When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

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§ 12 Responses to When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

  • Inés says:

    ” a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day.” I find this misleading given the huge numbers of undocumented hispanics living in the US today. I believe it’s much more accurate to say say that an infinitesimal small percentage of all hispanics that are undocumented in the U.S comment crimes. Aside from this, I understand your reasoning and there is nothing wrong with it, and it’s perfectly acceptable that you’ve accepted the job offer. I personally couldn’t see myself accepting the assignment; not that anyone asked.

    • I have interpreted in well over 7,000 instances, and am intimately aware of the factual realities of the crime statistics of the undocumented who are undocumented because they came here without documents.

      I interpret for the undocumented criminals (or their victims) in court, and I treat them like human beings, because that’s what they are!

      Therefore, we can interpret for whoever we please, Marxist-Leninist communists, beauty pageants, Mr. Trump, Arab oil sultans, cardinals, you-name-it. We are free to accept assignments or to turn down assignments, and we should not even remotely sound like we are judging those who would accept assignments that we would not. Enough with the political-correctness police.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    As a personal opinion, we must have the gumption to cast aside sentimentalism and face the situation with realism.

    Although I don’t agree with the manner in which Donald Trump stated it, I give him credit for voicing a long-standing, unresolved problem we’ve had in the United States.

    Professionally speaking, let’s not allow politics to interfere with our hard-earned profession as our ethics guide us to interpret for everyone whether they’re here legally or not because that’s the other side of the coin: everyone in this country deserves a fair shake at justice in a language they can comprehend.

  • Well done Tony. This article is very good. I do wish that those who want to join a cause would feel free to do so, and not feel compelled to bully others to join their “cause,” demanding “solidarity.”

  • Franco Gamero says:

    The great freedom of the freelancer is the freedom to say NO!
    No matter the reason.
    As the semi-official interpreter of the UAW international conferences, I get the opportunity to interpret not only for the UAW participants but for the politicians who support this Union. In the last conference, March, I interpreted for President Obama, and many politicians: US Dept. of Labor Sec. Perez (of Dominican Republic descent), Cornell W. Brooks, NAACP Director.
    (A short parenthesis here for some significant background. I finished HS at 15 at a Jesuit HS in Arequipa, Peru. By this time I had also finished my English and French education at private institutions. I was accepted by the University after rigorous written and oral exams before jurors, as it used to be then. And for 3 years I obtained my education in Marxism-Leninism and Maoism with active participation in public debates and class delegation, Soviet style.)
    The terminology used in the union meetings brought back the same terminology used at the university. This proved very useful and made me excel in these interpretations. Interpreting for Sec. Perez was OK, as he used the union lingo. However, interpreting for Brooks called for a complete concentration on terminology and demeanor. He adopted a Hitler style that, to me, was a sort of pseudo passionate Mussolini-type troop exhortation with crescendos accompanied by gestures, even tears, and uncomfortable pauses as if he was in a state of inspiration, accompanied with huffs and puffs. Mind you, I had personally seen and heard similar attitudes at the University and the politicians. And that’s what I did. I interpreted exactly. I was alone in my booth in front of a TV, when I realized that several persons had been watching me and they were sharing the monitor’s head phones. Unknowingly, I was using the crescendos and huffs and puffs, not the tears, following the speaker. They later on told me that they had never seen an interpreter so atuned with the speaker. The Mexican and Puerto Rican participants told me that they enjoyed the feeling that was placed in the interpretation. It was my decision, to do my job the best I could. How’s that for a person who is totally opposed to what this or the other speakers proposed. Furthermore, he was introduced as a Minister, and he is indeed a Minister. But he did not speak like a minister. His speech was radical and almost violent. But there I was, doing my job.
    Regarding the Pageant: I would’ve turned down this job in favor of a woman interpreter. A woman can better transmit the feminity and candor of the contestants. This could never be done by a man. I’ve watched many pageants and male interpreters don’t wound good, no matter how good they are.
    For instance, it was not a good idea, as opined by several intellectuals, to have had Don Quixote translated by a woman, Edith Grossman. He was a knight of the middle ages, and he talked like one!!
    I turned down a job interpreting for the Nation of Islam. This time because of my principles. The agency wanted to force me to accept and even hinted some type of phobia. I simply told him that I don’t work on Sundays no matter how much was offered. Case closed. He never called me again.
    Thank you.
    Franco Gamero-Llosa, BioMechanical engineer. Highway Safety Expert. Sr. Translator/Interpreter.

    • Franco, TV productions use men for male voices and women for females. I was the voice of the male presenter. Other female colleagues interpreted the contestants and other women who participated in the event.

      • Franco Gamero says:

        I wasn’t specifically talking about the Spanish interpreters (you) but for other languages. I remember watching a contest the section of Q&As. This is when they call the interpreter to the stage. And I only watch the English broadcast. I’m not very happy with the choices of the presenters.

  • Alice Milne says:

    I agree with your general line of reasoning. However, from a moral and ethical point of view, I find an event based on judging women questionable to begin with.

  • Miriam Leniz says:

    In my lifetime (60 yrs), in the great United States, people have developed a social order in which we respect one another’s differing opinions, because we are Americans. At least, that’s how it used to be. The BULLIES who would have forced our host to reject a money-making gig for political opinion have no respect for our host, our individual rights or this country.
    I am from a multicultural, multilingual home in which ‘Mexican’ is one of our heritages. I was in no way offended by Donald Trump’s comments. In fact, much like a fan rooting for his/her team, a candidate should root for our nation, which is being torn apart from within by the people who live in fear of voicing an opinion that differs from the ‘popular’.

  • elenaruiz2 says:

    Reblogged this on cautivadulce.

  • oxana says:

    Does a doctor turn away a patient, an attorney turn down a client, a taxi driver refuse a passenger because the opinions held by those who are in need of those services may appear offensive?

    You would be coming close if not crossing the line into dereliction of duty where you, as an interpreter, to turn down an assignment on that basis.

    Though it must also be noted that an event that is organized around the objectification of human beings also strains the limits of what you want to see yourself contributing to making happen.

  • Patty Stephenson says:

    I am impressed by the writer. A true professional with vision and understanding of our great profession.
    I will share this blog with other colleagues and also with non-interpreters. This kind of ‘informative, educational’ blog is what brings respect and evolution to the Interpretation field. Thank you for sharing.

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