Japan, or Korea, most people have never even heard of baseball, and those who have, have never watched a game, much less know its rules and history. On the other hand, if you take the United States off the picture, you will agree that football (which by the way, is called “soccer” in the U.S., is the most popular sport in the world) So when an American speaker brings up a metaphor or a remark from their national pastime and he says: “…It was three and two with two outs at the bottom of the nine with the score tied and on the verge of extra innings…” as an interpreter you have two choices, you can either transplant the analogy to a well-known cultural reference to the audience, in this case I would chose football, or you can just explain what the speaker is saying. In my example, the rendition would go like this: “…it was the last minute of the second half, the score was tied, and they were about to go to overtime…” If I cannot find a similar analogy in the target culture, then I would have explained it like this: “…now the speaker is using an analogy from an American sport called baseball to illustrate that they were at the very end of the line, and nothing had been decided yet…” In other words, if needed to facilitate the communication, as long as it does not alter the message, I would replace Washington with Bolivar, Jerry Lewis with “Cantinflas,” and “more American than apple pie” with “más mexicano que los nopales.” The key is to make sure that you are facilitating the communication without altering the message. That is why we need to study and have a wide knowledge of many things so that we can make these calls and in case we made a mistake, so we can bring the audience back to the speaker’s message. Remember, this is working under extreme conditions, it is not the type of speech we face every day.

EIGHT.  When the speaker is constantly saying: “let’s see if they can interpret this.” I know that most interpreters are very proud of their professional achievements. We all know that this is not an easy career and it is difficult to reach a certain level. Professional interpreters are constantly studying and practicing their craft; they thoroughly prepare for an assignment by researching, studying, and planning, so when it is time to get in the booth and interpret the presentation, they do a magnificent job and make the event a success. It is for this reason that I dislike speakers who think they are clever or even funny when after saying a technical term, or an unusual word or expression, they interrupt their speech to tell the audience: “let’s see if they can interpret this,” or “I hope this didn’t get lost in translation,” or even worse: “I don’t know if this was interpreted correctly…” Who do these individuals think is interpreting for them? Don’t they know that there are two professionals in the booth? Or, do they think so little of themselves that they just can’t imagine anybody spending enough money to get them top quality interpreters? Obviously, I dislike these remarks and the attitude of these speakers. I also know that their comments do not affect our job as far as being able to do the rendition. Of course I could say that these constant remarks are annoying and distracting and they can break an interpreter’s concentration. This is true, but the professionals that we are, we cannot allow for these remarks to bother us. They are uncomfortable, but our reaction should be no different from that of the actor who gets booed while on stage and continues with the performance. Therefore, what is the value of including this annoying practice in my “worst ten”? Besides the ranting session above, it lets me make the point that even this disgusting experiences cannot keep us from doing our job; and if there is a speaker who is constantly challenging the booth or casting doubt on the skill and knowledge of the interpreters, this can create a feeling of mistrust in the audience. By making these remarks over and over again, he is sending a message to the audience that what they are hearing with the headphones may not be accurate or complete. This is unacceptable. Even under these conditions the interpreter’s job is to make sure that there is communication between the parties; therefore, during the first recess, the interpreters need to address this issue with the agency or event organizer, and with the presenter. It is a simple matter of expressing this potential risk in a professional and respectful manner. Many speakers will realize that what they have been doing is not so funny, that they have offended somebody, and that it makes sense when they are told that some of the people in the audience may be second guessing what they have been hearing so far. After the break, most caring savvy presenters will clarify this point with their audience and will refrain from making any more comments about the interpretation. So you see, there was a reason why I included this as part of my “worst ten.”

NINE.  When the speaker refuses to share his materials with the booth. It is common practice for the interpreter to get all of the materials that will be used during a presentation. This is usually done without thinking twice about it. The interpreter accepts the assignment and the materials start to flow into the e-mailbox, or they become available in the cloud. Speeches, resumes, Power Point presentations, publications, newspaper and magazine articles, etcetera; they all come to the interpreter. Everybody knows, from the agency, to the publisher, to the presenter, that these materials are essential to the interpreter’s preparation for the assignment. They are all aware that the interpreter has absolutely no interest in reproducing the materials or to violate in any other way any intellectual property legislation. This is why it is extremely difficult to work those events when the speaker refuses to share his materials or his presentation. For a long time I thought that this would only happen in second-tier assignments where the speakers were not sophisticated enough to understand the role of the interpreter, but I was wrong. I have run into conferences with very well-known researchers, college professors, and others, who refuse to share their materials. Of course this is a problem that either will be resolved before the event, or it will be unsolved but the interpreters will at least know what to expect. The best course of action in these rare cases will be to first talk to the agency and ask them if they would have any problem with you talking directly to the presenter so you can explain why it is that you need the materials. If the agency says no then that’s that. The event will not go as smoothly as it should, but it will not be your fault. On the other hand, if it is possible for you to talk to the speaker, you should explain to him what interpreters do, state the reasons why you need his materials, and even promise him that you will delete the files after the event. Assure him that your interest on his papers does not go beyond the conference, and tell him, if confidentiality allows it, who are some of your clients. This will put him at ease and he will share the materials. You see, sometimes the problem is simply a lack of communication; when the agency contacted him they only asked for the materials (like they usually do) without any explanation as to why they needed them and who was going to use them. The only thing missing was the explanation. On the other hand, when the speaker refuses to share, then you have a difficult bumpy road ahead, but it can be a little smoother if you do your homework. When you have no materials, you need to find them yourself. Get together with the rest of the interpreting team (including all languages as this research will benefit you all) and develop a strategy. Allocate tasks and responsibilities to the team members: Decide who will research on line, who will talk to others in the field to see if you can get some answers to your questions, google the speaker to see if he has any accessible publications online, download and study his previous speeches, and on the day of the event, show up with a fast computer or tablet an a defined plan of action so that the support interpreter is constantly looking up information while the principal is interpreting. Do this throughout the speech, both interpreters switching tasks back and forth. At the end of the day you will not have the materials for the conference, but you will have enough materials and other tools to do a first-class job.

TEN.  When the speaker starts reading very fast. Fewer things can affect more an interpreter’s rendition than a speaker, turned “town crier,” who starts reading at the speed of light from a document that was never shared with the booth. It is true that many presentations include portions of materials that are read aloud; it is a fact of life than many speakers will read their speech from a teleprompter, some people still pull out the little piece of paper and read from it, but most of those cases involve materials that have been given to the interpreters ahead of time. If that is the case, the interpreters will adjust to the speakers speed (because it is also a fact that we all speak faster when we are reading from a prepared text) by either doing a sight translation or, depending on the interpreters’ preference, a simultaneous interpretation of what is being read. It is difficult but doable because the interpreters saw the text ahead of time; they know what the speech is about, they have detected and solved the linguistic and cultural problems contained in the text; in other words, the interpreters did their homework because they were given the chance to do so. The “pulling out of my sleeve the document I am going to read” strategy represents a different kind of problem and all the interpreter can do is to follow the speaker as accurately as possible, trying his best. If possible, even after the reading session started, the second interpreter can go to the speaker’s team and see if they have an extra copy of the speech they may want to share with the booth. This happens more often than you think, and although it is not the same as getting the document ahead of time, at least helps the interpreter with two key elements: First, the names that sometimes are very difficult to understand when we are not expecting them, and second, the interpreters will at least have an idea on the length of the written speech and this will help them plan accordingly and distribute the tasks in the booth. I want to make it clear that top level interpreters will interpret the contents of the document the speaker is reading and transmit the message to the foreign language audience seamlessly, that has never been in doubt, as it has never been in doubt the high difficulty that is involved in an interpretation of this nature.

With these last five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter I conclude my two-part post that started last week. I now invite you all to share with the rest of us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of mine.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

September 4, 2014 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed as an interpreter. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in our litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

The first one occurs when our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by others. This often happens in a legal setting. All court interpreters have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. The same facts are true in a healthcare or community interpreting setting; even at the negotiating table or in the booth during a conference we sometimes make mistakes out of exhaustion, due to bad acoustics, a speaker with a heavy accent, or because we misunderstood a word or term. This is why we have team interpreting, this is why good interpreting equipment, an appropriate conference room, and breaks or recesses are important.

Unfortunately in the real world we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their foreign language speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say in the trial, and with doctors and nurses who want to dodge the consequences of their negligence, and with the party that lost at the business negotiating table, or with the agency that tries to justify the disaster caused by its outdated broken-down interpreting equipment. The first thing they all do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter. It is even worse when all of this happens and you know that those who are questioning your work are clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to bring to your attention is when the same individuals mentioned above, decide to go for the jugular and to put the blame on the interpreter’s rendition; so they take you to court. They argue inadequate interpretation and you are sued for damages. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and we know we are right? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.

There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Our Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter” during Lenguando Londres in London on September 13, 2014 at 2:30 pm. I invite you to attend the event on the 13 and 14 of this month and see how you will be able to interact with some of the superstars of all language-related professions, and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios, we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, and we will talk about the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in London; but even if you are not attending, I ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences on having your rendition questioned, challenged, or having a lawsuit filed against you as an interpreter.

Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

August 28, 2014 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day!

Yes, Monday is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those “real” holidays when the banks are closed, the mail is not delivered, and kids stay home from school. I have been asked many times by my foreign friends and colleagues why is it that we celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May 1st. like most countries in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do. Then, the second question that always follows the one above is: “But the labor movement celebrated with an international holiday on May 1st. commemorates the events of Chicago in 1886…”

The fact is that most Americans have never heard of the events of 1886 when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, and the police started to shoot and beat the crowd. In a matter of minutes eight people were killed and over 120 police and civilians were injured. The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight anarchists, that perhaps today would be referred to as labor rights activists, and the authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder even though the police had sparked the riot. Seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death, and one of the jurors at their trial was a relative of one of the dead police officers. This is how the labor movement started in the United States. For a long time the media and government were firmly allied with the business community while labor organizers were viewed as criminals.

Today in the United States labor unions are controversial, and with good reason. Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion. Union demands and strong-arm tactics have crippled some American industries and limited the number of jobs. In today’s America the unions get publicity when they step up to defend a member who should be punished, when the baseball players’ union fights suspension of players who have cheated by using steroids, or when the union protects incompetent teachers in public schools. There are many who support organized labor, although it seems to be less people every day, and labor rights are a good thing that America needed in the 19th. century and still needs today; however, the real perception (well-deserved in many cases) that unions are troublemakers, and the national fight against communism from the cold war days, have put these events in Chicago at the end of the 19th. century in the forgotten corner of American history.

Our Labor Day holiday is very different from most around the world. Instead of commemorating a tragic event, we celebrate those who have contributed to America’s social and economic achievements with their work. Since 1882 we have celebrated labor on the first Monday in September as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States. Labor Day has come to be considered by most Americans as the end of summer; the last barbecue of the year, the beginning of football season, the start of a new school year.   This weekend millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2014. It is perhaps the second most American of all holidays (after Thanksgiving that is) because it describes the mind and spirit of the American people. Regardless of your political persuasion and your support, love, disdain or indifference towards organized labor, the first Monday in September is a holiday when Americans decided to celebrate work and creativity while most of the world chose to commemorate a tragic event that happened on American soil but is unknown to an overwhelming majority of the American people. I hope this brief explanation of the reasons why Americans are staying home on Monday celebrating a holiday with the same name as another holiday celebrated abroad, but with a very different meaning and motivation behind it, helps you understand better the United States. Now, without bringing up any political views on the labor movement, I ask you to please share with us when it is that you observe Labor Day in your respective countries and why it is a holiday there.

The ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. Part 1.

August 21, 2014 § 23 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Once again the “Ten worst…” are back. This time we will talk about those things that the person who we are interpreting for can do to really make our work difficult. As always, this list is not limitative and it only represents what I personally consider the absolute ten worst things that the speaker can do to us as professional interpreters. You may agree with all of them, some, or none of them; but even if you disagree, I believe that the simple mentioning of these issues will help us all focus on ways to solve the problems with the speaker that may arise while we are interpreting, and to prevent them and keep them from happening again. Just like we have done it before, today we will discuss the first five, and we will deal with the rest next in a few weeks. Here we go:

ONE.  When the speaker constantly switches between languages. Sometimes we get to an event to find out that the person that is going to speak is fluent in both languages of our combination. That is not bad news of course. The real problem is when this individual comes to the booth and kindly announces that she will be switching back and forth between both languages to keep the audience “engaged.” Of course we all know what this means to us: This will be the interpretation from hell! There are very few things more difficult to achieve than a good rendition when you have to constantly switch from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. This is very taxing on the interpreter and it can lead to “brain confusion” when our poor little brain cannot distinguish anymore and ends up interpreting into the source language (English into English for example) because after so many switches it becomes difficult to switch in the middle of an idea. Therefore, this is a nightmare for the interpreters, but if this is confusing to us, trained professionals who are bilingual and do this for living every day, can you imagine the confusion in the audience? These individuals went to the event to learn something and all of a sudden they find themselves with a headache and zero understanding of what is going on; And to top it off, while these chaos is going on in the booth and the floor of the auditorium, the speaker is ecstatic that she is showing off her command of both languages, her perfect pronunciation and grammar, her lack of accent. No way. My friends and colleagues, this is unacceptable! We have to protect the speaker, the audience, the interpreters’ sanity, and the event. Just imagine the total confusion if there is a dedicated booth for each of the two languages. First, we must understand that most speakers who are truly bilingual decide to do this for the benefit of their audience (some of them even remember the interpreters and decide to do this to give us a “break”). If the switch happens unannounced in the middle of the event, and it becomes obvious that this will be happening during the entire speech, you draw straws, or somehow decide who will bite the bullet, and while one interpreter will have to do the switching back and forth, the other one will communicate to the presenter that she must stay in one language because it is impossible to switch back and forth. This can be succinctly explained in a very respectful professional handwritten note that should be handed to the speaker as soon as possible, even when the speaker has a security detail and it is difficult to approach her. When the event has not started, or in the above scenario after the event, the interpreters have to sit down with the presenter and permanently solve this situation by explaining the difficulties of interpreting when the orator constantly switches back and forth. Make her understand that it will be very difficult for the audience because unlike her, they are not bilingual, so they will be confused and they will have to be putting on and taking off the headsets over and over again; and more importantly, explain that she will look better to her entire audience if she stays with one language. At that point you can even let her choose the language she prefers (unless she is clearly better in one of the two). It is likely that you, as the interpreter, will have to be somewhat flexible and agree to the occasional word or phrase in the other language; just explain to the speaker that there is the possibility that her words be lost to some of the audience as they may not be agile enough to pick up the headphones that quickly. She may then agree to eliminate these phrases. You may have to go along with a couple of questions being answered in the other language. This is fine as long as she announces it, gives the audience plenty of time to put on their earpiece, and sticks to one language throughout her answer.

TWO.  When the speaker insists on talking in a language he really does not speak. There are plenty of times when the speaker thinks that he is bilingual but in reality he is not. We already saw the difficulties of interpreting a real bilingual individual who switches back and forth between both languages. This time the problem is quite different. Here we have a situation where the presenter truly believes that his second language is good enough for a speech. This is the typical individual who feels that he can be understood in the foreign language because when he visits the other country he has no problem ordering a beer or asking for the bathroom. If a person begins his presentation let’s say, in English, and a few minutes later, already into the speech, he announces that because he goes to Cancún for two weeks every year, he has learned Spanish and he will now deliver the rest of his remarks in Spanish, the interpreters are in for a very bumpy ride. There are several possible situations: If the person pulls out a piece of paper and starts reading a written speech and the interpreters have it in the booth, even if the person cannot pronounce half of the words correctly, the booth can sight translate the speech for the benefit of half of the audience. Those who speak the language that the speaker thinks he is reading out loud will have to figure out what he is saying. Chances are that between the occasional giggles, they will be able to understand enough to know what the speech is about. If the interpreters do not have the speech in the booth, they will be in a similar position as the audience described above. They will certainly use their experience and skill to protect the speaker and deliver the message, but it will not be good, or pretty. Many times the hardest interpretation is when the person is speaking without a written speech and his vocabulary, syntax, grammar, pronunciation and accent are so bad that the interpreter cannot fully grasp the topic, or at least some parts of the presentation, including names, places and figures that are usually among the most frequent mistakes made by those who do not speak a language fluently. At this point what always happens is that people from the audience start yelling words to help the speaker complete his sentences. This looks terrible, but it actually helps the interpreter because he now understands the words that are being yelled by the audience. In this case the solution is similar to the one above. Most speakers will stick to their native language after reading the interpreters’ note. Most presenters will never attempt to do this again in the future; but be aware of the real world: There will be, now and then, stubborn individuals, as well as those who will feel offended by the interpreters’ suggestion and will do the speech in the foreign language regardless. Under these circumstances the interpreter simply does his best as explained above, but he also communicates with the agency, event organizer, or sponsor, so they are aware of what is happening. Remember, they do not speak the foreign language either, and unless you let them know what is really happening, they will just assume that everything is going great and their speaker is bilingual. One more thing that may need to be done in extreme cases when the speaker is just a total disaster, is to let the audience know, through the interpreting equipment, in a very professional and respectful way, that part of the speech is being lost due to the fact that the booth cannot figure out everything the speaker is saying. Most people will understand what you are referring to because even when you do not speak a language, many times you can tell if the person speaking is doing it with fluency or not. They will also know that everybody is aware of the problem, and that you cared enough to let them know instead of simply ignoring them. The only thing to add is that in those cases when the temporary and permanent solutions above will not work because of the speaker, you will have to make a choice as to whether or not you will work with that individual again in the future.

THREE.  When the speaker speaks away from the microphone. There is a universal principle in the interpreting world: You cannot interpret what you cannot hear. It seems obvious right? Well, it may be obvious, but it is not universally known or understood. There are plenty of speakers who tend to move away from the microphone as they speak. When there is a podium with a fixed microphone, often times the speakers try to be more “convincing” by furiously gesticulating in all directions. This often means that they may be facing in the opposite direction from the microphone, making it extremely difficult for those in the booth to hear what they say. Other presenters feel the need to get closer to their audience, so they leave the podium area and walk all over the stage without a microphone; some of them even go down to the well to mingle with the crowd; all of this while constantly speaking without even thinking that microphones are there for a reason. Of course, although difficult to hear them, those sitting in the audience will be able to hear all or part of the speech, but the interpreters upstairs in the booth will hear nothing, even with the door open it will be very difficult to hear this speaker over the interpreter’s own voice; then there is the group of speakers who use a wireless microphone, either a lapel mike, a handheld, or one of those you put over your head and next to your mouth, but they do not turn them on! Finally, there are those instances when the sound system is not working and the show must go on. Obviously, the temporary solution for those who move away or speak away from the fixed microphone is to ask them, on a very professional and courteous manner, to speak into the microphone and stay behind the podium. Those who forget to turn their microphone on should be reminded to turn it on; the real challenge arises in those cases when the sound system is toast and the show must go on. There are several possible solutions to this problem. First, if there is portable interpreting equipment as a backup in the facility, use it. The interpreters would have to leave the booth and move to a table on the stage where they can be close to the speaker and hear him without the benefit of a microphone. The speaker will have to speak louder anyway so that those who do not need interpretation can hear him, so the interpreters will have to turn on their bat radar and listen carefully. For the solution to work, the interpreter doing the rendition will have to speak into the portable transmitter’s microphone on a whispered mode (chuchotage) in order to hear the speaker over his own voice; this will put a tremendous strain on the interpreter’s voice, so there will be shorter shifts and more recesses for the interpreters to rest their voice. If there is no backup portable interpreting equipment at the facility, the presentation will have to switch to the consecutive interpreting mode. The audience will have to get closer to the stage so that they can hear the interpreter, and they will have to be warned of the fact that the speech will take longer because of the interpretation. Another, and most desirable solution, would be to temporarily suspend the presentation while the event organizer or technical team fix the system or provide a backup. As a permanent solution to these scenarios, interpreters should discuss basic protocol with the speaker, asking him to always turn the microphone on, to always speak into the microphone, and to repeat into the microphone the questions or comments by those who may speak without having the benefit of a microphone. It is important to let the speaker know that the interpreters work in a booth behind a closed door, and their only connection to the outside world is through their headphones that will receive everything that is being said into the microphone and nothing else. The speaker must be educated so he knows that, unlike a regular listener in the audience, simultaneous interpreters need to hear the speaker’s voice over their own voice, and speaking on an unnatural way, like whispering, can damage the interpreter’s work tools: his vocal chords. Most speakers may need a few reminders during the session, but they will immediately remember and react accordingly. Finally, a professional interpreter should always discuss Plan B with the event organizers, agency when applicable, and technical team. There should always be a backup system for everything that needs to be used during an event.

FOUR.  When the speaker taps on the microphone or says “hello” directly into the mike.  The vocal chords are an essential tool to the interpreter, so is his hearing. Throughout our career, every once in a while we are going to encounter speakers that identify themselves with rock stars and want to do a sound check like Keith Richards: They will turn on their microphone, and they will tap on it immediately after. Then again, some of them will just take the microphone next to their mouth, and here I include those who grab their lapel and pull the clipped mike towards their face, and say, in what they consider a very cool way, something like: “yessss!!!” or “testing…testing” or something else they saw in a concert sometime ago. All of these individuals feel great after they do this testing of the equipment. They think they looked cool, professional, and self-confident. Everybody else in the room agree with them; typically, some people in the audience will give them the thumbs up after they perform this sound check, others will simply smile; no one will think it is wrong. No one but the interpreters in the booth who are wearing headphones and have already adjusted the sound levels to what they need, in order to hear the speaker over their own voices. The result is awful and extremely painful. In general, interpreters hearing is very sharp because they are trained to listen and detect any word, any sound that comes from the speaker’s mouth. Imagine the combination of a very acute sense of hearing, a sound system (by the way, already checked by the technicians and adjusted to the taste and needs of that particular interpreter) already at the required level for the interpreter to deliver his rendition, and a person either furiously tapping on the mike, or doing a sound check that would make Bruce Springsteen proud. This is a practice that needs to be eradicated: Zero tolerance. The best way to address this issue and keep it from happening is to simply ask the sound engineer to let the speaker know that the equipment has been tested and that he does not need to test it again. This will hopefully give one of the interpreters enough time to leave the booth and explain to the presenter that there is very sensitive equipment in the booth, that the interpreters will be wearing headsets throughout the presentation, and that any tapping on the microphone, coughing into the mike, ruffling of clothes in case of a lapel microphone, or talk directly into the mike, will affect the interpreters directly; it is important to convey the potential consequences of doing any of this things, such as having an interpreter temporarily incapacitated from doing their job, or a very scary permanent hearing injury which would leave the interpreter without a way to make a living. Of course, an even better method would be to have the agency, event organizer, or sound technician speak to the presenter ahead of time, and even provide some written guide to public speaking that includes a chapter on working with the interpreter in the booth. Many reputable agencies and organizations, as well as most professional seasoned speakers, know of this potential problem, and they avoid this bad habits, but we as interpreters must remain alert in case a speaker slipped through the cracks. Unfortunately, this still leaves us with the occasional banger: the speaker who every now and then, in the middle of the speech will tap into the microphone to “make sure it is working.” This is the worst possible scenario. Some colleagues may disagree, but to me the pain is so sharp when they tap into the microphone, and the risk of losing my hearing is so high, that I truly have zero tolerance for this behavior. If this happens during the presentation and I have a way to communicate with the speaker from the dashboard in the booth, I will immediately do so; if I do not have this option, then I will ask the technician to please go to the stage immediately and ask the speaker to stop. Next, as soon as there is a break, I go straight to the speaker and let him know what happened, acting in a professional manner, I show him that I disliked what he did, and I try to get a commitment that he will pay more attention to what he is doing with the microphone. There have been many instances when I have screamed in pain when a speaker taps into the mike, and the audience has heard it in their headsets. There is nothing in the book of ethics or professional conduct that says that the interpreter must endure pain inflicted by the speaker’s conduct, and I will have zero tolerance for the rest of my career.

FIVE.  When the speaker slows down to a crawl. There are some very experienced presenters who have been speaking in public for years, they are well-known and popular; the only problem we have with them in the booth is that despite their long careers, they have never or rarely worked with a foreign language audience. They are not used to the interpreter. Now, these speakers are seasoned and they know what needs to happen to keep their audience’s attention and to drive their message; they know it so well that they come up with “homemade” solutions in order to have a successful presentation before a foreign language audience. The most common change to their public speaking habits is on the speed they use to deliver their message. They slow down to a crawl so that “the interpreters can keep up with the presentation.” Of course, all simultaneous interpreters know that this delivery does more harm than good. The speakers need to realize that their message needs to sound natural to keep the audience engaged, and as long as they speak slowly in the source language, the interpreters will inevitably end up speaking slower in the target language as well. The first thing that needs to happen when this situation arises is to immediately let the speaker know that he needs to speak normally, that he does not need to worry about the booth; that the interpreters are trained professionals who do this for living and they will be fine, in fact much better, if he speaks at a normal, natural speed. This can be accomplished through a direct communication such as a note or a brief message through the technician or one of the interpreters; Many times this is accomplished by signaling the speaker that he needs to speak faster. There are universal signs that almost everybody understands for this. Of course, the way to avoid this type of situation is to educate the speaker ahead of time. I believe that in this situation, when you have a speaker who does not usually work with a foreign language audience, it is the duty of the interpreter to let him know some basic rules and principles about working with an interpreter. One of these principles is precisely to ask the speaker to speak at a normal speed and forget about the interpreter. The presenter should let the interpreters do the worrying; that is part of their job, and they know how to do it.

These are the first five of the ten worst things a speaker can do to an interpreter. I will share the rest of my list in a few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you all to tell us some of your “ten worst” or to opine on any of my first five.

Professional jealousy and the interpreter.

August 14, 2014 § 30 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In the past we have discussed the human relations of the interpreter on a professional level; this time I want to share with you an experience that I had quite some time ago with another colleague. It involves professional jealousy and perhaps envy. I decided to share this story because I truly believe it is important, as it goes beyond the simple emotional reaction we all have gone through when we do not get an assignment and we think we are better than those who ultimately got it. Sometimes I do not like it when I see an assignment go to somebody else, and sometimes I love it when I am not selected for a job because of the subject matter, the dates of the event, the location, or even the colleagues in the booth. Just like everybody else, I have many flaws as a person, but perhaps due to my self-confidence, professional jealousy or envy has never been one of them. This case goes beyond that.

Long ago I had a good friend and colleague. We used to work together very often. We were comfortable working as a team and everybody thought we did a very good job. For a long time we shared all kinds of assignments. Even when we were not hired as a team, the one who was hired would immediately request the other one in the booth. Then life happened; we continued to work together but less frequently than before. Each followed a different professional path.

Years later, after quite some time of not working together, we found ourselves sharing the booth once again. I thought it would be like old times. I was wrong. From the moment I saw my long-time colleague I sensed something was different. My friend seemed distant and guarded. I dismissed the feeling and we talked for a few minutes before the assignment; we were catching up after all these years. During a break, the lady from the agency that hired us came over to greet us. We both got out of the booth and talked to this person. Apparently she had worked with my friend a lot more than with me. They spoke of old clients and trips for assignments abroad, and about how much she admired the work done in the past. My colleague just bragged about these assignments and the difficulties they had to overcome to do a good job. Apparently, my long-lost friend had turned into a self-centered individual who loved adulation. Of course this is nothing unusual in the interpreting world, but it surprised me; that personality trait had not been there in the past. At one point, the agency representative turned to me and asked if I was happy to be working with such an excellent and famous interpreter as my friend; I said that I was delighted indeed. That was it. We went back to the booth and worked the rest of the day.

That evening, as we were leaving the venue, we ran into the agency lady once again. This time she addressed me directly and asked about my career. I told her of the great opportunities I had in the past, and I shared some of the events and clients I had worked for. She seemed very pleased and also a bit surprised. She told me she had no idea of what I had done in the past, and that she was very impressed. She had barely pronounced these words when my colleague injected himself into the conversation and quickly changed the subject so that he was again the center of attention.

The following day during a coffee break one of the speakers, who was about to present after the break, recognized my colleague and approached us. He greeted my friend very warmly, and he introduced me to the speaker as his colleague in the booth. The speaker turned back to my friend and told him that he sure was glad to have him as his interpreter, and commended him for having a “new interpreter helping him” in the booth. My friend smiled and replied that I was a good “sidekick” just like the ones he had worked with in the past. The speaker then mentioned a couple of names I recognized as other interpreters who I consider pretty mediocre. Needless to say, I did not enjoy the comparison, but I kept my mouth shut. My colleague seemed to like my restrained reaction.

That day during the lunch break, I went to the venue’s restaurant where I found my colleague surrounded by a crowd and telling them some war stories, explaining how pure talent carried him to the top of the profession. That is when he saw me and called me to his side. “This is a pretty good guy, and knows exactly how to support me so we can do a great job” I was not thrilled, but still calm to that point. Then he added: “It’s like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, like the Green Hornet and Kato.”  Unable to keep quiet any longer, I spoke and said in a low calm voice that I was nothing like those characters, and shared some of my professional experience with the crowd. I should have acted more professionally but I just could not remain silent any longer. My friend did not like it, but constantly putting your booth colleague down to boost your personal reputation gets old very quickly. After lunch, my colleague turned to me and with a big smile told me that it was wrong to mention my credentials to a client that was not mine. I replied that I did not appreciated being called a “sidekick”, and that I was merely telling them who I was, no lies, just the facts. Things got more complicated towards the end of the week when the agency lady told me in front of my friend that she had googled me and had read some of my work on line. She even said, that she was very happy to have me on board. I thanked her, and told her that she now had an excellent team of two very seasoned interpreters. She agreed.

A few months later, working together for another event organizer, I was recognized by a foreign dignitary who has known me for a long time. Apparently this person recognized my voice, looked for the booth, and saw me there. She came all the way to the booth to say hello to me. I introduced her to my colleague, but I could see that he did not like it at all. Since that time, I have learned that my colleague has made unflattering comments about my work, and that when asked about me for a possible assignment he has proposed other interpreters instead. I also heard from other colleagues who he has also discarded from the booth because of their (great) resume. Although I do not particularly enjoy working with this person anymore, I have never done that. Some colleagues from his home town who work with him all the time have told me that they believe that he is jealous of my career and the career of some other very accomplished colleagues; that he dislikes to work with someone as experienced, or more experienced than him. Apparently, he likes to work with people he can impress with his stories.

Since that time, we have worked together when the agency or event organizer retains us separately. I have paid special attention to the bidding process of all big events that interest me so that I don’t miss any of them even if this person leaves my name out of any proposed team, and I have talked to the major agencies and all my direct clients so that they know that I am available for assignments. I will protect my business as you should when facing a similar situation. We have not requested the other one in the booth anymore. I am a professional and I will work with this individual if needed, but I will never understand the motivation behind the actions of this Othello of the interpreting world. Finally, I would like to disclose that, for legal reasons, the individual this post refers to is a fictitious character; he is a composite of many different colleagues I have encountered during my practice who have this professional flaw. The episodes described in the article have been modified and compounded, but they are real. The characters are not. With this in mind, and without exposing yourselves to any liability, I invite you to share with us your experiences with jealous interpreters.

Why are the interpreters of Indigenous languages treated differently?

August 5, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my professional career I have noticed how the interpreters of Indigenous Languages are often treated differently and separately from the rest of us. Whether it is their service fees, labor conditions, or even the way they are addressed by the client, I am often left with this aftertaste that I dislike. I am sure many of you have observed and felt the same way at one time or another. Although this is a universal problem that afflicts interpreters all over the world, I will concentrate on the indigenous languages spoken in the Americas: From Alaska to Patagonia.

I believe that the main reason, and often unconsciously motivated, why Indigenous Languages interpreters are perceived as different, perhaps even less professional than the rest of us, or even as belonging to a “not-so-important” language, is pure ignorance; a complete lack of cultural knowledge of the way society functions in many places around the world, not being familiar with world history, and the oversight of how these two elements should be combined in order to acquire the appreciation for these languages that is so much needed. Let me explain:

First the social aspect: For centuries, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans have lived in a world where many speak Spanish, Dutch or Portuguese; many speak a native language with no fluency in the European predominant language, and a minority has been able to reconcile and master the use of both: a European language and one or more Indigenous Languages. It has been part of the Latin American culture to have a household where the family speaks Spanish (it could be Portuguese or some other European language, but to save some time, on this blog I will refer to Spanish and it will mean all European languages spoken in the Americas) and the domestic help speak Náhuatl, or Quiché, or Zapotec, or perhaps Quechua. Nobody living in Latin America would be shocked to hear people within their own household speaking a language they do not understand. That is how it has been for centuries. It is also part of Latin American reality that many of these people stay in the shadows, relegated to a second tier; not because of their intelligence, not due to their work ethic, but because they have been systematically denied access to knowledge and opportunity for the simple fact that they do not speak Spanish fluently. This problem has generated social unrest from the moment the conquistadors landed in the so-called new world, and it has finally caught the attention of government officials, society, and the media, causing changes in the legislation, and in the way society opens its doors to these segment of their citizenry.

Because of modern immigration trends, the problem also exists in the United States where many of these indigenous groups have an important physical presence. Once in the United States, they face some of the same obstacles that their fellow Spanish-speaking citizens must deal with; among them: their lack of English language skills. Fortunately for their Spanish-speaking fellow countrymen, there are many more instances where they will find a Spanish interpreter who will assist them in courts, hospitals, churches, public schools, and even stores and restaurants. Unfortunately for those Latin American citizens who do not speak Spanish, or even if they do, their command of the language is far from being fluent, there are very few linguistic resources to assist them, and in many cases, depending on their geographic location or the language they speak, there are none. As a consequence, service providers are often frustrated before the reality that finding a Spanish interpreter will not solve their problem, because of the (for them) hard-to believe reality that these individuals, despite being citizens from a Spanish-speaking country, have a different native language and do not know Spanish. The result: We have three segments of the population at odds who do not talk to each other, and for that reason they are incapable of understanding the new reality in their hometowns and communities: (1) The Spanish speaker immigrant who is used to Indigenous Languages speakers because he lived with them, side by side, back in their common home country; he knows of their linguistic limitations in Spanish, and he also knows that they are proud hard-working people who speak centuries-old languages, and not ignorant second-class citizens who do not speak Spanish. (2) The American who speaks English and no other language, and sometimes even the bilingual English-Spanish Latino who was born in the U.S. to Latin American parents but ignores this part of his parents’ homeland’s social culture. (3) The Indigenous Language speaker who usually comes from a poor community, and is an honest, hard-working, decent individual who grew up in an Indigenous culture within a Spanish-speaking country, and had very little or no contact with Spanish speakers. If these three segments of the population were to sit down and talk to each other, they would understand their different realities and work out common solutions without putting another group down because of cultural ignorance. Once we have established this common ground, it is important to learn who these Indigenous groups and nations really are. Because language is a very important part of who we are, this will get them to where they should be: An even field of opportunity.

First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to unveil them so that they go from “exotic” and “mysterious” to simply a “foreign language.” The best way to do it is to let history speak. Many people do not know, or forgot, that one of the greatest mythologies about creation is called the Popol Vuh, that it comes from the Mayan Post-classic K’iché kingdom in Guatemala, and that just like the Chilam Balam, it was written in K’iché (Mayan).

But K’iché was not just a language of mythology writers and historians, it was the language of scientists. The Mayan civilization knew and used the zero before many other civilizations. They were great mathematicians and astronomers, and they did it all in K’iché (Mayan). If science is not your cup of tea, we can then talk about the Lord of Texcoco: Nezahualcóyotl, one of the greatest poets in history, whose famous “Flower Songs” were composed in Náhuatl. He turned his Acolhua nation into what historian Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci called “The Athens of the Western World” where the “tlamatini,” poets, musicians, sculptors, philosophers, and others gathered to create and learn. And of course, we have to mention Malintzin or Doña Marina, the first Spanish interpreter in the Americas, who was instrumental in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, and Felipillo, Pizarro’s Quechua interpreter (I have written about both, Malintzin and Felipillo on separate posts that you can access in this blog) We cannot forget that a Native-Mexican, who spoke Zapotec as his first language at home, grew up to lead and defend his country and became universally known as Benito Juárez. Finally, if we want to bring this to a more contemporary setting, we need to remember that a big part of the reason why the United States and its allies won World War II in the Pacific was because of the Navajo code talkers; a group of military interpreters and translators who interpreted and translated military communications from English into Navajo and vice versa in order to avoid Japanese detection. All of these examples show Indigenous people doing extraordinary things using Indigenous Languages. You see, these are not second-class languages, they are first class languages that have been abandoned to a certain degree, and for that reason, they have not received the acknowledgement they deserve in the pantheon of languages.

If interpretation agencies, event-organizers, government officials, and the rest of the interpreter and translator community understand what these languages really are, and if they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them for world trade, advertisement, modern science, or any other mainstream use of language, is because they have been denied access to opportunity by the mere fact of what they speak, then they would value and treat them both: the interpreter and the Indigenous Language as their equal. It will be then that all of our colleagues will be welcomed to the great community of interpreters and translators. From that point on, we will all realize that our job is the same and we will all make sure that these colleagues are treated the same way all other spoken language and sign language interpreters are treated. I invite you to share with us other stories of this linguistic/cultural coexistence back in your home countries, or if you prefer, to tell us about another historic character who emphasizes the importance of Indigenous Languages.

Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.

July 28, 2014 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.

First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.

If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.

Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.

It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:

One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.

Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.

Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!

All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.

The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.

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