The other danger interpreters face during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 23, 2020 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

At the beginning of the year it looked like we were on our way to a great professional future. The booming economy, new technologies and new clients coming into the interpreter services market gave us a feeling of security. Then, it all collapsed. Our shiny future disappeared overnight. The rapid propagation of COVID-19 throughout the world brought the economy to an almost complete halt. Conferences were postponed or cancelled, courthouses closed their doors, hospitals regular routines were dramatically transformed by the overwhelming demand for beds and medical staff. The airlines did not fly anymore, and we were told (sometimes ordered) to stay home. To most independent interpreters this meant a total loss of income for the foreseeable future, coupled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Many of us have seen our source of income disappear, our savings go down, and the money we had, and our retirement funds diminish or vanish in less than a week.

This is the world where we live at this time: health risks, no reliable source of income, and a future nobody can yet forecast in the short and mid-terms.

Unfortunately, there is no time for lamentations; we must keep our minds on these basic goals: Stay healthy; help to stop the spread of this virus by following the rules, spend our money wisely, and protect our profession. Yes, dear friends and colleagues, at some point we will go back to our professional practice, and it is what we do now, during this pandemic, that will determine how we will work once this is all behind us.

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous entities have emerged to prey on our more naïve colleagues and on those who have been affected the most. A despicable multinational translation agency offers work at reduced fees because of the crisis; there is another one telling interpreters to offer remote interpreting services to their direct clients, set the “per-minute fees”, and “just” pay the agency 25 percent of the fee for the use of their platform. Other agencies from less developed countries are taking advantage of this crisis to enter developed economies and offer remote simultaneous interpreting from abroad, using interpreters being paid ridiculously low fees for their services.

Yes, dear friends, they are suggesting you charge “per-minute”, and a platform for 25 percent of your fee. Not even professional athletes’ or movie star’ agents make this money. They get 15 percent, and they represent and protect the interests of their clients. More for your money than just providing a platform.  And there are vendors all over the internet bragging in a celebratory manner they have been saying for a long time that remote interpreting was the future, the solution to all multilingual communication problems. Sadly, some colleagues are taking the bait.

Under current circumstances, regardless of the work you do, it could be tempting for healthcare, court, community, or conference interpreters to accept an assignment from one predator. A “per-minute” payment, a solo assignment, or a reduced daily fee may look good when you have nothing better on your schedule. Please do not do it. Taking these offers will sentence you to a life term of mediocre pay, to a career of second-class assignments, and to a terrible reputation among your peers. In other words: Nobody will ever recommend you for an assignment or willingly work with you again.

There are other ways to procure income without permanently damaging your career: The first thing you need to do is contact all your direct clients, in a tactful way, let them know you are here to help them through these terrible times, and ask them for a time to talk on the phone or chat online about possible solutions.

Then, contact other entities and individuals you have worked with. If you work with a business five years ago through an agency, contact them and offer your direct services for a real professional fee.

Finally, be creative, look around and see who in your immediate universe could benefit from the services of a professional interpreter.

Even if you are working remotely, you must charge your regular professional daily (not per-minute or hourly) fee, plus expenses (depending on the service). If you have to do in-person or on-site interpreting, therefore leaving your house and be exposed to the virus, charge an extra high-risk fee. Do not feel bad about it. This is what professionals working in high risk areas (war zones, high-crime countries, etc.) have always been paid. Look at today’s news and you will see how all big companies are paying an added bonus to their employees who have to work outside their home. The client may cry first, but after a good explanation they will comply. If not, do not work for that client. Obviously, they do not care about you, so why should you care about them?

Currently, in our world, there is a difference between this anomaly’s “reality”, and true reality. During these exceptional times we must satisfy our clients’ needs, make a living and keep our client base.

At this time, we should contact our clients to tell them there is an option, and explain to them that remote simultaneous interpreting is better than noting: it will keep everybody safer, and it will solve urgent and immediate issues. We have to warn them about the voices preaching remote simultaneous interpreting as the salvation of globalization. We must be polite when talking to our clients at this time, always remembering they have problems bigger than remote vs. in-person interpreting. They are trying to save their businesses.

We need to be clear, but we should not lie. We can explain that remote simultaneous interpreting is a viable option for certain business meetings and negotiations, but not for them all. When confidentiality due to the information exchanged, or face-to-face negotiations are necessary to close a deal, in-person interpreting must continue.  We have to let them know of the many risks they would face when using remote simultaneous interpreting for a big or important event. Technology, geography, weather, physics (speed of sound) and lack of visual clues for the interpreters will be risks they need to consider. Tell them of the events that have failed. Platform vendors and interpreting agencies will not address these situations. A good example everyone can understand is the bad experience the Biden campaign went through several days ago when attempting to do a virtual event. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/13/politics/joe-biden-virtual-town-hall-technical-trouble/index.html)

Also explain the risks involved in remote simultaneous interpreting when the interpreters are working from a developing country (Please see my post: https://rpstranslations.wordpress.com/2019/10/17/the-very-real-dangers-of-remote-simultaneous-interpreting-from-our-home/)

You have to make sure your clients understand remote interpreting is appropriate during the crisis, but it cannot be adopted as the preferred option once things go back to normal. We must underline that even when remote interpreting may be a solution, it should not be done from a person’s home, and never by a single individual.

These steps should be taken by all interpreters:

Non-negotiable rule: Absolutely no chuchotage!

Keep your distance at all times. There will be little escort interpreting at this time, but all whispered interpreting, escort, during a press conference, or elsewhere is out of the question. Portable interpreting equipment like the one used by tour guides and court interpreters should be used. Make sure the client’s headphones have disposable protective guards, and dispose of them after every event or when you switch users. For health reasons, I suggest you ask the client to rent the equipment, but if you have to use your own, please charge extra for the equipment, disposable protective ear guards and microphone guards, and disinfectants.

Healthcare interpreters.

If you are a healthcare interpreter, right now you should be working from home using a computer, a tablet, or a telephone. Most reputable hospitals are already following this practice, but even if they have not instituted it, you must set it as one of your working conditions. These are extraordinary times. If it has been good for remote town in Alaska during all these years, it has to be good for New York City or Chicago today. If your physical presence is absolutely necessary, wear safety gear furnished by the hospital (no gear = no interpreter. Sorry) try to work from a different room in the hospital, and if you must be in the same room as others, keep your distance and use portable interpreting equipment provided by the hospital. If someone needs to get closer to the patient because it is hard to hear what they say, let medical staff do it. In the worst possible scenario, they can put a cellular phone by the patient’s mouth so you can hear on another phone at a safe distance. Please remember to charge for your services as described above. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Community Interpreters.

There is no reason for community interpreters to be providing in-person services. All work can be rendered by phone or video. Schools are out almost everywhere in the world, and government agencies that provide social services and benefits can call you at home for you to interpret for an applicant or benefit recipient. Here again, please charge. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Court Interpreters.

Most courthouses have continued hearings and trials worldwide, but there are some court appearances that must take place even during toe COVID-19 pandemic. For these services, interpreters must demand remote work, even if it has to be via telephone and rendered consecutively. Most hearings will be short as they will likely be constitutional hearings (arraignments, bond redeterminations, conditions of release, protective orders, probation violations, etc.) if an interpreter is asked to appear in person, all work must be performed using the court’s interpreting equipment (portable or fixed depending on the venue) and under no circumstance interpreters should agree to close contact with victims, defendants, petitioners, plaintiffs, respondents, or witnesses.

Jails, prisons, detention centers, and immigration courts carry additional risks and interpreters should refuse work, unless it is remote, at these locations. Like all others, court interpreters should charge their professional fees as mentioned above in this same post. Please see AIIC best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting during the COVID-19 crisis below under “Conference Interpreting”.

Conference interpreters.

Always remembering everything discussed above about remote simultaneous interpreting, conference interpreters must be very clear when talking to their clients.

First, they should try to convince the client to postpone the event until it is possible to do in-person interpreting, only doing what is necessary to keep the business running and protect the company, its customers, and its employees. It is very important we emphasize that the service we are about to provide is an anomaly. We have to explain to the client that the conditions will not be the best, that even with the best platforms, the interpreters will be working from home, not a soundproof booth, and they will not have on-site technical support. The client needs to know there may be interruptions to the electric power, interference by other internet users, background noise coming from next door, or because your children and dogs are at home, even if they are in a separate room. Explain that you can use one of the free platforms, a paid platform you already use for other things, or that you could download and install another one they may prefer as long as they pay for it. Something as simple as Skype can save the day under these circumstances. Remember that it is unacceptable to do a remote interpretation lasting over 30 minutes without a booth partner (at least a virtual booth partner somewhere else in the world).

Before you provide the service the client must sign a written contract where you will detail your daily fee, the total hours you and your teammate will work per day, overtime fees, and a cancellation clause which must include postponements or cancellations for force majeure (sometimes half of the total fee, sometimes the full fee depending on the time you are notified of the postponement or cancellation. Under these conditions cancellations will be on short notice, so the fee must be a full amount). Your contract must include a release of liability where the client and all others participating in the event, directly or indirectly, release all interpreters of any liability due to any events or circumstances related to the remote service. Also, include that only the law and courts of your country will have jurisdiction over the contract and event. That way you eliminate the need for foreign or international law attorneys and overseas litigation if this happened. Finally, inform your client of all best practices for remote simultaneous interpreting by AIIC (even if you are not a member), and do your best to adhere to them all. (https://aiic.net/page/8956/aiic-best-practices-for-interpreters-during-the-covid-19-crisis/lang/1)

You have to keep in mind that there is a difference between RSI platform providers and interpreting agencies. Always go for the platform providers with your direct clients. Here you are in charge. It is less desirable, and even discouraged, to do RSI through an agency. They will call the shots, communicate with the client, and negotiate your pay with their client, always looking after their own margins. I will soon deal with this issue on a separate post.

Please turn down low paying jobs. They insult our profession. Before selling your soul to an agency, try the strategies I suggest above. Be polite, professional and show empathy when you talk to your clients. Whenever possible, try to help a colleague by referring them to an assignment you cannot or will not take. More important, be patient, stay home, and stay healthy.

I now invite you to share your thoughts about this “other” very real danger we face as interpreters at this time.

The “must attend” conferences of 2020 (Coronavirus Update)

February 23, 2020 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2019 was a great year for many of us. Quite a few of you developed professionally and became better at what you do. I congratulate you for that important achievement; unfortunately, competitors are still out there, languages are still changing, technology continues to improve, and clients (agencies or direct corporations) will pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best price. The question is: How do we adapt to reality, keep up with technology, and improve our service? The answer is complex and it includes many issues that must be addressed. As always, at the time of the year when we are all planning our professional activities, and programming our agendas, I will address one of the key components of our annual plan: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have satisfied clients who pick you over all other interpreters, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology.

We need to be better interpreters. We must study, we must practice our craft, we should have a peer support network (those colleagues you call when in doubt about a term, a client, or grammar) and we must attend professional conferences. I find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you discover what is happening out there in the very competitive world of interpreting. Fortunately there are many professional conferences all year long and all over the world. Many of us attending a professional conference are lucky to live in countries where professional development is tax deductible. Unfortunately, we have a “good problem”: There are so many attractive conferences and we must choose where to go.

I understand some of you may attend one conference per year, or maybe your policy is to go to conferences offered near your home base. I also know that many of you have professional agendas that may keep you from attending a particular event, even if you wanted to be there.

I applaud all organizations and individuals who put together a conference. I salute all presenters and support staff that make a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2020 conferences I am determined to attend, and sadly, some I will not due to professional engagements. In other years I have attended more conferences than the ones on my list; last-minute changing circumstances and personal commitments let me go to events I had not planned to attend at the beginning of the year. This time, we must keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic is impacting many conferences and workshops. For that reason, I suggest you check periodically to see if the conferences you selected are still on schedule, and have a “Plan B” of conferences you would attend if your first choice was postponed or cancelled.

As of today, the conferences I plan to attend this year, and those I recommend even if I will not be able to be there, are:

The Second Africa International Translation Conference (AITCO) in Arusha, Tanzania (February 7-8).

This event already happened earlier this month and it was a success. Unfortunately, my professional commitments kept me from this conference which showcased some of the best presenters from Africa and around the world, speaking on interesting, relevant topics to interpreters and translators. This year the conference was attended by International Federation of Translators (FIT) president Kevin Quirk. I talked to him about this event at the end of last year, and shared my unforgettable experience attending their 2019 conference in Nairobi. The fact he was there made me feel as part of the event. I congratulate Alfred Mtawali and the rest of the organizers for putting together such a valuable learning opportunity. I will try my best to be there in 2021.

The Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF), ATA Spanish Language Division (SPD) and Miami Dade College Eduardo J. Padrón Campus (MDEPC) “In Miami Spring Into Action” in Miami, Florida, (Originally: March 20-22. Postponed until further notice).

I will attend this conference because of the program they put together with top-notch presenters, interesting topics, and the college environment of MDEPC’s campus. I attended the prior edition two years ago, and I can hardly wait for this year’s conference. If you are a Spanish language interpreter, translator, proof-reader, linguist, teacher, or you just love Spanish, this is an event impossible to miss. I also recommend it to those Spanish language colleagues looking for quality CE credits who cannot afford the very expensive ATA annual conference. You can meet all your goals here (quality learning, CE credits, networking with Spanish language interpreters, translators, and other professionals from all over the world, and a more intimate setting to spend more time with presenters without the distractions of the more commercial ATA conference with its vendors and agencies that pay to be there).  

The Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI) 32nd. Annual Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (Originally: March 28. Postponed).

I will not attend this conference, but I recommend it for several reasons: I have attended it in the past, I know first-hand some of the very talented members of the association’s board, and because they have scored a home run with their keynote speaker. If you are an interpreter or translator in the Carolinas, or if you have a way to attend, regardless of where you live, do not miss the opportunity to listen to our talented colleague Irene Bruno, one of the best, most experienced interpreters you will ever meet. Learn about conference and diplomatic interpreting from the best. Besides Irene’s anticipated presentation, I also find attractive the presentations by Sarah Baker on Sign Language Interpreters and their relationship to their spoken language colleagues, the “LatinX” presentation by Hernán Silva-Zetina and Matthew Benton, and the no-doubt great session where my friend Santiago García  Castañón will show us how to speak better. The conference will take place at Meredith College, and it will be followed by the ATA certification exam on March 29.

Third Translators and Interpreters International Congress Citi Lima 2020 in Lima, Perú (Originally: May 2-3. Postponed until further notice). 

Ever since I heard of this event last year in São Paulo, I have been counting the days to this congress. Organized and sponsored by the Peruvian Translators Association (Colegio de Traductores del Perú) and several prestigious Peruvian universities, this congress promises to be the professional and academic event of the year.  Held at Lima’s Convention Center, this two-day congress has an impressive program packed with interesting, useful, relevant, and current topics. If you are planning a trip to South America in 2020, go to Perú, see the country, learn its history, taste its awesome food, and be part of the professional and academic event of the year. See you in Lima!

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) 41st. Annual Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (June 5-7).

This year legal interpreters and translators from the United States, and a few from abroad, will meet in sunny Florida for the annual conference of the only judiciary interpreters and translators association in the United States. Unfortunately, at this time, NAJIT has not published its program, but based on previous years, you can count on a variety of topics and presenters that will no doubt cover all fields of interest to our colleagues in the legal field. This is a two-day conference (June 6-7) with pre-conference workshops on June 5. In the past, conferences have offered all-day and half-day pre-conference workshops. On a personal note, I will tell you that I was concerned when I heard the conference was going to be in Ft. Lauderdale instead of Miami. I immediately though of the difficulties to get to the site of the conference. I was worried that all you could fly to Ft. Lauderdale were low-cost airlines. Fortunately, I can share with you that conventional airlines fly to Ft. Lauderdale. This will let those of us who prefer these carriers fly into the city instead of having to fly to Miami and then get to Ft. Lauderdale by taxi. I look forward to meeting many friends at this conference.

Sexto Encuentro Internacional de Traductores dentro de la Feria Universitaria del Libro (FUL) in Pachuca, Mexico (September 4-5).

I have attended this conference from its inception and it is bigger and better every year. The conference is held at the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State’s Poliforum at Carlos Martínez Balmori Campus. This year, the guest country will be Russia, and conference presentations and workshops will center on artificial intelligence. I like this event because of the many students who go to the conference from many Mexican colleges and universities. Most conferences are attended by professional colleagues with years of experience, but this “encuentro” is attended by bus loads of students of translation, interpreting, and other-language related fields. The conference takes place within the International University Book Fair (FUL) and its organization by my friends Mireya Ocadiz (the conference), and Marco Antonio Alfaro (FUL) gives it a unique atmosphere. If you live in Mexico, or if you want to learn more about artificial intelligence and our profession, I encourage you to attend this event.

Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) 17th. Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (September 12).

I attended MATI’s conference in Chicago last year and I was very impressed with the level of the presentations and attendees from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and other places (even Canada). I saw how the organizers went all out to make sure the conference delivered what all those attending expected. It did. My friend Cristina Green and the rest of the MATI board are doing a great job by bringing to the upper Midwest, where many important cities and colleges are located, a quality event. As a Chicagoan I could not be happier. I am looking forward to meeting all my neighbors and friends from the Midwest in Milwaukee this September.

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) International Conference in Timisoara, Romania (Originally: October 3-4. Postponed to October 2-3, 2021).

I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, held at Banat University in Timisoara, and this organization in general, under the leadership of my friend, the very talented Aurora Humarán and the rest of the board, present a unique viewpoint of our profession I consider priceless. It is the only international conference of this size where there are no corporate sponsors. All you see is translators and interpreters like you. Some results of this innovative approach are that the conference attracts a very important group of colleagues that stay away from other events because they are bothered by the corporate presence. This is the conference to attend if you want to learn how to work with direct clients, deal with agencies from a position of power, negotiate with corporate clients and governments, and improve your skills. The absence of agencies, corporate members, and merchants soliciting your businesses lifts the heaviness of other conferences, and fosters dialogue without having to look over your shoulder. You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything, and it is fun to have a space like this at least once a year. IAPTI is also famous for its extracurricular activities like the traditional “Sweets from your country” and the post-conference sightseeing. If you have never been to Timisoara, stay after the conference and join us for a city tour, a visit to the beautiful Danube, and a trip to Vlad (the impaler) Dracula’s castle. See you all in Timisoara!

American Translators Association ATA 61st. Conference in Boston, Massachusetts (October 21-24).

Every year, the American Translators Association puts the biggest show on earth. More presentations to choose from, more attendees, more opportunities to network, and this time, Beautiful Boston! I enjoy attending ATA conferences because of the variety, and the many friends and colleagues I get to see every year. However, to take advantage of the conference without being exposed to the many predators that attend every year in the form of agencies, vendors, and “well-intentioned colleagues”, I pick my activities very carefully and never losing sight of the obvious presence of those who want to destroy our profession and turn it into an industry of commodities. It does not escape me that this conference is by far the most expensive interpreting and translation conference in the world, that it is always held at expensive hotels, and that Boston is not cheap. I think it is worth spending my hard-earned money (even if at the time you check in they do not even give you a bag to keep your stuff) but as I said above under “In Miami, Spring Into Action”, if your working languages include Spanish, consider going to Miami instead of Boston. For those who work with languages other than Spanish and think ATA is getting way too expensive, keep in mind that many of the presentations at the ATA conference have been presented at smaller (less expensive) conferences before. Do your homework, review other conferences’ programs, and then decide. With that warning and suggestion, if you can afford it, go to Boston and enjoy the conference. I Believe the participation of my friends, and renowned legal translators Ruth Gámez and Fernando Cuñado (from the famous blog: “Traducción Jurídica”) attending as distinguished speakers of the Law Division will make attending the conference worth.

XXIV Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 28-30).

Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from a very successful sold-out XXIIICongress, with more presentations geared to interpreters than ever before, the 2020 edition will have workshops and presentations in varied, useful, and trending topics. This is the activity to attend this year for those colleagues who work with the Spanish language. Extra added bonus: The Congress is held near and at the same venue (Expo Guadalajara) and at the same time as the International Book Fair, one of the largest in the Spanish language world. Besides the professional sessions, attendees can also stroll up and down the immense fairgrounds, purchase books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop between sessions. I have been attending this event for over as decade, and I will continue to do so. I hope to see you in beautiful Guadalajara.

XXII International Federation of Translators (FIT) World Congress in Varadero, Cuba (December 3-5).

It is difficult to us, as American citizens, to visit Cuba, but this congress justifies trying to go. The last FIT Congress in Brisbane, Australia was a great experience that left me ready to attend this year’s event, and continue my uninterrupted attendance to this truly world congress. This time, the Asociación Cubana de Traductores e Intérpretes (ACTI) will be the hosting organization, and the site will be legendary Varadero. The theme of the conference is the idea that by removing linguistic and cultural barriers, translators and interpreters foster equal access, and dialogue. International attendance gives you a diverse audience and a wide variety of presenters that will make history by holding for the first time an event of this kind in Cuba. I am determined to start the process to be able to travel to Cuba in December. I certainly hope to see you there!

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above. I also know of other very good conferences all over the world, some of the best are local, regional, and national events; others are specialized conferences tailored to a certain field of our profession. I would love to attend many but I cannot. Some of you will probably read this post in a group or website of an association whose conference I will not attend this year, you will probably see me at other conferences not even mentioned here; that is likely. To those I cannot attend this year: I wish you success and productive conferences. Remember, the world of interpreting is more competitive every day and you will need an edge to beat the competition. That advantage might be what you learned at one conference, or whom you met while at the convention. Please kindly share your thoughts and let us know what local, national or international conference or conferences you plan to attend in 2020.

When clients do not provide information in advance.

February 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We are expected to accurately interpret all subjects from one language into another, often to an audience that knows the topic, sometimes to people who have devoted their lives to that subject. We meet these expectations and deliver the rendition by performing many complex tasks, among them extensive preparation, including research and study of the topics to be presented during the conference, lecture, workshop, business negotiation, press conference, court hearing, diplomatic summit, etc.

We are professionally trained to research a subject, understand it, prepare glossaries, and study it, but this is not enough. Knowledge in any subject is infinite and it must be narrowed down to the specific themes to be presented or discussed at the event we were hired to interpret. Speakers have different styles and many have done their own research, written books or papers that will be presented, or at least alluded to, often for the first time, during the dissertation.

Due to these facts, the only way we can deliver the best quality service is by studying the presenters’ materials ahead of time.  This means our client must provide this information: documents, videos, audio recordings, for us to prepare, and we need to get them as far in advance as possible.

Documents are very important because that will be the main portion of the lecture; it often includes power point presentations we must review for several reasons: We need to make sure we understand the contents of every slide, that we find the best equivalent terms in the target language; we must pay attention to the information each slide contains because we need to tell the presenter how long the slide needs to stay on the screen before moving on to the next one, to give the audience time to listen to the interpretation and then see the contents of the slide (words, figures, charts, images, quotes, etc.) This is time consuming and it could take interpreters several days to go through the power point presentation.

Videos are difficult to interpret. Sometimes the sound is not very good, or words get lost behind the sounds of very loud music or noise; the speakers on the video may talk too fast, have a heavy accent, use regional expressions, tell a joke or share a sports story. Many speakers choose movie or TV show clips with nothing to do with the conference, because they were chosen as icebreakers or to drive a point across. There are videos of songs also. Interpreters need to study these videos; some must be watched many times. They have to assess the jokes, idiomatic expressions, cultural differences, and sports analogies, and then decide what to do: find a similar joke in the target language, use an equivalent sports story on a sport the audience will relate to, find the best idiomatic expression on the other language to convey the same message using the same register. Sometimes the best solution is to recommend the speaker not to use the video, particularly when there are cultural concerns.  Then, on the day of the event, interpreters need to make sure the video’s volume and quality of sound is the right one for both: the room and the booth.

Audio recordings could be an interpreter’s nightmare, especially in court interpreting where the quality of the sound is less than desirable because many of these audio recordings come from wiretaps, hidden microphones, concealed body microphones, and so on. These recordings are plagued with obscenities, slang, low register speech, and powerful background noises. Interpreters devote endless hours to listening and sometimes decoding what was said. This time-consuming task must be performed ahead of the event so the interpreter knows the recording’s contents and determines what words to use during the rendition. After reviewing the recording an interpreter can suggest to the client to use a transcript of the audio recording, with a written translation into the target language, and either project it on the screen at the same time the audience listens to the recording and the interpreters simultaneous rendition, or to distribute paper transcripts and translations for the audience to follow along the recording.

These arguments should be sufficient for all clients to provide these materials to the interpreting team ahead of time; many knowledgeable, experienced clients do so and the results are evident: a great interpretation. Others are more reluctant, and there are some who unfortunately neglect the interpreters or clearly decide not to provide an iota of information before the event.

Interpreters need to convey to the client the reason they have to see the materials before the assignment; they have to explain that interpreting is a fiduciary profession, that we are bound by a strict duty of confidentiality, and make them see we have no interest in the information past the day of the interpretation. When the client is concerned about intellectual property rights or national security, Interpreters can offer flexibility to the client, and for an additional fee, they can agree to review said materials at the client’s place of business, but always ahead of the event.

All interpreting services contracts must include a provision stating that the client assumes the obligation to provide all requested and needed materials to the interpreters as early as possible, and always before the event.

Even with such a clause, sometimes, interpreters get no materials, get part of them, or they get all materials, but a video or a slide were added at the last minute and the interpreting team learns of this change at the venue, right before the start of the event, or even worse: during the rendition when the slide is shown on the screen or the video is played.

In these cases, professional interpreters have two reactions coming straight from their gut simultaneously: “I will stand up and walk away. I am not interpreting this”, and “I am a professional, the client’s incompetence or negligence it’s not the audience’s fault. I’ll stay and try my best”. Both reactions are good and have value. Let me explain:

The good client will always deliver materials on time, you need not to concern about them, but there are other clients late with the materials, deliver only part of them, and sometimes forget to provide needed information altogether, but they have potential, you want to keep them, and they will improve if you try a little harder. I say give these clients a second chance.

As soon as it is evident they will not provide materials, talk to them and clarify that what they did was wrong, but, because you are a consummate professional, you will try your best and stay and interpret the event even though the final result will not be nearly as good as it would be if the materials were provided. If they fail again on a second event: drop them, you are wasting your time with them, and time is money.

Finally, if your contract calls for client to deliver all requested and needed materials and the client did not comply, when you are not interested on that client, and it was a nightmare dealing with them during the preparations for the event, I would walk out without interpreting, demand payment of my fees, explain to them they breached the professional services contract they had with you, and if they refuse to pay, sue them for your fee plus damages and your attorney’s fees.

On both cases you taught the client a lesson: To the client you want to keep, you tried to educate them and keep them on your list. To the client you never want to see again, you showed them that interpreters are professionals they cannot take advantage of.

I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this important subject.

The Super Bowl: Interpreters, American football, and a big day in the United States.

January 27, 2020 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Because Americans love to bring up sports in a conference, and due to the acquired taste needed to enjoy a sport popular in the United States and few other places in the world, every year I write a post on this event.

On February 2 the United States will hold a very American event; it is the most watched TV event in our country, and the day when the game is played is an unofficial holiday that is more popular than most holidays on the official calendar.   I am referring to the Super Bowl: The national professional football championship game in the United States of America; and it is not football… at least not THAT football played in the rest of the world.  This popular sport in the United States is known abroad as “American football,” and even this designation seems troublesome to many who have watched a little American football and do not understand it well.  Although it is mainly played holding a ball, the sport is known in the United States as football for two reasons:  (1) Because this American-born sport comes from “rugby football” (now rugby) that came from soccer (football outside the United States) and (2) Because it is football, but it is not British organized football, which when American football invented was called “association football” and was later known by the second syllable of the word “association”“socc” which mutated into “soccer.”  You now understand where the name came from, but is it really football? For Americans it is. Remember that all other popular team sports in the United States are played with your hands or a stick (baseball, basketball and ice hockey). The only sport in the United States where points can be scored by kicking the ball is (American) football. So, even though most of the time the ball is carried by hand or caught with your hands, sometimes, a team scores or defends field position by kicking or punting the football.   Now, why is all this relevant to us as interpreters?   Because if you interpret from American English you are likely to run into speakers who will talk about the Super Bowl, football, or will use examples taken from this very popular sport in the U.S.

On Sunday, most Americans will gather in front of the TV set to watch the National Football Conference champion San Francisco Forty Niners (they got their name from the 1849 California gold rush) battle the American Football Conference champion Kansas City Chiefs for the Vince Lombardi Trophy (official name of the trophy given to the team that wins the Super Bowl) which incidentally is a trophy in the shape of a football, not a bowl.  It is because the game was not named after a trophy, it was named after a tradition.  There are two football levels in the United States: college football played by amateur students, and professional football.  College football is older than pro-football and for many decades the different college champions were determined by playing invitational football games at the end of the college football season on New Year’s Day.  These games were called (and still are) “Bowls.”  You may have heard of the Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and many others.  When a professional football game was created to determine the over-all champion between the champions of the American and National Conferences, it was just natural (and profitable) to call it the “Super Bowl.”

Although the game will involve two teams representing two regions, the game itself will be played in Miami, Florida where the weather at this time of the year is more welcoming. There will be millions watching the match, and there will be hundreds of millions spent on TV commercials during the game.

As I do every year on these dates, I have included a basic glossary of English<>Spanish football terms that may be useful to you, particularly those of you who do escort, diplomatic, and conference interpreting from American English to Mexican Spanish.  “American” football is very popular in Mexico (where they have college football) Eventually, many of you will face situations where two people will discuss the Super Bowl; as you are interpreting somebody will tell a football story during a presentation; or you may end up at a TV or radio studio simultaneously interpreting a football game for your own or another foreign market.

The following glossary does not cover every term in football; it includes terms very common, and where there were several translations of a football term, I selected the term used in Mexico by the Mexican media that covers the sport.

 

ENGLISH SPANISH
Football Fútbol Americano
National Football League Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano
NFL N-F-L (ene-efe-ele)
American Football Conference Conferencia Americana
National Football Conference Conferencia Nacional
Preseason Pretemporada
Regular season Temporada regular
Playoffs Postemporada
Wildcard Equipo comodín
Standings Tabla de posiciones
Field Terreno de juego
End zone Zona de anotación/ diagonales
Locker room Vestidor
Super Bowl Súper Tazón
Pro Bowl Tazón Profesional/ Juego de estrellas
Uniform & Equipment Uniforme y Equipo
Football Balón/ Ovoide
Jersey Jersey
Helmet Casco
Facemask Máscara
Chinstrap Barbiquejo
Shoulder pads Hombreras
Thigh pads Musleras
Knee pads Rodilleras
Jockstrap Suspensorio
Cleats Tacos
Tee Base
Fundamentals Términos básicos
Starting player Titular
Backup player Reserva
Offense Ofensiva
Defense Defensiva
Special teams Equipos especiales
Kickoff Patada/ saque
Punt Despeje
Return Devolución
Fair catch Recepción libre
Possession Posesión del balón
Drive Marcha/ avance
First and ten Primero y diez
First and goal Primero y gol
Line of scrimmage Línea de golpeo
Neutral zone Zona neutral
Snap Centro
Long snap Centro largo/ centro al pateador
Huddle Pelotón
Pocket Bolsillo protector
Fumble Balón libre
Turnover Pérdida de balón
Takeaway Robo
Giveaway Entrega
Interception Intercepción
Completion Pase completo
Tackle Tacleada/ derribada
Blitz Carga
Pass rush Presión al mariscal de campo
Sack Captura
Run/ carry Acarreo
Pass Pase
“I” Formation Formación “I”
Shotgun Formation Formación escopeta
“T” Formation Formación “T”
Wishbone Formation Formación wishbone
Goal posts Postes
Crossbar Travesaño
Sidelines Líneas laterales/ banca
Chain Cadena
Out-of-bounds Fuera del terreno
Head Coach Entrenador en jefe
Game Officials Jueces
Flag Pañuelo
POSITIONS POSICIONES
Center Centro
Guard Guardia
Offensive Tackle Tacleador ofensivo
Offensive line Línea ofensiva
End Ala
Wide Receiver Receptor abierto
Tight end Ala cerrada
Running Back Corredor
Halfback Corredor
Fullback Corredor de poder
Quarterback Mariscal de campo
Backfield Cuadro defensivo
Defensive end Ala defensiva
Defensive tackle Tacleador defensivo
Nose guard Guardia nariz
Linebacker Apoyador
Cornerback Esquinero
Free safety Profundo libre
Strong safety Profundo fuerte
Place kicker Pateador
Punter Pateador de despeje
Penalty Castigo

Even if you are not a football fan, and even if you are not watching the big game on Sunday, I hope you find this glossary useful.  Now I invite you to comment on football, sports interpreting in general, or maybe you would like to share a “sports interpreting anecdote” with all of us.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2019.

January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2019 ended and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2020, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, this year was packed with learning opportunities.  In 2020 I worked with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had positive developments this year:  For the first time our African interpreter and translator colleagues gathered for the First Africa International Translation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. I had the fortune to attend the event. It was an eye-opener to see how many capable colleagues from all corners of Africa, and many other places in Europe, South America and the United States were committed to have an excellent program full of content. This conference was attended by true professional interpreters and translators who exchanged opinions, attended workshops and presentations, and enjoyed the beauty of Kenya and the enthusiasm of the local interpreters and translators. On a personal note, I had the privilege to be invited to lecture in front of hundreds of language, translation and interpretation students at Kenyatta University. This was an experience I will never forget. After the conference, our Kenyan colleagues organized a safari which I attended. Another unforgettable experience. In 2020 African interpreters and translators will build on top of last year’s accomplishments and hold the Second Africa International Translation Conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

Another “first” took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the Argentine Association of Sign Language Interpreters (AAILS) held its first conference entitled: “1 Jornada de AAILS”. The event was attended by Argentine Sign Language interpreters from all over Argentina, and by interpreters of other languages and representatives from other translation and interpreting organizations from Argentina and abroad. I was lucky to participate in the preconference workshops and the conference itself. The presentations were educational, fun, and informative. I was pleasantly surprised by the level or participation and the energy and talent of the board members and others who collaborated to the success of the conference.

The interpreting profession in Mexico is stronger every day as evidenced by the Organización Mexicana de Traductores’ (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) very successful conference in Guadalajara, with more presentations directed to interpreters than ever before; The Autonomous University of Hidalgo’s University Book Fair and content-packed conference in Pachuca; and the every-year more successful court interpreter workshop and conference for Mexican Sign Language (LSM) in Mexico City once again. This year’s edition added the participation of Mexico City’s prosecution agency (Procuraduría de la Ciudad de Mexico) to the impressive list of international guests, magistrates, judges, and attorneys already collaborating to the success of this project.

The Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters (ABRATES) gave us the biggest show of the year with its magnificent conference. Hundreds of interpreters and translators from all over the world gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil to learn and exchange experiences on a wide variety of subjects, from academic content to business practices, to the most recent developments in technology, to networking, this was a very-well organized, unforgettable experience.

There were many conferences in the United States: the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) held an attendance record-breaking conference in Nashville, Tennessee, The American Translators Association (ATA) had its every-year larger, and more expensive conference in Palm Springs, California, but the one to single out because of its content, organization and attendance, was the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI) conference in Chicago, Illinois. This was a most-needed conference in the Great Lakes Area where many interpreters and translators live and practice, but few quality events are offered. Those who attended the event will be back in 2020 when the conference will take place in Wisconsin, and no doubt they will invite their friends.

On a year packed with great conferences and workshops, interpreters need to know that the prestigious biannual Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference took place in Sheffield, England, with an all-interpreter dedicated track. Some of the best-known, most capable interpreters from Europe and elsewhere shared their knowledge through very interesting, informative, and provocative presentations in an atmosphere like only interpreters can create. This, added to the well-known, high quality translation program, and a spectacular venue, made the conference a second-to-none event. I enjoyed it very much, and developed (and renewed) wonderful friendships with great colleagues.

In some parts of the United States, this past year saw the beginning of important changes in the way interpreters and translators provide their services, empowering the individual and limiting abusive practices by language service agencies. Unfortunately, big corporations and small entities seeking to keep the one-sided labor market they have enjoyed for too long, sold some interpreters the idea these changes hurt them, when in reality they only hurt agencies and leave interpreters and translators free and empowered to provide their services without expendable intermediaries. Sadly, instead of using their time and energy to educate direct clients and explain that services would now be provided without the middle guy, these agencies talked some colleagues into defending the interests of the agencies under the misconception they were defending themselves. The year brought positive developments to the largest court interpreter association in the United States. After a few years of problematic ineffective leadership, during the second half of 2019, a majority of the NAJIT Board elected a truly capable, respected professional and proven leader to be its Chair. Now the association faces a promising future.

Once again, this year saw the growth of our profession in Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was in home RSI where interpreters, who are not technicians, and cannot control their neighborhood environment, or their country’s infrastructure, are exposed to civil liability while the agencies that hire them remain silent on the subject and professional insurance policies will not cover such events. Combined with the agencies’ growing tendency to hire RSI interpreters in developing countries (where infrastructure is not as reliable as it is in the United States, Japan or Europe) at a fee considerably lower than their counterparts in developed nations, to maximize profits, is the biggest threat our profession will face in 2020.

Unfortunately, 2019 will forever be remembered as the year when the largest association of interpreters and translators in the United States elected as “president-elect” a person who holds no certification as an interpreter or translator despite allegedly working with some of the most common, widely used languages. This creates a serious image problem to the association because there are only two possible explanations when a person is around for many years, claiming as working languages, combinations where certifications are readily available: Either the person has no certification because owners of agencies who do not interpret or translate do not need them, in which case interpreters and translators will have as president-elect an agency owner, not a colleague; or the person translates or interprets without a certification, in which case ATA members will be represented by a person who makes a living by doing exactly what the association fights against: translating or interpreting without being certified. Very sad.

2018 will forever be remembered as the year when ineptitude destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Spanish language federal court interpreter certification exam, until then most trusted interpreter exam in any discipline in the United States. Even though there were two examination rounds in 2019, nobody has been held accountable at the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). The year that ended a few days ago corroborated that ineptitude unacceptable in the private sector has no consequences in the federal government.

Throughout the world, colleagues continue to fight against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and other problems. Some European countries are now facing outsourcing of interpreting services for the first time.

Once again, interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards creating questionable certification programs, and offering pseudo-conferences and webinars to recruit interpreters for exploitation while hiding behind some big-name presenters, many of whom have agreed to participate in these events without knowledge of these ulterior motives.

No year can be one hundred percent pariah-safe, so we had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2019 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services.

As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, much changed and much stayed the same. I focus on the good things while I guard against the bad ones. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

How to get (and keep) direct clients.

December 30, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession, but unfortunately, it is not always perceived as such. To be recognized we need to look and behave like better-known professions like physicians, attorneys and accountants. A big part of this effort concerns the way we get our clients. As an attorney, I worked with direct clients, therefore, when it was time for me to practice interpreting, and understanding interpreters are also professionals, I looked for my own clientele. Every time I have a chance, I tell my interpreter friends and colleagues to look for direct clients and move away from the agency-dependent model.

The first thing many colleagues ask me is how they can get direct clients and free themselves from having to deal with agencies, and give them part of what they earned. There is no silver bullet. There are several approaches and we must use the tactics that best suit our specific practice, personality, and needs. I will now share some actions that have brought me positive results and have allowed me to directly work with my clients without intermediaries who tell you what to do, force you to fill out tons of paperwork to get paid, impose nonsensical requirements to the way you deliver your services, and often pay late.

One of the first things we can do is to look at our lives, relatives, friends and acquaintances and see if someone can be a direct client or could be a bridge to get to our clientele. Sometimes a cousin or an in-law might work for a business where our services are needed. Many interpreters live and work in countries different from their birthplace or where they went to school. Look at your classmates and their immediate environment. Sometimes you discover that the kid you saw at the school cafeteria or the college library is now a bank president, owns a big business, married an entrepreneur, or is now an elected official in a position to hire interpreting services. If you have a president, governor, CEO, business owner, or professional on your list, go knock on their doors and renew that relationship. I have done this often and clients have come through former college friends now high-ranking politicians, businesspeople, and professionals in various countries.

Another useful practice is to keep up with business developments in your community, your field of specialization, and economic and political changes where you live. I once learned that one of the biggest companies in the world was moving to my hometown lured by tax incentives. I visited them as soon as they opened for business and offered my services, followed up several times, and when the opportunity came, I provided my services going the extra mile to please them and to develop trust. They do business all over the world and they have been my clients for years now.

I am a firm believer in conferences and I attend plenty of them every year. I go to interpreting and translation conferences all over the world, but unlike many who only attend them to get continuing education credits or to see their friends, I also promote my teaching and training services with fellow colleagues and organizations, and I look for capable newcomers in all languages and from all locations, not to recruit them for an agency and get them to work for peanuts, but to add them to my database I share with my preferred clients when they ask me for a certain language or specialized interpreting service I do not provide.  Part of keeping your direct clients happy, and keeping them away from the agencies, is to point them in the right direction so they can directly retain their other interpreters. No agencies involved, and I do not charge a finder’s fee or take a commission from the interpreters’ pay. My benefit is not the few dollars I can make from sharing my interpreter databank with the client (If I needed that little money to make a living I would not be working as an interpreter) my benefit is the deepening of the bond with my client, that trust that makes you indispensable to them.

I also attend non-linguist conferences on subject matters and sectors I work as an interpreter. If you interpret medicine or biology, go to medical, pharmaceutical, biology and dentistry conferences, that is where you will find your direct clients. In my case, going to business, aviation, financial, legal, and sports conferences and trade shows allows me to meet potential direct clients and try my sales pitch.

Writing articles, blog posts, books and manuals helps you reach potential clients. It is also an ice breaker and a useful tool to back up your position or to explain why the clients need you.

A very successful and reliable way to get direct clients is letting potential clients watch you providing your services to another entity, even their competitors. At many times the counterparty at a negotiation table approaches me after the session and asks me if I would work with them; a person attending a conference talks to me about interpreting for a conference they are organizing somewhere else in the world. I cannot tell you how often attorneys from the law firm opposite to the law office I am providing my services for have asked me how I do long consecutive interpretation, tell me that all interpreters they worked with before constantly ask them to stop so they can interpret short segments, and then invite me to discuss a possible collaboration at a later time.

I keep my eyes and ears open all the time, and when the time is appropriate, the opportunity looks good, and the other person is receptive, I offer my services, it does not matter where: a bar, a sports stadium, an airplane, and many other situations.

I use these opportunities to explain what I do and the value of my services. I explain I am not cheap, and when I learn the person has used interpreters, or they tell me their company uses the services of an agency, I explain to them the benefits of retaining me directly, including the money they will save by elimination the middle guy.

Sometimes I work with agencies and I provide my services to international organizations and government agencies in several countries. There are good agencies, for the most part at the top end of the market, who care for quality and pay professional fees. Professional interpreters can work with some of these high-end agencies, international organizations, and government agencies for occasional services after signing a contract. In these situations, the agency that retains an interpreter to do a Nobel Prize winners conference, or the official entity that hires you for a service where you decide whether you accept the assignment or not, are your direct clients. This is a very different situation from an ongoing, several times a week (or month) assignments where the agency sets conditions, orders you not to talk to their client about your services or qualifications, and calls interpreters based on their availability, not individual skills and credentials. This is a direct client model and such practice is unacceptable.

Up to this point, we have covered several means to get direct clients; we will now deal with the most difficult part of working on your own, like a real professional: You need to keep the client.

Keeping a client is very difficult, mainly at the beginning of the professional relationship, but it is an ongoing challenge. You cannot assume a client will stay with you until eternity. Clients are vulnerable to market changes, economic developments, financial crisis, technological developments, legislative amendments, and C-suite changes that set different priorities and new policy. As interpreters we must navigate through these unchartered waters and stay afloat.

Because this is difficult, and time consuming, interpreters should need to evaluate every professional relationship, and assess each client’s value. When the return on your investment is poor or non-existent, drop that client. Keep the best of the best. Develop a strong relationship only with those clients who will benefit you in all (or at least most) of these areas: honesty, reliability, respect, easy access to the top, flexibility, cooperation, professionalism, pay, field of practice, loyalty.

These are your “A-list” clients. You may only have one, maybe there is nobody there yet. That is fine, but do not lower the bar. It means that at this time your best direct clients are “B-list” entities and individuals. Always keep, and fight to keep your “A-listers”, keep your “B-listers” until you have to make room for an “A-list” client, and dump the rest.

To retain “A-listers” you have to keep them happy all the time. This means you have to provide impeccable service and then you have to go the extra mile. Your job with the “A-lister” goes beyond the booth, the law office, or the negotiating table. It includes consulting, providing suggestions, volunteering evaluations, quick research, flexible hours, and priority services. From suggesting the type of interpreters needed, location of the booths, equipment to be used, cultural aspects to be observed or avoided, witness preparation, speaker orientation before a conference, review of printed materials and Power Point slides and translations, to evaluating sound quality of videos to be interpreted, most convenient hotels, restaurants and coffee shops near the venue in a foreign country, and escort interpreting for the principal, sometimes at no extra cost. To keep the “A-list” client you have to be willing and available to travel at the last minute when needed, and to take the four-in-the-morning phone call from the client.

Not all direct clients need (or deserve) that level of attention, but you have to give them something that your competitors, individuals and agencies, will not provide. You need to offer all services mentioned above, but you have to decide what level of intensity to offer as part of your service case-by-case. You now see why you cannot keep all direct clients, but just the best ones. It is time-consuming, you need to gain the client’s trust and loyalty. That is hard.

It is a lot of work, but it is well-paid, not just monetarily (although this is an essential element) but also in freedom, dignity and appreciation. All excellent, reliable interpreters can work exclusively with direct clients, it is a matter of time and effort. It will take some time, but if you are willing to try, start your transition to direct clients now. I now invite you to share with us your suggestions to get and keep direct clients, and please, do not write to defend agencies, they have their own blogs where they constantly praise the benefits of their business model in the interpreting industry.

The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.

November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.

Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.

Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?

Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.

Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).

How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?

The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.

The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.

In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.

Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji”  and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!

Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!