Is interpreting a lesser profession?

February 25, 2013 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently posted a story about a judge near the border who questions the interpreter’s ability to do his or her job. I described how this judge asks Spanish-speaking jurors to correct the interpreter’s rendition during the trial, and tells them that in cases when none of the Spanish-speaking members of the jury are sure about a certain word or term, she would ask for an expert to render an opinion.  As expected, many of you were outraged, some of you offered solutions to this problem, and others shared similar stories showing that this practice of not recognizing the interpreter as a professional expert, and putting him or her down, happens all over the world.

All these reactions were natural and expected; however, there were quite a few participants, many of them identifying themselves as court interpreters, who made statements that seemed to accept this practice and even endorse the system. Comments such as: “…Interpreters should be more professional and less sensitive…(they) should just interpret and get used to it…” “…It happens all the time…(and) we need to act more like interpreters and do the job they are paying us to do…” and even: “…I think (Asking the jurors) is a good idea. They may know how to say something we don’t…”

Dear friends; those of you who know me personally, and all regular blog readers, know that I have always fought to get our profession acknowledged as a real profession. We are professionals!  The work we do requires of knowledge, skill, preparation, formal education, cultural awareness, social skills, and many more… Our function is essential for the communication of people who don’t speak the same language.  As long as there are two languages in the universe there will be interpreters.  I understand that many colleagues, and with reason, argue that we are not a regular traditional “profession,” that we are stuck in between being a profession and being an art.

It is essential that all interpreters, regardless of their area of expertise and place of services, present themselves as professionals. My colleagues, in order to do this we need to believe it first, we need to feel it.  My court interpreter colleagues must enter a courthouse feeling, believing, knowing, and projecting that they are part of the professional service providers who work in the justice system. They need to group themselves in the same category with the judges, expert witnesses and attorneys; that is where they belong.  Sadly, many court interpreters see themselves more like a clerk, and identify themselves with support staff such as clerks, bailiffs and deputies; In fact, some of them act as if they can relate more to the parties: victims, witnesses, and even defendants.

What do you think an attorney would say if the judge were to ask those jurors who may be attorneys or paralegals to please correct the litigants during the trial if they are quoting the wrong case law?  We cannot even imagine that scenario. It is exactly the same with our profession.

Court interpreters in this case, and all interpreters in general, need to act as professionals and educate everybody they interact with about their profession. Go out there and explain judges, attorneys, agencies, hospital administrators, and clients who we really are. If you do, you will soon notice that they treat you differently, that you feel better about yourself, and you will notice that your income will increase because once you feel like a professional, you will act as one, and professionals charge accordingly for their professional services.  I would like to hear from you. Please share with all of us your thoughts and ideas about who we are as interpreters, and how we should act when providing our services.

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§ 9 Responses to Is interpreting a lesser profession?

  • Bora says:

    I could not agree more with the article above. Indeed, we must establish and project ourselves as professionals in our own right in order to be acknowledged and recognized as such.

    However, it must be said that one of the reasons our profession is undervalued is the way in which most people view what we do. Most people I’ve interpreted for viewed interpreters/translators merely as a tool they are forced to use against their will, rather than an important bridge – the only bridge! – enabling them to carry out their work. It may be because we are always on the sidelines and seldom outfront, or the fact that we sit in the booth, or other reasons which I will not stop to ponder now… (that can be a separate discussion 🙂

    The other reason is quality. In the past decade or two, with new democracies and conflicts, the need for interpreters (and field interpreters) has rapidly increased. That has allowed many people to label themselves ‘interpreters’, while, sadly, they weren’t. They had limited language and interpretation knowledge, skill and experience, and they did not pay attention to quality. What’s worse, the people they interpreted for did not seem so concerned with quality, either. As a result, professional interpreters, who had studied languages and worked hard in the field of linguistics and interpretation, were left helplessly trying to defend themselves and fight for quality and recognition.

    I wonder if others have had similar experiences…

  • Julia says:

    I couldn’t agree more! What I have often noticed is that those who have received training and/or degrees in interpretation tend to treat it more like a profession, whereas those who came upon interpreting as a matter of chance, discovered they could do it, and continued to do so, are the ones who treat interpretation as less than a profession. Not everyone, but the people I have met who have that attitude have not gone the training route.

    Also, if it’s a volunteer amateur interpreter, not someone who works regularly in the field but just interprets at church once a month, or for some conference once a year as an activist in that field, that amateur thinks that what makes him/her a pro is that they can interpret 60, 90, 240 minutes with no break and no partner, in any direction, with no loss of quality.

    We don’t only need client education, but peer education!

  • That is just the conversation I had with a provider of training for translators. We need to train the translator, and we need to educate the client. We need to tell the client what our profession is. And to be able to do that, we need to experience our profession as a profession, that requires skills, expertise, talent, motivation, interest, effort, technique, time, … I just told this person about the lack of awareness and knowledge in the psychotherapy sector about what interpreters really do. As I told you in a comment to another article in this blog, that is why I have created the “Proyecto Psiquintrad”. Another example of this: A meeting of a hair products provider and guest distributors. The lady, who was probably the second in charge (or acted as though she was) and who thought knew my profession better than me, interrupted my consecutive and whispering interpretation several times during the meeting, and “corrected” some terms. I could see her attitude from the start: she barely looked at me when I got there and treated me disdainfully. I kept calm and concentrated, I repeated what I had said and, politely, quickly explained that what she said meant something different… It was such a test for the interpreter’s essential emotional management. That was a long time ago. That should not happen. Quality is our better advocate. Let’s work with quality, respect for what we do and motivation. Let’s work so that this situation you expressed so clearly becomes clear to all parties implied in the interpreting process: “What do you think an attorney would say if the judge were to ask those jurors who may be attorneys or paralegals to please correct the litigants during the trial if they are quoting the wrong case law? We cannot even imagine that scenario. It is exactly the same with our profession.”
    Thank you once more, Tony, for your stimulating and interesting articles. Have a wonderful day.

  • Izabela Radomska says:

    Do you need any certification to interpret in a court in your country?In Poland this problem is solved because only certified interpreters can work in courts- after passing an exam on economic and legal translation and interpreting. So there are no doubts on their professionalism. In Spain you can interpret in a court just having a course in Spanish and being a native… I think that difference can be seen without further analysis.

  • Julia Poger says:

    Izabela, it doesn’t always make a difference. For example, to interpret in the courts and for the US government, in the US you should have passed a certain test, but if you “fell into” interpreting and just happen to be able to transpose ideas from one language to another successfully for a test, you still have no idea about all the surrounding skills and professionalism, and you still treat it like a side activity. I’ve seen lawyers and real estate moguls take interpreting jobs without contracts, something they would never do in their “real” job.

    Indeed, until we have some type of inter/national recognition, like doctors and lawyers do, we will never get rid of these “accidental” interpreters who, while they may do a competent job interpreting, will always bring standards of professionalism down.

    PS, there is a “follow this blog” frame that is covering half my post as I write it, so I apologize for any spelling, grammar or logic mistakes, as I can’t reread my post to check!

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    I have to agree with the observation that educating ourselves to think and behave as professionals and to project that identity in all situations is an essential first step. I still remember a moment from my early years when a judge asked for a special conference with me in order to give me the opportunity to explain why I was asking for a higher rate than the other, non-certified interpreters who had always worked in his court. His question was blunt, “What makes you so good?” and I’m afraid I bungled it with my self-conscious, meandering descriptions of coursework and time spent abroad. It was not entirely unexpected when the signed invoice arrived in the mail some days later with a big red X through my hourly rate and a lower one written in.

    It was a valuable experience and one I’ve used to “gird my loins” ever since as I get ready to sell myself in a thousand and one ways to my clients. “What makes you worth the money?” We ought to be ready to explain, and fully demonstrate, an authentic answer to that question at each and every moment.

  • Judith Scott says:

    I agree with you …I consider myself a professional.. I am an Intetpreter.not to be mistaken for anything Less. I am a very important part of a trial . It can’t proceed without me doing what I do best… Interpreting to the best of my ability, which I consider excellent ! I better not come across a judge that would make a comment about questioning my ability as described by you . A “slur” from one professional to another would be a very serious matter, and comments like that would definitely be taken as such ! As you say , you don’t demean a qualified person doing his job .

  • Lucas Amuri says:

    “Indeed, until we have some type of inter/national recognition, like doctors and lawyers do, we will never get rid of these “accidental” interpreters who, while they may do a competent job interpreting, will always bring standards of professionalism down.”

    The quote above answers the question well as there is not a single country in the world where interpreters are protected by municipal law. They are more like covered by international law and even then not clearly so there are hardly any entry barriers. I was a Foreign Service Office before becoming an interpreter and notice that I get more respect saying I am the former than the latter.

  • Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    To the public defense attorney who says “Oh, so you’re just an interpreter” I say quietly “No, I’m not just an interpreter. I’m a state certified Spanish interpreter with twelve years of experience interpreting in the state court system” and then listen politely as the attorney blushes and explains.

    To another attorney who says (in front of other court personnel) “That guy won’t listen to me because I’m female. That’s why I really wanted to get the male interpreter in here that I’ve been using, but he wasn’t available” (upon which we go in, I handle the interpretation beautifully, and the client finally gets her message after months of impasse), I say (several months later when I see her again, and in front of other court personnel): “You know, I was so bothered over your comments last time about preferring a male interpreter that I almost went to your boss.” And when she finally remembers what I’m talking about, and launches into yet more complaints about her “sexist” client I remind her that she was finally successful in getting through to him when I was interpreting for her.

    To the infamously difficult judge who says “I’m not going to change how I do things for some interpreter!” and cancels the hearing I say: Nothing right then, but the next morning when we come back, before the session opens for business I breeze up nicely to the bench, apologize to the judge for the previous day’s “misunderstanding” and explain succinctly why it’s important for him to address the defendant directly. The judge says “Oh, okay” and we have no more problems after that.

    To the judge who says “Are you asking me to sign for both of you to get paid? I have a problem with paying both of you for being here at the same time! After all, the court reporter talks constantly and she doesn’t have anyone helping her with her job,” I politely rebut the arguments the best I can in the moment, then inform the staff interpreter and eventually the state agency head who talks with the judge about policy on team interpreting.

    To the family friend who has drawn me into a community interpreting project and ignores me when I tell her what I’ve accomplished for her, then wants to regale me with explanations as to why I do not have to interpret everything she says “word for word” (after I have told her once already that my training and experience are to provide a complete interpretation, and in contradiction of the written materials she herself has provided me for the job), I write in an email:

    Dear Professional,

    I would appreciate an acknowledgement from you of the work I have done for you of setting up two appointments now and providing some information from the parents. Could you do that please? It can be as simple as something as “oh, good,” “that’s great,” “thank you,” “glad to hear it.”

    Not everyone is the same. I find that regular acknowledgement matters to me and affects how I feel about my work. All my best working relationships include it, so I hope that our working relationship can include it as well. I hope you understand what I mean and that what I’m asking you to do is not too far out of your comfort zone for us to be able to work well together. Thank you!!!

    Regarding the other point about how I am to do my work, I am willing to listen to what you have to say. I hope you can also hear me and understand that professionalism and respect are huge issues for me and my professional colleagues. Because the field of interpreting continues to be so unregulated in many arenas and there are so many non-professionals who are still getting the jobs, those of us who take it seriously, who have the skills, the training, and the knowledge and ability to apply professional ethics and best practices, often find ourselves struggling with this type of request from people who expect us to throw those standards out the window for their own convenience because the last quasi “interpreter” they had didn’t care.

    It’s not the end of the world if it turns out we have had a misunderstanding about what kind of work I was being hired to do with this project. And if it comes to that, it would not be the first time that I have refused work that was outside my area of professional competence, although I hope I won’t have to in this case. In any regard I still like you and I believe we can still be friends.

    I’m really really busy, too, and would rather not add more work to my weekend, so instead of calling me to talk it over further as you suggested, if you would be okay with just waiting until our meeting on Tuesday so we can see whether our approaches are going to mesh in practice, that’s fine with me. We could even agree to meet a few minutes early to talk, say 2:15 instead of 2:30.

    Best regards,

    Margaret Wolfe-Roberts
    Master Certified State Court Interpreter

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