September 24, 2013 § 6 Comments
I know that working with government contractors is a delicate topic for many of you. I understand that in some cases you are as invested in a project as the contractor, and I also know that these entities and individuals serve a purpose in our system. I have personally worked for many government contractors in my professional career. I have to say that my experiences have been good most of the time, but because I have been shortchanged by a contractor in the past, and because I have heard horror stories from many of my colleagues, I decided to write this blog.
My worst experience with a federal government contractor wasn’t as an interpreter. It was as a translator. Years ago I was hired to do a very large translation that required of many months of hard work. Because of the size, it was agreed that I would receive a big down payment, and that I would deliver the translation in parts. Every time I delivered part of the translation I would get paid for the part that was delivered. I translated one third of the job and I got paid; I translated a second third of the job and I was paid; but when I delivered the rest of the translation I received no money. I repeatedly sent invoices and notices to the same people I had been dealing with for over a year. They first told me that there had been a glitch in the system and I would get the check very soon. Months later they put me through to several people I had never dealt with, and I was told that this payment would take some time because the government had not paid them yet. Finally, after several attempts to talk to somebody and never getting a real human being on the phone, I decided to contact the company’s general manager and I was told that they were not going to pay me, period. They argued that the government had paid them less than expected and that I had already received an important sum of money. I had no choice but to send the invoice to a collections agency and after about a year I got most of the money they owed me. They paid on installments. As an interpreter there was a time when I was offered a job by a contractor. Although I had not worked for this company, I knew colleagues who had and they had shared their horror stories. The proposal was interesting so I decided to talk to this contractor.
It went wrong from the beginning when this person started by telling me: “…of course you are not one of those interpreters that want to charge (he mentioned the amount) dollars per day right? We are offering you a great opportunity, so part of it is that you have to play ball with us and accept (he quoted me a pretty insignificant amount) dollars per day…” I paused for a second and said: “You are right. I am not one of those interpreters who charge (I repeated the amount he had used before) dollars per day. I charge (I quoted a quite larger amount) dollars per day regardless of the great opportunity this may be…” Obviously he did not like my answer and after a few irrelevant exchanges we parted ways. He said that he would get back to me with an answer but I knew he wasn’t going to call again.
A few months went by and I eventually ran into a colleague who works with government contractors all the time. During our conversation about his work, he brought up the name of the individual I met with months before, and said that this contractor I had turned down months before, was in some kind of crisis because he had hired some interpreters for a big job and apparently the client was not happy with the service provided. My friend mentioned that contractors had been under a lot of pressure because the government was looking for lower bids every time, and they had started to cut costs by hiring less experienced and less expensive interpreters. That was the end of the conversation and that was it.
A few weeks later I got a phone call from the same contractor “apologizing” because it had taken him this long to get back on the proposal but that he was ready and we should meet. He never mentioned the fact that he had tried other interpreters first and it backfired. At this point I really didn’t want to work with him because the interpreter fee comment from the first meeting had really bothered me, but we met anyway. He was ready to pay the amount I requested at the first meeting, but this time I asked for more. He seemed surprised and told me he had to think about it. We said goodbye and I never heard from him again. I later learned that his company had not paid in full to any of the colleagues who ended up doing the job. I was really glad I decided not to take the job.
Some interpreters have not been this lucky. Although I didn’t see this first hand, I heard of some colleagues brought to the country on non-immigrant visas sponsored by the contractor, who are not paid regularly, are forced to work overtime for free, and are constantly threatened with the revocation of their visa. Other colleague told me that after being hired by a government contractor for a 2-week job away from his hometown, he was cancelled on the day the job started and the contractor refused to pay him arguing that he had “done nothing…to deserve payment…” totally disregarding the fact that this colleague had made travel arrangements, had turned down other assignments during those 2 weeks, and was not going to make any money for at least a good part of the 2-week period. I know staff interpreters who quit full-time and part-time jobs with government contractors, and I know others, like me, who had to go to collections agencies, and even to court, in order to get paid for work already done. I am not saying that all government contractors are bad people. Some of them are really good. All I am saying is that before signing a professional services agreement with a government contractor, you should check the company out and review the contract very carefully. Contractors are essential in our type of work and we must work together developing strong professional relationships, but we should never forget that despite the glamour and prestige of the job offered, we should always do our homework before signing on the dotted line. Please share your contractor experiences, good or bad, with the rest of us.
September 16, 2013 § 11 Comments
During my years as an interpreter I have done a lot of court interpreting. I have worked interesting cases, boring proceedings, and nasty trials. While doing it I have had the opportunity to meet and interpret for great people and I have had the misfortune of interpreting, or better said: attempted to interpret, for horrible speakers. No doubt you all have had your share of difficult people regardless of the type of interpreting work you do; but court interpreting makes it particularly difficult when you are faced with the consecutive interpretation of the cross-examination of a witness.
For those of you who do not practice in the courts, cross-examination is a phase of a trial when the attorney for the counterpart interrogates a witness offered by their opponent. Because the witness has already testified for the side that originally offered him, the attorney for the other party in the controversy has the right to ask him questions about the contents of the statement provided during the interrogation by the party that presented him as a witness, to test inconsistencies in the testimony; in other words: to impeach the witness. To do it, attorneys are limited as to the questions they get to ask during this cross-examination. They cannot ask anything that goes beyond the scope of the original questions and testimony (called direct examination)
To be able to successfully uncover discrepancies and falsehoods, during cross-examination attorneys ask questions that suggest the answer to the witness and leave no room for long explanations or excuses. They do this by starting or ending all questions with phrases such as: “Isn’t it true that you saw him steal the money?” or “You knew all along where she was hiding, didn’t you?” This way the witness can only answer with a “yes” or “no.”
As you can imagine, this type of questioning is very difficult to interpret, not only because it is done consecutively, but because of the importance of the phrasing. The interpreter must interpret the question into the target language in a way that the answer has to be a “yes” or “no.” It is also important for the attorney asking the questions, and for the judge and jury, to see the immediate reaction of the witness after he listens to the question as the judge is developing a line of questioning that leads to impeachment, and the jury members are assessing the credibility of this witness. There are many attorneys that are very good at cross-examining through an interpreter. They know that they need to pause for the question to be interpreted before doing a follow-up question; they know that they must ask questions that are easily interpreted into the target language within the format explained above. Unfortunately, there are also many lawyers who do not know how to work with an interpreter in a trial, even if they have been practicing for a long time. You probably met these attorneys during your career. So did I.
However, among all those difficult to interpret lawyers I have worked with, there is one that is by far at the top of the list. I call him the attorney from hell.
Sometime ago I was retained to interpret for a very long trial with multiple defendants and many attorneys. My job was to exclusively interpret the testimony of the witnesses that took the stand. I knew several of the attorneys but not all. The trial started and we got to the witness testimony. Everything went fine for several days, until it was time for the attorney of one of the defendants to cross-examine a Spanish speaker witness from the prosecution. The attorney made this experience one of the most frustrating ones in my long career. In fact, he became a walking-manual of how not to cross-examine when working through an interpreter. First, he would repeatedly ask questions with double negatives, making these questions very difficult to understand, and portraying the witness as a liar when in fact he was trying to understand the attorney’s question. Next, when the witness would say that he had not understood the question (because it was a double negative) the lawyer would make fun of him and repeat the very same question very slowly and loudly. Obviously, he was trying to show the jury that this witness was reluctant to tell the truth, but in reality he was “talking to the wall” since his disrespectful questioning had to go through the interpreter before the witness knew what was asked. Obviously my interpreter colleague and I did not need him to repeat the question slowly; we needed him to get rid of the double negatives. By the way, we are not deaf either. I know many people speak very loud when talking to a foreigner who doesn’t know the language as if a loud voice could magically be understood in any language. This attorney never waited for the interpretation to be rendered. He would start making fun of the witness even before the witness had heard the full question; there were many occasions when the judge on his own; or at the request of the interpreter had to ask this attorney to wait for the question to be interpreted before asking something else again.
Imagine this problem, and combine it with countless false stops during the question where the lawyer stops talking, the interpreter starts the rendition, and half way through it the attorney continues with a second part of the question (which by the way is not allowed according to the rules of evidence). The result is a big mess. If this wasn’t enough, the attorney would constantly pull out pages from the witness’ prior statements to the Grand Jury (during the indictment phase of the case) and read for many minutes non-stop, then he would put the document down and ask the witness: “So is it or is it not?” Obviously it is very difficult to interpret this way as the interpretation of the written statement goes on for a long time, and then the interpreter ends with the question above. Needless to say, the witness gets confused, the attorney loses the jury as they have to sit there for a long time without understanding a word of what is being said, and the attorney gets impatient and interrupts the interpreter telling me or my colleague to stop right there, even though he doesn’t even know how far into the interpretation of the prior statements we got. Add to all of these atrocities that the attorney was sarcastic and used big words during the entire cross-examination (which many lawyers do and is justified as part of the impeachment process, given the fact that the witness will have a chance to rehabilitation during the re-direct examination by the attorney who originally offered his testimony) and the fact that the lawyer had a paralegal sitting at the defense table next to their client, and this person was acting as a sidekick to the attorney as he was constantly laughing at all the sarcasm during this dog and pony show. We did our job, interpreted everything as we should, asked for repetitions and clarifications every time it was necessary, and kept our composure and professionalism throughout the trial. Many people probably didn’t even notice the difficulties attorneys like this one create for themselves by not knowing how to work with the court interpreter, and this lawyer will probably work with interpreters many more times before his career is over. Now I invite you to enter your suggestions when this situation arises in court, and please share your stories about working with difficult attorneys during direct or cross-examination of a defendant or a witness.
September 9, 2013 § 20 Comments
I was once faced with a professional, ethical, and moral dilemma: The person working a conference with me was barely at the minimum level required to do a good job. Those of you who know me personally and the ones who regularly follow this blog know that I am not a “softie” when it comes to rendition. You know that I value my professional standing above everything else. Well, on the occasion I am about to tell you I did something that I normally don’t.
I was hired to do a four-day conference by an agency that I had worked for several times before. It was not one of my all-star agencies, but we had a good professional relationship: They offered interesting assignments, had a technician on the premises, good pay, and paid on time. When they offered this particular conference I had just come back from a very demanding trip abroad. The topic was interesting and the facility was great so I accepted. I asked for the name of my colleague in the booth and they told me they didn’t have one yet. I didn’t think much of it and I soon forgot.
About a week before the assignment I received an email from the agency with all of the conference materials. They gave me the name of the interpreter I was to work with. I was busy with other projects so I did not bother calling this colleague to see who she was. Finally, about 2 days before the event I was having dinner with another colleague who knows everybody because she has been around for as long as I have. She said she didn’t know this interpreter. When I got home I looked her up online and I saw that she had many of the right professional memberships, a profile online, and a website. I thought everything would be fine.
As it is my habit, on the first day of the event I showed up early to check the equipment and the booth. She was already there. I didn’t recognize her. We talked for a few minutes. She mentioned several colleagues I knew well, so once again I assumed everything would be OK.
Because of seniority she asked me to start and I agreed. After the first 30 minutes she started her rendition and she scared me to death. She was way behind the speaker, she was leaving many things out, she was missing or misinterpreting essential information, and more importantly, I realized she did not understand the presentation! She knew that she was way out of her league and looked concerned and embarrassed. It was clear that she cared about the job.
After the first two shifts we had our first break and needless to say I was on the phone with the agency demanding another interpreter. They said it would happen, but not until the following day. After this conversation I considered my options: I could be miserable for the rest of the day while at the same time accomplishing very little; or I could be open and cooperative, support her during her rendition, and provide a better service to the client. I opted for the second choice. I armed myself with patience and understanding and I went back to the booth. Of course, at that time my feelings towards the agency were such that it would make Jack Nicholson in The Shining look like Mr. Rogers.
We got through the morning with me taking over the microphone many times when she lost the presenter. Then came lunch time. As I was getting ready to leave the booth and look for the best possible single-malt in that part of town, she looked at me and told me with watery eyes: “I know I am doing a bad job but I know I can do it. I have what it takes and I need the money. Please give me a second chance.” She asked me if we could have lunch together. During lunch she worked very hard; she asked me many questions, took notes and studied the afternoon’s program. I detected a real desire to turn things around.
She did better that afternoon. After work she told me her life story. I heard how she had put her kids through college; how she helped her folks, and how she had a second job in order to make ends meet. That night as I was dining with some friends the phone rang: it was the agency telling me they hadn’t been able to get somebody else. At this point, after facing the impossibility to get a replacement, I decided to continue the conference with this colleague who had never done a conference in her life but had demonstrated a desire to learn and improve.
The days went by and she improved every day. By the fourth day she knew the terminology, understood the issues, and she was interpreting all relevant parts. We finished the conference. The client was very happy with the interpretation. The agency was grateful that I played ball and made this event happen, and I was satisfied that I had lived up to my professional, ethical, and moral obligations. My new colleague asked me to sign my book that she had purchased online during the week, and asked me to take a picture with her. I did all that and said goodbye. I have not seen her or heard from her ever since. I want to think that she didn’t give up; that she must be studying and practicing in hospitals and courts. I hope we work together in the booth some day, and then, she will carry her weight and will prove me right because I firmly believe that sometimes you have to bank on your knowledge of the profession, and you always need to teach the new ones how to work. Please tell us what you would do in a situation like this one, and please share your professional “soft-side” stories.
September 2, 2013 § 7 Comments
For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day!
Yes, today is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those “real” holidays when the banks are closed, the mail is not delivered, and kids stay home from school. I have been asked many times by my foreign friends and colleagues why is it that we celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May 1st. like most countries in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do. Then, the second question that always follows the one above is: “But the labor movement celebrated with an international holiday on May 1st. commemorates the events of Chicago in 1886…”
The fact is that most Americans have never heard of the events of 1886 when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, and the police started to shoot and beat the crowd. In a matter of minutes eight people were killed and over 120 police and civilians were injured. The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight anarchists, that perhaps today would be referred to as labor rights activists, and the authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder even though the police had sparked the riot. Seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death, and one of the jurors at their trial was a relative of one of the dead police officers. This is how the labor movement started in the United States. For a long time the media and government were firmly allied with the business community while labor organizers were viewed as criminals.
Today in the United States labor unions are controversial, and with good reason. Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion. Union demands and strong-arm tactics have crippled some American industries and limited the number of jobs. In today’s America the unions get publicity when they step up to defend a member who should be punished, when the baseball players’ union fights suspension of players who have cheated by using steroids, or when the union protects incompetent teachers in public schools. There are many who support organized labor, although it seems to be less people every day, and labor rights are a good thing that America needed in the 19th. century and still needs today; however, the real perception (well-deserved in many cases) that unions are troublemakers, and the national fight against communism from the cold war days have put these events in Chicago at the end of the 19th. century in the forgotten corner of American history.
Our Labor Day holiday is very different from most around the world. Instead of commemorating a tragic event, we celebrate those who have contributed to America’s social and economic achievements with their work. Since 1882 we have celebrated labor on the first Monday in September as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States. Labor Day has come to be considered by most Americans as the end of summer; the last barbecue of the year, the beginning of football season, the start of a new school year. Today millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2013. It is perhaps the second most American of all holidays (after Thanksgiving that is) because it describes the mind and spirit of the American people. Regardless of your political persuasion and your support, disdain or indifference towards organized labor, the first Monday in September is a holiday when Americans decided to celebrate work and creativity while most of the world chose to commemorate a tragic event that happened on American soil but is unknown to an overwhelming majority of the American people. I hope this brief explanation of the reasons why Americans are staying home today celebrating a holiday with the same name as another holiday celebrated abroad, but with a very different meaning and motivation behind it, helps you understand better the United States. Now, without bringing up any political views on the labor movement, I ask you to please share with us when it is that you observe Labor Day in your respective countries and why it is a holiday there.