Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.

Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.

Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise.  I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.

Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.

The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement.  The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.

I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.

Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish.  There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in.  Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.

Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe.  There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up).  There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.

What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation.  They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.

They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely.  I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.

Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe.  Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area.  I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.

My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help.  With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.

My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish.  Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.

It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.

Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.

Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.

The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.

Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society.  The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.

I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.

Is being a capable, good individual enough to lead a professional association?

September 4, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I have written about the benefits of belonging to professional interpreter and translator associations in the past. Sometimes I have praised and criticized some, but I have never questioned the need to have them around, ready to defend and advance the profession through professional development of their members, advocacy, lobbying, education, forging alliances, and so on.

Today we need them more than ever before. In a globalized economy, where we are the constant target of greedy agencies, ignorant government officials, shrinking budgets and growing intolerance, solid professional associations are essential to our profession. Because we are not all equal nor we live in the same environment, in my opinion, interpreters and translators should belong to at least one international, one regional, one local, and one specialized association.

Unlike other posts, today I will not question the intentions of some associations’ disturbing agenda centered on corporate memberships, I will not talk about the good or bad practices of some others regarding public relations, advocacy, or the planning of a conference. My concern in such matters remains unchanged.

My motivation behind this post comes from deep concern and historically supported fear about the immediate future of one of the largest and most popular professional association in the United States. Even though this entry centers on issues that happened in America, many of this association’s members live in other countries, and this situation could easily happen somewhere else.   I encourage all readers to continue to the end, even if you live somewhere else.

After many years of struggle, and a long fight for its survival, this association reestablished itself. It grew and the quality of its membership improved. For the past two years it has grown tremendously and has held its two most successful conferences in history, not just because of the people attending the events, but due to the quality of its content.  As a veteran member of the association who experienced the good old days, the horrible years of decay, and this rebirth, I can confidently say this historical recovery happened because of the experience, prestige, knowledge, honesty and vision of two of its Board members, the hard work of all five people part of the Board, and the professionalism, skills, and work of the two individuals who have been in charge of the administration for the last couple of years.  Sadly, the members of the association learned last week these two Board members resigned to their positions.

By looking at the composition of the Board, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, would see a well-respected professor from one of the more renowned interpreting and translation institutions worldwide, a pioneer and innovator on a note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting, a trainer and conference presenter in all continents, a United States Department of State interpreter, one of the most respected (beloved by the interpreters who worked with him) and capable managing interpreter for one of the busiest federal district courts in the United States, including courthouses in four cities, and perhaps the one of the few districts to have staff certified interpreters in a language other than Spanish, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from the state with the largest non-English speaking population in the United States, one very experienced federally certified court interpreter from one of the busiest federal judicial districts in the country due to its proximity to Mexico, a well-known and widely respected authority on legal transcriptions and translations, a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.  These credentials explain the reason many of the most capable and better known court interpreters who left the association during the dark era came back. It also gave many of us an important tool to promote the association and encourage new interpreters to join.

Unfortunately, after last week’s resignations, anybody interested in joining the organization, learning about the profession, or denouncing a professional or ethical transgression, will see a promising somewhat recently federally certified court interpreter from a small city in the Midwest, one of the newest trainers of interpreters and conference presenter, a State-level certified court interpreter for one local court in the New York City metropolitan area, and a PhD in Linguistics, experienced university professor who does not live in the United States.

I have no intention to criticize, offend, or disrespect the colleagues who remain as Board members. I have no reason to doubt their skills and dedication; I am not questioning their honesty or integrity either. They appear to be capable, and many of you trusted them when you voted for them.

I think it is important for me to mention that the two Board members who resigned, and the two individuals in charge of the administration, are all good friends of mine whom I have known for many years. I have had very limited contact with the current directors. I have dealt with one of them more than the others because of the conference in the Washington, D.C. area, but we have no relationship beyond saying hi at the conferences or being Facebook friends.

This post is not about those directors who stayed, but about the ones who left; the missed opportunities due to their absence, the uncertain future of the organization, and my concerns about the reasons that pushed courageous, capable veterans of the profession, full of ideas and plans for the association’s future, to resign.  Every time that a non-quitter quits we must worry and find out what happened.

Dear friends and colleagues, for a professional association to thrive it must gain access to many places, many inaccessible to the common folk. Effectively arguing for the interests of the profession before government authorities, establishing professional practice positions before clients, and protecting our profession from the predators of the “industry”, are difficult. Many of those we must talk to will only listen when the voice addressing them has the credibility backed by name recognition, reputation, professional trajectory, and personal network that the now missing directors have.

Many of you reading this post, members of this association or not, are too new to remember the dark years.  They started with a Board lacking experienced federally certified court interpreters, world-renowned freelance practitioners admired and respected by other veterans who trusted them, and could be role models to the new interpreters.  The Board of those years had good intentions, I think they wanted to make the association better, but a Board of university professors and non-certified interpreters shrank the organization. For years our conferences were poorly attended, made no money, and could make no decisions because with so few members attending the conferences we did not have quorum to vote for or against anything.  On that occasion, just like today, capable, experienced, well-known and respected Board members left; some just came back in the last couple of years when they recognized a Board like the ones in the past. Many of our most valuable members never came back. Many of my colleagues and I do not want to go back to the dark years.

I understand that many of you are friends of the current members of the Board, I get that many of you voted for them. Nothing is wrong with that. What troubles me is the emotional part. There is no reason to be offended or angry when people question the credentials of the current Board compared to the ones of the Board we just lost last week. I have seen how some of you are wishing good luck to the remaining Board. I wish them a long and happy life, but I am not on the well-wisher column. I prefer to remain on the skeptical, scrutinizing every move and decision.  I want to know what caused the two resignations. Not the light version or the excuses. I know the ones who resign and they could not possibly resign over one decision. It had to include other issues, perhaps even the way the Board members interacted.

I have also read how many of you are demanding an audit of the performance by the company retained to manage the financial and day-to-day operations. I think that should not be necessary as I trust the professionalism of the two individuals who run said company (and as I said, they are my friends) but I welcome the suggestion as a needed step to erase the uneasiness of many members. I know the administrators will not like this, I know it will hurt their feelings, but I also know that they have nothing to hide and will understand the need for this audit which should be expanded to go beyond a mere examination of the books. Like I said, the real cause of the resignations came not from the accounting books, it came from some repeated interaction among Board members.

I also believe that to avoid going back to the failed years of the past, we must let people speak up. If the members want to vent their frustration with the way things turned starting last week, they should be allowed to post anything on the Facebook group (as far as I know there are no complains about censoring it so far) and also to use the List Serve. At this point it is irrelevant what the guidelines say about who or what can be expressed there. It is absurd to defend a decision splitting hairs because somebody was censored, banned, moderated of whatever. These are extraordinary times and they require of flexibility and total freedom of expression to all members. We all know that everybody will say what they must say, if not through the association’s official outlets, then through another social media vehicle.

This is a time to listen to the members, have an independent auditor and perhaps a committee to investigate what happened so we can have transparent and complete information we can trust. Self-serving statements by Board members, and providing some financial and corporate information on line will not be enough.

Finally, we all must understand that it will be difficult to fill the two vacancies on the Board with colleagues of similar caliber to the ones who left. Serving in any professional association is not an easy task, it takes a lot of time, requires of many personal and professional sacrifices, and it does not make you any money.  Getting anybody to serve is hard, I for one would not do it, but getting somebody with the same characteristics as the ones of our two dear colleagues who quit will be a titanic effort.  Hints by the current Board indicating that they will move fast worry me.  It will take some time to get people that can take the Board’s collective resume back to where it was last week. Other decisions can be postponed if needed, there are no contracts or deadlines that justify a rushed decision. Many of us are serious about it. We will be watching closely this nomination process, because this time it will be even more complicated to get the ideal people on the Board. These two new members must have another characteristic: They must be independent, they must be of a different persuasion from the one of the three members left. You may think this does not matter, that regardless of their ideology they will be in the minority 3-2. This is true, but having such diversity of ideas and opinions will assure us as members that even in losing a vote, they will let us know why the majority voted the way they did.  As you can clearly see, we will need two extraordinary professionals who can play the role of the extraordinary professionals who just left, people not close friends of the current Board members so we can be sure the Board is not marching in lockstep without anyone questioning their decisions.

As those of you who assiduously read my blog know, my only interest is the betterment of the profession and protecting my colleagues; I contribute to the profession as much as I can, and I do it all over the world. I have many ideas and projects in mind; I have recently discussed many with one colleague who left the Board. I am not a teenager anymore and I will not sit and wait to see how a Board that looks different from what I proposed above turns out. I will take my projects somewhere else, and work with others who think like me, perhaps even the Board members who quit. I want to be clear: I am not quitting the association at this time. I am going to be vigilant and question every move and decision by this and future Boards; I will continue to demand transparency and diversity of opinions in Boards that are not elected by the membership (like in this case) and I withhold judgement until I am satisfied one way or another. In the meantime I will behave just like I did during the dark years: I will not praise or attack the association and I will not encourage anybody to leave or join the organization until I see what the Board does.  I now ask you to please share your thoughts on the composition of the Board, be brief and concise, and please do not write emotional comments attacking or defending past or present Board members.

A client will pay for quality if you know what to do.

August 15, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few months ago I was contacted by a prospective client who I knew nothing about. He was an attorney and was requesting my services for a settlement conference. He explained that his client had been involved in some “out of the ordinary” financial situation and did not speak English.

I was supposed to interpret everything that was said at the conference so he could discuss the proposals with his client afterwards.  The conference was to be held during an entire morning in short sessions of about ten to fifteen minutes each, with sometimes as much as an hour between. I was told that the non-English speaker would be present, listening to all parties involved in the potential settlement, but other than a few brief private conversations with his attorney to assess the negotiation, he would not speak at the conference.

After listening to the attorney, and based on my professional experience, I informed him he was requesting a simultaneous interpretation service during the exchanges with the other parties. I explained that the conversations between him and his client would be interpreted consecutively as they would involve a question or two every time they needed to talk. I also asked him to estimate the length of these exchanges.

Once again, he assured me that the settlement conference would be held in approximately ten minute segments, there would probably be three or four, and that after each session, the attorneys for the other party would leave the room and discuss the offer in private for about thirty minutes or even more. I clarified that simultaneous interpreting is a job for an interpreter team of at least two professionals when it lasts over thirty minutes. I also clarified that consecutive interpreting during the question and answer conferences with his client must be brief and kept to a minimum unless he would retain a second interpreter.

He looked extremely surprised.  In his words, he had been “using interpreters for this type of work for years” and “…nobody ever mentioned the need for two interpreters…” at that point during the conversation I informed him of my fees and payment policy with new clients. He was not expecting that professional fee.

Sometimes life has a way to teach us all a lesson and this was this attorney’s lucky day. I have no doubts that under normal circumstances he would have turned me down and look for another interpreter, but this was a unique situation. The other parties had flown in from out of town for the settlement conference and his “regular” interpreter (who never brought up team interpreting and obviously charged a lot less for her services) was out of town. The case was complex and he had to concentrate in the settlement; he had no time to shop around for an interpreter.

Later that week we had the settlement conference. I arrived early (before the attorney who hired me) and noticed that an individual was nervously pacing up and down the hall of this gigantic penthouse law office. I approached him and learned this was the person I would interpret for.

I explained who I was and how we would proceed during the settlement conference and during the brief private encounters he would have with his attorney. I then showed him my simultaneous interpreting portable equipment I use for these services, explained how to operate it, and tested it for volume and comfort. It was then that the attorney arrived.

Before we started the conference, all attorneys present were very surprised that I had brought equipment for the simultaneous rendition. They all agreed this was the first time they saw anything like this. The non-English speaker individual remarked that he loved the equipment because he could hear everything without being distracted by the English speakers. At the end, my attorney client loved the equipment. He remarked on how unobtrusive it was and how it allowed for a better flow during the exchange as the attorneys did not lose concentration by the constant interpretation in the background. We also used the equipment for the attorney portion of the private client-attorney conversations, leaving the consecutive mode just for the client’s remarks.

After the assignment was over, the attorney congratulated me for my professional services, he wondered why nobody else had ever used interpretation equipment for these conferences before, and he told me it was now clear why I had been so “picky” at the beginning. “…I see why you are more expensive. You provide another level of service. I think that I will call you from now on…” I thanked him for his words, gave him his fee receipt for the check he gave me right after the service (as previously agreed) and told him that I would love to work with him again provided that I had any availability.

As I was leaving the law firm, I thought about how many of my colleagues let opportunities like this one go to waste because they do not take the time to explain their services to the client, and because they do not try to do something that will set them aside from the rest. In my case, a little innovation for this law firm, and a determination to seize the moment once that the attorney had no choice but to hire me, landed me a new direct client that knows my fees, working requirements, and payment policy, and can hardly wait to hire me again.

Please share with the rest of us any similar stories you may have where your tenacity and business mentality helped you prove that you are a professional and got you a new good client.

Consecutive interpreting: A job for two.

July 17, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

If you are a regular visitor to this blog you already know how I feel about team interpreting: Just like simultaneous interpreting, a consecutive rendition is a team effort that should not be attempted alone. (For more on this subject, please read my blog entry entitled: “If it is team interpreting, why are so many flying solo?”) 

I have written extensively on this subject, and I have made it crystal clear that I never accept a consecutive assignment unless I am, working as part of a team.  I also know of the fact that many colleagues believe that, unlike simultaneous, consecutive interpreting can be successfully accomplished solo; and that other interpreters believe that, although team interpreting improves the quality of an interpretation, a big chunk of the market will never buy into this need, and they willingly accept consecutive interpreting assignments without a second interpreter.

“Team interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation. Depending on both the needs of the participants and agreement between the interpreters, responsibilities of the individual team members can be rotated and feedback may be exchanged…”  (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Standard Practice Paper [(SPP])

You all know what it is like to finish a consecutive rendition without a partner; you have felt the extreme fatigue and the high levels of stress derived from knowing you are performing an incredibly complex task that requires of a huge amount of knowledge, almost instantaneous reactions, and of grave consequences if error occurs, with nobody watching your back.

Originally, team interpreting was conceived as a solution to mental fatigue, but as team interpreting became more popular, and eventually the rule (at least in simultaneous interpretation everywhere) it was noticed that having a support interpreter was not a mere tag-team maneuver to get some rest while your partner was actively interpreting, but it turned into a joint effort that improved the quality of the service by having someone (the support interpreter) assisting the active interpreter with complex information, figures and names; and also acting as a sounding board to corroborate an utterance, research a term, or simply correct a mistake due to fatigue, context, or cultural meaning. The “surprising” result: The rendition was better because the interpreters were neither fatigued nor stressed out, so they could concentrate better on the task of interpreting.

“The goal of team interpreting soon began to shift from reducing interpreter fatigue to also ensuring the accuracy of the target language message and correcting any misinterpretations. While there was still concern about fatigue and interpreters continued to take turns at 20-to 30-minute intervals to ensure they were not hampered by fatigue, teams came to realize that they should both share the responsibility for the accuracy of the interpreted message. This lead to a change in the perceived function of an interpreting team. In addition to relieving each every 20 to 30 minutes, the “feed” interpreter was expected to monitor the “on” interpreter’s interpretation and feed missed information or make corrections as needed.” (Hoza, J. 2010. Team Interpreting: As collaboration and Interdependence. Alexandria, VA. RID Press. ISBN: 978-0-916883-52-2)

Mental fatigue is caused by intense brain activity in highly complex activities such as interpreting. Both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting require of multitasking. Reasoning, evaluating, executing, and decision making in a matter of instants makes of interpreting a profession subject to deep mental exhaustion that becomes more intense due to the levels of stress while performing the task. Both: mental fatigue and high stress as an aggravated circumstance, happen during consecutive interpreting and they cannot be swept under the rug, or eliminated, by giving the interpreter a bathroom break. Interpreters working solo during a consecutive rendition for over thirty minutes will not be performing as expected just because a “magnanimous” client takes a 15 minute break.  Mental fatigue does not work that way.

Fatigue is defined as “A physiological state of reduced mental or physical performance capability resulting from… workload”. (International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] Operation of Aircraft. International Standards and Recommended Practices. February 25, 2013).  When present, it “places great risk on (the client) because it significantly increases the chance of… (interpreter) error…” (Caldwell, John: Mallis, Melissa [January 2009]. “Fatigue Countermeasures in Aviation”. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 80[1]: 29-59. doi: 10.3357/asem.2435.2009)

Mental fatigue, like the one caused by consecutive interpreting, causes cognitive impairment and it is important to understand the neural mechanisms of mental fatigue related to cognitive performance. A study to quantify the effect of mental fatigue on neural activity and cognitive performance by evaluating the relationship between the change of brain activity and cognitive impairment induced by mental fatigue using magnetoencephalography, demonstrated that performing the mental fatigue-inducing task causes over-activation of the visual cortex, manifested as the decreased alpha-frequency band power in this brain region, and the over-activation was associated with the cognitive impairment. (Tanaka M, Ishii A, Watanabe Y [2015] Effects of Mental Fatigue on Brain Activity and Cognitive Performance: A Magnetoencephalography Study. Anat Physiol S4:002. doi: 10.4172/2161-0940.S4-002)

The task of consecutive interpreting does not differ from simultaneous interpreting when it comes to mental fatigue. Working solo will bring undue stress levels to the interpreter which will cause more mental fatigue, lack of concentration, and physical fatigue: all contributors to a substandard rendition after 30 minutes. As the interpreter is forced to work longer, the rendition will continue to deteriorate and produce errors and misinterpretations. This diminished mental and physical skills cannot be cured by allowing the interpreter to take a 15 minute break three to five times during a multi-hour consecutive rendition.

I set team interpreting for both, simultaneous and consecutive interpreting as a non-negotiable clause. Clients who have seen the palpable difference between solo and team consecutive interpreting have no problem with this requirement; those unaware of these dire consequences carefully listen to my explanations and promptly agree to an assignment covered by a team of (at least) two interpreters. A few who refuse to listen to my reasons, and those who choose not to believe the arguments, must do without my services.

I understand the hesitation of many colleagues to fight for consecutive team interpreting; I understand less those who fear the agencies’ reaction and opt to remain silent and go solo, but I also know that if all quality interpreters demand a team, the client will have no choice. Perhaps they will first hire the services of a second-tier individual, but they will see the difference and eventually they will be back, ready to hear your arguments and comply with your conditions. I hope that my sincere efforts to convince you to reject solo consecutive assignments affect how we view ourselves. We are the ones behind the wheel. The client is the passenger, and the agency is the guy at the service station with nothing to do with the way you drive. I welcome your comments.

What is the meaning of the term “Founding Fathers”?

July 4, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Fourth of July the United States celebrates its 241st birthday. The founding of our country motivated me to write about a term that is frequently used but seldom understood: “The Founding Fathers”.

Many interpreters, U.S. and foreign born, including some who use the term at work, have told me that they believe they know who we are referring to when we speak of the “Founding Fathers”, but they ignore the meaning of such a phrase. They really do not understand what it truly means. The fact is they are not alone.  Let me explain:

Since the foundation of the United States, there has been a great deal of respect for those who made it possible to have a new nation free of tyranny and monarchy, where people would be recognized as equal and govern themselves according to their own collective will.  These remarkable individuals made a priceless contribution to the nation and were originally referred to as the “fathers” of the country.

These American heroes included those who participated in the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, those who signed the Articles of Confederation of 1781, and the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

Another equally recognized and honored group of American heroes are known as the “framers”. They include all delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the authors of The Federalist Papers. Of the 55 framers, only 39 were also signers of the Constitution.

The “Fathers” are called “Founding Fathers” for the first time by President Warren G. Harding in 1916. The phrase was catchy and stayed.

After 1916 the term “Founding Fathers” has been applied to all those who contributed to the birth of the nation. The original “Fathers”, the “Framers”, and many others who fought for independence on the battle field or at Independence Hall are now referred to as America’s “Founding Fathers”; and the list of “Founding Fathers” is constantly expanding to include all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or national origin, who contributed to the success of the Revolutionary War.

Presently, many authors set some of the “Founding Fathers” aside from the rest and are sometimes called the “Key Founding Fathers”. It is usually these individuals that historians, speech writers, journalists, and lay people have in mind when they speak of the “Founding Fathers”. Columbia University professor, and renowned historian, Richard Morris, identified the following American heroes as the “Key Founding Fathers”: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Washington were Presidents of the United States. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin were part of the 5-member Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay authored The Federalist Papers.  Jay, Adams, and Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence; and George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and presided over the Constitutional Convention.  Washington, just like Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, did not sign the Declaration of Independence.

Now you know who the “Founding Fathers” are and what the term really means.  Just like everything else in the United States of America, it is a group of men and women, some of them foreign born, with diverse ethnicity, who contributed their life’s work, and occasionally their own life, to create the country we honor today. We welcome your comments. Happy Fourth of July!

Interpreters advocating for equal access to healthcare and justice? I say: No.

June 26, 2017 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, I have been traveling extensively both, domestically and abroad. This has exposed me to many problems and challenges our profession faces all over: An interpreters’ union as the answer to our problems; individuals in decision-making positions constantly advancing the interests of those who seek to eliminate interpreting and translating as professions and turn them into assembly lines at the service of a bizarre “industry”; government agencies charging for interpreting services in settings where it may be legal but it is an unfortunate decision; agencies unilaterally changing contractual terms and interpreters who “celebrate it”; hospitals bragging about their use of non-certified healthcare interpreters…

I will address them all in due time. I will also launch a weekly comment on my You Tube Channel: ”The Professional Interpreter’s Opinion”.  First. I would like to bring to your attention a situation I have encountered everywhere, particularly in the United States, that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Everywhere I go: professional conferences, interpreting assignments, interpreters’ social gatherings; and in everything I read: blog posts, newsletters, professional publications, internet forums and groups, and professional emails, a significant group of colleagues are actively advocating for equal access to healthcare services, state-sponsored assistance programs, and administration of justice, to all individuals who do not speak the local official or customary language. With the United States: English.

I have nothing against equal treatment for all people. I think it is needed and deserved. It actually makes me happy to encounter programs or systems designed and executed in a way inclusive of every individual, regardless of the language they speak or sign.  The thing is: I do not believe that we as interpreters or our professional associations as entities, should be advocating these changes or the delivery of the services. It is for government authorities and individuals involved in social activism to push for, and implement the policy and legislation that will protect us all and guarantee that equality.

Our role as interpreters should be to make sure those interpreting services that will guarantee equal access to all members of society are delivered correctly, by real professionals who meet all education, certification and licensing requirements, observing the highest professional and ethical standards. This must be our priority, to educate others about the profession, and to denounce those who take shortcuts either by allowing unprepared people to deliver the service, or by ignoring policy and legislation to save a buck.

Some of you may ask: Is this not the same as advocating for equal access for all?  The answer is not. Let me explain.

When the Obama administration decided to finally observe Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as it applies to those members of society who do not speak English and request a public service funded by federal money, individual states were told to provide, free of charge, language interpreters in all civil court cases where a non-English speaker requested access to a government program or service funded with money from the federal government. Until then, many state governments were furnishing court interpreters for criminal cases free of charge. Litigants in civil matters had to retain their own interpreters and pay them as all professionals get paid in society: according to the terms of a professional services contract between client and interpreter. Since these fees charged for these services were regulated by the free market, when compared to interpreters’ pay for criminal matters where the state would pay directly to the interpreter based on a preset fee schedule, interpreters would receive a better fee for services provided in state civil court. In a free market this meant that interpreting services were better in civil court. Better interpreters could compete for better pay while other interpreters had to settle for the state-set fee universally paid to all interpreters with no distinction based on their experience or quality of service.

Implementing Title VI ended the system described above as from that moment, state civil court interpreters would be provided at no cost to the litigant, and interpreters’ fees would be paid by the state at the same rate as criminal court cases’. This change killed the practice of many of the better certified court interpreters, in some states because they were banned from court unless working through the state, and in others, because once attorneys and litigants learned of the availability of free interpreters they seldom chose the most-expensive privately retained interpreter (even where they were better than those interpreters offered by the court).

To my dismay, many interpreters celebrated this change and even pushed for its implementation where it had not been adopted by the local courts. I was happy that interpreting services were provided to all, but I was confused on why those making a living as court interpreters would be happy about losing a good source of income.

It is very difficult to understand why so many interpreters actively defend the rights of those who do not speak the official language of a country, and constantly push for an increase on certified interpreters.  I believe that our profession would be better served if we, the professional interpreters, were to spend our time, money and efforts promoting renditions of a better quality, the use more capable interpreters, higher professional fees to attract better people to the profession.

Instead of demanding that a civil court furnish an interpreter, or a hospital provide an interpreter to a patient, we should be demanding an end to despicable practices such as allowing those who failed a certification exam to practice the profession as “accredited” “qualified” or whatever. Instead of advocating for more interpreters in a school district, we should be demanding that agencies who unilaterally change the terms of a professional services contract be expelled from the interpreting agencies’ roster.  Instead of worrying about how poorly doctors, nurses, attorneys, and judges treat non-English speakers, we should be worrying about state agencies refusing to pay travel expenses and Per Diem to interpreters who travel to provide a service.

I do not say that all those other things are not important. I am not saying those other things are fine. All I am saying is that it is not up to us to advocate for them. There are others whose job is to protect these individuals. Nobody else will protect interpreters but ourselves.

Some may say that part of a community interpreters’ duties include advocating for the client. My answer is that they are right. However, the advocating that community interpreters must do is none of the above. A medical interpreter must advocate for a patient when there is a defective communication due to a cultural barrier. A court interpreter must advocate for the client when the defendant, victim, or witness cannot be understood because of lack of cultural knowledge by the English-speaking parties. That is expected. Being an activist for the rights of the non-English speaking population is not one of the interpreters’ duties.

If interpreters want to participate in activism for these populations they should do it, but not as part of the profession.  Involvement in equal- access campaigns as professional interpreters, or as a profession, should be limited to those cases where by promoting the addition of interpreter services to a certain program or service will benefit us as a profession because it will be generating more work opportunities for certified, true professionals who will be making professional fees, while , closing the door to paraprofessionals, those who have failed a certification exam, and all agencies who unilaterally change contractual conditions in detriment of the interests of the interpreter.

This, my friends, is how we should channel our energy when we want to advocate for a cause that touches on the profession . I now ask you to please provide your comments on this issue.

The U.S. Armed Forces and Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.  It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forced of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.

The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.

The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.

The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.

The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.

To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense.  Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.

I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.