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.

What are court interpreters afraid of?

April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been discussed.  I have many friends and acquaintances who were, and still are, court employees.  A good number of them do a good job, others do not. From the staff interpreter’s perspective, these policy meetings are permeated by two very strong forces:

The sense of duty to the profession that these colleagues experience as they hear the sometimes absurd proposals by their bosses. This makes them reflect on the reason why they were hired in the first place: Their knowledge of the profession, so they end up putting themselves in the shoes of the practicing freelance interpreter who is about to be victimized by the judicial system. They have to go through these emotions. No doubt. It happened to me when I worked for the courts.

The second, very powerful force in the meeting room is called the sense of loyalty, the corporate spirit. They are constantly reminded, directly and indirectly, that they are now one of “us”, the court administration; that they are no longer one of “them”, the freelancers.  They perfectly understand that loyalty is expected. These two forces clash inside the staffer’s head and heart, and the collision can produce two results:

The clear realization by the staff interpreter that he was hired to present the professional interpreters’ perspective, to make sure that no decision would be made without first considering and evaluating the effects of such changes on the delivery of the service and the quality of the performance. When this happens, the interpreter opposes all nonsense that is about to become institutional policy, and voices his objections out loud, perhaps suggesting a meeting with the freelancers before any decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the second result is the one that prevails most of the time: Staff interpreters, afraid of losing their jobs, or at least the favor of their supervisors, remain silent, and sometimes may even suggest the steps need to implement the new policy despite the freelancers’ opposition.  Of course, it is easier to act and react out of fear.  Some of these interpreters are more concerned about their retirement than about the interpreting services provided in their jurisdiction.  Others are terrified of the idea of losing their job and having to go out there to fight for every single dollar they would have to earn as freelance interpreters.  Fear means inaction. It means that harmful decisions, sometimes adopted in good faith by the administration, will become the new rules, and staffers will do nothing to stop it.

This is how bad policy comes to be. How it becomes a reality is up to the freelance interpreters, because once the wrong policy is implemented, independent contractor interpreters have two clear options: They can refuse to work under those circumstances and look for other clients, or they can renegotiate with the courts (sometimes they should even take legal action when the administration has clearly breached the terms of the independent contract they may have with the freelance interpreter).

Unfortunately, many interpreters prefer to submissively accept the new rules and comply, even if it means less income, even when it is demeaning to the profession.  They are acting and reacting out of fear.  The thought of waking up tomorrow and realizing they do not have to go to court because they were not asked to interpret scares them to death. To them, court work, even in exchange for a rock bottom fee is peace of mind.  They firmly believe that as long as they keep working, even when underpaid, they are doing the best they can.

This is the biggest problem that court interpreting faces as a profession in the United States, because, unlike our colleagues in the U.K., too many court interpreters in America are willing to roll with the punches and work more for less and under worst conditions.  Many interpreters forget that courts are a client, not an employer. The court administrator and the interpreter supervisor are not their boss, they are a client, and they are not even your best client, as courts pay far less than private clients in the legal field.  Interpreters must remember that as providers of a professional service, they are bound by a contract, and so are the courts. Both parties are equal. Nobody is less. Contracts are meant to be negotiated, not blindly accepted; and just like with everything else in life, when the terms of the contract are not what you want, walk away without signing on the dotted line. There are other clients.

When court interpreters start thinking of the courts as their client, not their boss, the free market will kick in, and interpreters, just as attorneys, will be able to get a professional fee. Until then, I am afraid that court interpreting will continue to go backwards.  I now invite you to share your ideas and proposed solutions regarding this crucial issue to the future of court interpreting, and please, do not answer by saying that there is no other work outside the courts, because there is.

Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.

April 3, 2015 § 28 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a difficult profession built on the principle that the interpreter is well equipped to handle anything in a conversation, negotiation, presentation, litigation, and many other situations. Interpreters are expected to possess the language skills, professional resources, knowledge, and understanding of the topic being addressed. That is the reality we live in.

Of course we all know that an interpreter cannot know everything about all topics under the sun, but we understand that we need to have the basic knowledge to figure out the subject matter and the sources to deepen our understanding of the topic at hand.  What is not always clear among interpreters is the realization that we must know enough about many subjects to take us over that bridge that leads to the source materials, and to have the general knowledge necessary to save the day when a topic just appears out of the blue, without notice.

Ours is a very demanding profession because it asks us to be fluent in at least two languages, to know all necessary interpreting techniques needed to provide a professional service, to keep pace with ever-changing technology, and to have a vast general knowledge that encompasses many topics: from the trivial to the transcendental, from the artistic to the scientific, from the widely accepted to the controversial.  My friends, a good interpreter needs to know enough about a subject to be able to understand what the speaker is saying, to know where to start a research project, and to continue with the rendition while his partner digs up more information on the topic right there in the booth.

I must admit that I am often puzzled at some of my colleagues’ answers when I ask them about a topic they are about to interpret, and they simply tell me that they do not know the subject.  The first thing that comes to mind is: what were you thinking when you agreed to do the assignment then? How did you decide that you were right for the interpretation? The fact is that many colleagues do not think of this as essential to their performance. I have had a long career and I have seen and heard many things throughout the years, but some of them stuck because of the absurdity, at least to me, of the answer given to one of my questions, or the actions taken by the interpreter faced with the situation. I will never forget when I asked a staff managing interpreter how many judges they had in their court and she told me that she did not know, dismissed the question, and moved on to another “more important” topic. To this day I recall a time when I was interpreting a conference on airplanes, and all of a sudden an individual asked a question about airplane carriers. My colleague in the booth, who was interpreting at the time, did not know basic concepts about a ship. She did not even know her port from her starboard or her bow from her stern. It was clear that this was not the subject matter we were supposed to prepare for, but these things happen all the time, and we must possess enough general knowledge to save the day.  A little knowledge is even necessary to decide where to start your research of an issue. On the other hand, good interpreters apply their general knowledge to the situation and get the job done.

Several years ago I was retained to interpret for a conference on Pre-Hispanic archaeological sites.  This was a large event and there were going to be many Spanish booths working in different rooms at the same time. I was retained to interpret the plenary, and also in one of these rooms. The organizers told me who my partner for the plenary was and I was thrilled. This was an excellent colleague with a lot of experience, and we had worked together many times in the past. When I agreed to do the assignment I was asked to recommend another interpreter to work in the booth with me. The event was quite large and it took place during the busy conference season, so it would be difficult to find a suitable experienced colleague.

I gave it some thought and I decided to invite a newcomer to the conference interpreting scene. She was not a rookie. I had worked with this interpreter in court many times, she was quite good at court interpreting, and I assumed that she would do a good job at the conference as well. She agreed to do the job and I provided all study and research materials for the conference. She studied them with dedication. I know because I saw her do it. Finally, on the day of the conference, we got ready in the booth, I gave her some pep talk and told her that everything was going to be fine. We decided that I would go first, so I started my rendition. My first shift went fine, and so did hers. It was during her second time around that the speaker switched gears and instead of talking about archaeological sites, he spoke about Pre-Hispanic religion and mythology in Mesoamerica. All of a sudden my colleague froze and did not utter a sound! I looked at her and I saw the face of despair and panic. She just could not interpret the topic. After a few seconds, that felt like an eternity, I took over the rendition and finished her shift. During the mid-morning break she seemed quite angry, I guess because of her realization that she was not prepared to do the interpretation, and she told me that she was not going back to the booth, that she had studied many hours and she knew the topic of the assignment, but she knew nothing about native Mesoamerican religion and mythology.  I talked to her, convinced her to go back to the booth to observe, and I did the second leg of the morning all by myself.

After the assignment was over, she indicated that she was very impressed that I had been able to save the event, and she said that she could not do this type of work because you were expected to know about everything.  Her last comment was right on target. Interpreters, in general, are expected to know about everything related to their line of work. Court interpreters should know about the law, procedure, ethics, and some of the fields that closely and often intersect with their work, such as forensics, criminology, chemistry, etc. Healthcare interpreters, even if they always interpret for patients with very little knowledge of medicine, should always be ready to interpret concepts of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, search and rescue, police protocol and practices, etc.

Interpreters who work in conference need to have a very broad base of knowledge and they need to be up to speed on current affairs. To me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of the profession, we are always studying, we are constantly learning. We need to be the person who always knows the answers to the questions they ask on the TV game shows, we need to be the individual who knows the latest news around the world; we have to be prepared to interpret at a moment’s notice, we need to have that desire to study, that curiosity to research, that need to know. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue that in my opinion is so important, that it separates the good interpreters from the best interpreters.

Who are those “top-level” interpreters many agencies refer to?

March 26, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am sure that what I am about to describe has happened to many of you: You get an email from an agency either telling you that they are new to your market and they are looking for “top-level” interpreters in your area, or they address you directly by email to let you know that they have an upcoming project and they would like to have you on board for the event. Both emails end by asking for your resume, fee schedule, and sometimes even references.  I have basically received this email, or similar ones, innumerable times during my career.  I do not know what you do when you get such a request, but I usually respond to the communication by email. I attach the most recent version of my resume, a boilerplate letter that details my fee schedule, accepted payment options, cancellation fees, and travel expenses requirements; and when the agency asks for references, I just state, in the body of the email, that I will only ask my clients for references when the assignment offer is firm, and in the meantime I suggest they google me under: “Tony Rosado Interpreter” and they will find many pages that talk about me, including professional achievements, publications, interviews, and testimonials. I have found that in most cases, this strategy works. It is common for prospective clients to waive the references requirement after they have googled my name.  To me, this is standard practice because I do not like to bother my regular clients unless it is absolutely necessary, and I value my time too much to be happy about spending time collecting reference letters for agencies who have not even extended a solid offer.

Now, what happens after I send the information can be classified in three categories: The exceptionally rare, the exceptionally common, and the deafening silence.

Every once in a while the agency contacts me after I emailed all the information and offers me the job.  This is not a common occurrence and sometimes I have to work a little harder to get the fee I command. Things like an explanation of the work I do, sharing my professional experience, and bringing up potential problems that the client had not thought about, will get me the fee requested on my fee schedule.  Usually, these agencies turn into regular clients after the first assignment as they are serious about customer service and quality interpreting. Of course, most of our work comes from agencies that already know us, or from those who were referred to us by another client or colleague, but we should never discard unknown agencies who reach us by email, unless the communication sounds like a scam, a pipe dream, or we hear about their bad reputation.

The overwhelming majority of these agencies contact me back to thank me for my quick response, and to tell me that my fee schedule is way above their means. Some of them end the communication after this revelation, and some others let me know that they will keep my information, and when they get an interpreter request for an event that “…requires of someone with my experience and credentials… (they)… will contact me”. That is usually the last I hear from the agency.

The rest of the agencies never get back to me. They simple apply the “silent treatment”.  I imagine that their reasons for totally ignoring me have to do with my fee, payment policy, or my travel requirements, but I will never know for sure.

Now, if you are like me, before answering the original email, you do a little research on the agency. I run a search on the web, and when they have a website (it is a bad start when they do not even have one, or the one they have is one of those free websites full of commercial advertisement) I read it very carefully. Although the wording changes from one website to another, all of them promise top-notch, professional and experienced interpreters. This is what gets me thinking. When the agency does not answer back after I send them my resume and fee schedule, or when they respond to let me know I am too expensive for them, I cannot help it but wonder who are they hiring for these assignments?  I know many interpreters and I believe that, at least by name, I am aware of practically all of the top-level interpreters in my language combination. Certainly, I know every name in my region; I have to: this is my market and I am trying to provide a professional service.  Sometimes I ask around, sometimes the information comes to me without doing a thing, you all know how it is in this profession: information gets around.

For this reason, it puzzles me how these agencies can claim that they provide top-notch, experienced interpreters when, as interpreters, you know all those who would fit the description, and many times even the ones one tier below, and none of them was retained to provide the service. Are these agencies being honest with their customers when they promise the best of the best? I do not know for sure, and I am not accusing anybody. I just wonder who these “top-level, experienced” interpreters are, and where are they finding them. I would love to meet them, get to know them, and ask them how they can make a comfortable living when they provide their services for such lower fees. I just do not understand; even if I were to assume that they are all brand new interpreters just out of school and therefore (although erroneously, as I have discussed it many times before) willing to work for a lower fee, how would they meet the “experienced” part of the offer?

I am extremely confused, but maybe you are not, and for that reason I invite you to tell me who are these top-level, experienced interpreters these agencies are offering to their customers. In the meantime, I will share this post with clients and prospective clients to see if they can help me solve the mystery, and in the process, I will inform them that the “top-level, experienced” interpreters I know are not been retained by these agencies.

As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.

March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other?  I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change.  The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives.  Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.

What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income?  It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.

On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.

The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible.  This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter.  You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter.  At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.

We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.

That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.

It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.

It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event.  These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept.  Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked.  This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.

As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers.  This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.

Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage.  These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap.  We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice.  Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table.  I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.

“Get an interpreter for that hearing, and try to spend as little as possible”.

March 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Every time I read an article about court interpreting, look at your social media posts, or have a face to face conversation with a court interpreter, I cannot help but notice how the working conditions constantly deteriorate. For some time we have witnessed how the court interpreting system of the United Kingdom was completely destroyed and our colleagues had to courageously fight back so the rest of the world knew what had happened in their country. Time continues to run, and nothing has been done to improve that system now run by an entity whose greatest achievement was to sink the quality of interpreting services to an unimaginable low. We have witnessed the difficult times that our colleagues who want to do court interpreting face in Spain. We have heard many stories of court interpreters around the world having to fight for a professional fee, a professional work environment, and respect to the profession.

The situation in the United States is also very sad. It is true that the enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has left little choice to the states. Now, state-level courts that want to continue to receive federal funds must provide interpreting services to all non-English speakers who need to have access to the justice system. The new demand for court interpreters beyond criminal cases has “inspired” many court administrators and chief judges to act in new and more creative ways to satisfy the requirement of having an interpreter next to the non-English speaker, even when the quality of this professional service is at best doubtful. To this day, there are jurisdictions where the question is: Does a warm body fulfill the legal requirement of providing interpreter services? Sadly, in some cases the answer seems to be “maybe”.

But the state courts want to comply with the federal mandate, and it seems that some of them will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goal. A popular formula was born: “Get an interpreter for that hearing and try to spend as little as possible”. The origin of this strategy is not clear, but it is obvious that this solution was not conceived by an interpreter. This is not even the brainchild of an administrator who at least has a basic knowledge of the interpreting profession; moreover, this doctrine has been embraced by some federal level courts as well. Let me explain.

Some court administrators have implemented a fee reduction. Today, some interpreters get paid less for their travel time to and from the place where they will render professional services; they get a lower fee, less compensation per traveled mile (kilometer elsewhere in the world) no reimbursement for tolls and bridges, and other very crafty ways that some courts have devised to pay less for interpreting services.

Other courts have increased the level of “scrutiny” and now watch over the court interpreters’ shoulder while they are doing their job; not the way a client observes the work of a doctor, a lawyer, or any professional individual, but the way a person watches over the performance of the guys who dry your car when you take it to the car wash. Many times this breathing on your neck type of scrutiny is enforced by adding paperwork and bureaucratic requirements to the fee payment process. To the interpreters, this means more time spent in the payment process, while making the same money than before the new requirements were in place. They are effectively making less money than before.

Of course there are also courts that now pay a lower fee during the contracted time if the interpreter’s lips are not moving: They pay a partial fee for the break time and travel time, even though the interpreters, who sell their time, have allocated those hours, or minutes, to that court as a client. Now some courts are tossing high fives at each other because they paid the interpreter a full fee for 45 minutes of work and a reduced fee for the 15 minutes in between cases when the interpreter did not interpret because the judge had to go to the bathroom.

And there is more: some jurisdictions have removed themselves from the payment process in those cases when, due to a possible conflict of interest, the court assigns a particular case to a private independent defense attorney, who is a member of a panel of lawyers, who can be appointed to these cases in exchange for a fee that is paid by the judiciary. This jurisdictions do not accept the interpreters’ invoices anymore; they now require the panel attorney to process the interpreter’s invoice and payment, generating two very sad effects: (1) Sometimes, the interpreter will have to wait a long time to get paid because their payment processing is not a top priority to the lawyer, and (2) It will help to keep alive the idea that interpreters are second-class officers of the court who do not deserve the court’s trust, because it is clear that these jurisdictions opted for a system where the attorney will need to access the court’s computer system to process interpreters’ payments, which is “preferable” over a system where interpreters would have to be granted that same access to the system. Why? Because it is too much of a risk to take? You can arrive to your own conclusions, but the fact is that this policy is very demeaning.

My friends, when you see and hear about all these policy changes you have to wonder: As these new strategies were discussed and adopted, where were the court staff interpreters, and the judges, and the administrators who know what interpreting is about? And once they were implemented, why did the freelancers continue to work under these terrible conditions? I now invite you to comment on this policy changes, other rules you may have noticed somewhere else, and the reason why these changes are being implemented with so little opposition.

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