Young interpreters are the key to save the profession.
May 31, 2016 § 7 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.