Sometimes interpreters hurt themselves in social media.

July 22, 2015 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is impossible to do business in our competitive environment without social media.  We all know the tremendous advantages interpreters have when they complement their service and advertisement with technology, and more specifically, with social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others.

Many colleagues have websites, write blogs, communicate on Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime; a good number of them gain access to list-serves, chat groups, and Facebook professional groups every day.  Most of us do it for the same reasons: To keep up with changes and developments in our profession, advertise our services, clarify a concept, term, or policy, and to develop our network. These are all valid and legitimate reasons to go on line on a daily basis. Unfortunately, in my opinion and that of many others, some interpreters, without even realizing it, are hurting themselves by doing what they are doing.  Let me explain:

The Facebook profile and cover photos.  Some colleagues use their personal Facebook page for their professional business. It has never been a good idea to mix both parts of a person’s life. It diminishes the credibility and reputation of the interpreter by: (1) giving access to potential and established clients to the interpreter’s personal life. This makes the interpreter look careless and provides personal information that a client rarely needs to know: It is difficult to think of a situation where a client benefits from knowing that the interpreter broke up with her significant other, or by being aware of the weekend party where the interpreter drank himself into oblivion. (2) The interpreter looks careless and uninterested in the profession. The client’s first impression is that the interpreter does not care enough about his work to have a dedicated professional Facebook page, or that he is such a bad interpreter that has never even considered the option.

I cannot think of a worse idea than using a sports team logo, a pet’s picture, or a picture of the interpreter with his significant other, or his children as a profile or cover photos for a professional Facebook page.  It projects lack of professionalism to the business. It sends a message that the interpreter is not very well organized, that he constantly mixes personal and professional affairs. Those pictures of your favorite team, beloved dog, or cute children have to go. You can have them in your personal page, provided that you separate it from your business activities. Chat groups, Facebook professional groups should be accessed from your professional page, the one without your team logo, cat or kid.

The advertiser without a website.  If you are going to do business as a professional interpreter, get a website! It is a fundamental element of your image as a professional. Go ahead and spend the money, hire a web designer and a web master. Your image will skyrocket after you go on line, and please… do not chose a “do-it-yourself” website. They look crappy and all those banners show disrespect for your client.

Once you have a professional website, you can go to professional groups and websites to advertise your services. It looks very careless and rests you credibility to advertise a workshop or a personal appearance by simply posting on the chatroom. The correct way to do it is to advertise in the professional group’s wall with a nice add with photos if you wish, but always linking the add to your website where all pertinent information will be available for those interested. By the way, please make sure that your email address for information (and in general for dealing with a client) is a professional address with your professional identity and your domain as part of it. Generic Yahoo, Gmail, and AOL email addresses look dated and unprofessional. Obviously, email addresses that made you laugh when you were in college should have never made it to your professional image. Lose the “partyanimal” “sexmachine” “shoptillyoudrop” email addresses immediately!

The assignment recruiter.  There are few things in life more annoying than a person trying to cover an assignment for her agency or organization by going into a professional discussion group and asking for availability. First of all, the people who register as members of a group of this kind, do it for professional and academic reasons; maybe even for some social purposes as well. These groups were never intended to be a substitute of other dedicated websites where people offer services and recruit individuals.

This practice also reflects very poorly on the person actively doing the recruiting. It projects an image of a somewhat lazy person who does not try the proper channels to cover an assignment, but simply takes the shortcut and dumps the question in the middle of the chat room annoying others, and also proving that the agency or organization she or he represents does not care for quality, all they want to do (as many of their pairs do) is to get “anybody” to send him to the client.  If you don’t want to savage your professional reputation, please stay away from the: “any French interpreter available tomorrow” so unprofessional postings.

The “what does it mean/how do you say” crowd.  All the above practices hurt your professional practice, but the one that inflicts the worst damage, and many times the least noticed by the person doing it, is the ever-growing habit of going online to any and all professional groups to ask basic questions about terminology, vocabulary, and interpreting.  I fully support those who enter the chat groups to ask about a questionable prospective client or about policy and business practices. I believe that this is one of the reasons we have these groups for; the ones that really do not belong, are the questions by many asking for the meaning of a word or term. In my opinion it shows laziness and ignorance.  It is very different to go on line and ask a group for their opinion on the interpretation or context of a term after the person asking the question explains the research process he or she followed, its results, and conclusions.  This is a very enriching exercise that we all can learn from. However, to have a person going to the group and ask: “How do you say such and such in Mexico, or in Peru” is demeaning of the group. That person is not only showing that he did not bother to study and research, he is also showing his professional level, especially when the questions about words are so basic that anybody with true command of the language should know. It also shows the lack of general knowledge that a person has. I have to tell you that these questions are extremely annoying, but they have helped me to compile a list of those who I will never contact for an assignment because of their total lack of knowledge, and more importantly, their absolute disregard for research and study.

Dear colleagues, social media is an invaluable tool for an interpreter when properly used, but it can also be the dagger of your professional seppuku when abused and misused in the fashion described above. I truly encourage you all to get rid of these practices that do nothing but hurt you personally, and damage the profession.  I am aware of the fact that to some of you these examples can look as an exaggeration and nonsense on my part. I assure you that many potential clients think like I do and they are watching everything you post on line. I now invite you to share other practices that go on in social media, and in your opinion, they hurt the interpreter professionally.

When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

June 30, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is an extremely difficult profession. Besides mastering their craft, interpreters must know enough about practically everything, possess the will to research and study, and be confident and clear when assisting others who need to communicate in two different languages. This is a plate full of challenges, sleep-deprivation, and the need to be aware that this is a business where we need to excel if we want to survive.  Unfortunately, too many times this tough profession gets even tougher because of ignorant, incompetent, narrow-minded, or lazy, supervisors and administrators, even when they are well-intentioned and mean no harm to the interpreter or the profession.

We all know that there are good, hard-working, and capable administrators, many of them former interpreters who know what it takes to do a good job (although some former colleagues, for whatever reason, have not been successful as supervisors or administrators). I am not talking about them here. Today I am referring to those who fit the description above and have made the lives of our colleagues impossible, and even nightmarish.

There are many examples of poor decisions and unfortunate actions by these “people in power”, and I am sure you all have your fair share of them. My travels take me to so many places where I hear these stories from frustrated interpreters, so I know, as well as you do, that there are numerous examples where to choose from. This selection process was, at the same time, difficult and easy, but I finally settled for the two cases that I will describe below. In choosing them, I took into account the magnitude of the error, and the impact this has on ourselves and our profession. I say to my friends and colleagues who do not practice in the court system that the examples are from the legal field, but they could easily be from medical, community, military, or conference interpreting.

Some time ago, an administrator in a court setting put an interpreter’s knowledge of his duties, legal procedure, and rules of ethics to the test, by reacting unexpectedly to a very delicate situation.

This seasoned veteran interpreter was working in a trial, together with another colleague who apparently was fairly new to the practice.  They were interpreting for a member of the jury who did not know English (the main language in the jurisdiction where the trial was taking place). Although uncommon, there are places where the law allows people of other languages to be a part of a jury. This was one of those cases.

In the middle of the trial, a police officer was called to testify. During the testimony, he went on to describe how he had learned about the circumstances of the case, and part of what he was describing to the jury, had to do with the manner in which he gained access to the home of the defendant.  At that point, the non-English speaking juror that the interpreters were assisting, passed a note to the judge through the bailiff. The judge read the note, and asked the interpreters to sight translate it for him and the attorneys on a sidebar, so the jury would not hear what this person wrote. The note was a question from the non-English speaker to the police officer who was testifying: The juror wanted to know if the officer had authorization from the owner of the house (the defendant) to enter the property. After discussing it with the attorneys, the judge allowed the question, as in this jurisdiction, like in many others, members of the jury are permitted to ask questions during a trial. The veteran interpreter sight translated the question aloud, for the record and for the benefit of the witness and the jury. The novice interpreter stayed with the interpreting equipment ready to simultaneously interpret back the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror. Once the question was posed to the witness in English by the veteran interpreter, he went back to his place next to the novice interpreter. I do not have the transcription of the exact answer, but after a moment, the police officer responded something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Regardless of the truthfulness of the officer’s statement, for all practical purposes, his answer was that he was acting legally when he entered the property. At that point it was for the jury to assess the credibility of the witness and decide if he was telling the truth. After this answer, the jury was well equipped to make that decision. Unfortunately, the non-English speaker juror did not hear a complete interpretation of the answer given by the policeman. As noted above, the rendition the juror heard in English was as follows, and again, I did not have the benefit of the transcript, so the officer’s answer was something like this: “…No… but because of the specific circumstances of the situation, this is one of those exceptions allowed by the statute…” and he went on to describe the circumstances and the exception to the rule. Sadly, the interpretation by the novice interpreter was: “No”. Nothing else.

When the veteran interpreter, who was sitting next to the novice interpreter heard the rendition, and saw how the novice interpreter just kept going without even trying to correct his mistake, the veteran interpreter worried. He immediately realized that there was a juror who had asked a question, and at this time was at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the jury because an interpreter had omitted a crucial part of the testimony. Dear colleagues, while the other jurors heard how the police officer was legally allowed to enter the house of the defendant, the non-English speaker heard the officer say “no”. He heard him answer to his question by saying that he was not allowed to enter the home. The veteran interpreter tried to make eye contact with his colleague, also wrote him a note, but the novice interpreter ignored the efforts of his fellow interpreter, and avoiding his stare, he just kept going as if nothing serious had happened.

As soon as the veteran interpreter realized that his colleague was not planning to correct the rendition, he wrote a note to the judge asking for a moment to talk to him and the attorneys. The bailiff gave the note to the judge who read it, acknowledged the veteran interpreter, and signaled that he would listen to him as soon as it was prudent to come to a stop in the trial.

A few minutes later, the judge took a recess, asked the jury to leave the courtroom, and in open court, without the presence of the jury, he listened to the veteran interpreter who explained what happened. After some debate by the attorneys, the judge decided that he was not going to tell the jury about the misinterpretation; instead, he considered that the best way to cure the mistake was to allow the prosecution to explain during closing arguments that the officer was legally allowed to enter the defendant’s residence because of an exception to the law and that the police officer knew this when he decided to go inside the house. This is exactly how it happened, and the problem was cured by the judge’s decision and thanks to the skill and quick thinking of the veteran interpreter. After the trial the judge thanked the interpreter for disclosing this issue that otherwise would have gone unnoticed by the court.

This would have been a happy ending for everybody, even the novice interpreter who thanks to the actions of his veteran colleague learned from his mistake without harming the legal process .  Unfortunately, there is more to the story.

When the court administrator in charge of interpreter services found out what had happened during the trial, she immediately asked the veteran interpreter to go see her.  Apparently, when the interpreter got there, she was fuming because, according to her, the interpreter had made a big mistake by writing a note to the judge informing him that he needed to talk to him and the attorneys. In the opinion of this administrator, who is not an interpreter or an attorney, the veteran interpreter needed to stand up and immediately state aloud, for the record, that the interpreters needed to correct something, and then immediately correct the mistake of the novice interpreter by doing a full rendition of the police officer’s answer to the non-English speaking juror.  The veteran interpreter could not believe what he was hearing as the administrator spoke of sanctions to the interpreter for not making the correction right away on the record!

Obviously, the veteran interpreter immediately explained to the administrator that her suggested solution was not even an option, that interpreters need to know the basic rules of criminal proceeding, and that doing what the administrator was suggesting as the solution to the problem would have been nefarious. This action could have risked a mistrial because of an interpreter decision to disclose something to the jury without first informing the judge and the attorneys who should be the ones who, after arguing the facts and the law, decide how to cure the error.  Obviously, the judge thought that in this case, instead of correcting the rendition the way the administrator wanted, the appropriate solution was to fix it on closing statements as they did.  Judges can be wrong, but interpreters should not take over the judge’s function and decide what to do in a trial. Even after this explanation, the administrator did not admit the mistake to the interpreter, perhaps to save face, but she knew that the he was right because no sanction was ever imposed to the veteran interpreter. We can clearly see that, an example of an interpreter doing the right thing to correct a mistake was praised by those who knew the law, but it created undeserved stress and generated unnecessary expenses to the interpreter, who had to be worried about possible sanctions by the administrator, and had to spend a day at the administrator’s office instead of earning a living. Some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

The second case happened to me. As you know, I teach workshops and seminars all over the world. On one occasion, the organizer of a workshop that had hired me to teach, among other things, an advanced ethics seminar, contacted me to let me know that the person in charge of approving continuing education credits in a rural state in the U.S. had informed them that she was not going to grant credits because the title of the seminar did not include the word ethics. I was extremely surprised to hear this because that exact seminar had been approved for continuing education credits many times in the past, and in fact, it had been approved for the same seminar in other jurisdictions.

I sensed the concern on the part of the organizers, because even though the state denying the request for credits was small and we would probably get very few interpreters who needed that approval, if any, they felt (as I did) that the credits were deserved.  To alleviate my client’s concern, I wrote a very detailed explanation to this state officer explaining sentence by sentence how the description of the seminar that she was given from the beginning referred to the Canons of Ethics. I even indicated what Canon applied to each one of the parts of the description of my seminar. I further explained that adding the word “ethics” to a title does not qualify a class as ethics, that my experience as a professional instructor had taught me that to get a big crowd to attend a seminar or workshop you need a catchy title, and that was the reason why I had decided not to go with a boring title with the word “ethics” as part of it. That is why we provide a seminar description so that those deciding to attend can make up their minds. To our surprise, this bureaucrat, who has never been an interpreter, is not a lawyer, and has been in the government for over twenty years, rejected the credits request because “…the description (of the seminar) does not match the title (of the presentation…).” Because of the size of the jurisdiction that she represents, we decided not to pursue the continuing education credits that state anymore. This was a business decision, not an academic one; it did not impact my career or my pocket, but for the purpose of this post, I thought it was important to include this ignorant decision by a person who in the past told a newspaper that to find court interpreters: “…we call restaurants, churches…I found a Kurdish interpreter at Target…” It is no mystery why there are so few certified court interpreters in this jurisdiction, and why they are among the worst paid nationwide.  Our colleagues who deal with this individual regularly know well that some administrators make interpreting very difficult.

I now invite you to share with all of us your stories about those occasions when the ignorance of a supervisor or an administrator made your work more difficult, and remember, please do not mention people’s names or places.

Low-cost interpreter factories.

June 23, 2015 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It seems like every time I open my mailbox, see a tweet, or read a professional publication, I see new advertisement for all these interpreter courses, interpreter certifications, interpreter great opportunities, and so on.  There are many government entities, multinational agencies, professional associations, and “professional trainers” who have discovered a new business: create interpreters from nothing!

Let’s see: Just a few years ago Spanish language court interpreters in the United States could only be certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts (federal) or by the Administrative Office of the Courts of a state member of what was called the consortium. These credentials were widely known and recognized. Everybody knew what was behind them: a federal certification was more than a state-level certification, and then… there were the non-certified individuals who were precluded from working in the court system, and in those cases when they were used by the government, they were ushered in through the back door because they all knew that they were doing something that should be kept “confidential”.

Well, the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act became a reality for all state courts so the Consortium was no more, it has now been replaced by the Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC) and now, in order to keep those federal funds coming, the states have devised a clever plan to circumvent the court certification requirement which would be the thing to do according to law, but very expensive, so they have created this new “category” of people who  cannot pass the certification test, but are allowed to work in court, entering through the front door,  called “qualified”, “conditionally qualified” and other versions of the same thing: an unqualified individual doing a job that is federally mandated and requires of certification.  Yes, it is easier, and cheaper, to mass produce these individuals who, in my opinion, are trained to do a job that does not exist, and pays lower than a professional certified interpreter would work for.  These individuals are now produced in “programs” developed by some states with the help of opportunist community colleges and “professional trainers” who see fit to create a program and go through the motions in order to deliver these paraprofessionals.

But this was not enough. The developments above showed the way to another lucrative business: the development of another category of interpreter who would be called “community interpreter” but would provide services in legal arenas where the court proceedings are of Article One of the U.S. Constitution: Administrative Courts. The reason for this new category, according to those who are now benefiting from its implementation: To fill in the gap in the legal system that was not been serviced by certified court interpreters.  The real motivation: That these courts and their proceedings are not covered by the court interpreter legislation, so there was a great opportunity for agencies to jump in, “certify” their people, and cover the hearings while paying these para-interpreters very little money.  Again, the “certification” programs (sometimes called “diploma” programs) have been developed by individuals who saw the opportunity to make money. There is no official oversight nor legal authority for the existence of these “community interpreters”. The only thing that is clear is that court proceedings in administrative courts are as important and complex as the ones heard in Article 3 courts. This is why, to be able to appear before administrative law judges, attorneys have to pass the same bar exam and be members in good standing of their state bar. No lesser requirements for attorneys, but non-existent requirements for interpreters. Obviously, there is a lot of money to be made in a service where the interpreter pay is so bad that no real self-respecting interpreter would get involved.

Then we have the professional associations and multinational agencies that offer their own “certifications” “qualifications” or whatever they chose to call them, to those left-overs who cannot work anywhere else and have to settle for a quick course online, a 15-minute exam online, and a dismal pay in exchange for telephonic or live interpreting at medical offices, school classrooms, community meetings, and the likes.  I do not blame those who are providing what in my opinion are questionable services, they are taking advantage of a void in the legal system and a weak group of interpreters who do not fight for their profession, reputation, betterment, and income. The blame is on the authorities who chose not to fix the situation and foster the spread of these “interpreter factories” all over; on the ignorant clients who buy the Brooklyn Bridge every time the agency sells it to them, and on the self-respect and ambition lacking so-called interpreters who enable the system to continue, instead of studying to better themselves as real conference, court, healthcare, or community interpreters.

We as professional interpreters need to protect our profession, we need to watch over our future, and we need to stop this do-nothing attitude and stand up, educate our clients, better ourselves, join real professional associations that work for the interpreters and not against them, and embracing the new technology, explain to the client that, compared to those I mentioned above, we represent quality, and many times savings, as we work without the middle man, the only actor who is not necessary in this play.   There are some good agencies, trainers, and professional associations out there, unfortunately, most of them become known to the interpreters once they reach certain level within the profession. It is our job, and responsibility, to point the new colleagues in the right direction.  Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us, but please abstain from coming here to defend the entities I wrote about. They have plenty of forums where to make their case.

The biggest danger to the interpreting profession.

June 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreters face many challenges every day; some are professional, some are technical, and some are market-related.  Today we are going to talk about this last category, and we will particularly devote some time to what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers to our profession.

Many times, you have read, heard and complained about the huge bad agencies and the backwards government offices you have encountered during your career. We all know they are there and we should be extremely careful when dealing with them so that our best interests as freelance professionals are protected.

There are other entities in our environment that could be more dangerous because they seemed harmless and deal with many interpreters more often than any other client. I am talking about the small interpreting agencies that exist all over the world in huge numbers. I am referring to those agencies that are individually owned and operate in small markets where so many of our colleagues live and work.

We all heard of the big interpreting agencies, but the truth is that most interpreters do not live in New York City, London, or Chicago. They live in smaller cities and communities where the big agencies rarely take over the market; and they don’t do it because, by their standards, there is not enough money to be made. There are no big conferences, there are no international organizations, and there are no Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.  The void left by these big players is occupied by “mom and pop’s agencies” that find these smaller markets attractive, and free of competition against the big language business organizations.

Although there are some honest businesses owned by people who know and care about the profession, many small interpreting agencies are individually or family owned, often times the company owner knows nothing about interpreting or translating, and is monolingual.  These individuals come from other professional backgrounds such as sales, computer design, or public relations, and they just happened to stumble upon our profession due to marriage or a change of residence to a more linguistically diverse community.  Because of their personal characteristics, and often (but not always) because they are native speakers, they can produce an adequate sales pitch for their not very sophisticated market, and the next thing you know, and without any real knowledge of what we do, they start offering interpreting and translation services and booking interpreters for assignments such as administrative law hearings, medical office visits, and “second-tier” conferences in their own region.  So far it sounds bad, but not horrendous. Allow me to continue.

The reason why the get government offices, medical doctors, and small event planners to hire them is twofold: They have enough knowledge of their market to access the places where these clients look for language services (internet search positioning, chambers of commerce, local fairs, etc.) and they offer translators and interpreters for a lower fee.  This is the sale!

Remember, when they first started their business they knew nothing about our profession. By now they have learned one thing, the only one they ever cared to learn: You can get translators from poor countries, and local interpreting talent (mediocre at best) for rock-bottom prices. Because of their “sales skills” they are able to convince their client, who is eager to find the cheapest service provider ever, that their professional services are provided by “adequate”, “qualified” native-speaker interpreters. The bureaucrat, doctor, or businessperson who is hiring the small interpreting agency, does not know anything about interpreting experience, certifications, degrees, licensing, patents, or any other interpreter credentials, and they are so thrilled to get the interpreter so cheap, that they will believe anything this ignorant will tell them.

Of course, due to the rickety pay, the agency owner will have these (mediocre at best) interpreters working under deplorable conditions such as obsolete equipment, bad interpreter location inside the room, no interpreting booth, and no team interpreting.  Sometimes they will brag to their interpreters that they got them a table-top booth to do their job, and every once in a blue moon they will provide a real technician to be by the interpreter’s side throughout the event.

After the interpreting services are rendered, these agencies will take their sweet long time to pay. Many times a “standard” payment policy will be 90 days, and even then, some of these raiders of our profession will tell the interpreter that “their client has not paid them yet” and will use this as an excuse not to pay the interpreter, who erroneously, will feel sorry for the abusive agency owner, and will gladly agree to wait until the agency gets paid. Never mind the house mortgage payment, the kids’ school tuition, and the family medical expenses. The interpreter will now wait for the “poor agency owner” who will console himself in the meantime with a trip to Hawaii, tickets to an expensive sports event, or at least a fancy dinner.

Dear friends, interpreters will take these terrible assignments, wait forever to get a tiny paycheck, and go back to the same abusive agency owner mainly for two reasons: (1) Because the interpreter is so incompetent, that he knows deep inside that no one else will ever hire him to work, and (2) Because they are so afraid of never working again for this same individual.  Not because they are bad interpreters (although each day they will be worse if they stay with the agency and continue to work under those unprofessional conditions) but because they do not know how to get their own clients; because they believe that the clients belong to the abusive small agency owner, and they cannot take them away.

The thing is, dear colleagues, that it is precisely because of the second reason above that these dangerous agencies exist. They are in business because interpreters are too afraid to go directly to the client and explain that the agency is run by a person who knows very little about interpreting, that the service they have been providing through the agency is second-class because they have been asked to work without any technical and human resources, not because they are second-tier professionals. Many times when these interpreters offer their professional services directly to the client, they find out that the agency was keeping more of the paycheck than they thought, and sometimes the government agency, doctor office, and event organizer will realize that they could even save money when they pay the interpreter his full regular fee.

I know that some of you are thinking: (1) What about interpreter services in other languages different from yours? The agency finds and provides all these “exotic” language interpreters on a regular basis. The answer to that is very simple. Although it is not of your concern because you are an interpreter, you can teach the client how to get other language interpreters. If you have been around for some time, chances are that you will be able to provide a name list to the client, and this will satisfy most of his needs. For the others, you can suggest professional associations’ membership directories such as ATA, IAPTI, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, etc. and perhaps for those occasions, the client can reach out to one of the big international language agencies. I see no problem because this would help your client without harming anyone. After all, there is nobody in town who could do the job. (2) What about that contract we signed that states that we cannot even look in the direction of the small agency’s client? Many of these agency owners included this provision to discourage interpreters from talking to clients. The best thing to do is to take the contract to an attorney and ask if the provision is enforceable (not legal). If it is not, you know what to do, and if it is, then you just have to wait for the provision to expire, after all none of them is forever.

I know that my colleagues in the big world capitals have little to do with these “family businesses”, but they have appeared here and there from time to time, so please be very careful, avoid them, and remember, in the big city there is always another way to get work.  The solution is, my friends and colleagues, to reject work from these entities, fight over the market so they cannot keep it or take it away from you, and observing the law, act like a business. You have an advantage: you know your profession.  As you can see, in my opinion we have to separate the big multinational language service providers from these “mom and pop’s” agencies. The big ones meet a market need that we cannot meet individually. Although we have to be firm and careful when negotiating with them, we need them for the big events and conferences.  These small ones, these apparently harmless local business are a real danger to the profession. The good news is that in this case you do not need them. You can fulfill the needs of your market.  I now ask you, the interpreters, to please share with the rest of us your opinion about these small and dangerous agencies that are all over the place.  Please do not reply if you are one of the rare exceptions among this business entities. I already mentioned you as some of the few good guys at the top of the post. And please do not bother to comment if you represent one of these agencies and you want to defend what you do. You have your own forums where you “make your case” all the time.

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 13 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

When the client does not understand the complexity of what you need to do.

May 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The title above would probably apply to most of what you are dealing with at this precise moment. It usually applies to much of what we do as interpreters, but sometimes it really goes overboard. I was recently part of a big project that involved the transcription, translation, and review of hundreds of hours of recordings needed for a trial in the United States. In the past I did a respectable amount of work in this field, although I must confess that I have never been a fan of transcription and translation. To me, it is too passive and it requires of more patience than I can possibly have.

My idea of having a good time does not include sitting down for endless hours listening to poor quality soundtracks, endlessly rewinding some recordings, and trying to understand mumblings.  I don’t do it often because it is not my cup of tea, but I fully understand how difficult it is to produce a professional transcription and translation that can be used and defended in court.  I know how hard it is to work as a transcriber/translator, I am aware of the little money that many of them make, and I have seen how underappreciated they are.

As professional interpreters, sometimes we have to bite the bullet and do some work that is not our favorite. A good client, an interesting project, and especially a high paying assignment will put us in a situation where we cannot say no. This is what happened to me when I was asked to be a part of a very qualified team that tackled this huge transcription/translation project.  In my everyday practice I am constantly asked to do transcriptions, and I usually refer them to an elite group of colleagues who do an excellent job, charge what professionals should charge for their services, and make me look good in the eyes of my client who requested the service. It was precisely because of the colleagues that were part of the assignment that I decided to join the team for the assignment in question. I have to tell you that the transcriber/translator team for this job may have been the “dream team”, but the client was definitely not.

The first thing that became evident was that the client had no idea of what a transcription/translation was.  A real transcriber must have the skills of an interpreter and a translator. He needs to “listen” to an oral statement, write it down, and translate that written text into the target language.  A transcriber has to make a written record that accurately includes word by word what was said in the source language, and then, he must apply all of the target language grammar rules just as a professional translator does. This process requires time, a very long time.

The concept of one hour of work for one minute of recording was foreign to this client, and I think that at the beginning they did not believe us.  The assignment was on a tight schedule because of some court deadlines that had to be met, so we were asked to produce the transcriptions/translations in three weeks! Of course this was impossible, so the agreement was to provide part of the work by said date.

It was going to be difficult, but the transcription team was very good, so we decided that this was achievable. Unfortunately, two of the three weeks went by as the transcribers had to wrestle their client to the ground in order to get the correct materials needed to start the transcriptions. Some files were missing, others were misplaced, the recordings were in very different formats, and so were the transcriptions by the investigative agency. Audio and video files had a different name and number from their corresponding written files. Some files were compressed and no password was provided to the transcribers, others were missing, and a single disc would contain audio and text files in very different formats that required different software as well. We requested a meeting with the client but the request was denied. At that point I thought about jumping ship, buy my professionalism and loyalty to my colleagues made me stay.

The entire process was like this. I don’t want to bore you with details about expected problems such as poor sound, unintelligible words, and impossible slang, that all comes with the territory, and many transcribers/translators do this type of work because they like to solve problems.

Many of the obstacles we faced during the assignment were unnecessary, they had little to do with the complexities of transcribing wiretaps and phone calls; they all came from a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to learn about these aspects of a judicial process that are frequently present in those cases involving non-English speakers.  At the end, we as team managed to get a meeting with a different person who was high in the client’s organizational chart. This individual listened to our concerns and understood the complexity of the task.  We received new materials and were granted access to all files and persons we needed.  As a result of this change, and because of an epic effort, our professional transcribers/translators fulfilled their professional duty and contractual obligation and the job got done.

Unfortunately, the “victory” came at an extremely high cost (time and money) because of the ignorance of the client.  It is clear that experiences like this one can be used in the future to help us educate other clients so they can avoid unnecessary expenses and we can produce top-quality transcription/translation work for a truly professional fee. I now ask you to please share with us some of your war stories as a transcriber/translator, especially the ones that had to do with a bad client. Tell us what you did to educate the client, and to simply get them to provide what you needed to do your job.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,416 other followers