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.

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