The new government could help interpreters in the U.S.

January 20, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

“We are sorry, but we will not be needing your services after all. We decided to hire some interpreters from the country of the people attending the conference…”  Does this message sound familiar? How about this: “…They decided not to retain me because they found somebody less expensive in South America.” (It could be Asia, Africa, or Eastern Europe).

Every interpreter in the United States (and other countries) has been part of this situation too many times in their career. The reality is that many agencies and event organizers are trying to save a buck, and with globalization, it is now very easy to hire a team of interpreters in a foreign country, offer to pay them in U.S. dollars (or euros), and bring them to interpret an event in the United States (or Western Europe) for very little money, compared to what professional interpreters typically make in that market. The foreign interpreters may be excellent, good, or bad; most likely, they will not be acquainted with the local culture, geography, current events, humor, and idiomatic expressions of the place where they are going to interpret, but they will save the agency a lot of money. To them, the little money they will get paid, and the second rate accommodations provided by the promoter of the event will be acceptable because they will be earning more money (and in hard currency) than their typical fees in their home market. The result is not good for the American-based interpreters who cannot afford to work for so little just because of the cost of living and doing business in the United States. I believe that it is not the best possible outcome for the audience either because the foreign-based interpreters (even some of the best) will not be able to understand and therefore interpret all the nuances of the speaker’s presentation just because they do not live in the United States.  Every U.S. interpreter has had this experience when working with a colleague who comes from a different culture, and we have also suffered the painful, stressful situations when we do not get a geographic site, local celebrity’s name, or regional expression because we do not live in the country.

The only one who relatively wins in this situation is the agency or event promoter; and I say relatively wins because they will eventually suffer the impact of this culture-deprived renditions.

To complete the sad picture I have just described, we have the case of those “less expensive” video remote interpreters who provide services for events held within the United States from abroad, and the telephonic interpreting services agencies that have moved a big chunk of their business to foreign countries with little overhead, lax legislation, and much lower salaries. The result: a good number of U.S. based experienced conference interpreters, willing to do video remote interpreting for a fee set by the American market, and many telephonic interpreters, including many who are just entering that market often encouraged by the same agencies alien to the profession but part of the “industry”, will lose their jobs or find little work because the bulk of the interpreting services to American clients are now provided from calling centers in Asia and Central America, and quite a few agencies look for video remote conference interpreters abroad without even looking for them in the United States.

This week a new president takes the oath of office in the United States, and a very prominent part of his agenda deals with protecting American jobs. This is where we can take advantage of the current mood in Washington, D.C., and demand that the new government keeps its promises to the interpreters and translators in the United States.

A new tougher immigration policy will benefit U.S. interpreters if we move our chess pieces wisely.  We must demand Congress, The White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security to enforce the labor laws of the United States. You see, most foreign interpreters brought by the agencies enter the United States on a tourist/ visitor visa without ever disclosing the fact that they will work in the U.S.

Working with a visitor’s visa is against the law; misrepresenting your purpose to enter the United States is cause for denial of admissibility and in some instances it could be a crime. Agencies that bring foreign interpreters this way are also breaking the law and should be investigated and fined by the federal government. If the law is properly enforced to protect American workers (that is: all of us) the agencies would need to file a work visa petition with an immigration service center, show a business necessity to bring that individual to do the job, demonstrate that there are no United States citizen or lawful permanent resident interpreters in the United States who are willing and able to perform the service the agency needs in exchange for the prevailing wage or fee for that service in that part of the United States. If the petition is approved, the foreign interpreter would need to attend an interview with a consular agent at the U.S. embassy in his country, and demonstrate that he is qualified to do the job, that he will go back to his country after the assignment is over, and that he has no criminal record anywhere in the world, including any past affiliation to terrorist groups or prior immigration violations in the United States such as deportations, overstays, or having worked without legal authority. Only then, and not a minute earlier, these people could enter the U.S. to work as interpreters for that conference. As you can imagine, this takes time, costs money, and often requires of the services of an immigration attorney. You see, dear friends and colleagues, all of a sudden the U.S. based conference interpreter got a lot cheaper than the foreigner, even if the agency needs to pay market fees in America.  This is our chance to end the “interpreter smuggling” that is happening right now in the United States. Of course, this does not cover foreign interpreters who come as part of the team of a foreign diplomat, head of state, dignitary, or celebrity. Those interpreters will enter the country with their client and for a specific mission that requires of them personally based on other characteristics. They will be paid in their home countries for a service that would not be performed by anyone else, American or foreigner. Even though it has been treated as one and the same, it is very different to enter the United States as the interpreter of the president of Argentina, and enter the country to interpret a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center.

The new government advocates a policy that keeps jobs in the States and will likely sanction those businesses who move abroad and try to sell goods and services back to the American consumer. There is no question that all these interpreting agencies that have moved abroad will qualify for sanctions as long as they provide their services to people in the United States. I believe that the fines and the cost of litigation to keep their facilities abroad selling their services in the United States will be more expensive than closing shop in Costa Rica or India and moving the telephonic interpreting center to Arizona or California.

I understand that this entry may not be very popular with many off my friends and colleagues abroad, but I ask you to please pause and examine your market structure so you can strive for better and more professional conditions in your own countries.  I also believe that much of what I say here can be applied, and in fact has already been implemented in some countries. Only when these conditions even up across the markets we will be able to universally enjoy the advantages of globalization.

You see, dear friends and colleagues in the United States, there is plenty we can do to protect the profession and advance our working conditions under the philosophy of the new administration.  I now ask you to share your comments with the rest of us, and I beg you to please limit your participation to the issues subject matter of this blog, and refrain from politically charged comments either for or against the new government.

How can I get work as conference interpreter?

January 13, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The title of this blog entry is a question that I am asked everywhere all the time.  As I travel, I come across many great colleagues, some who just graduated and are now starting their professional careers, some veteran interpreters with a long experience in other fields such as court, healthcare, or military interpreting, and others who, for other reasons, have decided to try their luck as conference interpreters.

The story I hear is basically the same all the time: “I really want to be a conference interpreter, but there is no work”, or “who should I talk to if I want to work as a conference interpreter?”

These questions are valid, and they do need an answer, but before we get to that, I would like to emphasize something else: conference interpreting is difficult and very demanding. Because of its diversity of subject matters, the importance of the events to be interpreted, and the quality-demanding audience that listens to your rendition, it is like no other field. Although interpreting in other areas can be extremely hard, and sometimes it could be high-profile, no other interpreting work requires it every time.

I want to make sure that you understand that I am not saying other fields are easier; in fact sometimes they are more difficult as they demand an accurate professional rendition under adverse circumstances such as noisy courtrooms, military bases, and hospitals; and in the case of court interpreting, they require of a complete rendition with the interpreter having very little time to do it (as it happens with the short consecutive mode that is used in court for the testimony of a witness). I am just making the point that conference interpreting often requires that the interpreter work with a speech produced by a very sophisticated speaker, and (unlike other interpretations where sometimes the target’s native language skills are somewhat limited) it is always rendered to a very knowledgeable audience that, although monolingual, can easily recognize if the registry, terminology, grammar, general vocabulary, and skills of the interpreter are up to the level of the event to be interpreted.

For these reasons, it is quite important to be honest about our skills’ level at present time, and based on that answer, decide if we can move on to answer the question on the title above, or if we should work on our craft first, and postpone the question for later.

There is no single answer that tells us how to get work as conference interpreters. It is very different to work as staff or independent contractor for an international organization such as the OAS, UN, or the European Parliament, where you have to go through certain established protocols and systems, including testing and sometimes background investigations. The criteria to be satisfied and the approval process is also different for those interpreters who want to do conferences for government entities as staffers or independents. For these jobs, testing and security clearances are usually required, always following a process determined by the appropriate country government or particular agency. There is plenty of information on how to try to get these assignments, so we will not cover them further in this post. We will concentrate on how to get conference work as an independent contractor in the private sector.

Conference work in the private sector may include interpreting for corporations, colleges, professional associations, or political and special interest groups.  The events where interpreting is required can go from enormous conferences, business negotiations, professional lectures, and college courses, to political rallies, press briefings, or commencement speeches.  The only thing conference work never includes is the so-called “conference work” that in reality is community interpreting.

I am referring to the assignments to interpret a neighborhood association’s meeting, the planning of an action by a community organization, a recruitment effort by a religious organization, and similar jobs. They do not qualify as conference interpreting because they are done under precarious circumstances such as lack of interpreting equipment, even a booth or at least a table-top. In this so-called “conference interpreting” assignments the interpreter is expected to do the job in sub-standard working conditions and without any quality control.  It is not unusual to find an interpreter working solo on these projects, and there is a practice of mixing professional interpreters with para-professionals in an attempt to mask the lack of quality in the rendition. Organizers of these events believe that they can attract struggling professional interpreters hungry for conference work, and pay them a miserable fee, if they advertise the job as “conference interpreting”, even though it is not.

The first thing qualified professional interpreters need to do if they want conference work is to physically be where the action is. Unlike healthcare, community, and court interpreting, conference interpreting does not happen in every city and town. These are large expensive events, require of planning and take place for a purpose: dissemination of knowledge, motivation of a sales force, rallying behind a specific idea, candidate or organization, presentation of a newly discovered scientific finding, and so on.

Obviously, these events need to be held in cities with infrastructure, airports, train stations, hotels, convention centers, universities, and many times, other unrelated attractions such as beaches, amusement parks, or historical sites.  Conference interpreters need to be in these places; ready, willing and able to jump into an assignment at a moment’s notice. Event organizers, interpreting agencies, and direct clients will always go for the local talent first. It is more flexible and cost-effective. How can an agency call you at the last moment, or how can a colleague ask you to cover for her in case of an emergency, unless you live in the city where the conference is taking place?

Even in the age of remote conference interpreting, clients will go for the local interpreter first because that is the person they know.  It is possible to remotely interpret a conference from a small town anywhere in the world, but it is next to impossible for the agency or event organizer to find these interpreters in a place far away. Interpreters need to be where the assignments are, at least to be seen and acknowledged as part of the very competitive conference interpreter community.

My many years of experience doing this work have taught me that the international organization and government agency work in the United States is in Washington, D.C. and New York City.  I also learned, and statistics back it up, that the private sector conference work in America is in Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Honolulu, and Miami.  My experience elsewhere, with my language combination, tells me that the action takes place in Cancun, Panama City, Buenos Aires, London, Dubai, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.  Yes, there are secondary markets, many of them in the Western United States, but they do not have many year-round, simultaneous, world class events. It is not the same to host an annual big event in a city, or to have five to ten big events at the same time in the same city, several at the same venue, as it happens in Chicago’s McCormick Place.  I lived in a mid-size city in the Midwestern United States for a few years, and I did not get any conference work to speak of. Professionally speaking, those were wasted years that I will never get back.  To summarize: regular conference interpreting work requires relocation to one of these cities.

The next important thing to get work is to be able and willing to travel at any time, and with no advanced notice. I have gone from watching TV at home to an airplane bound for Europe with an hour’s notice. In fact, as I write this entry, I am getting ready for a trip abroad to cover an assignment I just got yesterday afternoon. Traveling for conference work means several things: (1) You need to be free to travel all the time without any personal, health, or family obstacles or complications; (2) You must be able to travel anywhere. This means that you have to be eligible to get visas to most countries in the world, and you always need to have a valid passport. (3) You need to be a good businessperson with resources to invest in your career.  This means that you must have the financial resources to buy a plane ticket and hotel room, many times at the most expensive rate because of the late purchase, knowing that it will take weeks, and sometimes months, to be reimbursed by the client. If nothing else, you need to have a healthy international credit card. Personally, just in case I have no time to do it at the last minute, I keep at home enough money in the most popular foreign currencies (euro, pound, Canadian dollar, yen, Mexican peso, etc.) so I can leave right away.  As you can see, conference interpreting is a career that demands a lot, and it is not for everybody.

Finally, to be able to get work, an interpreter who meets all the characteristics above, needs to get in touch with the most reputable agencies, event organizers, big corporations, and offer his services. These interpreters will not get any work, but they cannot give up. They need to insist every few months and systematically contact these major players until one day they get the call. It will probably be because a regular conference interpreter got sick, died, had a conflict or an emergency, and nobody else from the trusted regular roster was available. It is then that the agency will get a hold of the most enthusiastic new interpreter who never let them forget him, despite the fact that he did not get any work for a couple of years.

Then, it is totally up to you: the new interpreter, to be ready, prepared and willing to give the performance of your life. You will only have one chance to show your skills in the booth. This is the day when you must leave a good impression on the agency, event organizer, technicians, and more importantly, the other interpreters you will work with. These colleagues will give feedback to the client, and their opinion carries a lot of weight. They will also become your source of referrals if you are good. Be an excellent booth mate and shine.

One last thing: Please do not charge rock bottom fees for your services. It does not matter how excited you are with your first conference job.  The excitement will be gone in a month and you will have to live with your fees for a long time. A new interpreter who enters the market charging lower fees will soon become the pariah of the profession. Nobody will want to work with you. You must understand that charging less not only hurts you, it hurts your colleagues, and it diminishes the profession.

I hope this long answer helps some of you interested in this fabulous career of conference interpreter. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.

The “must attend” conferences of 2017.

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

2016 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) are willing to pay for what they need but are looking for the best service at the best possible 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 different issues that have to be addressed.  Today, at the dawn of a new year, the time for planning activities, and programming agendas, we will concentrate on one of them: Professional development.

It is practically impossible to beat the competition, command a high professional fee, and have a satisfied client who does not want to have anything to do with any other interpreter but you, unless you can deliver quality interpreting and state-of-the-art technology.  In other words, we need to be better interpreters.  We need to study, we have to 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 need to attend professional conferences.

I personally find immense value in professional conferences because you learn from the workshops and presentations, you network with colleagues and friends, and you find out 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.  Fortunately (for many of us) attending a professional conference is tax deductible in our respective countries.  Unfortunately there are so many attractive conferences and we have to pick and choose where to go.   I understand that some of you may decide to attend one conference per year or maybe your policy is to go to conferences that are 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 makes a conference possible, and I wish I could attend them all.

Because this is impossible, I decided to share with all of you the 2017 conferences that I am determined to attend:

The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) Annual Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina (April 22-23).  I go to this conference because it is IAPTI. Because it is about us, the interpreters and translators! This conference, and this organization for that matter, presents a unique point of view of our profession that 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 of the 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 deal with agencies, corporate clients and governments, because the absence of all those other players fosters this dialogue.  You can attend the presentations and workshops knowing that no presenter is there to sell you anything and that is fun to have at least once a year. Extra added bonus: Beautiful Buenos Aires! I am personally delighted that IAPTI decided to take its conference to Latin America where so many colleagues need these events.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. (May 19-21) I am determined to be in Washington, D.C. in May for the largest judiciary and legal interpreter and translator gathering anywhere in the world.  This conference lets me have an accurate idea of the changes in this area that is so important for our profession in the United States.  It is a unique event because everybody shares the same field and you get to see and network with colleagues that do not attend other non-court interpreting conferences. Extra added bonus: As the capital of the United States, Washington, D.C. offers interpreters and translators the opportunity to physically see where it all happens: the government institutions and agencies, monuments, museums, and the federal court system: History and the law!

International Federation of Translators (FIT) XXI World Congress in Brisbane, Australia (August 3-5) This is an excellent event to attend for several reasons: It is an international meeting of professionals who actually live all over the world. There are other big events where interpreters and translators from many countries get together, but most of them live in the United States or the United Kingdom; at the FIT World Congress most of the professionals attending the event will be coming from their respective countries, bringing along different perspectives, points of view, and first-hand information on the status of the profession somewhere different from the country where you live. Extra added bonus: Despite the long trip for most of us, the central theme of the congress is “Disruption and Diversification”. Enough said: This are issues that affect all of us and should be near and dear to the heart of all professional interpreters and translators.

XXI Translation and Interpreting Congress San Jerónimo (FIL/OMT) in Guadalajara, Mexico (November 25-26) Every year the Mexican Translators Association (OMT) puts together a magnificent program featuring well-known presenters from all over the world. Coming from an unprecedented success during their XX Congress, the 2017 edition will surely 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 in 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 a purchase some books, listen to some or the most renowned authors in the world, or just window shop in between sessions.

I know the choice is difficult, and some of you may have reservations about professional gatherings like the ones I covered above.  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 of these conferences, 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 2017.

What we learned as Interpreters in 2016.

December 29, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, 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, 2016 was no exception.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low.  Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.

Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.

Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.

Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 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, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

The Christmas traditions of the United States. The Professional Interpreter blog

December 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope that you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2017. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

Las Posadas: Christmas Season and Terminology of Mexico. The Professional Interpreter blog.

December 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

It has been a great year full of professional activity. I have been honored with your preference for this interpreting blog where we explore all facets of our craft and other disciplines and events that help us improve our services while advancing the profession. We will continue to tackle these issues in 2017, but for the next two weeks I will try to get into the Christmas/End of the Year spirit with a couple of posts that I hope contribute to the season’s mood while providing some useful information at the same time.  Today, I will go back to a theme that seems to be quite popular every year: “Las Posadas”.

Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary.  Because this year has not been different, I decided to repost one of my most popular articles where I write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.

The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.

Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.

Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.

These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany.  I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.

                        Español English
Outside Singers Inside Response Outside Singers Inside Response
En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
No seas inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague, señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
Upon opening the doors at the final stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses in unison:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada. Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Cantemos con alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, and thank you for reading this blog during 2016.  Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.

Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.