Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving.
November 26, 2013 § 1 Comment
On Thursday the people of the United States will celebrate Thanksgiving: the most American of all holidays. Christmas is also a very big day in America, but unlike Christmas that is only observed by Christians, Thanksgiving is a holiday for all Americans regardless of religion, ethnicity, or ideology. There are no presents, and every year during this fourth Thursday in November, people travel extensively to be with their loved ones and eat the same meal: a turkey dinner.
It is important to distinguish between the religious act of thanking God for the good fortune and the American holiday called Thanksgiving Day. The former was held by many Europeans all over the new world as they gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land. Explorers and conquistadors observed these religious ceremonies in places like Virginia, Florida, Texas, and New Mexico. There are documented ceremonies held on (at the time) Spanish territory as early as the 16th. Century by Vázquez de Coronado, and we have records of the festivities that took place in Jamestown, Virginia during 1610.
The first Thanksgiving holiday that we presently observe can be traced to a celebration that took place at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The settlers had a bad winter followed by a successful harvest in 1621. During that crude winter survival was possible thanks to the help of the local residents: The Wampanoag tribe. Massasoit, who was the tribe leader, donated food to the English when the food they brought from England proved to be insufficient. Cooperation between Native-Americans and Europeans included agriculture, hunting, and fishing lessons. The settlers were taught how to catch eel and grow corn, and were briefed on the geography and weather conditions of the region. This partnership took place because of the good disposition of all those who participated; however, trust had to be established and communication had to be developed. The Europeans and Native-Americans spoke different languages and had very little in common. The English settlers were very fortunate as they had among them a Patuxent Native-American who had lived in Europe, first in England and Spain as a slave, and later in England as a free man. During his years in Europe, this man learned English and had the ability to communicate in both languages: English and the one spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. His name was Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), and he played an essential role in this unprecedented cooperation between both cultures. He was very important during the adaptation and learning process. His services were extremely valuable to settle disputes and misunderstandings between natives and settlers. There are accounts of Squanto’s ability and skill. He was embraced by the settlers until his dead. In fact, his work as an interpreter and cultural broker made it possible for two very different peoples to sit down and share a meal and a celebration when on that first Thanksgiving, the settlers held a harvest feast that lasted three days. As many as ninety Native-Americans, including King Massasoit attended the event. They ate fish, fowl, and corn that the English settlers furnished for the celebration, and they had five deer that the Wampanoag took to the feast. Although it is not documented, it is possible that they also had some wild turkeys as they existed in the region. Undoubtedly Squanto must have worked hard during those three days facilitating the communication between hosts and guests.
We now celebrate this all-American holiday every year. It has been observed since President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday; and it has been observed on the fourth Thursday of November since President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that it should be observed on that Thursday instead of the last one of the month as sometimes November has five Thursdays. Thanksgiving is also the most American of all holidays because we celebrate family, football and the start of the best retail season of the year: Christmas. We now have Black Friday and Cyber-Monday. We travel by plane, car, and train to go home for this turkey dinner, and we all gather around the TV set to watch football and parades. This Thanksgiving as you are carving the turkey, pause for a moment and remember the interpreter who helped make this all possible: Squanto the Patuxent Native-American. Happy turkey day!
At last interpreters and translators meet to talk about the state of the profession.
November 19, 2013 § 4 Comments
As interpreters and translators we have been gathering for decades in workshops, conferences, and professional associations. We are lucky to have so many places where we can improve our skills, enhance our knowledge, and do networking with others. We have the fortune to have excellent organizations that are international and very big like ATA and FIT; others that are regional and smaller, some that are specific to a particular field like NAJIT and IMIA, and we even have separate organizations exclusively for interpreters or translators. All these professional groups are very important and useful to our profession. They all serve different purposes, and we need them all. A few years ago we witnessed the birth of InterpretAmerica, another forum for all interpreters to talk to each other as professionals, and to directly address the other players in our industry: equipment providers, government contractors, the big language agencies, academic institutions, international organisms, and others.
We had all these resources to thrive in our profession but something was missing: We had no outlet to talk to each other as individual professional interpreters and translators; a place where we could talk about the business side of our work. A forum where we could address the recent changes brought to our work by the globalization movement; the disparity and often times ruthless competition that we face as freelancers in a world where new technology and gigantic language service providers are driving the professional fees down; and in some cases the quality of the service even lower.
We all know of the court interpreting crisis that has developed in the United Kingdom. Many of you know that, unlike the U.S. federal court system where you find the best court interpreters because it pays the highest fees, American immigration courts pay very little under less than ideal working conditions, and for the most part do not use the services of top tier interpreters. Of course, it is common knowledge that big language service providers are paying incredibly low fees to good translators based in developing countries, and it is no secret that every day more businesses turn to machine translation to solve their most common communication problems.
What most interpreters and translators do not know, is that there are other countries in the world who want to emulate the United Kingdom’s model; that there are government agencies who outsource the authority to “certify” or “qualify” individuals as interpreters or translators in order to comply with legal mandates and to meet the demand for these services, at least on paper.
A few weeks ago I attended in London the first congress of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) an event where hundreds of well-known veteran interpreters and translators from all over the world met with the most talented new generation of professional interpreters and translators I have ever seen in my life. The reason for this event: to discuss all these developments and issues that we currently face in our profession, in order to be better prepared and armed with skill and knowledge to embrace technology and face globalization as freelancers. The organization and the conference are for individual translators and interpreters. No corporate memberships. No big language service providers. It was refreshing to attend presentations that dealt with issues such as how to protect your market, defend the quality of your work, and honor the real value of your work so you never give in to those who want you to work for less than a fair fee. It was wonderful to see so many colleagues taking note of the business side of the profession so they can do better when competing for the good client in the real world. I salute the brains, heart and soul of this much needed type of professional association: Aurora Humarán and Lorena Andrea Vicente, President and Vice-president of IAPTI respectively.
Dear colleagues, in this new global economy, where we are all competing in the same world market, we need all the professional associations we have. They are all useful.
I invite all of my freelance interpreter and translator friends and colleagues who want to thrive in this new economy to acquire the necessary tools and resources to win. IAPTI is an essential resource. I encourage you all to submit a membership application and to attend next year’s conference. I can assure you that you will be inspired by the talent and energy of this new group of young interpreters and translators. As a member of IAPTI you will be in a better position to flourish in our industry. You will love the atmosphere of a IAPTI conference where everybody is like you: an individual translator or interpreter trying to deliver an excellent product in exchange for an excellent pay. I invite our friends and colleagues who are part of IAPTI, and those who were in London for the conference, to share their comments with the rest of us.
What to do as an interpreter when the attorney makes a serious mistake.
November 11, 2013 § 7 Comments
In the past we have discussed professional and ethical issues in the blog, but I don’t believe we have ever tackled anything as serious as the situation I will share with you today. This happened to me many years ago and made me think about my professional and ethical boundaries as a court interpreter.
It all started when I was hired by an attorney to interpret during a final decree of dissolution of marriage hearing. In other words, I was retained to interpret in court for a person who was getting a divorce. I had never worked with this attorney before (or since) but I had seen him many times at different courthouses running from one courtroom to the next. He was a general practitioner who spoke Spanish, advertised on TV, and had a lot of cases. He called me, we agreed on my fee, and we made an appointment to meet at the courthouse right outside the courtroom some thirty minutes before the hearing. I arrived first and about ten or fifteen minutes later the attorney showed up accompanied by his client. Again, keep in mind that the attorney spoke Spanish. After the introductions, I asked the client the standard questions I am sure you all ask when you just met the non-English speaker: full name (for spelling purposes because there are no grammar rules when it comes to a person’s name) country of origin (for accent, regional expressions, and general vocabulary) academic background (to assess the individual’s mastery of the target language) and general health-related questions (in case the person may have a special request due to hearing problems for example) He answered all these questions to my satisfaction, and added that he “…had already discussed everything with (his) lawyer…(and) …everything was clear and in order…” The attorney, who was present during the exchange, confirmed in Spanish everything his client said. It was going to be an easy assignment.
When it was time for the hearing all three of us went inside the courtroom. As soon as I came in I noticed the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiff. I didn’t see the other party or her attorney. I asked my client about it, and he informed me that the other party was not going to appear. That she had been given notice by publication because she wasn’t at her last known address anymore, and that his client would probably be awarded sole custody of the children born to the marriage despite the fact that they were with the mother at an unknown location. This happens often, and I wasn’t complaining. The hearing was going to be even shorter. Boy I was glad I had successfully negotiated a generous minimum fee.
Next the judge came out and took the bench. The hearing started. After the bailiff called the caption of the case and my client and I entered our appearance on the record, the judge placed the Spanish speaker petitioner under oath and began questioning him. To my surprise, the petitioner told the judge that he and his wife had never lived together as a married couple in the United States. In fact, he told the court that his wife had never been to the U.S.
I looked at the judge and I saw that I wasn’t the only one in the courtroom that was shocked by the answers. The judge also learned that the petitioner had never paid child support to his children. Next the judge asked the petitioner when the last time he had known the respondent’s address was. The Spanish speaker said, and I interpreted, that although he didn’t know where his wife lived, he was pretty sure he could find out because her parents still lived at the same address they had lived at for over twenty years.
With that, the judge shook his head. Looked at the attorney for a long time, and then said: “…I hereby dismiss this petition for dissolution of marriage due to lack of jurisdiction. For this court to be able to hear this case, at some point in time the parties had to live within the judicial district as a married couple; unless without having lived within the jurisdiction, both parties voluntarily consent to the jurisdiction of this court. None of these circumstances happened in this case…” As if this wasn’t enough, addressing the petitioner, the judge added: “…Sir, I have no doubt that your attorney will explain to you what just happened. He will also explain to you the following order: It is the order of the court that petitioner pay child support to his minor children according to the schedule applicable to this district. The child support payment will be retroactive to the time when petitioner ceased to live with the minors. I find that I have jurisdiction to enter this order because petitioner is a resident of the judicial district. Good luck Sir…” The judge got up and exited the courtroom. There was absolute silence. The Spanish speaker turned to his attorney and asked him what had just happened. He even remarked: “…I don’t think I am divorced yet…” His attorney asked him to step outside the courtroom. We all did.
As we were leaving the courtroom, the attorney approached me and whispered to my ear in English: “…We better get your money from him right away. He won’t be a happy camper once he learns what just happened…” Once we were outside, the attorney told his client: “…Well, it didn’t go as we planned it, but we can fix it. I will explain everything when we get to my office…but first let’s pay the interpreter so he can go…” The Spanish speaker pulled out some cash and with no hesitation he paid me right at the steps of the courthouse. This was a first for me, but I had done my job, so I took my fee, gave him a receipt, and said goodbye. That was the last I heard about that case. To this date, more than twenty years later, I still don’t know what happened.
Now, for me to arrive to the conclusion that I should get paid for my services was a no-brainer. I did my job. The part of this situation that I had to debate in my head before I said my goodbyes was about the lawyer’s conduct and the damages caused to the petitioner by this apparent negligence. This is how I made my decision: First, I didn’t know all the facts. I had no way to know if the attorney and his client knew that a dismissal was a possibility, but what they were really trying to do was to avoid a long and costly divorce proceeding. It could be expensive to look for the spouse back in their home country. This could have been a strategy. Maybe the lawyer really spaced out and didn’t consider the possibility of a lack of jurisdiction; maybe they were going to regroup at the office and try to either find the spouse and get her to consent to the jurisdiction of the court, or to file a divorce petition in their country. Maybe the attorney was going to tell him that a child support order from this judge would be unenforceable back in his country, and that a child support ordered by a judge back home would involve a lesser amount that would be more in synch with the economy of the country of his children. Or maybe he was just going to apologize and refund the attorney’s fees. The thing is that I didn’t know and I had no reason to think the worst. Not many lawyers are willing to lose their license and reputation for a case that small. He was a big shot with TV ads and lots of clients. Moreover, that was not my role. I had no legal, professional, or ethical grounds to do anything other than to take my money and leave. There are legal channels for people who want to redress a controversy. The petitioner had to be the one to decide to do that, not me. The fact that he did not speak English did not mean that he was incapable to defend himself, and it certainly didn’t give me the right to get involved in a situation that was not my business. The judge didn’t get involved. He even said that he had no doubt that the attorney would explain everything to his client. So you see, I defeated that impulse that many colleagues have to become super heroes, and I stayed out of it. Of course, if subpoenaed, I would have testified to what I saw and heard, but that is different. To this day I believe that I did the right thing and I would like to hear from you to see if you agree or disagree. I also invite you to share with all of us other situations where you have faced ethical or professional issues and the way you resolved them.
Should Consecutive Interpretation Disappear From Court?
November 4, 2013 § 15 Comments
Every time I write about some issue that involves consecutive interpretation in court, I get a considerable number of comments arguing for the disappearance of this mode of interpretation. Whether it is because of how difficult it is to render it, or due to some legal issue, the fact is that the number of interpreters, and courts, moving away from consecutive interpretation from the witness stand is growing every day.
Currently, there are many courthouses in the United States where the interpretation of a witness’ testimony is done consecutaneously: The attorney’s question is interpreted simultaneously by an interpreter sitting (or standing) next to the witness and the answer is rendered consecutively by the same interpreter. Other courthouses are using one interpreter for the simultaneous interpretation of the question, with the help of interpretation equipment, and a second interpreter, sitting (or standing) next to the witness, who renders the answers consecutively. The feedback from both systems, as far as I have heard, is positive. Apparently this approach solves the problems presented by the way cross-examination is phrased, keeps the jury focused on the witness, and not on the interpreter, and eliminates the unfair advantage that some witnesses have in cases when they speak some English, but prefer to employ the services of an interpreter, thus having an opportunity to reflect on their answer to a question while they “listen” to the interpreter’s rendition of said question. It is also true that this is not a “bulletproof” solution. Consecutaneous interpretation from the witness stand can be confusing to some lay witnesses; and in the case of different interpreters for questions and answers, it could present a problem when both, the question interpreter and the answer interpreter interpret correctly but using a different term. For what I hear, judges and court administrators love consecutaneous interpretation because it saves a lot of trial time, as the time for the consecutive rendition is eliminated altogether.
I must confess that for a long time I was a “purist” who opposed consecutaneous interpretation in the courtroom. Although I still dislike consecutaneous interpretation, I have changed my mind. Now I believe that in this world full of technology, where we go to the booth with nothing but an iPad, where we can do a word search in seconds, where we can interpret remotely from a different continent, we need to take advantage of everything that exists out there. The technology for simultaneous interpretation of a witness testimony already exists. I dislike consecutaneous interpretation not because I want to keep the consecutive mode for the witness stand. I dislike it because I think that we interpreters deserve better, the court deserves better, and the witness deserves the best possible access to the source language: simultaneous interpretation. Real time interpretation of everything that happens during the hearing or trial. Let us leave consecutive interpretation where it is needed: escort interpretation, jail visits, and some aspects of medical and community interpreting.
In an era where many hearings are held with the defendant appearing remotely by video, and attorneys file their pleadings electronically, there is no excuse to keep interpreting back in the Stone Age. There is no reason why the witness, judge, attorneys and jury cannot have access to a headset to hear in their native language the questions and answers. The argument that it is too complicated, that these people will be distracted by the equipment, is absurd. We are talking about the same people who drove themselves to court while listening to the radio or talking to their kids on the back seat of the car. We are talking about the same people who talk and text, walk and surf the net at the same time. Learning how to switch a button on and off is not brain surgery; moreover, they can just remove the headset when they don’t need to use it. By the way, this would also eliminate the distraction of having the interpreter next to the witness. It would remove the distraction of the interpreter’s whispering from the courtroom as we could be working from a booth like in all other venues where we render our services, and it would ensure more accuracy as we will be able to hear everything better from the booth. Will this cost money? Yes it will. Will these changes take time? Of course they will. It is all true, but at some point in time we have to start. Maybe if we start now the new courthouses will be designed and built with a booth. In new colleges and universities classrooms are built this way. Perhaps it will be other court systems that take the first steps towards this best solution. Many countries are switching over to the oral proceedings. They are building new courthouses. Maybe they can be the pioneers. Maybe the European courts will be the frontrunners now that they are implementing their new court interpreter system.
The point is, dear colleagues, it is clear that we need to move towards full simultaneous interpretation of all court proceedings. All that remains to be decided is when we start and where we take the first steps. Please share your comments and opinions on this issue.