The interpreter cannot be responsible for the agency’s mistakes.

July 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Theater, translators, and the unique world we inhabit.

June 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Ignorance and negligence could kill a legendary interpreter program.

June 14, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Young interpreters are the key to save the profession.

May 31, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

These past four weeks I had the fortune to work with, and be around, some of the brightest young interpreters and students. I attended four events that reminded me of the importance of passing the torch to the next generation of capable professionals. First, I lectured at the Masters’ Degree program at Anáhuac University in Mexico City, then, I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, followed by a talk to the students of the Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico, as part of their Translation and Interpreting Summit; and then, I was a presenter and a panelist during the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) pre-conference and conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Besides the great presentations, networking, and greeting of old friends and meeting many new ones, including the “living legends” of our profession and dear veteran colleagues, I had the opportunity to talk to the youth. Many of my conversations were with college students and brand new interpreters and translators who are just entering the global market. As expected, I saw the enthusiasm of youth, and I noticed something else: These new interpreters and translators, and the ones still studying to become our colleagues, are very capable, knowledgeable, and in some ways they are already ahead of us. Let me explain:

Many of these youngsters had a better academic formation than some of us, they are a product of a world that did not exist when we were starting our careers. While we were the product of a cold war era where the rule was hard work, hauling of heavy suitcases full of dictionaries and reference books all the way to the booth, endless library research hours, and practicing with your peers (in order to get constructive feedback on your performance); these new interpreters’ world includes laptops, tablets, electronic dictionaries, Wikipedia and Google.  They never had to use the services of a travel agent to get to a conference because they always had Kayak or other similar application; they never had a booth-mate smoking and handling conference materials with cigarette burns.  They did not become interpreters hoping to see enough work coming to their hometown, and most of them did not have the goal of working as a staff interpreter for a big company or international organization.  They knew that travel was part of the business and they did not hesitate, they wanted to have their own professional practice and own their time and career choices.  I know that you probably know all of these characteristics of our new colleagues, but I am mentioning them here because it is only when we stop and reflect on them that we can understand the young interpreters, and welcome them to the profession as we should.

Many of you have been around long enough to recognize the following situation. It happens constantly, and it takes place everywhere in the world:

Every time that graduation season comes along, and on every occasion that the results of newly certified, licensed, admitted, credentialed, or whatever the term may be, interpreters are announced; many of our colleagues, staff and freelancers, whether they are in a conference booth, courthouse, hospital, international organization, or government agency, will make a comment similar to this: “…There are all these new interpreters graduating this month, I don’t know why they studied this career, there is no work for them around here. We can hardly get work for the ones we already have…” or: “…I hope that nobody gets certified; every time there are newly certified interpreters, the first thing they do is to come here and try to get work. We don’t need them! We are fine just the way we are now…” and of course: “…these new kids from college think they know more than us, and are always trying to change the way we do things in here. I don’t like working with them. They want to do everything with a computer…”

We are all familiar with these reactions and attitudes. Some colleagues endorse them, some of us dislike them enormously, but the reality is that this predisposition against the “new interpreter” is pervasive, particularly against the “new young interpreter”; it is everywhere.  They exist because they come from a natural fear that humans experience when they are faced with the unknown. Add to this the fact that people feel that their source of income will be threatened, and you get the reality described above. It is a bad situation, buy fortunately, it is all based on ignorance, and as it is always the case, lack of knowledge can be defeated with information.

I propose that all of us, veteran professional interpreters and new colleagues, because this situation impacts everybody, look at it from both perspectives: that of the experienced interpreter, and that of the newly graduated.

Why is it that so many veteran interpreters get so upset when youngsters graduate from college, when it is announced that there are new certified interpreters, and when they are told that they will be sharing the booth with a new, much younger colleague? Because many veterans are afraid. They fear that they will not get work anymore, they are afraid of showing their rendition to a younger partner who may detect diminishing skills that another veteran would never dare to disclose to the client or agency; they are embarrassed to show their lack of knowledge of modern technology, and looking incompetent before the new interpreter who will lose any respect for the veteran who cannot even do a quick Google search in the booth. They are aware of their lack of technological skills, they know that modernity requires them and the client values them, and therefore, they feel ignorant, perhaps of lesser professional quality than the young ones, and they fight the change. As a result of these insecurities, many veterans ignore, despise, and mistreat newcomers, creating a tension that helps nobody, and erodes the profession.

On the other side, new interpreters resent this treatment by those who are already making a living by practicing the profession. Some of them put up with the insults, abuse and assignment bypassing, as part of the “paying your dues” process; others are more fortunate, of just luckier, and despite the campaign against them by the old-timers, they are noticed by a veteran interpreter, the agency, or the client, and they blossom as interpreters. Sadly, many of these bright and very capable new professionals get discouraged and abandon the quality path of our craft, they let their guard down, and they are lured to the dangerous dark side of our reality: they become the prey of those in the interpreting “industry”, who will wine them and dine them until they are ready to become one more laborer in the interpreting sweat shop.  You see, by rejecting these excellent professionals whose only “sin” is their youth and to be technologically literate, we are throwing them to the jaws of those colleges and universities that (maybe in good faith, or perhaps because of their own monetary benefit) promote the concept of graduating and going straight to the big multinational agencies where quality is not even on their priority list. We are leaving them at the mercy of aggressive recruiters who work for these international calling centers where their interpreting talent will be wasted, and they will work for a fee so low that their college loans will have to be paid back by their grandchildren. At the least, we will leave them vulnerable to the big professional associations who mask these low-paying job fairs as “professional conferences” and “mentor” these youngsters until they are conditioned to accept whatever the “industry” tells them to do.

The truth is, dear friends and colleagues, new young interpreters are also at fault. Many times, when faced with the very real possibility of working an assignment with a veteran interpreter who has achieved prestige, but was not college-trained, (in many occasions because the career did not exist yet, or because there were so few institutions of higher education offering it), the newly graduated acts as if she were better that the empiric, self-taught colleague, refusing to listen to any suggestions or comments that the veteran may share. This will undoubtedly result in a bad situation where the newcomer looks arrogant and ignorant, and the experienced interpreter feels disrespected.  Another common scenario has a new interpreter losing patience and his “cool” when the older veteran does not seem to understand the technological terms or simply shows up to the booth dragging behind one half of the Library of Congress. There has to be self-reflection, tolerance, understanding, and respect of the other’s personality, experience, formal education, technical skills, and personal style when interpreting.

Let’s see, the first thing an interpreter who is going to work with a colleague for the first time (even more so when they are from a different generation) needs to do, is to look at himself in the mirror, and remember when he was young and the “victim” of a prior generation of interpreters; and then, he must acknowledge his strengths and weaknesses.  The veteran may have the confidence that only years of working give you; he may know the speaker, the subject matter, the venue, or the sound technician very well. He may know the interpreters in the other booths and how to work relay assignments with them. The younger interpreter may know how to take notes with a tablet or I-pad; and how to research a speaker, term, or topic with her phone, without having to leave the booth.  They need to be honest with themselves, and acknowledge their shortcomings: The older interpreter may not be very good; maybe he never was, but at a time when no interpreters were around, he was better than nothing. In this case, he needs to be a professional and decline the assignment. Everybody will respect this move more than a cavalier attitude motivated by ego and a state of denial.  The young interpreter may conclude that the event is just to “big” for her; she should realize that, although these assignments may be right for her in the future, she is not ready yet. People will respect this honest assessment of an assignment and the interpreter’s skill to do it at this time.  The older interpreter may have to accept that technology arrived to the booth and that it is here to stay; he has to understand that taking several minutes to research a term in the paper dictionary is now unacceptable.  The new interpreter may notice how the veteran interpreter has a better idea as to the location of the booth, or at dealing with the speaker, and she should not dismiss a lesson learned in the booth just because the interpreter teaching the lesson does not have an interpreting college degree.

You see, it is really simple when you think about it: if the veteran interpreter lets his guard down, he will become a better professional, as he will learn from the younger booth-mate how to use so many of the modern tools that will make him more marketable and better.  If the younger interpreter gets over the fear of working with the older guy, she will learn the ropes of the profession that are not taught in school. She will learn how to negotiate a better contract, how to get better clients, and how to do a complex high-profile assignment without even sweating.  The reality is: everybody has something to teach. We all have something to learn. The goal of every experienced interpreter should be to leave the profession better than they found it, and the only way to do it, is to pass on every piece of knowledge and experience onto the next generation.  The goal of every new interpreter should be to take the profession to the next level, and the only way to do it is to continue to build on top of the structure already in place left behind by those who came first. There cannot be any progress if the new generation wants to reinvent the wheel.  If we all do our part, we will also protect the profession by retaining the talent for the quality, well-remunerated work, and letting the “industry” feast on those not-so-talented colleagues who will need to do a greater effort to improve their service before they can “escape” the claws of assembly-line interpreting.

Yes, there will be some growing pains, it will take some effort to adapt to a different generation booth-mate, but the quality of the rendition will improve, and all interpreters will have so much fun working with a veteran, or a rookie, in the booth, the courthouse, the hospital, the government agency, the international organization, and everywhere else that real professional interpreters are needed.  I now encourage you all, my young and seasoned colleagues, to share with the rest of us your constructive ways to strengthen the professional relationship between experienced veterans and new interpreters.

When your new client used to have a bad interpreter.

May 12, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.

Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity.  Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.

The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.

I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance.  I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication?  Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.

If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.

On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad.  It is only then that you can start the client’s education.

Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.

If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience.  If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.

If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.

When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference.  A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth.  The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.

Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.

In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.

Something is going on in social media that may be detrimental to the profession.

May 4, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreters benefit from the use of the internet in many ways.  We can study, do research, market our services, and communicate with each other anywhere in the world by using our telephone.  Technology helps us to stay competitive in difficult markets and saves us time. Gone are the days when we had to go to a library to research a topic. We can now access the best libraries worldwide from the booth where we are working.

Social media also gave us the very popular and numerous forums, list serves, and chat rooms that all of us visit regularly.  I must confess that, even though I am very active in many social media outlets, I visit very few interpreter forums, and none of the list serves.  For me, the main reason to visit these forums is to keep up with the most recent news that impact the profession, so I can widen my knowledge and understanding of everything that is happening out there .  For the same reason, I am sometimes turned off by some of our colleagues who visit these virtual sites.  I have nothing against learning more about our language combinations, but sometimes it gets to me to see how some interpreters post basic vocabulary questions to the forum members without even bothering to do some research on their own first. I know this is popular with many, and we have discussed it in the past, so I will not dwell on this issue. Like I said, it turns me off, but it does not disgust me.

On the other hand, there is a relatively new trend going around several of the forums that I visit. A practice that has the potential to harm the profession, and end the career of those who participate or advocate this practice.

I am talking about those colleagues who post confidential, and sometimes what can be considered privileged information in the case of court interpreters. I am also referring to those who ridicule and make fun of their own clients.

Interpreting is a profession, and as such, it is governed by a series of legal, moral and ethical principles expected from all those who practice as professionals anywhere in the world. Legal, moral, and ethical rules and principles such as diligence, honesty, and confidentiality are an essential part of an interpreter’s job description. We cannot go around divulging the knowledge acquired in confidence. We are a fiduciary profession. It is not ethical for an interpreter to reveal secrete or confidential information. It is not ethical to share the client’s personal information and private life in public either.

These duties of privacy and confidentiality are even stricter in the case of a court interpreter. Let’s take the case of the United States where court interpreters are legally and ethically bound to keep their mouth shot by Articles 5 and 6 of the Federal Court Interpreter Code of Ethics:

5: Confidentiality.  Interpreters shall protect the confidentiality of all privileged and other confidential information.”   

“6: Restriction of Public Comment.  Interpreters shall not publicly discuss, report, or offer an opinion concerning a matter in which they are or have been engaged, even when that information is not privileged or required by law to be confidential.”

Moreover, when working as agents of an attorney, interpreters are also covered and bound by the stricter client-attorney privilege; a privilege held by the attorney’s client that gives him the right to refuse to disclose, and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications between the client and the attorney (Black’s Law Dictionary).

Rule 1.6 of the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, reads:

“Rule 1.6 Confidentiality of Information. (a) A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent…”

These communications cannot be shared with the public, even with a court order, unless the client waives the privilege (there are some exceptions to the rule that do not apply to our subject matter) and the privilege extends to the attorney’s agents who are considered as action as an “extension” of the lawyer. These agents include legal secretaries, paralegals, investigators, and interpreters, among others (“United States v. Kovel,” 296 F.2d 918, 921 2nd. Cir. 1961)

In the past weeks I have read posts and comments in at least two different forums by individuals who present themselves as court interpreters  (I do not know them by name or in person) revealing information and details of private conversations between an attorney and his client. Moreover, several people have opined about the issues presented by this individual, without the slightest concern about a conduct that is definitely violating all codes of ethics, and may be illegal. I should mention that a few colleagues warned this person and asked this individual not to do this anymore, but for the most part, the person who was doing the posting, and those commenting on the post, continued their debate like noting had happened. I was so bothered by this use of the forum that I left and never went back, so I do not know how long this debate lasted; and even though I do not know the person who posted this, apparently privileged, information, I got the impression that the privileged information was not posted with the intention to breach a legal duty, but out of ignorance and a lack of desire to learn. I should mention that this person did not give names and other details that could easily identify the holder of the privilege, but there was enough privileged information for anyone interested on learning more about the case to find out who were the parties involved.

The second post that I saw was less likely to pierce the client-attorney privilege, but in my opinion it violated the rules of ethics and professional conduct in a truly disgusting way. This was a post by another person who called himself a court interpreter, and went on to argue that his “job as a court interpreter” was not boring because he saw different and new situations every day. Nothing wrong to this point, but next, he gave some examples of the “variety” of cases he is routinely exposed to, by sharing details of some of these cases, and giving his opinion about the parties involved, in a very offensive and demeaning way. These are some of this individual’s comments: “…The… family was lying through their teeth, but… (the) officials were gullible enough to grant them asylum…” and how about this one: “…hours of telephonic interpreting for illegal immigrants… (I) had to hear and interpret a lot of BS…” or this more troubling one: “…defendant asked why he doesn’t qualify for (a legal benefit) the answer was… he had to rat about the people who paid… for his defense…”  Unlike the first case I mentioned above, this individual received many warnings and criticisms for doing what he did, and I believe that for this reason, within a week, this person went back to the same forum and now alleged that the cases were real, but that he had “…added imaginary twists, actions or actors…” that although most (not all) of the cases were not real, “…for the purpose of initiating an intelligent debate, (he) presented them as actual, real cases…” and claimed to be a victim of attacks by those who did not want any “personal opinions”.  Finally, to make things even worse, this person defended his posts by indicating that he was justified to do so, because they had been posted in a closed forum… on the internet!

I did not write this blog to attack anybody or to end the career of any colleagues or alleged colleagues. That is why I did not revealed any names of individuals or forums, and I tried to show just enough of the published posts to convey the idea of what is troubling me. I wrote this piece because I see what is going on in these social media outlets and it concerns me. I believe that the rules of ethics and professional conduct must be observed because we are professionals, and more importantly, because they affect others who confided on us as providers of this fiduciary service. It is not the same to betray your clients’ confidence and air private matters the way these people did, or to present the facts of a case to your colleagues in a professional forum, observing all professional and ethical rules, in order to get an opinion or to dissipate a doubt. This is done by all professionals: physicians, attorneys. accountants, and interpreters on a daily basis.

I think that the majority of those who have violated these rules did not know what they were doing, and I believe that social media forums, when used appropriately, are a valuable tool.  Perhaps we need to educate those who do not know the rules, and maybe we need to assess the moderators and the guidelines of some of these forums.  What we cannot allow is a situation that will leave us all in a bad place as a profession, and in an ugly position as individual practitioners; and I am not even mentioning the tremendous liability that those who violate these canons (and in some cases the law) are exposing themselves to. I ask you to share your comments on this topic, and to do so without any personal attacks.

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

April 26, 2016 § 28 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,205 other followers