December 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not. Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.
The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions. With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.
Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year. Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries. Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:
In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.
Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures. As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business. Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.
The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree. These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve. Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning. As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.
Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.
Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year. With the presents exchanged, people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before. Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake. They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet egg nog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV. Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.
I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us. Happy holidays to all!
December 15, 2015 § 4 Comments
We all know that the client’s best ticket to a high quality professional interpreting service is a good fee, but it is not necessarily the only factor a top level interpreter weighs in when deciding to accept or reject an assignment. There are times when other considerations are more, or at least as important as the fee: an interesting subject matter, a well-known speaker, a prestigious conference, a long-term relationship with a client, and even a favor to a colleague, are all factors that can tip the balance in favor of accepting an offer that pays fine but below our usual fee (of course, because of the permanent damage it causes to our career, working for peanuts is always out of the question regardless of the event, speaker, colleague, or anything else). We have all provided our services at a lower fee to government agencies or private companies when we see that volume will compensate for the lesser pay; and invariably, once we accept an assignment, we provide the best possible service regardless of the conditions we agreed to with our client.
The truth is that we would take more of these jobs if we had fun performing our services. Dear friends and colleagues, I just gave potential clients the key to top-level interpreting services that they usually cannot afford due to their lack of funds: Call us with interesting or prestigious assignments and we will take them for a little less than our usual fee, as long as we enjoy the job.
Of course enjoying the job can be understood in many ways, we all have different tastes and interests, but the common denominator to all “happy assignments” is respect. If the direct client, event organizer, government entity, or agency treats us as professionals we will likely do the job, and perhaps repeat in the future. Moreover, even good paying clients should take note of this circumstance because a high fee can lose to lack of respect as well, in other words, even a client that pays good and pays on time can lose the good interpreter when there is no respect.
I know that there are many ways to show respect for the interpreter, and no doubt each one of you has a set of rules and principles that are a must for you to feel comfortable during an assignment. I hope you convey that to your client so they can keep you. I also know that many of us share some of the same basic ideas, and for that reason, I am going to share with you the things that I consider demeaning to the interpreter, and therefore will keep me from taking a job or will motivate me to drop a client as soon as I have a good replacement. Here we go:
- When the client treats you like a laborer, not a professional. There are few things I hate more in life than an ignorant bureaucrat or agency employee who retains you because of your credentials, skill, experience, and reputation, and after you reached an agreement, he sends you an email “instructing you” to arrive thirty minutes before the assignment, to call them “immediately” after the interpretation ends so they see how long you really worked, or a bureaucrat (often a former interpreter) who makes you go to their office for them to physically see you before you immediately leave their office to go to the place where you are going to work. To me this is insulting and inexcusable. How do they think you built a reputation? Because we are not construction workers (although I have nothing but respect for those who do such a physically demanding job) but professional service providers, I will not accept assignments from these individuals, and if the circumstances compel me to do it, be assured that I am only complying with these absurd rules while I find a replacement for that disrespectful client. I understand that some clients ask for such non-sense out of ignorance, in that case I try to educate them, and if successful, I continue to have a professional relationship with them, but if they do not change their policy… there are other decent clients out there in the world.
- When the client asks you not to talk to the end-client, or event organizer at the venue, or “forbids you” to have tea or coffee from the conference refreshments offered to the participants during the breaks. Once again, there are not too many things more insulting to a professional than “forbidding you” anything, concretely, to have a civil attitude towards the end-client because the agency thinks that, the crook you are, you will steal the client from them, or even worse: you may learn how much they are charging the end-client and wonder why they cried poverty and paid you so little. My friends, a true professional does not go around stealing clients from the agency! Show us some respect and let us be courteous with your clients and interact with them so we can get whatever necessary to make the event successful, because in case you do not know it, that will make you look good as an agency. As far as the “no-coffee, no-tea, no-pastries” rule, it only happened to me once years ago and I just ignored it and defied it. When the agency owner approached me and asked me why I was having coffee from the conference room, I simply answered: “because it is for the conference participants, and I am one of them. Do you have a problem with that?” I had all the coffee I wanted and never worked for those folks again nor referred anybody to their obtuse-minded business
- I avoid those clients who do not provide the basics for the interpreting job such as study materials, presentations, background information, speeches, or even water in the booth. It says a lot about an agency or a government officer when they tell you that no materials will be provided because “they are confidential” or because their client “does not like to share the presentation”. I wonder if they think that we work for some Chinese pirate and we are going to risk going to jail and losing our careers so that we can see a power point on a subject matter we couldn’t care less about. This tells me that the entity trying to retain me has no idea about our job, and when their answer to my request is “we have used other interpreters before and they never asked for any of that”, then I definitely know that it is time to turn down the job offer and move on to more useful things like perhaps watch the grass grow. The same can be said for those bureaucrats in courthouses all over the country who refuse to share the file with the interpreter because it is confidential. Who do they think they are hiring to interpret? Certainly not a professional. Their ignorance keeps them from thinking that the court interpreter is a professional trained to tell privileged and confidential information from public record, and to know what to do with it. Now, it is even worse when a former court interpreter is the one denying the information, because you know they are doing it out of convenience and fear to rub anybody the wrong way in the courthouse. In other words, they couldn’t care less about the interpretation, all the care about is to keep their job.
- To me, it is a tremendous sign of disrespect to ask the interpreter to do the agency’s job. All those entities who impose duties on the interpreter different from interpreting, such as endless paperwork, statistics, and so forth, without explaining these “extra chores” when offering the job, and demanding performance without paying for the interpreter’s time (because they only pay you for the time you interpreted, not the time you spend doing their paperwork) do not treat us like professionals, and since I do not have the vocation of a clerk’s assistant, or a Girl-Friday, I refuse the assignment, and if ambushed and cornered a posteriori with this free-work, I will never work for that entity again nor I will refer anyone to them.
- I believe that it is insulting that a client do not pay for travel time and travel expenses when the assignment is somewhere else. The interpreter is a professional, and unless the negotiated fee is high enough for the interpreter to include travel expenses as part of it, the client should absorb travel expenses as part of doing business. I have no room in my client file cabinet for agencies or government entities who refuse to pay for transportation (air, train, highway tolls, gas, and parking), lodging, meals, internet, and other basic services. There is no room either for those who pay them at some ridiculously rock-bottom amounts. No bureaucrat or agency clerk will force me to take five airplanes to fly 200 miles, sleep on a bedbug infested bed, or eat at a fast food place so they can save some money.
- The list could go on and on, but I will end with something that makes my blood boil because it is insulting, disrespectful, and hurts the interpretation: Those speakers who preface everything they say with: “I don’t know if this will be translated correctly” or “I hope the translator can get at least some of what I am saying because it is very technical” or the variation of this last one: “…because I speak really fast…” Again, I do not know if they know what happens in the booth, obviously they don’t, but they need to realize that on top of insulting, this makes the speaker, and the event organizer, look bad because thanks to that unfortunate remark, they now have an auditorium full of people who are second-guessing the ability of the interpreters. This is so silly that I just leave it out of my rendition.
As you can see, these are all simple things that a smart agency, organization, or government office, could easily avoid, and as a result create a better environment where interpreters would be happy and even willing to work for a little less money than usual when the event, the topic, or the speaker were so attractive that the fee would become, within certain limits, secondary at the time of deciding whether to accept or turn down an interpreting assignment. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of your demeaning examples that, when easily fixed or avoided, would make you take an interpreting job for a little less money.