August 23, 2016 § 6 Comments
It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:
2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services. This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.
The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.
At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.
During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:
“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”
In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid. Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.
I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:
“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates. You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”
The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”). By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work. Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.
Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”
Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better. The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear: They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).
I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees. From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee. The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million. There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)
Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.
August 16, 2016 § 5 Comments
As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.
Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.
Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.
I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.
I believe that the moment has arrived. In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.
I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers. I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.
Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.
The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial. They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings. You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.
I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.
I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.
August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments
We are officially in a political season that comes biannually to the United States, and especially every four years when the presidential election makes it more intense. In fact, the American presidential race impacts not just interpreters who live and work in the U.S., it also means work for many colleagues who provide interpreting services abroad and are retained by news agencies, broadcast companies, and government officials to simultaneously interpret stump speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates.
Many of us, in many languages and from all corners of the world, just finished the two political conventions, and with this, we ended the primary season as well.
It is after the political conventions that all candidates begin to seriously campaign for office at all levels of government. In a country as diverse as the United States, this means that platforms, brochures, event invitations, press bulletins, and other similar documents will be translated in order to reach the constituency of that particular politician. It also means that many interpreters will be contacted and asked to interpret stump speeches at political rallies, press conferences, interviews, and political debates.
Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues.
Because of our system of government, most political races take place at the local and state level. For this reason, many colleagues will have an opportunity to participate in the process as interpreters retained by local agencies and television networks. To some degree, those colleagues who live in the big cities will surely interpret House and Senatorial debates for regional broadcast and even national markets in languages such as Spanish. Many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.
Interpreting political debates requires many skills that are not always necessary when we work doing other interpretation. The candidates deal with questions on very different subjects, and their answers are somewhat spontaneous and sometimes unresponsive. The interpreter needs to be ready for this type of work. Reading about the issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform are needed parts of the interpreter’s preparation. Besides political interpreting, a debate is also a media interpreting service. As a media interpreter, you are required to work with technicians and radio or TV equipment, and you have to work with an awareness that many people are going to listen to your rendition, and that everything you say will be recorded and replayed over and over again.
I remember being at Mile-high Stadium in Denver, Colorado during the Democratic National Convention interpreting President Obama’s acceptance speech live. I remember the commotion, the crowd of “famous” politicians and broadcasters coming and going all over the broadcast center; and I remember the moment I stopped to think of what I was about to do: Interpret the nomination acceptance speech of the first African-American candidate from a major political party who had a very good chance of becoming President of the United States. All of a sudden it hit me: There will be millions listening to my rendition, it will be broadcasted and replayed by Spanish language news organizations all over the world. Wow! Then, as I was getting a little uneasy about the historic significance of the task, I remembered something a dear colleague once told me about broadcast interpreting: Your rendition is to the microphone on the table in front of you. It is only you in that booth. I regained my confidence and composure and did the job. The same experience took place just a few weeks ago in Philadelphia when I had the same opportunity during the nomination acceptance speech of the first woman candidate from a major political party. I know that interpreting for a big crowd, or interpreting an important event, not only for a broadcast, but in the courtroom or a conference, can be very stressful and intimidating. Believe me, interpreting in Cleveland and Philadelphia was not a walk in the park.
Throughout my career I have traveled to different cities and towns to interpret primary and general election political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city). I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events.
As I get ready for another official campaign cycle, I have thought of the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.
- Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
- Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
- Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
- Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
- Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
- Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
- Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
- Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
- When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
- Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
- Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.
On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.
I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries who will be interpreting this year’s political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.
July 13, 2016 § 6 Comments
The interpreters’ work is very difficult and complex. We have to prepare for every assignment, pay attention to many details; and on assignment day, we are expected to be on top of our game. Any mistakes, misuse of words, or omission could be critical and carry dire consequences.
We know this. We understand that, as court interpreters we need to do a complete and accurate rendition keeping the correct registry so that the judge and jury can assess the credibility of a witness. We are fully aware of the importance of an accurate and culturally precise interpretation in the emergency room. We know that people go to a conference to learn and be informed; and we never forget that those in attendance have paid a lot of money to listen to the speaker, or were sent by their nation or organization to defend or advance an idea that could affect the lives of millions. This is all part of our job. As professionals we embrace it, and we strive to render interpretations of the highest quality and precision. As interpreters, we also know that sometimes we have to reach our goal under adverse and unfriendly conditions.
The difference between a professional interpreter and somebody attempting to interpret, is that resourcefulness and professionalism let us do our job not just by excelling in the booth, courtroom or hospital, but by anticipating and solving many problems that can arise during a medical examination, a trial, or a keynote speech. We come prepared, and direct clients, promoters, agencies, courts and hospitals know it. This is a fact and we are proud of it; however, we should never take the blame for an agency’s mistake, or take on the burden of solving a situation when it is clearly the agency’s duty to do so.
I know so many cases when good, solid, reliable interpreters have damaged their reputation because they covered up for the agency. In my opinion this is a huge mistake.
As professionals, we should own our mistakes and shortcomings; we should also assist the agency and protect them in force majeure cases and when it does not harm our own interests. This does not mean that we need to fall on our swords for a language services agency.
I am not saying we should rat or snitch. I did not say that we should become an additional problem either. All I am saying is that just as we should own our mistakes, the agency must do the same. The good news is that all reputable professional agencies do. The bad news is that many mediocre organizations find it convenient to blame it on the interpreter to save their behind. This is unacceptable. We are talking about our profession and livelihood.
If something happens to the interpreting equipment in the middle of a speech, we should solve the problem by applying our knowledge, skill and experience. Sometimes a little console or headset adjustment can save the day. On occasion, we will have to leave the booth and interpret consecutively while the tech support team works frantically to fix the problem. This is expected from a top-notch professional interpreter; but let it be clear that we must never assume the liability or take the rap for mistakes of the agency.
Let me explain: If a judge complains that the interpreter is mixing up the names of the parties to a controversy, or is referring to a male individual as female because the agency (or court) failed to provide the proper documentation before the hearing, the interpreter should say so. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault, and the powers that be need to know it.
If an interpreter fails to properly interpret a patient’s idiomatic expression because she was not privy to the individual’s nationality, let the physician know that despite your efforts to learn more about the patient and his medical condition, the agency, hospital, or nurse, refused to share that information with you. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it.
If the interpreters show up to an assignment one hour before the conference starts, and they learn that there are no working microphones or headsets in the booth, they need to let the speaker and organizers know. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it. Even if the interpreters decide to start the event with a consecutive rendition, they have to make sure that all interested parties know that it was not their fault, and if they decide to walk away from the assignment, they will be acting according to the law and protocol. They were retained to do a simultaneous interpreting assignment, not a consecutive gig. The agency would be in breach of contract and the organizers and promoters need to talk to them, not the interpreters.
Remember, from the client’s perspective, it is a matter of clarity and education. They need to learn what interpreters are responsible for, and what they are not. From the interpreters’ perspective, it is a matter of professional pride, reputation, and ethics. We will always be judged by our work in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or battlefield. We must never let the assessment extend to the responsibilities of others. This is very important.
Fortunately, this that I write will be a welcome affirmation to all real professional high-level agencies. They know their responsibilities, and they strive, just like we do, to deliver an immaculate service every time they are retained. Unfortunately, this will be read by para-professional wannabe interpreting “agencies” who will feel offended and threatened by the suggestion that interpreters should act professionally while, at the same time, cover their reputation and protect their careers by letting the end-client know that they made a mistake by retaining high quality professional interpreters and a mediocre agency. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your comments on this extremely important subject for the education of our clients and our professional reputation and livelihood.
June 22, 2016 § 1 Comment
If you know me personally, you know how much I like going to the theater. I enjoy musicals, drama, comedy, classic and contemporary, big and small productions; I watch anything and everything: from the biggest names on stage to community theater. For professional reasons, I am presently in New York City, and I have taken this opportunity, as I always do, to see as many plays and musicals as allowed by my busy agenda. This past weekend, I saw “On Your Feet!” the musical that tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the world famous musician/producer and songwriter/musician/performer respectively.
The play is full of beautiful music, with top-notch singers and dancers in a production second to none, but the most relevant aspect of the musical is the story. The performance takes you by the hand through the lives of Emilio Estefan and Gloria Fajardo, with all of the highs and lows they have experienced in life. From Emilio’s childhood when a little boy had to say goodbye to his family in Cuba in order to escape the atrocities of the Castro regime, to little Gloria’s life in Miami as part of an immigrant family that faced all obstacles encountered by those who move to another country, with a different culture that is expressed in an unknown language, as well as the devastating Multiple Sclerosis that her father suffered during Gloria’s youth. The play shows us how a strong will, ambition, determination, and hard work (and huge talent), were key to their success. The musical is in English, but it is culturally and linguistically permeated by a Cuban atmosphere at every step. It does not hide or minimize the struggle to be accepted when you look, speak, and sound different.
During (in my opinion) the most important scene of the play, already successful Gloria and Emilio meet their record producer to convince him to back an album in English. By then, they were famous and recognized in the Hispanic world and culture everywhere, but they lived in the United States and wanted to reach everybody with their music. The producer tells them that their music is popular with those who share a Hispanic taste, that their style is for latinos, that their work would never make it in the wider English speaking American society. He suggests they stick to their culture and stay Cuban. At this point, a very angry Emilio approaches the producer, and within a paper-thin distance from the producer’s face tells him: “look at my face up close, and take a good look, because this is how Americans look”.
At that point, the audience reacted with a huge applause. It was extremely moving, and very telling. In a few words, Emilio had summarized the reality that we are currently facing in the United States as a nation, and in the rest of the world as the human species. Emilio’s face is the face of all immigrants, refugees, political and economic, who leave everything, and sometimes everyone, behind to pursue an opportunity to contribute to society at large. As interpreters we are constantly exposed to people from all walks of life and from all corners of earth. We interact with them on a daily basis and we see first- hand their flaws and their qualities. This is our reality, but it is not everyone’s; In fact, most people, especially those who do not live in the big urban areas in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, spend a big part of their life around people who look like them, act like them, think like them, and speak a common language with a familiar accent. This is the rule around the world; we, and some other professionals who work with different cultures, are the exception.
As interpreters, we hear different languages spoken with different accents every day, it is part of our “normal”; but we need plays like “On Your Feet!” for the rest of the people who are too quick to form an opinion and disqualify others a priori, just because they do not share their language, wear the same clothes, or eat the same food. This is the true value of the play: one that goes beyond the challenges that the Estefans had to overcome to get to the top and stay there. Given the current environment generated by the U.S. presidential campaign, the brexit vote in the U.K., and people’s attitude towards war refugees, and indigenous immigrants all over the world, artistic manifestations like this one give us an opportunity to reflect and talk to others about what is really important.
I believe that theater and our profession are connected. In both cases we are only successful when our message is understood by others. Plays and musicals are written in a particular language, and they cannot reach a universal audience unless they are translated. Can you imagine a world where only English speakers knew Shakespeare, or Spanish speakers were the only ones enjoying the works of Lope de Vega? It seems impossible, but it is only possible because of the work of many translators who have taken these and many other works to the masses for centuries.
As a theater lover, I try to see plays and musicals everywhere I go, particularly in those cities famous for their theater. Every time I am in New York City, London, Chicago, Toronto, Madrid, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City, I make a deliberate effort to attend a play. I enjoy musicals and plays in their original language, but as an interpreter, I am always fascinated by a good translation and localization of a play.
Although the success or failure of a foreign play rests on the shoulders of the translator, it is rare to see a program, or a marquee that credits the translator. I have examined many programs to discover at the end of the booklet that the people who provided the lightbulbs for the stage are credited on the program, but the translator is usually missing.
It is for this reason that I was in shock when I saw that a translator was given a very well-deserved credit for a very difficult play.
I was in Madrid about two years ago. It was late in the afternoon after a very exhausting job. I really needed something to lift my spirits and at the same time take my mind away from more work waiting for me the next day. Of course, I immediately thought about going to the theater, and before I knew it, I found myself at the steps of Teatro Lope de Vega on the Gran Vía. I looked up and saw that they were showing “El Rey León”. By then, I had already seen The Lion King many times in New York City, London, and Mexico City, so I hesitated for a minute. Another theater was showing “Chicago” a couple of blocks down the street, but after a quick reflection, I decided to buy a ticket for the Spanish version of The Lion King.
It turns out that I made the right choice, the play was excellent, actors, musicians, costume designers. Everybody did a first-class job; but the best part in my opinion, was the translation and adaptation of the play. Dialogues, lyrics, and cultural references were all impeccable. I had seen the musical in Spanish before in Mexico City, but humor is very different in Madrid, and the localization was excellent. Moreover, translating a play with some dialogues and lyrics in Swahili, leaving those portions untouched, but making them fit the Spanish version, despite the fact that they had been originally conceived with English in mind, was an enormous task. The translation was very good.
Everything I have shared with you resulted on a memorable experience that I still bring up to my friends and colleagues more than two years after the fact, but the highlight of the evening happened when, as I was reading the program, I found the translator. There he was: Jordi Galceran, from Barcelona, getting a well-deserved credit for his work. I never forgot that moment, and since that night, I continue to look for the translator on every program; unfortunately, for the most part, I cannot find any names. For this reason, I have taken the opportunity that this blog entry, on diversity and tolerance in a Broadway musical gave me, to advocate for the respect and recognition that our translator friends and colleagues deserve. I now invite you to share your stories on diversity and tolerance of foreign groups and cultures, and to write down the names of any translators of plays or musicals that you may want to honor by mentioning them here.
June 14, 2016 § 4 Comments
Humans are reluctant to think that something that was very good in the past could end up as something very bad. It goes against our idea of making things better, contrary to our concept of progress. Unfortunately, it is too often that a bad situation manifests itself right in front of our eyes. Just think of Venezuela; once the best economy in Latin America with a bright future ahead, and now a sad story of poverty, government corruption, and hunger, where millions of bright good people suffer the consequences of incompetent decisions.
The interpreting world has had its share of cases where a good situation turns bad. Today I will share with you a tragic story that, without prompt and able action, could become the Venezuela of the interpreting world. First, a word of caution: The story I am about to share with all of you depicts an intolerable situation in a certain region of the United States, and it directly impacts a relatively small segment of our professional community; Nevertheless, the conditions that gave birth to this tragic scenario could easily happen again anywhere in the world, perhaps in your area, maybe in your professional field. In fact, I am sure that this is happening in other regions of the planet. It is for these reasons that I invite you to carefully read this story, so you can learn how to recognize the symptoms, and find a way to take action defending your profession before it is too late.
This story has to do with court interpreting in the United States. Many of you already know that court interpreting is the most common interpreting practice in the United States. It has the most interpreters, and it is the only specialization that has its own legislation at the state and federal levels.
For American standards, compared to other types of interpreting, court interpreting has a “long history” of regulations and professional standards in the United States. It goes back to 1978 when the American federal government passed the Federal Court Interpreters Act which required that Spanish language interpreters passed a certification exam in order to qualify for work in the federal court system. Soon after, several individual states followed the example of the federal government, and developed their own legislation to test and certify Spanish language interpreters who were going to provide professional services in that particular state system. The first state to set its own system was California in 1979, followed by New York, New Mexico, and New Jersey in the 1980s. These efforts culminated with the creation of the (now defunct) Consortium of States where a majority of the states came together, combined resources, and developed a test that served as the basis to certify those Spanish language interpreters who met the minimum requirements to work as professionals in a given state judicial system. After the creation of the Consortium, individual states developed certification tests in other languages to meet the needs of their specific areas. New York and California did not participate in the Consortium of States, but New Mexico and New Jersey became the “gold standard” for court interpreter certification at the state-level in the U.S.
Due to its history and traditions, New Mexico became a pioneer and a national leader in all court interpreter matters: A founding state of the Consortium, New Mexico was the first state to allow non-English speakers, who were American citizens, as jurors at the state court level, actively participating in the trial process and jury deliberations with the assistance of a court interpreter. It also developed a very important professional community of Navajo court interpreters, and considered all court interpreting services as one profession, for the first time bringing to the table, at the same time, all spoken foreign language, Native American language, and Sign Language court interpreters. Other major landmarks in the history of court interpreting in New Mexico include being one of the first states to require continuing education to keep the certification current, having a state supreme court justice as an active advocate of quality standards in court interpreting, and it became the sponsor of the largest annual court interpreter conference for a state of its size. In other words, New Mexico took some of the biggest names in the interpreting and translation conference world to its state so that the local professionals could benefit of these trainings at a very low cost. New Mexico was the “gold standard” for other states and the quality of its court interpreters was recognized throughout the country. It was at this time, when things were going the right way, that two events changed the course of this court interpreter program, and pushed it to the edge of the cliff where it started its current freefall: There was a change of the guard at the helm of the state program, and the federal government exercised its muscle to compel the states to comply with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Among them: the state’s obligation to give universal access to all services provided with federal funds, including all non-English speakers. All of a sudden, furnishing certified court interpreters in all criminal law cases was not enough anymore. New Mexico needed to offer interpreting services to all non-English speaking individuals who walked into a state government office.
The landscape changed. Due to his age and other personal reasons, the State Supreme Court Justice who had served the interpreting community as an advocate and unconditional ally for so many years, took a back seat and slowed down his pace; the person in charge of the administration of the state court interpreter program left, and even her very capable assistant of many years transferred to another government position. They were replaced by a newcomer with academic credentials but without court interpreting experience, and lacking the knowledge necessary to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of such a complex population and professional interpreter community.
The changes started almost immediately. Some of them were noticeable right away, others did not show their head in plain sight until many months later. The state government officials’ attitude towards the interpreters changed radically. From the head of the Administrative Office of the New Mexico State Courts, to the language access services statewide manager, to the rookie judge (not a Supreme Court Justice anymore) who now actively participated in all interpreter issues that had to do with an entity created by the state called the New Mexico Language Access Advisory Committee; policy, attitudes, and decisions began to change. There would be no annual conference anymore; the conditions that interpreters had been working under for many years would be reevaluated to cut as much as possible; the cordial and professional relationship, based on mutual respect, that had existed for decades between the interpreting community and the state would now be replaced by a tough attitude where the difference in size and power would be clearly exercised by the big guy in the contractual relationship, now very willing to show its muscle in the event of a minor dissidence or difference of opinion; and the Civil Rights Act’s Title VI requirements would be portrayed as fulfilled by creating a less expensive sub-par category of paraprofessional quasi-interpreters, instead of fostering and promoting the growth of the interpreter profession, thus meeting the minimum standards of the Civil Rights Act mandate, which of course, would require more funds and a greater effort on the part of the state, including, but not limited to, the Administrative Office of the Courts’ active participation in the preparation of a budget to be presented to the state legislature where fulfilling the true mandate of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act would be a top priority for the judiciary, whose only reason to exist as part of the government, is to guarantee an administration of justice inclusive of all citizens of the state. Of course, this would demand a different attitude by the state, with a judiciary willing to battle the legislature, and go to the United States Justice Department to denounce the State Legislature whenever it was not addressing the equal access to justice mandate. A very different attitude, especially when compared to… perhaps securing judges and bureaucrats’ salaries and then throwing everybody else under the bus.
I have been told by many interpreters in New Mexico that since the time this change of priorities took place, the state has switched interpreters’ minimum guaranteed periods of work, it has changed its travel policy to pay less to the interpreters, there have been attempts to include as part of the original contract, attachments that fundamentally change essential parts of the interpreters’ contracts after these agreements have been executed already; I have listened to stories of interpreters been disrespected at Language Access Advisory Committee meetings; the story of an interpreter whose certification was revoked for no reason, who later won a legal case to get the certification reinstated, but has been isolated by the state officials who have never let this person work in the court system again. I have seen the abysmal difference between the quality of a certified court interpreter’s rendition, and the mediocre paraprofessional services provided by the so called “justice system interpreters”, and I have listened to the American Sign Language Interpreters who share the same concerns as their spoken language counterparts regarding the quality of video remote interpreting, and more importantly, the level of interpreting skills of those who may provide the service from out of state, perhaps without a New Mexico or federal court interpreter certification. It is possible that the State of New Mexico has designed a strategy to justify its actions. Even though what they are doing is legal, and I am in no way suggesting that the state has violated any law; it is still wrong for the profession, wrong for the interpreters, and bad for the non-English speakers who need a professional certified court interpreter to protect their life, freedom, or assets
I know that many of our colleagues in New Mexico are fighting a very important battle to protect the profession and the true professional interpreter; many have retained an attorney to represent them before the everyday more aggressive attitude of the state officials, and many of them are refusing to sign a contract with the state, unless and until, the minimum professional work conditions that they are requesting, and constitute the minimum standards everywhere else in the civilized world, are met by New Mexico. Just like we did last year when we, as a professional community, backed up the efforts by our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States until SOSi agreed to better their fees and basic working conditions, let’s all be one once again and support our colleagues in New Mexico.
Finally, to our colleagues in New Mexico, I encourage you to talk to the State Bar and make all attorneys in New Mexico aware of the fact that the state is on the brink of destroying that tradition that made New Mexico the “gold standard” of court interpreting at the state-level in the United States. Submit articles to the New Mexico Bar Bulletin for publication, even this piece. I could almost assure you that many lawyers are not even aware of the abysmal difference between real certified court interpreters and the individuals the state is furnishing for so many of their court appearances. Make sure that your voice is loud all over the state. I now invite you all to share your comments about this situation and many other similar scenarios in the United States and many other countries.