We need to change the classification of interpreting and translation as professions.

April 26, 2016 § 28 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

In general, interpreters and translators find it more difficult to set reasonable fees than most professionals. This is in part because of a new, globalized market, but the main reason for such obstacles has to do with who the individuals providing interpreting and translation services are.

By nature, interpreting and translation have been two of the professions more vulnerable to pretenders and paraprofessionals: the typical “wannabe”. Those individuals who erroneously assume that they can interpret or translate because they speak two or more languages.  We are in a profession where real, bona fide professionals have to compete with usurpers and part-timers who view the profession as a hobby, an activity to entertain themselves while their spouses work to provide for their living expenses, and people with no scruples who try to take advantage of the less-sophisticated non-native speakers of society.

Many are able to negotiate and find a way to make a decent living, while trying to survive in this ocean of professionals and impostors. Some even excel and live very comfortable lives full of respect and recognition.  Unfortunately, many capable people cannot make it. They succumb to their poor negotiating skills, their internal fears, or they just simply lack the stomach required to go to war on a daily basis.  But even those who achieve success in such a competitive field have to face the effects of ignorance, greed, and bad legislation.

All public contracts with the United States government, and many private businesses, follow the same practice: they have to adjust to certain guidelines and rules.  One of them is the price that the bidder will charge the governmental or private sector entity requesting the services, and this directly impacts the amount that an individual should earn based on his or her occupation.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) was a publication of the United States Department of Labor which helped government agencies, and private sector employers, to define many different types of work during the 20th. Century. This publication was later replaced by the O*NET system, a digital data base applicable about a decade ago, depending of the type of work, and the business necessity on a case by case basis. Back then, interpreter and translator positions could require a college degree, and for that reason they could command a higher retribution. Since that time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES 273091) based on questionable surveys, has set the bar pretty low as to the mean wages for interpreters and translators. Moreover, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) considers interpreters and translators, including Sign Language interpreters, as “clerical workers” instead of professionals. This classification carries grave consequences, such as the levels of compensation that government contractors can offer to language professionals in all government contracts subject to public auction. Even worse, this is frequently used as an argument by ignorant multinational entities to offer low fees to many colleagues who tragically agree to work for such breadcrumbs, either for lack of negotiating skills or simply out of fear.

Current market conditions have not fatally wounded all real professional interpreters and translators. There are plenty of conference interpreters, basically all of them with some college degree, or many years of professional experience, who have fared quite well in this Darwinian environment because of their negotiating skills and business acumen.

Amending the current U.S. regulations to classify interpreters and translators as professionals instead of clerical help, would be a giant step towards improving the market conditions and giving language professionals the recognition they deserve; and its impact would reach far away, beyond the U.S. borders, because of the major role that the American market plays in both of our professions.

This would allow those contractors bidding for government work a better argument to justify higher fees for interpreters and translators who could be included as professionals on the business plan without questioning the classification. It would also give us additional tools to be used when negotiating with a frugal and reluctant client from the private sector.  By their nature, both professions require of individuals who should have some type of college degree at a minimum.  A degree in a language-related discipline would be fantastic, but any college degrees could be accepted. Basically, those who graduated from college had to learn how to study and research, and people with higher education are more likely to have more general knowledge, an essential element for interpreters and translators.  Following the criteria of the American government, a degree equivalency could also be accepted at a ratio of 2 years of experience for one year of college. This means that those with 8 years of experience could be considered at the same level as a person with a Bachelor’s Degree.

I believe the time is right to make our move, even though we will face strong opposition from all directions.

Many will fight against officially making a college degree or its equivalent (quantified in a minimum years of experience) part of the essential elements of being a professional interpreter or translator.

The first to oppose this change will be the mediocre “interpreters” and “translators” who do not have and never will get a college degree or its equivalency. They will also oppose this changes because they will lose their market advantage over true professionals: Under current conditions, they can offer their questionable services to many clients for a much lower fee than the rest of us. Once the market evens up by requiring a college degree, their clients will opt for a better professional since price will no longer be an issue.  The second group that would be against any change is the government. With some exceptions here and there, both, federal and state government officials rejoice when they can hire or contract interpreters and translators as “clerical help” and consequently pay them below a professional wage or fee; and if you do not believe me, I invite you to read any interpreter or translator job description for a government position. You will immediately notice that they require a high school diploma, not a college degree.

Of course, the powerful multinational “language service providers” would fight us to death. Remember, current conditions are the way they are because they have lobbied for them to remain unchanged. After all, their concern and priorities on the “scales of quality” dramatically tilt towards profit.  We should expect a good fight from them, after all an “industry” requires of laborers, not professionals.  Finally, I also expect opposition from good, professional interpreters and translators who will meet these requirements of formal education or its equivalent, but will feel “bad” for their fellow mediocre or borderline colleagues who they will want to protect.  I have a proposal for these valued colleagues:

It is undeniable that, at least at the beginning and until there are enough colleges and universities offering careers in interpreting and translation because more people will be interested as the financial compensation will be at a professional level, true professionals will not be able to cover the huge market demand. It is also true that certain translations will be so minor, and some interpreter assignments so short and uninteresting, that most of us will turn them down as they will not appeal to us from the business perspective. I believe that it is possible, like it already happens in most professions, that these jobs be left to those individuals that could not meet the professional requirements, and without presenting themselves as professional interpreters or translators, would be able to perform minor translations and unsophisticated and less consequential interpreting assignments, perhaps on their own, or maybe under the supervision of a professional interpreter and translator (never a multinational entity or any other agency).  By doing this, the market needs would be satisfied, these paraprofessional individuals would be able to make a living by translating birth certificates or interpreting at small claims courts, and the profession would be protected.

I know that to some of you, this sounds complicated and impossible, but it is not. Nothing happens without an effort, and if we want our professions to be respected and recognized, if we want to eliminate the unscrupulous practices of many multinational agencies that are taking advantage of the current system, and if we want more of our colleagues to enjoy better fees and working conditions, we need to start somewhere. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts and ideas regarding this issue.

When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.

April 19, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe.  Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings.  The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.

All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.

Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer.  My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it.   After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.

They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances.  In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is.  Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.

To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker.  There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality.   Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments.   Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it.  This is an area where governments cannot be saving money.  There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated).  In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.

VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money.  I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings.  Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting.  Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.

Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person.  We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.

How safe are we as interpreters?

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.

Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents.  I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.

Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session.  The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.

Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.

Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence.  According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer.  In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”

And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.

Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.

Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.

So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?

Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice.  The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.

I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it.  It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it.  I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.

Are we protecting our profession? Part 2.

April 5, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the first part of this entry we discussed the role that professional associations should play on the face of antitrust legislation and its adverse effect on our profession.  Today we will explore another crucial aspect of the profession that has been under siege for several years; and if some external forces have their way, it could set the profession back to the Stone Age.  I am referring to the very popular tendency to minimize the importance of interpreter and translator professional licenses, certifications or patents and the acceptance, and in some cases even blessing, of lesser quality paraprofessionals as the preferred providers of services by many government entities and multinational interpreting and translation corporations who make the decision to hire these individuals, who are unfit to practice the profession, based to the extremely low fee that they command.

It took interpreters and translators many decades of constant struggle to get to the point that their accreditations became widely known and accepted as the standard of quality among those providing the service.  Finally, holding an American Translators Association certification, or proof of many years of experience,  gave the real professional translator the needed tool to argue that she should get the job over the individual whose only credentials were the translation of his parents’ birth certificates and a couple of elementary school reports.  The days when a real professional interpreter would lose an assignment to a person whose only linguistic experience was that he had lived in two different countries during his life, became less common when true professionals started to demand top assignments with their interpreter degrees, or their court, or healthcare certifications in hand.  There was a lot to be done, but interpreters and translators were on their way to educate more prospective clients and government officials every day.  People began to notice the difference on the quality of the service rendered by a real certified interpreter or translator.

But, since nothing can come to the interpreting and translation world without drama and tragedy, technological developments such as CAT tools and telephone/VR interpreting came to be. This should have been a welcome development that benefited interpreters and translators; however, this new technology, combined with a global economy where big corporations seek profit by bastardizing a real profession and turning it into an assembly line, and changing its name from profession to “industry”, injected a new player to our eternal drama:  the opportunist, also known as the “new talent scout” whose sole function was to undermine established professions, like ours, and replace quality professionals with cheap novice paraprofessionals who see this individuals as their ticket out of the flipping burgers world.

Compounding the problem in the United States, there was a new administration in the White House, whose attorney general was determined to compel the state-level agencies who were recipients of federal funds, to provide access to their services for everybody, regardless of the language they spoke. This in itself sounds very good and fair, and in fact it was not just the right thing to do by the administration, it was long due as this mandate had been part of the law since the mid-sixties when Title VI of the Civil Rights Act was enacted.  In fact, to an interpreter or translator who did not know the reality of the American system this would look like a pot of gold. All of a sudden millions of people who needed interpreting and translation services were going to get them! Unfortunately, reality and a short-sighted government opted for the easy way out, a path that was doomed from the beginning. Let me explain: This instantaneous demand for many more interpreters and translators exceeded by far the supply of professionals in the United States, and to meet the mandate, the states decided to enable just about any almost-bilingual individual, to provide translation and interpreting services, instead of promoting more college programs and encouraging American citizens and permanent residents to prepare themselves, and become true professional interpreter and translators, who would have access to professionally remunerated work due to the implementation of this legislation.

When the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts” realized what was going on, they immediately saw the possibility for huge profits by providing the required services with tons of these paraprofessionals, who they immediately hired at rock bottom fees.  Moreover, they saw the possibility of making their margins even bigger by using machine translation and retaining humans as proofreaders, and by providing interpreting services by telephone, and lately by video remote interpreting or VRI in some cases, while hiring these new “type” of “interpreters” by the minute (or if they are lucky by the hour).

Government officials liked the solution, but they still had one more obstacle that was keeping them from going all the way with these multinational corporations operated by the opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”, who by now were active in social media, writing their own blogs, and organizing their own conferences to build themselves up like interpreting and translation “self-proclaimed gurus”. That obstacle was the certification.

The certification, that extremely difficult and elusive project that took real interpreters and translators several generations to create, and then make known and widely respected, was by now a requirement in the law.  It was obvious that the new paraprofessionals would never pass a certification exam, so the government officials and their “associates” had to think fast, and cheap.

The solution they came up with was the creation of a “second class” tier of people who they call “language facilitators”, “justice-system interpreters”, and many other labels, avoiding this way the uncomfortable, and perhaps illegal alternative of referring to them as translators or interpreters, who, in lieu of a real certification, would be “accredited”, “registered” and many similar names.  Now they argue that these individuals can provide the professional service as long as the content is not too difficult or the event is not very important!

Finally, to end the vicious circle, some of our opportunistic “friends”, also known as the “new talent scouts”, realized that with government officials willing to do whatever possible to go around the true mandate of Title VI, which would require them to use certified, experienced, professionally trained interpreters and translators, they could get another piece of the pie by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and creating a mutant creature they would call: “community interpreter certification”.

The principle is very simple: What do you do when you have a group of people who cannot pass the interpreter certification exam? You develop another program with an exam easy enough for anybody to pass, and you propose it to the authorities as a legitimate certification for court cases before administrative judges, for client-attorney interviews, and for simple medical events. Do you see the pattern? Once again we have the not-so serious event and the not-so difficult content rationale to justify the use of mediocre individuals, who have only one advantage over the real professional, experienced, certified interpreters and translators: They will work for peanuts; because whatever they get paid will be better than the money they were making before they got “discovered” by the talent agent.  Never mind the fact that administrative law hearings are as complex as Article Three court hearings as I have indicated on a previous entry to this blog a few months ago.

The situation turned for the worse when the implementation of Title VI at the state-level civil courts in the United States was narrowly interpreted by many of their administrative offices, as meaning that only interpreters supplied through the judiciary could provide services in civil matters. This actually killed the main source of income to many entrepreneurial interpreters who had opted out of the bureaucratic, low-paying criminal court assignments, and had developed their own client-base, charging for their services according to supply and demand. Oftentimes, because of the complexity of civil litigation, and because of their type of clients, these interpreters fared much better than their counterparts who stayed on the criminal court bandwagon.  Title VI guarantees equal access to all government funded services, including the administration of justice, but it does not make it illegal for litigants who want to, and can afford it, to hire private interpreters.  In my opinion, this is a classic example of a situation where professional associations needed to protect their individual members, and the profession, by advocating for the availability of private interpreters to be retained for civil litigation.  Unfortunately, instead of taking action, our biggest professional association in the United States not just sat on the sidelines, but welcomed the new “civil court-provided interpreter system”, and remained silent when some states decided to meet the requirements of Title VI by hiring big “interpreting services” agencies (who view our profession as an industry) to program the interpreters for civil cases.

To summarize the situation, we now have an environment fostered by the government authorities, and exploited by the multinational interpreting and translation corporations, plus some small “local talent” that was able to learn fast how to do this thing, where certifications and education do not matter anymore, where assignments are going to questionable paraprofessionals, many of whom have never been able to pass a certification exam, who are working under terrible conditions, in exchange for a miserable fee.  The first logical reaction of any interpreter or translator should be one of outrage, disgust, frustration. The second reaction should be to talk to its professional association and ask it to represent its members and protect them from these nefarious tendencies, thus saving the integrity of the profession.

Attorney and medical associations are vigilant and protective of their members and profession. They do not allow, under any circumstance that paraprofessionals practice law or medicine. In fact, attorney associations set the standards of practice in their profession. No agency or its equivalent is allowed to set the tone.  They have lobbied for, and achieved legal protection: In the United States it is a crime to practice law without a license, and this applies to all court proceedings, including administrative courts.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with some of the bigger translator and interpreter associations.  They keep silent when the government creates these groups of paraprofessionals to “meet” the requirements of Title VI. They invite those who are turning translators into proof readers to their conferences to recruit more of the young talent before they learn to separate good from evil; Instead of protesting, criticizing and denouncing the birth of that Frankenstein’s monster called “community interpreting certification”, they celebrate the lowering of the bar and open wide their organizations’ doors for these paraprofessionals.

Moreover, they welcome as their members many of these multinational corporations, “self-proclaimed” gurus, and opportunists, also known as the “new talent scouts”. Maybe they do so because they do not know of all these terrible things that are happening to the profession. Maybe they let them in because they share their view of interpreting and translation not as the professions they always were, but as industries where the proofreader (formerly known as translator) and the part-time telephone operator (formerly known as interpreter) will happily hold hands at the assembly line and praise the virtues of the big “language” corporations. The question is, what are professional associations for? I now invite you to share your comments about this reality we are living pretty much around the world, and to offer your solutions to the role that a professional association should play in the world of interpreting and translating.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for April, 2016 at The Professional Interpreter.