August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments
A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico. With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.
Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters. What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere. Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.
Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree. Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.
The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights. The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.
The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court. During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam. Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court. Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.
Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.
I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice. Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages. The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.
I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.
I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.
August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments
It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:
2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services. This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.
The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.
At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.
During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:
“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”
In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid. Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.
I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:
“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates. You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”
The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”). By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work. Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.
Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”
Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better. The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear: They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).
I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees. From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee. The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million. There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)
Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.
August 16, 2016 § 9 Comments
As I was having dinner with a colleague several weeks ago in New York City, the conversation turned to the deplorable state of court interpreting at the State level in many parts of the United States and even at some federal district courts. She shared some frustrating stories about court staff choosing less qualified and even non-certified interpreters over solid and skilled certified colleagues just to save money by paying less for court interpreting services.
Her story was not different from the many tales I have learned from interpreters around the country complaining about poorly-run Administrative Offices of the Courts in several States, courthouses led by unreasonable interpreter coordinators, and ignorant government officials who have never bothered to learn anything about interpreting but are too willing to issue directives diminishing the quality of interpreting services and undercutting the fees and contractual guarantees that court interpreters fought so hard to get.
Time and again, there seems to be a common denominator to all this nonsense: These government officials, court administrators, and even short-sighted staff interpreters turned court policy backers, simply ignore interpreters’ arguments and explanations of all the reasons why justice would be better served, Constitutional requirements would actually be met, and interpreters would move the courts to the top of their client lists, if the State courts, and some federal districts, were to treat the profession and those who practice it with the dignity they deserve.
I often wonder how many times interpreters will meet with judges, staff interpreters, and court administrators, to explain that a professional fee, a fair cancellation policy, and appropriate interpreting conditions are needed, before we all realize that we are just wasting our time and energy.
I believe that the moment has arrived. In the past, whenever I felt that I was getting nowhere with a stubborn judge or an incompetent court administrator, I took my case to the officer of the court who will truly understand and appreciate our services: The private attorney.
I have found it very productive to talk to civil litigants and private defense attorneys one on one. I have seen the impact of a good presentation by an interpreter at a State Bar conference, in front of hundreds of lawyers. I believe that it is the attorneys who need to hear about the profession. They are the ones who need to know how interpreters are really treated by state officials, and they need to hear some of the horror stories that unfortunately have occurred all over the country when a bad interpretation has been part of a court proceeding.
Court interpreters need to address these lawyers for two reasons: First, since they are not under the authority and policy of court administrators because they are financially independent, they will be able to fight for quality interpreters. They will see it our way because they are also in the business of delivering results to their clients. In other words: no result equals no clients. Moreover, many of their clients are financially capable of paying the interpreter’s professional fees and expenses, and like everything else in the private sector, they know that good things are not cheap.
The second reason for approaching these attorneys is evident: Our work will speak louder than our words. The attorneys and their clients will see how professional interpreters work, they will see the benefits of having a great interpreter at all stages of a case: from the time the client retains the attorney to the end of a case, including strategy meetings, witness preparation sessions, jailhouse visits, and having an interpreter at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table during the trial. They will see the difference and their client will tell them how the work of the privately retained professional interpreter is infinitely better than the rendition the client will hear from the less expensive interpreters provided by the court at the hearings. You see, instead of wasting your time talking to the wall, you will invest your time at cultivating professional relationships with these private attorneys who will appreciate your work, treat you like the professional you are, and pay you a much better fee. You will be able to make more money and work less. Who knows? Maybe after all good interpreters leave the courts and cases are overturned on appeal the people who have ignored us will decide to approach us in our terms.
I decided to work with the private bar and I do not regret it at all. In fact, I enjoy being a part of a case from beginning to end instead of just being thrown in there in the middle of a trial without knowing what the case is about. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago one of my attorney clients commented to me that she was so glad to have me as her interpreter because she felt that because I was not in court working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, she could trust me more than “those interpreters who are at the courthouse all the time”.
I suggest that if you are sick and tired of being mistreated and ignored by the courts, you switch gears and give the private bar a try. All you will need is four or five good cases a year to live and feel like the true professional you are. I now ask you to tell us what you think about the way that so many courts treat professional interpreters and what you plan to do about it.
August 8, 2016 § 5 Comments
We are officially in a political season that comes biannually to the United States, and especially every four years when the presidential election makes it more intense. In fact, the American presidential race impacts not just interpreters who live and work in the U.S., it also means work for many colleagues who provide interpreting services abroad and are retained by news agencies, broadcast companies, and government officials to simultaneously interpret stump speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates.
Many of us, in many languages and from all corners of the world, just finished the two political conventions, and with this, we ended the primary season as well.
It is after the political conventions that all candidates begin to seriously campaign for office at all levels of government. In a country as diverse as the United States, this means that platforms, brochures, event invitations, press bulletins, and other similar documents will be translated in order to reach the constituency of that particular politician. It also means that many interpreters will be contacted and asked to interpret stump speeches at political rallies, press conferences, interviews, and political debates.
Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues.
Because of our system of government, most political races take place at the local and state level. For this reason, many colleagues will have an opportunity to participate in the process as interpreters retained by local agencies and television networks. To some degree, those colleagues who live in the big cities will surely interpret House and Senatorial debates for regional broadcast and even national markets in languages such as Spanish. Many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.
Interpreting political debates requires many skills that are not always necessary when we work doing other interpretation. The candidates deal with questions on very different subjects, and their answers are somewhat spontaneous and sometimes unresponsive. The interpreter needs to be ready for this type of work. Reading about the issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform are needed parts of the interpreter’s preparation. Besides political interpreting, a debate is also a media interpreting service. As a media interpreter, you are required to work with technicians and radio or TV equipment, and you have to work with an awareness that many people are going to listen to your rendition, and that everything you say will be recorded and replayed over and over again.
I remember being at Mile-high Stadium in Denver, Colorado during the Democratic National Convention interpreting President Obama’s acceptance speech live. I remember the commotion, the crowd of “famous” politicians and broadcasters coming and going all over the broadcast center; and I remember the moment I stopped to think of what I was about to do: Interpret the nomination acceptance speech of the first African-American candidate from a major political party who had a very good chance of becoming President of the United States. All of a sudden it hit me: There will be millions listening to my rendition, it will be broadcasted and replayed by Spanish language news organizations all over the world. Wow! Then, as I was getting a little uneasy about the historic significance of the task, I remembered something a dear colleague once told me about broadcast interpreting: Your rendition is to the microphone on the table in front of you. It is only you in that booth. I regained my confidence and composure and did the job. The same experience took place just a few weeks ago in Philadelphia when I had the same opportunity during the nomination acceptance speech of the first woman candidate from a major political party. I know that interpreting for a big crowd, or interpreting an important event, not only for a broadcast, but in the courtroom or a conference, can be very stressful and intimidating. Believe me, interpreting in Cleveland and Philadelphia was not a walk in the park.
Throughout my career I have traveled to different cities and towns to interpret primary and general election political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city). I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events.
As I get ready for another official campaign cycle, I have thought of the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.
- Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
- Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
- Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
- Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
- Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
- Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
- Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
- Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
- When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
- Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
- Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.
On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.
I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries who will be interpreting this year’s political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.