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

May 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A very simple action by interpreters that can go a long way.

May 22, 2015 § 3 Comments

Dear colleges:

A few days ago I was talking to some interpreters about the changes to the profession brought by the new global economy and technological developments. As we discussed the challenges that we now face as interpreters, it became clear that we need to stay at the edge of all technological developments and we must act and react together as a profession.  As we discussed some of our options, we came to a collective realization that we probably are not taking full advantage of the benefits of our professional organizations, especially, the largest and best known of them all: The American Translators Association (ATA)

In the last years, ATA has reached out to interpreters in several ways. As a result, we now have as many interpreters in the organization as we have translators. Unfortunately, a big difference between the two groups of members is that most interpreters are not qualified to vote, not because an impediment on the organization’s bylaws, but because most interpreters do not know how easy it is to switch your membership status to voting member.

There is a misconception that only certified translators can vote in ATA. That is false. Many interpreters qualify to upgrade their status to voting member; it can be done online, it takes about one minute, and it is for free.

Interpreters who have a federal court certification, a U.S. state court certification, those who have passed an interpreting exam with the U.S. Department of State (conference and seminar level) conference interpreters who are members of AIIC, those who have a college degree in interpreting, and some others who meet certain requirements of professional experience, can now go to ATA’s website and upgrade their membership status.  This is the link: http://www.atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php

Professional organizations have never been more important, relevant, and necessary. I encourage you to join them if you are not a member, and if you are an ATA member, or if you are one of those colleagues who is considering an ATA membership, I invite you to join. Those of you who are already members, please click on the link above and change your status to voting member. Remember, that is how the United States was born. If you are already a member, make sure your voice is heard and your opinion is counted.

I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experience as you change your status on line to voting member.

Atlanta hosts the largest gathering of U.S. court interpreters this weekend.

May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This weekend many of the top-notch court interpreters in the United States will meet in Atlanta for the annual conference of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). For this reason, when I was asked by the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT) to write a piece for the special conference issue of their publication “Bridges”, I agreed to first publish it there, and post it here later on the day.

Professional conferences are vital to any activity and we are no exception. As you all know, these are the places where we solidify and improve our knowledge, advance our skills, and refresh our ethics. That in itself makes them invaluable, but NAJIT’s annual conference is much more than that.

Those attending the conference will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the living legends of court interpreting will be there, and that they will be joined by some local and brand new talent in our industry.  You see, the conference will welcome more than court interpreters and legal translators. Conference, medical, community, military, and other types of professional interpreters will be in Atlanta adding value to the event, sharing their knowledge and experience, and developing professional networks across disciplines and places of residence.

I invite you to approach old and new colleagues and have a dialogue with them. I believe that these conferences give us an opportunity to do all the academic things I mentioned above; but they also provide a forum for interpreters to discuss those issues that are threatening our profession. Atlanta is giving us a unique opportunity to talk about strategy on issues as important as the development of technologies and the efforts by some of the big agencies to keep these new resources to themselves and use them to take the market to lows that are totally unacceptable to professionals. We can openly talk about strategy to defend our fees, working conditions, and professionalism, while at the same time initiating a direct dialogue with the technology companies who are developing all the new software and hardware that will soon become the standard in our profession.

Finally, the conference will also help you to get more exposure to other interpreters, and will provide situations where we will have a great time and create long-lasting memories and new friendships across the country and beyond. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your motivation to attend this and other professional conferences. I hope to see you this weekend!

These interpreters work under very difficult conditions.

May 13, 2015 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week, millions of people throughout the world watched on television the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.  Boxing is controversial in some quarters, and the fight itself gave both, fans and detractors alike, much to talk about.  I was one of those individuals watching the pay-per-view event, but unlike most of the audience, in between rounds my undivided attention was on the boxers’ corners where seconds and coaches were giving encouragement and instructions to both fighters. My reasons for paying close attention to these breaks are very simple: the networks broadcast these conversations in the ring, and many times, because many price fighters do not speak English, this is done through an interpreter.  By the same token, the sports channels that broadcast in Spanish in the United States, need interpreters to do the same thing when English is spoken at the fighters’ corners, and when the winner is interviewed from the center of the ring after the official result of the bout is announced.

Sports interpreting is a very difficult field. It requires deep knowledge of the specific sport’s theory, rules, history, statistics, and current events.  Many of these interpreters are individually assigned to an athlete by the team, the league, or the sport’s federation. Some of them also function as escort interpreters and cultural brokers to the athlete.  Their job requires constant traveling and total dedication. If you like sports, the field is very rewarding, but it is not for everybody.

On top of all the requirements needed to be a sports interpreter, a sports media interpreter must meet an additional set of skills. These interpreters must perform in front of the TV cameras, sometimes for millions of viewers. They need to know the ropes in the world of broadcasting; they have to deliver their rendition with emotion, yet with serenity, in a pleasant voice, and with clear pronunciation. They have to transmit the message within the constraints and limitations of a radio or television broadcast, and they have to do it live, with no second takes.

I have been very fortunate, because throughout my career as an interpreter, I have always been involved with sports media interpreting.  I have interpreted many boxing matches, and more recently, I have been working during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches for the major sports networks and for the ones that broadcast in Spanish in the United States.  You see, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes need interpreters when the fighters do not speak English.

Not long ago, I was hired to interpret for both, the English and the Spanish broadcast of a UFC world championship match that took place outside the United States. There were the four basic assignments that all sports media interpreters who specialize in boxing or UFC have to cover: (1) Pre-fight interviews, (2) the weigh-in ceremony, (3) the conversations taking place at the two corners during the match itself, and (4) the interviews and press conference after the event. All four tasks are complex and unique.

When the main event is a title match or involves high profile combatants, the pre-fight interviews can be time consuming and exhausting. Most likely, the interpreter will accompany the fighters to personal appearances for radio and TV shows, to some visits to hospitals or charity organizations, and to some social and even political events such as dinners, personal appearances, and similar activities. Many times there will be a booth for the interpreter to do his job during an interview, but there will be many instances when the interpreter will need to work consecutively as there will be no place to set a booth and no time to lose.

Since full contact sports divide athletes by their weight, boxing and UFC championship have weigh in ceremonies. This is done in the presence of the opponent, and with the accredited media as witness.  This is a safeguard in case that a bigger man starts thinking about fighting an individual who is smaller and therefore, perhaps easier to defeat.  Weigh in ceremonies have evolved from a simple man-step on the scale routine, to very elaborated and spectacular shows full of music, dry ice, lights, and roaring crowds at the venue.  These ceremonies will often be interpreted from a booth in an environment comfortable for the interpreters.

To give viewers a better idea of what is happening in the ring (boxing) and cage (ultimate fighting), for years the TV networks have been showing the action in the fighters’ corners in between rounds. All strategy, encouragement, and information that a fighter gets during the combat are delivered during these conversations. Because many of the contenders hold these corner conferences in their native language, the use of interpreters for the corner conversations has been a fixture for many years. Interpreters have a very difficult task during this minute-long breaks. They need to listen to all that is being said by the trainers and seconds as it is captured by an environment mike and a boom, and it is delivered into their earphones while everything else is going on at the arena. It is common to have code-switching during these conversations because many trainers are Americans and during the instructions, many times they go back to English without realizing it.

Here the interpreter has to be as sharp as ever: sports terminology, strategy, profanity, religious talk, all can (and will) emerge during these in-between rounds sessions.  Once the break is over, the corner conversation ends, but the interpreters’ work does not. They have to remain alert and be on the lookout for any potential comments, remarks, or instructions that the corner may shout at the fighter during the round. If this happens, the interpreter has to inform it to the broadcasters so they can decide if they need to pass it on to the audience or not. It is hard for me to convey the full picture of what is going on at this time, but if you can imagine the noisiest assignment you ever had and then multiply it one hundred times, then you will begin to understand what sports media interpreters go through every time.  Everybody who has been to a basketball or hockey game knows the noise level at the venue when the music is playing.  These interpreters have to do their job, especially in UFC matches, while the noise is as loud as it can be. Picture yourself interpreting specialized terminology, bad words, idiomatic expressions, and similar conversations, all uttered at a volume intended for the individual who is next to you (not the general public) as it is being picked up by a boom a few feet away from the conversation, and you are doing it for millions of viewers from your seat at ring side, through a headset, while the arena’s P.A. system is playing “we will, we will rock you” full blast, your microphone and everything else is vibrating with the noise, and the sports announcers, and also the producer, are talking to you through the same headset at the same time.

I recently worked a fight where we were all crowded around the ring. We, the Spanish interpreters, were sitting to the right of the Portuguese interpreters and to the left of the Japanese interpreters. The English language announcers for Fox were next to the Portuguese colleagues, about ten feet away from us, and the other announcers we were working with: the ones broadcasting in Spanish, were at about the same distance from us as their English counterparts but in the other direction, to the right of the Japanese interpreters.  It is the most difficult environment and the ultimate multitasking, all done simultaneously.  Add to the job description the fact that the interpreter needs to get up, walk through a very tight space, making sure that he does not step on one of the myriad of television cables that cover the entire floor like a carpet, and climb up to the ring, or into the cage, to consecutively interpret the television interviews with winners and losers after each combat. Not an easy job!

Finally, after it is all over in the ring (or cage) and there is a winner, both fighters and their teams are expected to talk to the media a few minutes after the program is over. This takes place at a (sometimes improvised) press conference room in the arena, and it happens very late at night, or during the early hours of the morning: when the interpreter is already exhausted.  This post-fight press conferences are usually attended by many journalists from domestic and foreign radio, television and print. They often block the view of the interpreters literally making it impossible to see the stage from the booth.  It is total chaos with journalists, producers, and cameras all over the place; and to complicate things even more, many journalists ask their questions without using a microphone.  I remind you, this all takes place after a long and busy day of interpreting.

Generally, interpreting services in the English<>Spanish combination are provided by three sports media interpreters: Two who work the fight and post-fight interviews in the ring or cage, and one who stays behind to do in-between fights interviews with other boxers and celebrities from an improvised studio under the seats of the arena. The two interpreters who work at ringside alternate between the English and the Spanish broadcast, depending on the language spoken by the contenders. These are the same two interpreters that will work the press conference once the event is over and the arena is empty, later that night.

The job is exciting, challenging, and to those of us who love sports it is a lot of fun, the pay is good, and the opportunity to meet the rich and famous is constant; however, we should never lose sight of the fact that this type of interpreting requires a lot of traveling, many hours of preparing for the assignment, very long hours, and the ability to work under very adverse circumstances, especially the noise level and the tight quarters.  These interpreters work live, and deliver their rendition to those attending the match in the arena, and to the millions who watch the fight around the world; there is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. It requires of a very unique woman or man willing to work as I have described.

I tip my hat to those of you who do this kind of work, and for the rest of my colleagues, I wish that you found this post informative; you now know of another specialty in our profession, and I hope that the next time you watch a boxing or ultimate fighting match, and even if you just happen to walk by a TV set while one of these colleagues is doing his work; you stop for a moment and see them in action. I am sure you will come to appreciate your own working conditions more after you really see how difficult it is to interpret during one of these events.  I invite you to share your thoughts about this topic, and any other type of interpreting that you may have done under extremely difficult circumstances, and please focus on interpreting and leave out your personal opinion about boxing or mixed martial arts.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar.  It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.

Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III.  The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.  Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez.  Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France.  The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.

On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.  The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday.  On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day.  It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war.  Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire.  This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)

Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens.  Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN)  In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”

The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.”  (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years.  Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.

On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila.  Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration.  I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.

This time of the year could be very dangerous for some court interpreters.

April 27, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I just read a contract that one of the States in the U.S. is asking all court interpreters to sign if they want to continue to work in their system. The document is 38 pages long and it is full of legal terminology, rules, and sanctions that only an attorney can understand.  This is not an isolated case. Because of political pressure and budgetary prioritization, court interpreter programs are getting less money from their administrative offices at the state level. In other words: There is hardly any money to pay for interpreting services at the state level in many states.

Although the Civil Rights Act is over fifty years old, it was only a few years ago that the federal government decided to enforce its compliance at the state level in the case of equal access to the administration of justice, regardless of the language spoken by the user of the service.  When the federal government came knocking on the door of each of the fifty states, and told their state judiciary to comply with the law or lose the funds they had been getting from the feds, states started to look for a solution to this problem. In reality, up to that moment, the states were complying with the constitutional requirement to provide court interpreters in criminal cases, but in many states there were no court-funded court interpreters available for civil cases and other additional services offered by the courts to the English-speaking population.  The message from Washington, D.C. was loud and clear: In order to continue to receive (much needed) federal funds, the states had to provide interpreters for all services they offered, not just criminal cases.

In some parts of the country the first problem was as simple as this: There were not enough certified court interpreters to meet the legal requirements; in other regions the problem was slightly different: There were plenty of certified interpreters, but the courts were not willing to pay the professional fees commanded by these (for the most part) top-notch interpreters in that state.  These professionals had been there for years, but due to the low fees paid by the state court system, they were not even considering the state judiciary as a prospective client.

When faced with this dilemma, a logical and ethical option should have been to develop a program to encourage more young people to become certified court interpreters, train them, and then test them to see if they could meet the state-level certification requirements, set years before and universally accepted as the minimum requirements to do a decent court interpreting job.  Some states’ needs could be met this way, but not all of them. For that reason, a second logical step would have been to raise the professional fees paid to court interpreters in order to entice those top-notch interpreters, who were not working for the courts, by making the assignment profitable and attractive. Finally, for those places where this was not enough, state courts could have used modern technology and provide interpreting services by video or teleconference. Administrative offices had to develop a plan, categorize the services offered and decide which ones required of an experienced certified court interpreter, find the ones that a brand new certified court interpreter could provide, and select those instances that, because of their nature and relevance, could be covered remotely by a certified court interpreter elsewhere in the state or even somewhere else.  This process also needed that state court judges and officials acted within the constitutional system and asked their respective legislatures for the funds to comply with the federal mandate.  It is doubtful that legislatures would risk losing federal funds by not approving such monies; and in those cases where the local legislators would not grant more funds, state court administrators and chief judges needed to do their job, and truly provide equal access to justice to all by reorganizing priorities, and perhaps sacrificing some programs, even those that were near and dear to a judge’s heart, in order to find the funds needed to meet this priority that is above most others, not just because of the federal funds that the state would lose in the event of non-compliance, but because those in charge of the judiciary should consider equal access to justice a top priority, and I really mean at the very top.

Unfortunately, my dear friends and colleagues, most states chose an easier way, even though it did not deliver what the Civil Rights Act intended.  They decided not to rock the boat with the legislature and play it safe, they decided not to make true equal access to justice a priority by recruiting and training quality certified court interpreters, instead, they opted for ignoring the excellent professionals in their area by not raising interpreter fees, thus making the assignments profitable to professional interpreters. They decided to come up with a “plan” to keep the federal money in their accounts by making believe that they were complying with the federal mandate of equal access to justice. This is what many of the states decided to do:

Instead of recruiting and training new certified court interpreters, they decided to create a group of paraprofessionals who would “deliver” interpreting services. These individuals were drafted from the ranks of those who had always failed the certification exams, and by recruiting bilingual individuals with no interpreting knowledge whatsoever. States justified their decision by arguing that these individuals would receive the necessary “training” to interpret in certain scenarios of lesser importance, where people who had partially passed the certification test would be considered as professionally qualified (semantics vary from state to state but it is basically the same) even though in the real world they should be deemed as unfit to do the job. Moreover, bilinguals would be trained to “assist” non-English speakers with some administrative matters in the courthouse. Of course, this brilliant decision would set the profession back to the good old days when prevailing judicial culture was that knowing two languages was all you needed to interpret in court; but that was of little importance when balanced against the possibility of cancelling a court program that was politically useful to a judge or an administrator.  This is how the “warm body next to the court services user so we don’t lose federal funds” theory was born.  The spirit of the law was ignored.

There is as much quality and true access to the administration of justice when a person who failed the court interpreter certification test, or a bilingual court staffer, interprets for a non-English speaker individual as there is medical knowledge when the guy who failed the medical board sees a hospital patient, even if the appointment is to take care of an ingrowing toenail.

Of course, the process above taught court administrators a valuable lesson: court interpreting services was a good place to save money, a wonderful way to channel budget resources somewhere else, and a great way to avoid antagonizing the state legislature, because there would be no need to ask for more money to fund the program.  This was the origin of the next step backwards: Fee reduction.

Court administrators did not stop here. They now knew that they could get away with more, so they decided to lower interpreter fees. In most cases the reduction did not come as a lowering of the fee itself; it was accomplished by cutting guaranteed hours, reducing mileage and travel reimbursement, changing cancellation policy, and by creating a new bureaucratic machinery designed to oversee what interpreters do minute-by-minute. Maybe it should be referred to as “to spy” instead of to “oversee”.

Fast forward to today, and you will find these huge interpreting services contracts in many states. The reason for them is not that court interpreters all of a sudden went bad and stopped doing the good work that they did for decades; these contracts are motivated by more reductions to the interpreters’ fees and by developing this super-protection for the state, leaving the freelancer with little or no defense before potential abuse by the court administrators.  What other justification can these state contracts have when the federal court interpreter contract is a very short agreement, which usually does not change from one fiscal year to the next, and is drafted and developed individually by every federal judicial district?

These state contracts that court interpreters are expected to sign without the slightest objection, have been drafted by the administrative office of the courts’ legal departments; they have been amended to include any possible ways to reduce the interpreters’ real fee that the states missed when drafting last year’s contract, they include sanctions to interpreters who do not comply with sometimes ridiculous duties, without setting any process of notice and hearing; they are written in a complex style full of legal terms and ambiguity that only an attorney can understand.

I am very fortunate that I do not need to sign one of these contracts, as state courts have not been my clients for several years; but it concerns me, as a defender of our profession, that my colleagues may sign these documents out of fear or hopelessness.  I invite all those court interpreters who have been, or will be asked to sign one of these agreements in the next few months, before the new fiscal year starts in July, to seek legal representation. It is your professional career, it is your future. I believe that state (and national) level professional associations should negotiate a deal with a labor relations or civil law attorney, where services would be provided at a lower fee, and offer it as a benefit to their members. In fact, I would like to see all interpreters who are members of a state or regional professional association present a common front and negotiate these contracts with the state administrator.  As state court interpreters we need protection, because if we do not act, we will continue to move backwards. They already told many of us that there is no money and they blamed it on the state legislature, now we know that perhaps they did not try to protect the interpreter program no matter what.

They are paying you less, making your work conditions very uncomfortable, they already took some of our work away and gave it to mediocre cheaper paraprofessionals.  All professionals negotiate the terms of a contract, and before they reach an agreement, they have the benefit of legal representation. The administrative office of the courts is represented by their attorneys; interpreters, like all professionals, should at least be represented by an attorney before they sign a new agreement. I now ask you to comment on this situation and the ways to recover what we had already achieved in the past, so we can move forward, and for the first time fully comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

April 19, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there are many positive changes: From the way we now research our assignments, to the social media we use to get more clients, to the places where we work, to the things we now take to the booth. All improvements to the way we used to work just a few years ago.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when you had to go to the library to research and study for an assignment, we now google the subject matter, the speaker, and the venue where we are going to render our services, and we do it from our office, our home, an airplane, and even the beach. Our research library went from the nearby branch of the local library system to all of the Ivy League libraries combined. We now keep up with all developments in the profession, and with current affairs in general, by using the web, and particularly social media. We find out about conferences, online courses, webinars, and business trends with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many others that we also use for getting new clients and keeping the good ones we already have.

Many interpreters who did not have access to important assignments in the past, because of the place where they live, can now interpret remotely using a virtual booth without having to go to the big city or travel half way across the world. This has helped them become better interpreters and broaden their perception of the profession.

I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we used to drag heavy suitcases full of dictionaries, glossaries, and textbooks to the booth. Now, if we have an I-Pad or a tablet in the booth, we have all the libraries in the world, everything the speaker ever said or wrote on a particular topic, and all the information on the subject matter of the presentation updated to the very last minute. Nobody wants to give this up.

You see my friends, interpreters want technology, and they want globalization, but we need to be very careful. I think that sometimes people get confused and mix two separate concepts: (1) Technology and those who create, develop, and improve it, and (2) The big language service providers who are in a race to get all possible benefits out of these developments and are ready to leave nothing behind for the human asset in this equation: the interpreter.

The creators, call them researchers, developers, scientists, or engineers who are constantly giving us new tools to make our lives and careers easier and more comfortable are not the enemy. They spend most of their time trying to find ways to deliver a quality product (or service) to those who are and could be our clients.  They are the ones who brought us all of the positive changes I mentioned above, and many more. This is a crowd we want to be with, we need to.

We must engage these entrepreneurs because they know the science and the engineering, not because they are acquainted with the interpreting profession. We are the experts in this field, the ones they need to hear from, the ones they must listen to, the ones who will tell them what is needed and how. We cannot afford to ignore them, attack them, or dismiss them; we have to sit down and talk to them.

We also have to come to terms with globalization, and I believe that most interpreters have done so. Everybody understands that globalization is here to stay, we cannot (and should not) wish it away. We know that globalization broadens the pool of interpreters that can have access to an assignment, it opens all world markets to the profession. This translates into more opportunities for the good quality interpreter to have more and better work, and it gives the client the possibility to get the most knowledgeable interpreters in a particular field or subject matter, regardless of where they might be physically located.  Obviously, a clear effect of globalization is the ever increasing need to communicate with others who will often speak a different language, thus emphasizing the need for interpreters and translators. The verdict is in: Globalization is great for interpreters because it gives the client access to more and better professionals, and it allows us to get more complex, interesting, and profitable assignments. My friends, we face no threat from new technology or from globalization. Let’s not buy into this argument. We need to stop wasting our time fighting against windmills.  We must concentrate our efforts somewhere else:

We already know what many interpreting agencies are doing under the banner of globalization and technology: They want us to spend our energy fighting against them, they want us to look obsolete and reluctant to change, that is the image they are selling to their clients.  Why would they do that? Because it helps them. By silencing the interpreters’ voice, they get the clients’ undivided attention, and once they have the client in their pocket, they can convince them to do as they recommend. Their goals are different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that, as they owe their loyalty to their shareholders, and we cannot lose sight of it.  The large (sometimes publicly traded) language service agencies’ goal is to generate a big profit by minimizing their expenses as much as possible. They will spend huge amounts of money acquiring this new technology in order to lower their cost of operation. Once the new system is in place, technology will allow them to control the market and offer interpreters a very sad choice: “take very little money for your services, or get out of the way”.  They are banking on their clients’ trust (remember, they have their undivided attention) and they rely on new technology that will let them work with mediocre interpreters as these new technologies will do much of the work that interpreters used to do.  The result will be a very low quality service, but because of this strategy, the clients will never know, or at least it will take them a while to discover the poor choices they made.   Now, the agencies I usually work for do not fall into this category. In this article I am not talking about some big companies who work big conferences and events; I am not including some small agencies who do a great job and pay interpreters very well either. They all understand the importance and value of a quality interpretation.  Here I am referring to those enormous agencies that control a big chunk of the market, and hire thousands of interpreters for laughable rock-bottom fees every day. These are the agencies many of you reading this post work with on a regular basis.

I also want to make it clear that I am not calling them evil. They do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well. The important point for us, as interpreters, is to understand that we do have opposing interests in the profession, and with this realization, we must deal with them not as criminals or monsters, but as antagonistic forces in our professional market, who, in my opinion, bring in less value than the interpreter, as the profession can exist without them, but it cannot without us.

This is what major multinational language agencies are doing at this time. We should not take the bait. Instead of arguing against globalization and technology, we must change the debate and take it to the human talent: The interpreter.

You see, we need to have a two-front approach:

(1) We have to talk directly to those developing the technology, and we need to do it now before the agencies take ownership of the whole issue. The scientists and engineers will talk to us: We are the equipment users. We have to create forums where we can discuss interpreting technology with those developing it; we have to talk costs, service, preferred platforms, software, and many other things. We need to do it as soon as possible, and we need to do it in an environment free of the interests of the major language agencies. In other words, this will never happen if we believe that results can be achieved within an environment controlled by these language service providers. We cannot bring these issues to the table and speak directly to the scientists and engineers in events sponsored by the agencies. There cannot be real progress in a discussion panel where the moderator is the CEO of one of these huge agencies who clearly, and logically, have goals that are different from ours.  Does this mean that we will not sit down and talk to the agencies? Absolutely not. It is just that before we do that, we have to be in a better position to be able to negotiate from strength. The last thing we need right now is to hear fantastic stories from some of these agencies trying to convince interpreters that the technology they now use is great for us because “instead of having to drive downtown to do your work, and instead of having to sit down and wait for a couple of hours before interpreting, you can now devote forty five minutes to the interpreting task from your own home, and then do something else with the rest of your life like mowing the lawn or playing with your kids”.  Of course, this means that instead of paying the interpreter for a full day of work, their intention is to pay for forty five minutes of work. On top of being insulting to the professional interpreter, nobody can make a living that way. They are offering a salary lower than a fast food restaurant and they are doing it with a big smile on their face.

(2) We need to educate the client by speaking directly to them.  Most clients rely on the agency’s knowledge and expertise as far as selecting the interpreters for an assignment. They never really stop to think what it is needed to properly interpret, and the agencies do not want them to spend much time doing that, as it would provoke uncomfortable questions about the quality, training, education, and experience of so many of the interpreters they presently offer to their clients, as these agencies make their decision to hire based on one issue alone: Who is willing to work for less money.

The client needs to know that a good interpreter has years of education and experience, and only after that, interpreters can deliver an impeccable, accurate, clear, and pleasant rendition; they need to be made aware of the fact that real professional interpreters do a comprehensive research of the subject matter, and do not take assignments two hours before the job when the agency representative calls them desperate because they cannot get anybody to cover the event. The client needs to hear how a really good interpreter goes beyond the rendition, works on problem prevention and solving during the event. Once the client understands that a good interpreter sells peace of mind, and especially after they realize that working with the interpreter directly, instead of through an agency, will be more cost-effective, as agencies pay rock bottom fees to the interpreter, while at the same time they charge their clients handsomely, they will become more knowledgeable and will demand good interpreters from the agencies. This is where you, my dear colleagues, need to hold your ground and demand top professional fees from these agencies. I suggest that as part of this education you target the legal department and insurance office of the client, and share with them some of the tragic results of hiring poor quality interpreters. We all know about these unfortunate incidents. I am convinced that these individuals will advise their clients to retain quality interpreters, as they will understand that good professionals are like an insurance policy: More expensive in the short run, but money savers at the end of the day.

Do not be shy about explaining to the client how it does not make sense to spend a lot of money hiring an expensive speaker for a keynote address, a top-notch caterer, and a beautiful venue, if at the end of the day the people who paid to listen to the speaker will not get much out of the presentation because they could not understand the foreign language speaking presenter due to poor quality interpreting.  Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.

Never forget that as the human talent in this operation, interpreters are indispensable to deliver the service, just like you cannot benefit from an MRI without a physician’s reading of the results, you cannot have quality interpreting without good interpreters. We can join forces with the technology provider and do a magnificent job. Agencies cannot do the same without good interpreters, unless we let them change the subject so that their client does not see the importance of our service. At this point we will have many options: we will be able to decide if we want to work with large agencies, smaller ones, directly with the client, and even as a professional group, association, or cooperative where we may be able to acquire the needed technology and offer our services bypassing the low-paying agencies.

At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies. They are doing a good job at what they are supposed to do; now it is our time to do the same.  Please share your thoughts on this extremely important issue, and when doing so, please abstain from mentioning all the things that agencies can do that we cannot, because we know the things they do, and we understand that although difficult, we could ultimately do them all.  I invite you to contribute to this discussion without defending the agencies. We all know there are already plenty of forums where they can defend themselves.

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