We need to change the classification of interpreting and translation as professions.

April 26, 2016 § 17 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In general, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to set reasonable fees than most professionals. This is in part because of a new, globalized market, but the main reason for such obstacles has to do with who the individuals providing interpreting and translation services are.

By nature, interpreting and translation have been two of the professions more vulnerable to pretenders and paraprofessionals: the typical “wannabe”. Those individuals who erroneously assume that they can interpret or translate because they speak two or more languages.  We are in a profession where real, bona fide professionals have to compete with usurpers and part-timers who view the profession as a hobby, an activity to entertain themselves while their spouses work to provide for their living expenses, and people with no scruples who try to take advantage of the less-sophisticated non-native speakers of society.

Many are able to negotiate and find a way to make a decent living, while trying to survive in this ocean of professionals and impostors. Some even excel and live very comfortable lives full of respect and recognition.  Unfortunately, many capable people cannot make it. They succumb to their poor negotiating skills, their internal fears, or they just simply lack the stomach required to go to war on a daily basis.  But even those who achieve success in such a competitive field have to face the effects of ignorance, greed, and bad legislation.

All public contracts with the United States government, and many private businesses, follow the same practice: they have to adjust to certain guidelines and rules.  One of them is the price that the bidder will charge the governmental or private sector entity requesting the services, and this directly impacts the amount that an individual should earn based on his or her occupation.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) was a publication of the United States Department of Labor which helped government agencies, and private sector employers, to define many different types of work during the 20th. Century. This publication was later replaced by the O*NET system, a digital data base applicable about a decade ago, depending of the type of work, and the business necessity on a case by case basis. Back then, interpreter and translator positions could require a college degree, and for that reason they could command a higher retribution. Since that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES 273091) based on questionable surveys, has set the bar pretty low as to the mean wages for interpreters and translators. Moreover, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) considers interpreters and translators, including Sign Language interpreters, as “clerical workers” instead of professionals. This classification carries grave consequences, such as the levels of compensation that government contractors can offer to language professionals in all government contracts subject to public auction. Even worse, this is frequently used as an argument by ignorant multinational entities to offer low fees to many colleagues who tragically agree to work for such breadcrumbs, either for lack of negotiating skills or simply out of fear.

Current market conditions have not fatally wounded all real professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of conference interpreters, basically all of them with some college degree, or many years of professional experience, who have fared quite well in this Darwinian environment because of their negotiating skills and business acumen.

Amending the current U.S. regulations to classify interpreters and translators as professionals instead of clerical help, would be a giant step towards improving the market conditions and giving language professionals the recognition they deserve; and its impact would reach far away, beyond the U.S. borders, because of the major role that the American market plays in both of our professions.

This would allow those contractors bidding for government work a better argument to justify higher fees for interpreters and translators who could be included as professionals on the business plan without questioning the classification. It would also give us additional tools to be used when negotiating with a frugal and reluctant client from the private sector.  By their nature, both professions require of individuals who should have some type of college degree at a minimum.  A degree in a language-related discipline would be fantastic, but any college degrees could be accepted. Basically, those who graduated from college had to learn how to study and research, and people with higher education are more likely to have more general knowledge, an essential element for interpreters and translators.  Following the criteria of the American government, a degree equivalency could also be accepted at a ratio of 2 years of experience for one year of college. This means that those with 8 years of experience could be considered at the same level as a person with a Bachelor’s Degree.

I believe the time is right to make our move, even though we will face strong opposition from all directions.

Many will fight against officially making a college degree or its equivalent (quantified in a minimum years of experience) part of the essential elements of being a professional interpreter or translator.

The first to oppose this change will be the mediocre “interpreters” and “translators” who do not have and never will get a college degree or its equivalency. They will also oppose this changes because they will lose their market advantage over true professionals: Under current conditions, they can offer their questionable services to many clients for a much lower fee than the rest of us. Once the market evens up by requiring a college degree, their clients will opt for a better professional since price will no longer be an issue.  The second group that would be against any change is the government. With some exceptions here and there, both, federal and state government officials rejoice when they can hire or contract interpreters and translators as “clerical help” and consequently pay them below a professional wage or fee; and if you do not believe me, I invite you to read any interpreter or translator job description for a government position. You will immediately notice that they require a high school diploma, not a college degree.

Of course, the powerful multinational “language service providers” would fight us to death. Remember, current conditions are the way they are because they have lobbied for them to remain unchanged. After all, their concern and priorities on the “scales of quality” dramatically tilt towards profit.  We should expect a good fight from them, after all an “industry” requires of laborers, not professionals.  Finally, I also expect opposition from good, professional interpreters and translators who will meet these requirements of formal education or its equivalent, but will feel “bad” for their fellow mediocre or borderline colleagues who they will want to protect.  I have a proposal for these valued colleagues:

It is undeniable that, at least at the beginning and until there are enough colleges and universities offering careers in interpreting and translation because more people will be interested as the financial compensation will be at a professional level, true professionals will not be able to cover the huge market demand. It is also true that certain translations will be so minor, and some interpreter assignments so short and uninteresting, that most of us will turn them down as they will not appeal to us from the business perspective. I believe that it is possible, like it already happens in most professions, that these jobs be left to those individuals that could not meet the professional requirements, and without presenting themselves as professional interpreters or translators, would be able to perform minor translations and unsophisticated and less consequential interpreting assignments, perhaps on their own, or maybe under the supervision of a professional interpreter and translator (never a multinational entity or any other agency).  By doing this, the market needs would be satisfied, these paraprofessional individuals would be able to make a living by translating birth certificates or interpreting at small claims courts, and the profession would be protected.

I know that to some of you, this sounds complicated and impossible, but it is not. Nothing happens without an effort, and if we want our professions to be respected and recognized, if we want to eliminate the unscrupulous practices of many multinational agencies that are taking advantage of the current system, and if we want more of our colleagues to enjoy better fees and working conditions, we need to start somewhere. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas regarding this issue.

When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

April 19, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe.  Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings.  The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.

All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer.  My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it.   After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.

They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances.  In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is.  Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.

To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker.  There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality.   Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments.   Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it.  This is an area where governments cannot be saving money.  There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated).  In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.

VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money.  I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings.  Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting.  Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.

Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person.  We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.

How safe are we as interpreters?

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.

Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents.  I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.

Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session.  The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.

Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.

Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence.  According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer.  In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”

And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.

Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.

Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.

So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?

Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice.  The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.

I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it.  It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it.  I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.

Are we protecting our profession? Part 2.

April 5, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the first part of this entry we discussed the role that professional associations should play on the face of antitrust legislation and its adverse effect on our profession.  Today we will explore another crucial aspect of the profession that has been under siege for several years; and if some external forces have their way, it could set the profession back to the Stone Age.  I am referring to the very popular tendency to minimize the importance of interpreter and translator professional licenses, certifications or patents and the acceptance, and in some cases even blessing, of lesser quality paraprofessionals as the preferred providers of services by many government entities and multinational interpreting and translation corporations who make the decision to hire these individuals, who are unfit to practice the profession, based to the extremely low fee that they command.

It took interpreters and translators many decades of constant struggle to get to the point that their accreditations became widely known and accepted as the standard of quality among those providing the service.  Finally, holding an American Translators Association certification, or proof of many years of experience,  gave the real professional translator the needed tool to argue that she should get the job over the individual whose only credentials were the translation of his parents’ birth certificates and a couple of elementary school reports.  The days when a real professional interpreter would lose an assignment to a person whose only linguistic experience was that he had lived in two different countries during his life, became less common when true professionals started to demand top assignments with their interpreter degrees, or their court, or healthcare certifications in hand.  There was a lot to be done, but interpreters and translators were on their way to educate more prospective clients and government officials every day.  People began to notice the difference on the quality of the service rendered by a real certified interpreter or translator.

But, since nothing can come to the interpreting and translation world without drama and tragedy, technological developments such as CAT tools and telephone/VR interpreting came to be. This should have been a welcome development that benefited interpreters and translators; however, this new technology, combined with a global economy where big corporations seek profit by bastardizing a real profession and turning it into an assembly line, and changing its name from profession to “industry”, injected a new player to our eternal drama:  the opportunist, also known as the “new talent scout” whose sole function was to undermine established professions, like ours, and replace quality professionals with cheap novice paraprofessionals who see this individuals as their ticket out of the flipping burgers world.

Compounding the problem in the United States, there was a new administration in the White House, whose attorney general was determined to compel the state-level agencies who were recipients of federal funds, to provide access to their services for everybody, regardless of the language they spoke. This in itself sounds very good and fair, and in fact it was not just the right thing to do by the administration, it was long due as this mandate had been part of the law since the mid-sixties when Title VI of the Civil Rights Act was enacted.  In fact, to an interpreter or translator who did not know the reality of the American system this would look like a pot of gold. All of a sudden millions of people who needed interpreting and translation services were going to get them! Unfortunately, reality and a short-sighted government opted for the easy way out, a path that was doomed from the beginning. Let me explain: This instantaneous demand for many more interpreters and translators exceeded by far the supply of professionals in the United States, and to meet the mandate, the states decided to enable just about any almost-bilingual individual, to provide translation and interpreting services, instead of promoting more college programs and encouraging American citizens and permanent residents to prepare themselves, and become true professional interpreter and translators, who would have access to professionally remunerated work due to the implementation of this legislation.

When the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts” realized what was going on, they immediately saw the possibility for huge profits by providing the required services with tons of these paraprofessionals, who they immediately hired at rock bottom fees.  Moreover, they saw the possibility of making their margins even bigger by using machine translation and retaining humans as proofreaders, and by providing interpreting services by telephone, and lately by video remote interpreting or VRI in some cases, while hiring these new “type” of “interpreters” by the minute (or if they are lucky by the hour).

Government officials liked the solution, but they still had one more obstacle that was keeping them from going all the way with these multinational corporations operated by the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”, who by now were active in social media, writing their own blogs, and organizing their own conferences to build themselves up like interpreting and translation “self-proclaimed gurus”. That obstacle was the certification.

The certification, that extremely difficult and elusive project that took real interpreters and translators several generations to create, and then make known and widely respected, was by now a requirement in the law.  It was obvious that the new paraprofessionals would never pass a certification exam, so the government officials and their “associates” had to think fast, and cheap.

The solution they came up with was the creation of a “second class” tier of people who they call “language facilitators”, “justice-system interpreters”, and many other labels, avoiding this way the uncomfortable, and perhaps illegal alternative of referring to them as translators or interpreters, who, in lieu of a real certification, would be “accredited”, “registered” and many similar names.  Now they argue that these individuals can provide the professional service as long as the content is not too difficult or the event is not very important!

Finally, to end the vicious circle, some of our opportunistic “friends”, also known as the “new talent scouts”, realized that with government officials willing to do whatever possible to go around the true mandate of Title VI, which would require them to use certified, experienced, professionally trained interpreters and translators, they could get another piece of the pie by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and creating a mutant creature they would call: “community interpreter certification”.

The principle is very simple: What do you do when you have a group of people who cannot pass the interpreter certification exam? You develop another program with an exam easy enough for anybody to pass, and you propose it to the authorities as a legitimate certification for court cases before administrative judges, for client-attorney interviews, and for simple medical events. Do you see the pattern? Once again we have the not-so serious event and the not-so difficult content rationale to justify the use of mediocre individuals, who have only one advantage over the real professional, experienced, certified interpreters and translators: They will work for peanuts; because whatever they get paid will be better than the money they were making before they got “discovered” by the talent agent.  Never mind the fact that administrative law hearings are as complex as Article Three court hearings as I have indicated on a previous entry to this blog a few months ago.

The situation turned for the worse when the implementation of Title VI at the state-level civil courts in the United States was narrowly interpreted by many of their administrative offices, as meaning that only interpreters supplied through the judiciary could provide services in civil matters. This actually killed the main source of income to many entrepreneurial interpreters who had opted out of the bureaucratic, low-paying criminal court assignments, and had developed their own client-base, charging for their services according to supply and demand. Oftentimes, because of the complexity of civil litigation, and because of their type of clients, these interpreters fared much better than their counterparts who stayed on the criminal court bandwagon.  Title VI guarantees equal access to all government funded services, including the administration of justice, but it does not make it illegal for litigants who want to, and can afford it, to hire private interpreters.  In my opinion, this is a classic example of a situation where professional associations needed to protect their individual members, and the profession, by advocating for the availability of private interpreters to be retained for civil litigation.  Unfortunately, instead of taking action, our biggest professional association in the United States not just sat on the sidelines, but welcomed the new “civil court-provided interpreter system”, and remained silent when some states decided to meet the requirements of Title VI by hiring big “interpreting services” agencies (who view our profession as an industry) to program the interpreters for civil cases.

To summarize the situation, we now have an environment fostered by the government authorities, and exploited by the multinational interpreting and translation corporations, plus some small “local talent” that was able to learn fast how to do this thing, where certifications and education do not matter anymore, where assignments are going to questionable paraprofessionals, many of whom have never been able to pass a certification exam, who are working under terrible conditions, in exchange for a miserable fee.  The first logical reaction of any interpreter or translator should be one of outrage, disgust, frustration. The second reaction should be to talk to its professional association and ask it to represent its members and protect them from these nefarious tendencies, thus saving the integrity of the profession.

Attorney and medical associations are vigilant and protective of their members and profession. They do not allow, under any circumstance that paraprofessionals practice law or medicine. In fact, attorney associations set the standards of practice in their profession. No agency or its equivalent is allowed to set the tone.  They have lobbied for, and achieved legal protection: In the United States it is a crime to practice law without a license, and this applies to all court proceedings, including administrative courts.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with some of the bigger translator and interpreter associations.  They keep silent when the government creates these groups of paraprofessionals to “meet” the requirements of Title VI. They invite those who are turning translators into proof readers to their conferences to recruit more of the young talent before they learn to separate good from evil; Instead of protesting, criticizing and denouncing the birth of that Frankenstein’s monster called “community interpreting certification”, they celebrate the lowering of the bar and open wide their organizations’ doors for these paraprofessionals.

Moreover, they welcome as their members many of these multinational corporations, “self-proclaimed” gurus, and opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”. Maybe they do so because they do not know of all these terrible things that are happening to the profession. Maybe they let them in because they share their view of interpreting and translation not as the professions they always were, but as industries where the proofreader (formerly known as translator) and the part-time telephone operator (formerly known as interpreter) will happily hold hands at the assembly line and praise the virtues of the big “language” corporations. The question is, what are professional associations for? I now invite you to share your comments about this reality we are living pretty much around the world, and to offer your solutions to the role that a professional association should play in the world of interpreting and translating.

Are we protecting our profession? Part 1.

March 29, 2016 § 49 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every now and then something happens in our profession that makes me wonder if we are truly doing what is best for all of us: individually and collectively as interpreters and translators.  In fact, this happened recently when I learned, like many of you, that the American Translators Association had revisited the antitrust legislation issue and had reviewed its policy.  As expected, ATA followed its traditional pattern of protecting the “interests” of the association over the interests of its individual members or the profession, and adopted a policy that clearly observes antitrust legislation as is, without questioning it.   It is not clear to me how the association arrived to this resolution to endorse everything the government wants, and is included in the legislation and case law, without first seeking a legal opinion from attorneys who disagree with the current antitrust laws or their interpretation by the government.  As I understand it, the mission of a professional association is to advance and protect the interests of its members and the profession they practice.  This can only be accomplished by assessing the current legislation as to its impact on those who it is supposed to protect.  I am convinced that a well-publicized campaign to get public comments from the membership, and seeking a legal opinion as to how to interpret the current legislation in the light most favorable to the interests of the individual interpreters and translators, which could have included proposed amendments to the antitrust legislation would have been fruitful and very successful.  Of course, it would have rocked the status quo where big multinational businesses, sponsors or members of the association, benefit from the current interpretation of the law and the association’s corporate policy, that leaves the individual members on an uneven field where they cannot talk about the insulting and sometimes degrading fees, or rates as these huge corporations refer to them, that are offered for their interpreting and translation services.

We all want to comply with the law, and nobody is suggesting that we break any legislation. On the contrary, we should always observe the law of the land, as these rules and regulations exist to protect the weaker members of society from the actions of those who are in a position to take advantage of them.  This does not mean that we should not question a legal precept when we believe that it is not advancing justice or protecting the weak.

Antitrust legislation was born in the United States in the latter part of the 19th. century when the legislator, first at the state level, and later at the federal Congress, saw the need to protect consumers from big business that at the time was acting as big conglomerates with “excessive” economic power according to the opinion of a majority of the citizens of the United States. The goal of the legislation was to regulate the conduct of business corporations by promoting a fair competition for the benefit of the consumer. Legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 became the law of the land.  They were followed by more recent laws like the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950. Ohio Senator John Sherman clearly explained the rationale behind this policy when he said that: “…If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life…” (Speech delivered in the U.S. Senate on March 21, 1890) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this spirit of the legislation when it referred to the Sherman Act as a “charter of freedom, designed to protect free enterprise in America” (Appalachian Coals, Inc. v. United States, 288 U.S. ({{{5}}} 1933) 344 [359]) Antitrust legislation goes against the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is tailored under strict scrutiny to limit this right only as it protects the consumer from the voracious unscrupulous merchant. We have many examples of these businesses throughout the more than one hundred years of antitrust laws in the country: The mining industry, the automobile industry, and even the telephone industry are some of the examples that come to mind. In all of these cases we can clearly see the benefits of restricting commercial and industrial activities to avoid monopolies.  We do not dispute that, but the fact is that the world has changed and we now face a very different economic reality than the one faced by the antitrust legislator of the 19th. century.

Technological advances and the rapid growth of globalization have created a world with uneven realities and circumstances in many fields, including interpreting and translating. When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

But it does not need to be that way, a careful reading of the law shows us that discussing fees and work circumstances is legal, as long as there is no agreement to fix a fee.  The problem is that, to avoid any possible discomfort, some professional associations adopt internal rules and policies where all mention of fees has been proscribed.  It is clear that there is a need for litigation, it is the courts, not the executive branch, who should decide if these 19th. century rules designed to protect the little guy from big business should apply to individuals who make a living from the practice of a professional service, not an industrial or commercial activity (despite the efforts by many to convince us of this model) who are constantly oppressed and taken advantage of by the big business of multinational interpreting and translation corporations.

Who is the little guy who needs the protection of the law under these circumstances? Professional service providers should not fix their fees for services offered to their individual clients: the consumers in this scenario; but there is a big difference between offering services to a neighbor or a store down the street where I live, and having to accept rock bottom fees from publicly traded entities who have a presence in fifty countries.  The court system needs to decide these cases, and if the decision is adverse, the legislation has to be changed. Not all legislation is good or fair; in fact, there are plenty of examples where we can see how the law created or enabled an unjust situation. Let us remember that not long ago the United States had legislation that favor slavery, or deprived women from the right to vote.  This is where professional associations are expected to act to protect their individual members and above all: the profession.

Perpetuating the present situation will not advance the profession, it will mutate it into some kind of involuntary servitude where the big guys will call the shots.  I now ask you for your comments, in the understanding that nobody is calling for violating current legislation, just to change what we have right now, and to opine about the role that a professional association should play when the profession needs to be protected from exterior forces who are trying to hijack it from the interpreters and translators.   Next week we will discuss the same topic from a different perspective: The professional associations and the battle against the professionalization of the interpreter.

Traveling interpreters, getting to the assignment, and the complexity of their work.

March 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreting is an exhausting, mentally and physically demanding task that can only be performed at the highest level when the interpreter is recharged with energy and has a rested brain.  Once we start interpreting, there is no room for any down time.  We need total concentration and full awareness through our five senses, and then some.  To make my point even clearer, I ask you to go back to the moment when you get home after a full day of interpreting.  You are extremely tired and ready to fall asleep on the couch without any warning.  Your brain is shutting down the same way a computer does when it is overloaded.

Interpreting is not an easy task, and the topics we work with are usually difficult, highly sophisticated, and complex.  The last thing we need is to show up to work tired or stressed out.  We need to be in top mental shape to deliver the kind of service our client expects and is paying for.  Interpreters need to rest before an assignment.  We do not need to be distracted with any “sideshows” or situations that can affect our concentration or drain our energy right before we get to the booth, courthouse, hospital, or table of negotiations.  The risk of not showing to work rested and stress-free is even higher for those of us who constantly travel to do our job.

Add two, five, twelve hours of travel time to the enormous task of researching and studying for an assignment. Factor in jet lag, changes of season (going from a summer weather in the southern hemisphere to a winter weather up north), altitude, local food, and cultural differences. All happening within a very short period, usually from the time you get on an airplane to the time you land at the point of destination. The results could be devastating. A tired interpreter could be the start of a disaster.

Because of the huge responsibility that is riding on our shoulders, and because of our professionalism, it is our responsibility to always bring our “A” game to the booth; but, how can we do it when facing these long trips?  The answer is relatively simple: Turn the trip into a relaxing experience; try to make it as pleasurable as possible. Rest, sleep, and try to keep a “normal” life despite of a traveling schedule.   It all starts with the way we travel.

We should always try to travel as comfortably as possible.  To me, the golden rule is to travel in style so you can recharge the batteries on the way to the assignment. Whether you get there by train or airplane, try to travel first or business class.  Leave economy to the tourists. Business class got its name from the idea of delivering a transportation service to the traveler who has a reason to be at the point of destination that is definitely different from going to the beach and drinking a piña colada.  When you travel by train on a first class, or private dormitory car, you can sleep, study, relax, and get ready for the job ahead. Flying first or business class is the difference between sleeping on your back, eating a fairly decent meal on the plane, and showering at the port of destination’s airline club before meeting your client and going to the venue.

Granted, traveling first and even business is not cheap. Fortunately, because we travel so much, we can do it if we are a little smart. These are some of the things I suggest you do to be able to travel as you should without having to pay an arm and a leg.

First, get the client to pay for it whenever possible. You will soon find out that in many cases, most clients are willing to pay for a business class ticket when you are traveling a long distance. It is not that difficult to explain how tiresome it would be to fly economy from Chicago to Sydney or even from Seattle to New York City.  Educate your client. Explain the advantages of having a well-rested interpreting team. You have nothing to lose.

Second, find out what airline has a hub, or at least has the most flights out of your hometown, and join their frequent flyer program. Most airlines will give you a bunch of miles, or kilometers, just for joining their loyalty program.  This will be your preferred airline from now on.

The third thing you need to do is to get rid of all those credit cards that you have, and switch to one or two cards (depending on the place you live) that give you air miles in the main airline that serves your hometown. Once you have it, pay for everything with that card, even those things you usually pay with cash. Pay your credit card bill in full at the end of the month, and there will be no interest to pay, and you will be accumulating miles.

Once you have taken the steps above, book all your flights on your preferred airline.  Don’t succumb to the temptation of saving twenty dollars on a cheaper flight with a low-cost carrier. You are now in the business of accumulating miles (or kilometers).  You can earn miles even when you travel to places that your airline does not serve. Find out what airlines partner with your preferred air carrier, and fly with them. Most airlines in North and South America, Asia, and Europe are members of the One-World or the Star Alliance.  You just need to find out which one of these alliances your airline belongs to.

Research what hotel chains, car rental companies, and restaurant programs offer miles on your preferred airline carrier and do business with them exclusively. You are now adding up miles (or kilometers) every time you buy a plane ticket, pay your cable TV, buy groceries, or go to the dentist.

Once you have enough miles, do not cash them in for a trip to Cancun. Instead, apply them to a yearly membership to your preferred airline carrier’s airport lounge.  In fact, if you believe that you can afford it from the start, when applying for the credit card that works with your airline, get the more expensive credit card. It will cost you some five hundred U.S. dollars a year, but it will let you travel with two bags at no cost, and will get you to the airline lounges for free. Do the math. I think it is worth.

Why are you accumulating all these airline miles if you are not going to use them to go to Cancun? Because not all of your clients will be willing to pay for a business class airplane ticket.

Many clients, especially international organizations and government agencies, do not pay for business class tickets because it is against their policy. They are mandated by law or charter to wisely disburse the monies of the taxpayers, members, or donors.  They will get you the cheapest ticket on the plane, because they have a deal with the air carrier to get the unused seats for a very low price.  You will get these seats, but once that you have them, on your own, without the client’s involvement, you will switch seats to a more comfortable place on the plane a little farther away from the lavatories, with more leg room, and you will not have to endure the middle seat from Toronto to Buenos Aires.  You will be able to do this for free because you will be an airline Gold member, Platinum member, and so on.  Next, you will ask your client to book you on a plane that leaves at odd hours.  These flights tend to be somewhat empty on the first and business class cabins because most business and rich people travel at more convenient times of the day.  The reason why you want to be on this flights is that once you have an airline member status, you can request an upgrade to the next higher class for free. There are many empty business class seats on the 5:00 am flight, and one of them will be yours.   This will be a deal between you and the airline. It does not affect your client, and you will be able to take care of your health and professional reputation by getting to the booth rested and ready to work.

My final piece of advice: Avoid discount airlines at all cost. You will never relax on these carriers. I truly suffer when I find myself on one of their planes (fortunately a rare event). I remember once around Halloween, when I was traveling from Washington, D.C. to Seattle Washington, a flight that takes around seven hours, and a flight attendant decided to wake up the passengers , many of them were asleep, to “animate them” by organizing several games. Even one of the pilots came out to the main cabin (these airlines have no first or business class) dressed as a wizard, and they started to play these games, interrupting, in my case, the work I was peacefully doing on my computer. You should also keep in mind that most passengers on these carriers are not very savvy travelers, making the getting on and off the plane a very long process, wasting precious minutes that you should be spending taking a shower at the airline club.

Smart traveling is more than a mimosa before the plane pushes back. It is having a work and rest space while traveling to your destination. It is having access to the internet, eating a quality meal, to be able to shower or use the gym at the airline lounge at the airport; it is also getting to know the flight crew when you travel all the time and getting little perks from them during your trip.  Remember: it is called business class because it was meant for people like you who travel as part of making a living.  I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions as to other ways to make traveling more pleasant and relaxing for the interpreter who calls planet earth “my office”.

Our work requires trust and a little respect.

March 7, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In this era of high speed communications and world trade the function of the interpreter is of unquestionable importance.  There cannot be a globalized society without mutual understanding, and all efforts to understand another culture begin with the transmission of a proposal or an idea by means of the language they speak.

The interpreter is defined as a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language, conveying all semantic elements as well as the tone and register, and every intention and feeling of the message that the source language speaker is directing to the target language recipients. Basically, it is the action of transmitting ideas between two groups of people who are physically (or virtually) present, but do not understand one half of what is being said in the room.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: Why do these individuals, who have something important to communicate to the other group, believe the conveyed information, and base their decisions in what this interpreter said in their native language? What on earth makes them believe what the interpreter uttered, especially in the many instances when they had never seen this person before? In fact, when interpreting from the booth, the recipients of the interpreting services never get to see the interpreter.  The answer is complex, but it is also very simple: Because they trust the interpreter.

During their life, most humans will have many experiences with providers of goods and services. They will make decisions, some big and others small, based on their expectations as to the quality of some of those goods and services.  In some cases, because of the nature of the service and the characteristics of those who deliver it, they will select the provider based on trust. This is what happens when a person hires a physician, a lawyer or an architect. We put our lives in the hands of surgeons and airplane pilots because we trust that they will perform as expected. We trust that a civil engineer will build us a house that is safe for our family. We trust that an accountant will take care of our fiscal obligations according to the law.  We trust these individuals and their services because they practice a profession. They are professionals who have studied and demonstrated that they can deliver the service, perform the task.

On the other hand, we pick individuals or businesses for other services, or to get some goods, based on an expected result.  That is why when we go to a restaurant we hope that the food is as good as we heard it was, or when we go to the store we hope that the clothes we are going to purchase will fit, last, be comfortable.  We select the providers of these goods and services expecting a desired result: a fast car, an honest housekeeper, and so on.  These goods and services are commercial, they do not fall in the category of professional occupations.  People can join these industries and with skill and perseverance, not necessarily with a formal education or a scientific skill, get to the top of their trade.  A very capable individual can become the best laborer in any giver industry.  Of course there has to be some trust for these businesses to succeed, but this is on the realm of “trust but verify”. That is why we are not shocked when we see a homeowner by the side of the technician throughout the time he is at the house fixing the refrigerator, but we would never even think of joining the surgeon by the operating table while he performs a liver transplant. The second activity is a professional service and it requires absolute trust.

Interpreters fall into the first category. We are professionals providing a sophisticated, complex, and unique professional service.  Like the airplane pilot, we are a trusted professionals and people trust us to the point of letting us be the source of all information and exchanges when dealing with someone who speaks a different language they do not understand.

I have always believed this to be one of the most important characteristics of our craft. Ours is one of very few fiduciary occupations. It is for this reason that I reacted the way I did when I recently faced a situation where they questioned these essential characteristics of our profession.

I consider myself very fortunate because after many years of hard work, I have developed a portfolio of very good clients who value my work and show it on the way they treat me and remunerate my services.  It is not very common to see me accepting an assignment from an unknown source, but sometimes, because the gig seems interesting, or because I have nothing better to do, (provided that my minimum requirements are met), I accept one of these assignments.

Not long ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the blog when I received an email for an assignment that looked interesting.  It got my attention, so I checked my schedule to see if I was open on the date of the event and I was. I must say that the email came from a well-known agency, but with the exception of a job here and there many years ago, I had never really collaborated with them on an assignment.

I responded to the email providing the information they requested: my willingness to take the assignment, my availability on that date, and my fee.  The person from the agency got back to me very quickly to let me know that it all looked great, but they would need me to go lower on my fee. I immediately answered with a resounding: No!

At that point, I thought that this was the end of the story; that just like so many other times in the past, they were going to apply me the silent treatment.

To my surprise, the agency contacted me again on the following morning; this time it was a different person, a supervisor I was told, who wrote to me and stated that she had googled me, that they had asked around, and that after their little research, they had agreed to my fee, and if I was interested, they would love to have me as part of their team for the assignment. I said that I would do it, but that I needed to discuss payment terms with them before going any further. I explained that I have an invoice system that I use, and that I needed them to honor my invoice like the rest of my clients.  It was explained to me that the company’s policy was to use their payment system and invoice forms. I again emphasized the fact that I would only take the job if they agreed to a simple invoice by email process with no other hurdles. I explained that I sell my time and the hours or minutes I was going to spend working on their forms would not be paid by anybody.  The agency representative answered that my conditions were agreeable, and all I had to do was to email them an invoice after the assignment. I agreed and that was the end of the negotiations, which by the way, I have in writing.

Several weeks went by until one day I received an email with the materials for the assignment. Everything was fine to that point, but as I kept on reading until the end of the message, I discovered that they had sent me some forms to fill out, indicating the time I started and finished interpreting. On top of that, they requested that I call the agency at the moment I arrive to the venue, and that their client’s representative sign the form “certifying” that the assignment had indeed started and ended at the times written by me on their form.

I had never been asked to do anything like this before. I felt insulted and got very upset.  They were checking on me, just like they would on the Maytag Man, to make sure I had worked, and my word was not good enough for this folks; they needed me to prove that I was at the event, so they told me to call them; and my credibility was so poor that they needed another individual to vouch for me.

I took a deep breath, actually, I took several, and afterwards I thought of the absurdity of this policy. It was clear to me that they had this rules in place because they did not trust me, and did not trust any of my colleagues. The thing I could not understand is: If they have their doubts about the time I show up for the assignment and about whether or not I actually rendered an interpretation, how is it possible that they let me interpret from a foreign language that nobody in the room understands but me and my booth mate.  They got it all backwards. I felt disrespected by this “interpreting” agency, and I felt that they had insulted my profession.

After a few minutes I wrote them back, indicating that I was not used to be under the surveillance of anybody, that I was a professional who sells his time, skill, and knowledge by providing a professional service, and that I have always expected to be treated with decency, respect, and as a professional. I added that I could not agree to their corporate policy, and for that reason, I was declining the assignment.  It was not long before the person from the agency wrote back, and her email was very telling. It read as follows: “…We regret that (you have) declined the assignment. We agreed to pay you above our usual rate, but unfortunately, we cannot waive the other requirements. This is our policy and it is very similar to that of many others in the industry…”

That is the problem, dear friends and colleagues, these agencies expect to deal with us as merchants, not professionals. Key terms such as “rates” (like a merchant) instead of “fees” (like a professional), give us an idea of who they are looking for in the “industry”. To take one of the words this agency used on their final email: “Unfortunately”, interpreting is not an industry, it is a profession. We cannot work under mistrust, nor for a client (who they would probably call “customer”) who comes to our environment with the same hopes and expectations that you have when you enter the drycleaners.  I deal with clients who trust me to do my work just like I trust the dentist who drills holes in my teeth.  We are a profession. Industries deal with their service providers as laborers, I will stick to those businesses who deal with me as a professional.  I now invite you to share your comments or similar experiences when an agency or a direct client has viewed you as a factory worker and not as a professional.

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