An interpretation specialty we seldom include as part of the profession.

August 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

I was catching up with a friend from many years ago over dinner when the conversation turned to our careers and he asked me if I still liked interpreting. When my answer was a resounding yes he followed up with a second question: “Is this your dream job?”  I even surprised myself when I answered with no hesitation: “My dream job would definitely be to work as a sports interpreter.

My friend looked surprised. He seemed to have a hard time understanding my answer.  The truth is that although I have been very fortunate to interpret for heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, and even high-profile criminals, I have always wondered what it would be like to combine two of the things I love in life: interpreting and sports.

The sports interpreter is a professional who specializes in a very tough field. To do their job, they need to know everything that a top-level interpreter knows and then some:  They need to know the sport, its rules, history, current status; they have to master the discipline’s terminology and they must know the athlete’s personality.  A sports interpreter has to be accurate and thorough, and at the same time render the interpretation within the constraints of a press conference or broadcast that often limits the time the interpreter has for the rendition.  It is not easy to interpret between rounds during a boxing match, or during the singing of “Take me out to the ballgame” during the seventh game of the World Series. To accomplish it, these interpreters have to filter the professional athlete’s answers to a journalist’s questions, discarding the endless “thank yous” and self-serving promotion.  Their job is to inform the journalist and the public interpreting the relevant statements under adverse circumstances: noise, crowds, and huge egos.

I have always fantasized what it would be like to travel with the Los Angeles Dodgers like interpreter Kenji Nimura does every summer, or to hang out with Hideki Matsui and the rest of the New York Yankees during the playoffs like “Roger” Kahlon did.  I can only imagine Jerry Olaya’s adrenaline rush when he steps into the ring to interpret for all those Spanish-speaking world champions after a big fight that is being watched by millions on pay-per-view.

Yes, for a baseball-loving interpreter like me who goes to Las Vegas to see the championship fights, gets the cable TV season ticket to watch all NFL games every season, or buys tickets to a curling event,  to do their job would be a dream come true.  I respect and admire these colleagues because of what they do.  I am sure that all of you who have been in a situation when you are expected to interpret sports terminology understand what I am saying, so my question to you is twofold: Do you think we should embrace these often overlooked colleagues and make them a part of our professional organizations? and, will you tell us what your dream interpretation job is?

When the client realizes that a cheap interpreter is not the same as a good interpreter.

August 27, 2012 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Yesterday I received a phone call from a client asking me to interpret a high-profile conference for their organization. Several months earlier this same client had discarded me as a potential interpreter stating that I wanted too much money to do my job.

This is how it all started: When this client, who I will refer to as “Client A”, first won a contract to provide interpretation services for a big company, they contacted those interpreters who had previously worked interpreting for the same big corporation under the agency who had the interpretation contract before “Client A” ousted them during the bidding process for a new contract.   I still remember the first time “Client A” called me. After telling me how they had looked into my professional background and how happy they would be if I were to agree to work for them under this new contract, the person from the agency told me: “…but you are not one of those interpreters who want to charge $600 per day, right?…” Of course I immediately replied: “Of course not. I used to charge that, but it was many years ago when I was not well-known in the industry. Now I charge plenty more.”

Needless to say, after a few months of a little song and dance, I learned through another colleague that they had already retained the services of other interpreters, relatively new to the field, and definitely new to the company the interpretation services were to be provided for.  That was it. I did not dwell on it, and I frankly forgot about the incident.

Now, back to the present, the client started the phone conversation telling me how sorry they were that they had not hired me for these assignments.  He explained their reasons, all of them financial, and then briefed me on the events the less-expensive retained interpreters had done so far.  I learned how the quality of the service was not at the level this big company was used to; I heard how the big company executives had complained about the interpreters, and how they had asked for me by name.  Finally, the client told me that they really wanted me on board; he asked me to name my “price” (fee) and asked me to have lunch with them.

Of course, this was music to my ears!  Yes I was happy to get the contract under favorable terms, but the thing that really made my day was to see the clients’ realization that as a general rule, quality costs money.   I took advantage of this great opportunity to educate the client about our profession, and I was very pleased to see how this client had finally “seen the light”.  I know this issue is a constant struggle for most of my colleagues. For this reason, it is important to hear your comments and stories about other clients who may have learned their lesson as well.

True story: Authorities of a state that does not offer court interpreter certification wanted proof that the interpreter was certified by the state.

August 22, 2012 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

This is a true story. It just happened to me a few months ago.  One day I was interpreting at the Federal District Courthouse in Chicago when a private attorney approached me and asked me if I would go to the county jail with him to see a client. Although I had never been to Cook County jail, I said yes as this attorney works in Federal Court all the time.  We set a date and time for the visit, he gave me the address to the jail, I googled the directions, and off I went to my assignment.  After this public transportation city interpreter looked for a place to park for quite some time and finally found one, I met the attorney outside the facility. We entered the jail just to find out that our client was housed in another division that was about four city-blocks away. We took advantage of the long walk to catch up on the case, and to get work for the shoe-shine man as our shoes got really dirty from walking on these dirt roads.

We finally arrived at the right building, we were frisked, and then we were told that I could not enter the meeting room because I had not been authorized by the court to be there. The custody officers told the attorney (my client) that unless we had a letter from the judge or from the Department of Corrections Legal Department authorizing my presence in the jail, we could not do the interview. Of course, by now the defendant had been brought downstairs and she was witnessing everything from the other side of the glass, not knowing what the delay was for.  The jail authorities explained to us that only certified interpreters were allowed inside the facility.  The attorney told them that I was certified by the United States Administrative Office of the Courts, but their response was that they needed to see proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois. I explained to them that Illinois is one of the few states that do not have a certification program; I mentioned how the Illinois State Courts work with non-certified interpreters every day, and how I worked within the federal court system where they have a certification policy in place.  I even explained to them that I am certified by two states that are members of the consortium of states that offer court interpreter certification.  It did not matter at all. They needed proof that I was certified by the State of Illinois.

Once we realized that we were in an impossible situation, and after the officers did not allowed us to use the phone to call the jail legal department to explain our case, we turned around and left.  Of course, I still got paid by the attorney. Of course, the attorney billed the client for the time he spent there; but as I was leaving the facility I could not keep myself from laughing. At the end of the day the jail officers were right, at least partially, there should only be certified interpreters working that jail. The problem is that the State does not have a certification program, and nobody has told these officers that to ask for an Illinois Court Interpreter Certification is as useless as to ask for the interpreter’s death certificate before he can enter the jail.  I decided to post this experience in the blog because it seems so unreal.  I would love to read your comments about this very unique experience.

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

The First Interpreter in the New World.

August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

As interpreters and translators we know that every job we do is very important and some of it will even transcend.  Today I want to focus on the pioneer of our profession in the Americas.  491 years ago, on a day like today: August 13, 1521 the Spaniards finally defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered Tenochtitlan where they founded what we know now as Mexico City.  At first glance, it seems that this incredible feat was accomplished by a handful of conquistadors and a fearful Aztec emperor who considered them gods.

Modern research has discarded that version of history as we now know that it was a more complex succession of events that led to the fall of the most powerful nation west of the Atlantic Ocean.  A big part of the outcome, if not the most important part, was brought about by a native woman of a lower-noble family from the Aztec Empire frontier, now the Mexican State of Veracruz.  Her birth name was Malinalli, the name of one of the 20 days of the Aztec month, but as she grew up, she became known as Malinalli Tenépal. The Náhuatl word Tenépal means “a person who speaks a lot with enthusiasm and fluency.”  Sounds familiar?

When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Tabasco México and defeated the Chontal Mayans, she was among the slave women he received as a present.  The Spaniards noticed right away that Malinalli, or Marina as the conquistadors named her, spoke the local Chontal Maya language and her birth tongue: Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs.  It became very clear that this girl, probably around 19 years of age, was very sharp, very pretty by all accounts, and had a gift for learning foreign languages.  At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting.  It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter.

Malinali and Cortes before Montezuma

Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, or Malintzin, as the natives called her (“Malin” being a Náhuatl mispronunciation of “Marina” and “-tzin” a reverential suffix for “Doña”) interpreted for Cortés in at least three combinations: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya, and there is reason to believe that she also spoke, or later learned other Mayan dialects as she served as interpreter for Cortés in what is now Honduras.  Testimonial and written accounts describe her interpreting consecutively and also doing whisper-interpreting for Cortés during many of the most important meetings with the native lords, including Montezuma, the Aztec emperor.  In fact Malinalli’s role went beyond mere interpreting; she was a cultural broker who helped Cortés to successfully establish alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation.

It is clear that the fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different if there had not been a Doña Marina.  Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…”  In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly refers to her as a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”

Very few interpreters have had the opportunity to be the “first” to do anything, and despite the fact that many Mexicans consider her a “traitor” for helping the Spaniards, on this anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as interpreters we should remember this pioneer of our profession, salute all the things that she did instinctively right without knowing formal interpretation, and recognize her for her key role in the fusion of two worlds until then apart. She was truly a bridge between two cultures that knew nothing of each other.  I would like to hear your comments about Doña Marina and her role in the history of interpretation.

Cuestión de ética. ¿Qué hacer cuando el lingüista de la contraparte comete un error garrafal durante el juicio?

August 10, 2012 § 8 Comments

Queridos colegas,

Hace algunas semanas una colega intérprete judicial me platicó algo que le había sucedido esa misma semana cuando trabajaba en un juicio.  Aparentemente ella había sido contratada para emitir una opinión pericial sobre el trabajo de traducción del traductor contratado por la contraparte en el proceso judicial.  Al testificar, mi amiga señaló una lista interminable de errores cometidos por el otro traductor (que por cierto carecía de certificación o formación académica alguna) Desde luego, la mayoría de estos errores eran lo que jurídicamente se considera como errores leves: mala gramática, traducciones literales, omisión de porciones que no tenían relevancia para efectos jurídicos.  Sin embargo, algunos de los errores eran graves, inclusive un error que afectaba el resultado del proceso.

Se trataba de una violencia intrafamiliar entre dos hispanos que estaban casados.  Aparentemente, después de un acto de violencia, la policía arrestó al esposo y un juez ordenó su detención (no mencionaré la razón para negar la fianza por ser esto irrelevante para nuestra historia) hasta la conclusión del juicio.  Mientras esperaba el juicio, este acusado habló con la víctima (su esposa) por teléfono desde la cárcel, y la llamada fue grabada por el personal del reclusorio.  Durante la conversación, el hombre le dijo a la mujer que: “…simplemente ve a ver al fiscal o a la corte…y diles que te vienes a desdecir de todo lo que les contaste antes…”   The wife responded: “…está bien…mañana voy a decirles…”

Al traducir la transcripción de esa conversación telefónica, el traductor escribió: “…just go to the D.A. or the court…and tell them that you lied…”  He translated the wife’s answer this way: “…that’s fine…I will tell them tomorrow…”

Al día siguiente la mujer se presentó en el juzgado a hablar con el fiscal, y como resultado de esta traducción, la esposa, víctima en el caso de violencia intrafamiliar fue acusada de asociación delictuosa para rendir declaraciones falsas, de obstrucción de la procuración de justicia, de acusar falsamente, y de tentativa de declaraciones falsas.  Obviamente, cuando mi amiga examinó la grabación, la transcripción y la traducción del traductor de la contraparte, se percató de inmediato del error gravísimo cometido por el traductor.  En realidad, el marido le había pedido que se presentara “…a desdecir…”  esto es: “to take it back”  y no a decirles que había mentido (“…tell them that you lied…”) Obviamente, en mi opinión mi amiga actuó correctamente y ayudó a que se liberara a una persona acusada con motivo de la incompetencia de un traductor.  Es más, yo hubiera presentado una queja ante su colegio profesional para que dicho traductor sea investigado y se considere la posibilidad de una sanción de tipo profesional.  Me gustaría saber lo que ustedes opinan al respecto.

When the client does not know how to use the interpreter as an expert witness.

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

I just heard the story of an interpreter who was hired to render her services as an expert witness in a trial that took place in a small town of the American Midwest.  This colleague, who I know has years of experience as an interpreter, translator, transcriber, and expert witness, was retained to examine a transcription and translation job by a transcriber/translator whose work accuracy was in question.  Following some fee negotiation, and after the interpreter’s client recovered from learning what a real expert witness charges for her services,   this colleague examined the transcription, reviewed the translation, and contacted her client to ask her when they should meet to discuss her report.  To her surprise, the attorney who hired her stated that a meeting was not necessary and that a simple oral report over the phone would suffice.  A few days later the interpreter received the subpoena to testify during the trial, and the client informed her that there would be no expert witness-attorney meeting before the trial.

Under these circumstances, this very experienced interpreter appeared in court ready to testify as an expert.  As my court interpreter colleagues know, the testimony of an expert has two parts: First, the party offering the witness has to qualify him as an expert by asking questions about his credentials, educational background, experience, and so on.  Then, once the expertise on the particular field has been established, the parties question the expert about his analysis, methodology, findings, and opinion.

In this particular case, the interpreter had just began introducing her qualifications and academic formation when the small town judge interrupted and asked the attorney doing the direct examination if “…this (was) going to take too long, because I have so many other things to take care of…” The attorney then rushed through the qualifications of this expert, and moved on to the questions about the findings.  Throughout the direct examination this witness had to sit on the stand, and literally sit on her hands as the attorney asked her many irrelevant questions leaving out many critical points and relevant aspects of the expert’s opinion.  It became obvious that this attorney had examined very few experts during her career, and it was apparent that this was the first time she questioned an expert in linguistics.

As the interpreter waited for the “right” questions to arrive, and as it became clear that they would not, she had to swallow her frustration and hide her impotence as she saw how the case was crumbling down before her eyes despite the fact that the attorney who retained her had an expert report clearly showing that the transcriptions/translation in question were dramatically wrong.

As I heard this story, I imagined the frustration that this expert witness went through, put myself in her shoes, and realized that the simple fact of retaining an expert is useless when the attorneys do not know what to do with the expert opinion.  It is obvious that attorneys need to know how to take advantage of having a very good expert as part of their team.  In this case, as in many others, it was apparent that the small town judge and attorneys did not know what to do with the expert testimony, and never understood the importance and relevance of presenting the results to the jury to advance their case.  Fortunately, seasoned experts have the privilege to work with capable lawyers and experienced judges most of the time; so the question is: What do newer experts or those interpreter experts working in outlined areas need to do to “educate” the local attorneys, judges, and system?   I would like to hear your opinion.

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