May 31, 2016 § 8 Comments
These past four weeks I had the fortune to work with, and be around, some of the brightest young interpreters and students. I attended four events that reminded me of the importance of passing the torch to the next generation of capable professionals. First, I lectured at the Masters’ Degree program at Anáhuac University in Mexico City, then, I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, followed by a talk to the students of the Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico, as part of their Translation and Interpreting Summit; and then, I was a presenter and a panelist during the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) pre-conference and conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Besides the great presentations, networking, and greeting of old friends and meeting many new ones, including the “living legends” of our profession and dear veteran colleagues, I had the opportunity to talk to the youth. Many of my conversations were with college students and brand new interpreters and translators who are just entering the global market. As expected, I saw the enthusiasm of youth, and I noticed something else: These new interpreters and translators, and the ones still studying to become our colleagues, are very capable, knowledgeable, and in some ways they are already ahead of us. Let me explain:
Many of these youngsters had a better academic formation than some of us, they are a product of a world that did not exist when we were starting our careers. While we were the product of a cold war era where the rule was hard work, hauling of heavy suitcases full of dictionaries and reference books all the way to the booth, endless library research hours, and practicing with your peers (in order to get constructive feedback on your performance); these new interpreters’ world includes laptops, tablets, electronic dictionaries, Wikipedia and Google. They never had to use the services of a travel agent to get to a conference because they always had Kayak or other similar application; they never had a booth-mate smoking and handling conference materials with cigarette burns. They did not become interpreters hoping to see enough work coming to their hometown, and most of them did not have the goal of working as a staff interpreter for a big company or international organization. They knew that travel was part of the business and they did not hesitate, they wanted to have their own professional practice and own their time and career choices. I know that you probably know all of these characteristics of our new colleagues, but I am mentioning them here because it is only when we stop and reflect on them that we can understand the young interpreters, and welcome them to the profession as we should.
Many of you have been around long enough to recognize the following situation. It happens constantly, and it takes place everywhere in the world:
Every time that graduation season comes along, and on every occasion that the results of newly certified, licensed, admitted, credentialed, or whatever the term may be, interpreters are announced; many of our colleagues, staff and freelancers, whether they are in a conference booth, courthouse, hospital, international organization, or government agency, will make a comment similar to this: “…There are all these new interpreters graduating this month, I don’t know why they studied this career, there is no work for them around here. We can hardly get work for the ones we already have…” or: “…I hope that nobody gets certified; every time there are newly certified interpreters, the first thing they do is to come here and try to get work. We don’t need them! We are fine just the way we are now…” and of course: “…these new kids from college think they know more than us, and are always trying to change the way we do things in here. I don’t like working with them. They want to do everything with a computer…”
We are all familiar with these reactions and attitudes. Some colleagues endorse them, some of us dislike them enormously, but the reality is that this predisposition against the “new interpreter” is pervasive, particularly against the “new young interpreter”; it is everywhere. They exist because they come from a natural fear that humans experience when they are faced with the unknown. Add to this the fact that people feel that their source of income will be threatened, and you get the reality described above. It is a bad situation, buy fortunately, it is all based on ignorance, and as it is always the case, lack of knowledge can be defeated with information.
I propose that all of us, veteran professional interpreters and new colleagues, because this situation impacts everybody, look at it from both perspectives: that of the experienced interpreter, and that of the newly graduated.
Why is it that so many veteran interpreters get so upset when youngsters graduate from college, when it is announced that there are new certified interpreters, and when they are told that they will be sharing the booth with a new, much younger colleague? Because many veterans are afraid. They fear that they will not get work anymore, they are afraid of showing their rendition to a younger partner who may detect diminishing skills that another veteran would never dare to disclose to the client or agency; they are embarrassed to show their lack of knowledge of modern technology, and looking incompetent before the new interpreter who will lose any respect for the veteran who cannot even do a quick Google search in the booth. They are aware of their lack of technological skills, they know that modernity requires them and the client values them, and therefore, they feel ignorant, perhaps of lesser professional quality than the young ones, and they fight the change. As a result of these insecurities, many veterans ignore, despise, and mistreat newcomers, creating a tension that helps nobody, and erodes the profession.
On the other side, new interpreters resent this treatment by those who are already making a living by practicing the profession. Some of them put up with the insults, abuse and assignment bypassing, as part of the “paying your dues” process; others are more fortunate, of just luckier, and despite the campaign against them by the old-timers, they are noticed by a veteran interpreter, the agency, or the client, and they blossom as interpreters. Sadly, many of these bright and very capable new professionals get discouraged and abandon the quality path of our craft, they let their guard down, and they are lured to the dangerous dark side of our reality: they become the prey of those in the interpreting “industry”, who will wine them and dine them until they are ready to become one more laborer in the interpreting sweat shop. You see, by rejecting these excellent professionals whose only “sin” is their youth and to be technologically literate, we are throwing them to the jaws of those colleges and universities that (maybe in good faith, or perhaps because of their own monetary benefit) promote the concept of graduating and going straight to the big multinational agencies where quality is not even on their priority list. We are leaving them at the mercy of aggressive recruiters who work for these international calling centers where their interpreting talent will be wasted, and they will work for a fee so low that their college loans will have to be paid back by their grandchildren. At the least, we will leave them vulnerable to the big professional associations who mask these low-paying job fairs as “professional conferences” and “mentor” these youngsters until they are conditioned to accept whatever the “industry” tells them to do.
The truth is, dear friends and colleagues, new young interpreters are also at fault. Many times, when faced with the very real possibility of working an assignment with a veteran interpreter who has achieved prestige, but was not college-trained, (in many occasions because the career did not exist yet, or because there were so few institutions of higher education offering it), the newly graduated acts as if she were better that the empiric, self-taught colleague, refusing to listen to any suggestions or comments that the veteran may share. This will undoubtedly result in a bad situation where the newcomer looks arrogant and ignorant, and the experienced interpreter feels disrespected. Another common scenario has a new interpreter losing patience and his “cool” when the older veteran does not seem to understand the technological terms or simply shows up to the booth dragging behind one half of the Library of Congress. There has to be self-reflection, tolerance, understanding, and respect of the other’s personality, experience, formal education, technical skills, and personal style when interpreting.
Let’s see, the first thing an interpreter who is going to work with a colleague for the first time (even more so when they are from a different generation) needs to do, is to look at himself in the mirror, and remember when he was young and the “victim” of a prior generation of interpreters; and then, he must acknowledge his strengths and weaknesses. The veteran may have the confidence that only years of working give you; he may know the speaker, the subject matter, the venue, or the sound technician very well. He may know the interpreters in the other booths and how to work relay assignments with them. The younger interpreter may know how to take notes with a tablet or I-pad; and how to research a speaker, term, or topic with her phone, without having to leave the booth. They need to be honest with themselves, and acknowledge their shortcomings: The older interpreter may not be very good; maybe he never was, but at a time when no interpreters were around, he was better than nothing. In this case, he needs to be a professional and decline the assignment. Everybody will respect this move more than a cavalier attitude motivated by ego and a state of denial. The young interpreter may conclude that the event is just to “big” for her; she should realize that, although these assignments may be right for her in the future, she is not ready yet. People will respect this honest assessment of an assignment and the interpreter’s skill to do it at this time. The older interpreter may have to accept that technology arrived to the booth and that it is here to stay; he has to understand that taking several minutes to research a term in the paper dictionary is now unacceptable. The new interpreter may notice how the veteran interpreter has a better idea as to the location of the booth, or at dealing with the speaker, and she should not dismiss a lesson learned in the booth just because the interpreter teaching the lesson does not have an interpreting college degree.
You see, it is really simple when you think about it: if the veteran interpreter lets his guard down, he will become a better professional, as he will learn from the younger booth-mate how to use so many of the modern tools that will make him more marketable and better. If the younger interpreter gets over the fear of working with the older guy, she will learn the ropes of the profession that are not taught in school. She will learn how to negotiate a better contract, how to get better clients, and how to do a complex high-profile assignment without even sweating. The reality is: everybody has something to teach. We all have something to learn. The goal of every experienced interpreter should be to leave the profession better than they found it, and the only way to do it, is to pass on every piece of knowledge and experience onto the next generation. The goal of every new interpreter should be to take the profession to the next level, and the only way to do it is to continue to build on top of the structure already in place left behind by those who came first. There cannot be any progress if the new generation wants to reinvent the wheel. If we all do our part, we will also protect the profession by retaining the talent for the quality, well-remunerated work, and letting the “industry” feast on those not-so-talented colleagues who will need to do a greater effort to improve their service before they can “escape” the claws of assembly-line interpreting.
Yes, there will be some growing pains, it will take some effort to adapt to a different generation booth-mate, but the quality of the rendition will improve, and all interpreters will have so much fun working with a veteran, or a rookie, in the booth, the courthouse, the hospital, the government agency, the international organization, and everywhere else that real professional interpreters are needed. I now encourage you all, my young and seasoned colleagues, to share with the rest of us your constructive ways to strengthen the professional relationship between experienced veterans and new interpreters.
May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments
Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.
Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.
Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity. Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.
The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.
I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance. I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication? Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.
If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.
On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad. It is only then that you can start the client’s education.
Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.
If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience. If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.
If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.
When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference. A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth. The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.
Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.
In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.