Can interpreters benefit from a book written by a translator?

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I recently finished reading “Thoughts on Translation,” Corinne McKay’s new book. It is a compilation of some of her most popular, interesting and well-written posts in her industry-acclaimed blog of the same name (http://thoughtsontranslation.com/) I personally know Corinne as a friend and colleague from a period of my life when I lived in Colorado, her home base.  I know first-hand of her commitment to the profession as a well- respected colleague, top-notch translator, and active professional who serves as a board member of the American Translators Association (ATA) and was, during my days in the Denver metro area, a very popular president of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA)

The linguistics family has many members, and I have always considered interpreters and translators as siblings in that family tree, with interpreters being the older sibling because long ago there was interpretation before humans began writing.  I know that many interpreters, like me, spend part of their professional career translating, and many translators devote part of their time to interpreting, so that in itself should be a good reason to venture yourselves into the pages of “Thoughts on Translation,”  even if you are primarily an interpreter.  Interpreters, translators and our other “linguistic cousins” such as transcribers, proof-readers, editors, voice-over talent, dubbing actors, and localization experts have much in common; we work with languages.  Now, if you add the ingredient of “freelancer” to that mix, you will come to realize that many times what is good for the translator is good for the interpreter and vice-versa.

“Thoughts on Translation” is directed to translators, but many articles in the book deal with issues common to interpreters and translators. In chapters 1 and 2 Corinne is really talking to all freelance linguists as she explains what it takes to become a successful freelancer in our sibling professions. Tips on how to market your services, setting realistic goals, and membership in professional associations are universal in our careers. On latter chapters she touches upon essential topics like the freelance mindset, how to deal with difficult clients, and how to use online resources; all relevant to the professional interpreter.   Finally, she writes about money! Those of you who regularly read my posts know how important it is, in my opinion, to deal with these monetary issues without feeling guilty or uncomfortable because you want to make a good living.  The book is very well-written, entertaining, funny, and of course, extremely useful. It constitutes a great tool for those who are just starting as professional interpreters, and it is a good resource for all of my veteran well-established friends and colleagues who, from time to time, need a text to quote in a particular situation.

I encourage you to read “Thoughts on Translation” available from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/) Barnes and Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/) and In Trans Book Service with our dear Freek Lankhof (http://www.intransbooks.com/) I also invite you to share your thoughts regarding how books by translators can be a useful resource for interpreters.

Remote conference interpreting: The interpreter’s new best friend?

April 23, 2013 § 16 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations?  We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career.  I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms.  I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society.  Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do.  And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.

Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before.  At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location.  Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.

Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera.  It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.

I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above.  As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful:  Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.

Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.

It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.

At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience.  Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents.  I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another.  A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking.  This has made my life so much easier!

Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.

No matter how well-prepared you are, be ready for the unexpected.

April 16, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some months ago I interpreted in a high-profile federal criminal trial that involved very complex issues. Because of the difficult terminology, topic, and importance of the assignment, the colleague that worked as my teammate and I did copious research, studied the subject matter, and developed glossaries and a bibliography. It took months of professional preparation and I believe that we did a very good job. As we interpreted for witnesses during their preparation before trial and we bounced concepts and terms back and forth to develop uniformity and correct any mistakes, I grew pretty confident that we were ready for this assignment.

Once the trial started everything went smoothly for us as interpreters. As we were getting the job done as expected and beyond, it was time for the experts to testify. These expert witnesses were coming from another country, which added an extra layer of complexities to their testimony. It was not just a matter of specialized concepts and terminology; it was a matter of adjusting to a different culture and idiosyncrasy that the experts showed during their testimony preparation. We fully understood this added “curve ball.” Experts testify in the way they feel more comfortable with, and the interpreter should not even suggest that they modify that.  We just had to be on our toes as experts from other countries, for cultural and language reasons, tend to be more formal and solemn than their American counterparts.

I was feeling pretty confident that all preparations and hard work had me ready for the task, so the day when this expert had to testify finally arrives and the expert takes the stand. After some minutes of smooth sailing, he finally dropped the first “interpretation bomb” as he rendered his testimony ceremoniously using words and terms he had not used before. All our research and study did not cover this unexpected lingo.  What did I do from the witness stand at that moment when I heard the first of these words, realized that I had not studied it before, turned back to where my teammate was seating behind me just to see her furiously looking through all the materials we had at our station, and saw the face of the attorneys, judge and jury all waiting to hear my rendition of the answer? First I kept my cool, second, my brain went to work trying to find any coherent contextual meaning to what the witness had just said in Spanish, and third, I opened that “brain vault” where the Latin I studied ages ago had been stored away for decades. All of these brain functions and actions happened within a fraction of a second. All of a sudden, to my absolute surprise, and that of my colleague as well, the correct English version of the term just came out of my mouth! At that time I experienced the same thing that many interpreters and translators have during their careers: a word that I did not know I knew came to the front of my brain and got me off the hook.

These type of testimony continued for days until the expert finished testifying, but from that moment, my teammate and I realized that studying for the assignment is essential, but as important as that part of your preparation may be, you also need to bring other tools to the table: The interpreter needs to be calm, focused on the task, confident that his memory will click at the time it is needed and confident that the other member of the interpretation team will have his back. However, even after all of these elements, the interpreter has to be aware that there are other resources at hand: he can ask the witness for a clarification, or he can just leave the word in the original language (or in Latin if that is the case) As interpreters we just know when it feels right to leave a word in the source language. It is a gut feeling.  Keep in mind that if you did not understand a word or a term, even after all the research and preparation you did, it is likely that the judge, jury and attorneys do not know that term either. Finally, remember that the expert is that: an expert. He is used to people asking for clarification and explanations when he testifies. No matter how well-prepared you are the expert will always know more than you. Everybody knows that; the only things you do know that he does not are the two languages and how to interpret from one to the other.  Please post your comments and maybe your war stories about those instances when you faced a similar situation in the booth, the courtroom, or the hospital.

Is someone profiting from your work as an interpreter without paying you?

April 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During a recent trip I was having dinner with a friend and colleague when the conversation turned to interpretation in the booth. We talked about the ‘old days’ when the interpreters spent a significant amount of time just talking in the booth because there was nobody to interpret for. I am sure many of you have faced the same situation where you do not see anybody wearing headphones in the audience, you ask over the interpretation equipment if anybody is listening, and you double-check with the technician who tells you that nobody has checked out equipment for that session. For many years that meant that you were going to spend the whole afternoon in the booth without interpreting. It wasn’t so bad. We were getting paid as we sell our time and we showed up ready to work, and we had an opportunity to share glossaries, talk shop, and speak of personal things. This was the reason why many friendships among interpreters developed.

Then, one day as we were going through one of these situations, a representative from the agency or the event organizer showed up at the booth and told us that even though nobody needed our services in the auditorium, they were videotaping and audio recording the conference so we needed to interpret  for the recording. Of course this meant that the ‘socializing in the booth’ was over, but we are professionals so we interpreted. This has been my experience for a few years. There are a considerable number of conferences or presentations where nobody requires of the services of an interpreter and we are interpreting for the CD that later on the organizer will sell to others who did to attend the presentation.  This is big business.

Because I also do voice-overs I immediately thought of what happens on that other job; in many ways it is very similar. Some colleagues who had not worked doing voice-overs or commercials loved the new experience. I continued to provide the service for years… and then it hit me! They were recording my work and selling it to many consumers all over the world. They were making a profit from a product that only existed because I had interpreted the workshop or presentation. Yes, it is true that I got paid for doing my job in the booth during the conference, but so did the organizer who charged to those who attended the conference. This was different. They continued to profit from that workshop or presentation and I did not get any piece of the pie.

When you do a voice-over or dubbing you get paid for your services, and then for a few years you get paid for every time the disc is sold or the video is played. Here we were making zero money! I believe that we as interpreters need to receive royalties (like the ones we get for voice-overs and dubbing) every time the company sells or rents a disc that includes our interpretation. I am now including this provision every time I sign a contract to interpret an event that will be recorded. As always, some clients have reacted favorably, others have not. I would like to hear your opinions, and if possible, please share your experience when you ask for royalties.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 2.

April 2, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. Six.  “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.”   I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.”  Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined.  Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter.  The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice.  I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
  2. Seven.  “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.”  I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time.  You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client.  You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office.  Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything.  Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
  3. Eight.  “Do not interpret that!”   This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer.  I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge.  The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said  to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it.  In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
  4. Nine.  I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish”  I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened.  The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said.  If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
  5. Ten.  Please collect my fee from my client.”  Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.”  I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.”  I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for.  Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship.  There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do.  Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.

As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

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