How did “Black Friday” get its name?

November 22, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues:

This week Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in the United States because of its universal appeal. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin, or political persuasion, the people of the United States will gather to eat turkey and watch football on Thursday. Every year, I devote this space to a Thanksgiving themed post (If you are interested on learning more about the holiday’s meaning, history, or the crucial role interpreting played at the first Thanksgiving, please see these earlier posts: “Where do Thanksgiving traditions come from?” and “Interpreter played a crucial role at the first Thanksgiving”; however, this time I will not talk about the meaning or history of the holiday. I will center on the day after Thanksgiving: The so-called “Black Friday”.

Most of you know of this American tradition of taking the stores by storm on the day after Thanksgiving to take advantage of reduced prices, and get started on the Christmas shopping.  In fact, many other countries have followed suit, and now it I common practice, whether you call it “Black Friday”, “El Buen Fin”, or any other name.   Because we work with words, I thought it would be interesting to see how the day when more than 135 million Americans go to the stores got his name.

There are several myths and stories, but not all of them are true. Some explain that the origin of “Black Friday” comes from the financial crisis of 1869 when the United States gold market crashed on Friday, September 24 when two Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for enormous profit. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone in Wall Street. The press referred to the day as “Black Friday”. This is a good story, but it is not the true origin of the name.

There is another horrible, and totally baseless, legend that attributes the origin of the name “Black Friday” to the 1800s Southern plantation owners who could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. This version of “Black Friday’s” roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, but it is a fabrication with no basis in fact.

The most popular explanation for the “Black Friday” name has to do with holiday shopping. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers spent so much money on discounted merchandise. It is true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting.  Even though this is the “official” version of the term “Black Friday”, it is also inaccurate.

In the 1950s the Philadelphia Police Department used the term to describe the chaos on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the confusion in the stores to steal merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache. By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations.

The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, sometime in the late 1980s. Retailers found a way to reinvent “Black Friday” and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit, despite the fact that traditionally most stores see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.  The “Black Friday” story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.

Fast forward to the present and now you see stores that open earlier and earlier every year, and shoppers that head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. I hope this brief history of the term “Black Friday” makes us reflect on the importance that words have in everything we do. I know most Americans will be thinking of the bargains on Friday, but I sure hope that some of you, dear friends and colleagues, will see the commercial event from your perspective as interpreters and translators. Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

What is the appropriate consecutive rendition from the witness stand?

November 15, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Court interpreting is a complex task that requires of all main modes of interpretation: simultaneous, sight translation, and consecutive.  There seems to be a consensus among court interpreters as to when simultaneous interpreting and sight translation are required during a judicial proceeding. I am afraid that we cannot say the same about a consecutive rendition.

Consecutive interpreting is convenient, and for that reason, widely used during client-attorney interviews at the law office, detention center or courthouse. It is also the mode most attorneys use to prepare their witnesses for the stand.  Even those attorneys and interpreters who favor simultaneous interpretation partially use the consecutive rendition. It is common to have a situation where the interpreters simultaneously interpret the attorney’s questions or remarks to the client or witness while resorting to the consecutive mode for the answers.

For reasons we will not discuss on this post, many courthouses have adopted this system for direct and cross-examination of foreign language-speaking witnesses during a trial. They employ the services of two court interpreters: One interpreter, located away from the witness stand, sometimes in a booth, others at a dedicated table in the courtroom, simultaneously interprets the questions for the witness who gets the rendition via a receiver and an earpiece. The other interpreter, sitting or standing next to the witness stand, waits for the foreign language-speaking witness to answer the question aloud in his or her native language, and then interprets said answer consecutively. Some have proposed that both, question and answer be interpreted simultaneously from a booth using standard interpreting equipment, with the jury, judge, attorneys, and others listening to the answers through a receiver and an earpiece, the same way a question and answer session is conducted in a conference setting. So far, I have not seen this anywhere, and later we will address what I believe are the reasons why this has not been attempted.

Therefore, most courtrooms use consecutive interpreting at least for the answers given by the witness, defendant, victim, or expert, from the witness stand. The controversy arises at the time of deciding what kind of consecutive interpretation is best suited for a trial.

We all know that there are two main types of consecutive interpreting: long consecutive, used in conference settings, press conferences, diplomatic and ceremonial acts, and others; and short consecutive, generally considered as the rendition of choice for court proceedings. Recently healthcare interpreters have entered the professional stage as a major presence; they generally use an even shorter form of consecutive interpreting than the one chosen by many court interpreters.

Dear friends and colleagues, I constantly travel for professional reasons, and my trips take me to places where I have a chance to meet and talk to local interpreters who share their concerns, ideas, and experiences with me. This, together with my own experience as a court interpreter for many years, and what I have observed in courtrooms of several nations, made me realize that there are two distinct schools of thought: Some of our colleagues believe that interpreters should use long consecutive from the stand, and others think that short consecutive is more appropriate.

Let’s see:

We call long consecutive the interpretation of a segment of a speech in the source language that the interpreter renders into the target language after the orator has spoken for about 10 to 15 minutes (sometimes longer) relying on his concentration, memory, visualization, and note taking, rendering longer messages with more complete ideas and more separated in time. It is used by diplomatic, media (press conference) and conference interpreters. It requires of a skilled interpreter who knows the basic consecutive interpreting techniques, and allows for the source speaker to convey more complete thoughts, as he is not encouraged to cut the ideas short for the sake of shortening the segments. Interpreters who defend this type of rendition argue that it fosters a more comprehensive answer or narration of facts, helps the jurors and judge understand the answers, and because of its complexity, it requires more seasoned, capable interpreters, eliminating mediocre ones who simply cannot provide a lengthy consecutive interpretation. A lot of formally educated, and current and former conference interpreters favor this modality.

Short consecutive works with shorter segments of speech, often lasting between 10 seconds to one minute, or about fifty words (U.S. Federal Court Interpreter Examination handbook) and it is used in court hearings and other legal settings such as depositions and witness preparation sessions. It requires a skilled interpreter who mainly relies on memory, but also uses concentration, visualization, and a note taking system that is quick enough for the interpreter to begin the rendition almost immediately after the speaker finishes the segment in the source language. The length of the segment makes it difficult to embrace very long elaborate descriptions, as the orator is encouraged to stop for the interpretation after one or two sentences.  The interpreters who advocate for the short consecutive rendition argue that it is more accurate and detail-oriented as the interpreter can easily recall everything the witness stated, and it offers a more dynamic exchange and rhythm between witness and interpreter, which is often needed when witnesses are nervous, intimidated by the process, reluctant to testify, or not very sophisticated. It is true that, for many reasons, some court interpreters believe that they cannot render a long consecutive interpretation (lack of proper training, note-taking skills, practice, etc.)

In general, not speaking of court interpreting, I personally like the long consecutive mode better because it lets the speaker stitch together his thoughts and ideas, and it allows me, as the interpreter, to understand the message better. This results on a better rendition.

However, to determine what is more appropriate for a testimony during a court proceeding, first we need to answer the most fundamental question: Why is it necessary to interpret what was said at the witness stand?

Unlike interpreting the entire court proceedings for the foreign-language speaking parties (plaintiff, defendant, victim) interpreting the testimony of a witness who does not know, or is not fluent, in the language used in court is not done for the benefit of said individuals, after all, they speak the same language as the witness; it is done for the attorneys, and more importantly: for the judge and jury so they can properly evaluate the witness’ testimony and determine if they will believe all, part, or nothing of what the person said. Because the judge and juror do not speak the foreign language, they could not evaluate the credibility of the witness without the interpretation. You see, interpreting for the witness, is an essential part of the process of reaching a decision about the facts of a case.

But understanding the statement of a witness through an interpreter is not enough. In order to assess credibility, judges and jurors must look for, and consider, other clues such as body language, facial expressions, utterances, reactions to a question, demeanor, and others.  Sometimes a witness may be saying one thing with his words and a very different thing with all these other clues.

Therefore, judges and jurors must be given a chance to perceive and link all of these clues in real time. A short consecutive will allow them to consider all of these elements as closely to the verbal answer as possible. A long consecutive removes the jury from the moment when the words were said by the witness, making it more difficult to associate all clues and reach a reliable conclusion. Long consecutive will showcase the interpreter’s skills, but will foster distraction as it is difficult for a juror to follow a speech that he does not understand for several minutes. This happened in the defunct League of Nations, a precursor of the United Nations Organization born after World War I. The delegates to the League would speak in their native language and then the entire speech would be consecutively interpreted into a second language, and then into a third language, and so on. Because these delegates did not understand the original speeches, or their consecutive interpretation into other foreign languages, they could not pay attention to the speech itself, and in many cases would leave the session because they knew that the interpretations would also take a long time. Eventually, when the United Nations were founded, this consecutive interpreting practice was eliminated and replaced with the new, technologically more advanced simultaneous interpretation.

It is also true that court interpreters must interpret everything a witness says: false starts, stutter, utterances that may not be a word, redundancies, repetitions, and so on. Remember, the jurors and judges are assessing the credibility of the witness and all of these elements are very important during that process.

When the rendition comes right after the witness’ answer, there is no doubt that judges and jurors will be able to link one of these renditions to the original speech and to the body language.  It is also more likely that the interpreter will remember all of these circumstances better when he just heard them a few seconds ago. It is widely held that short consecutive is more precise than a long rendition, and in these circumstances it is more evident.  Also, a short consecutive will allow the attorneys and judges to direct the witness to answer a question or to object to an answer more efficiently.  It makes it possible for an interpreter to clarify a term or expression with the person speaking from the witness stand.

In my opinion, even though I like long consecutive better, I believe that a short rendition is more appropriate for court.

We still need to determine how short that rendition needs to be.

There are two main tendencies when it comes to short consecutive court interpreting from the witness stand: Those who want an extremely short segment of just a sentence or a couple of phrases, and the interpreters that believe that consecutive interpreting in court should be short, but it also needs to make sense, fulfill its purpose.

During my years of practice in court I saw some interpreters who were busy stopping the witness every other sentence, according to them: for accuracy; according to me: because of mediocrity on the part of the interpreter. I do not believe that you can argue accuracy when faced with a rendition that goes like this:

“…can you please…” stop. Interpretation follows.

“…tell us your name for the record…” stop. Interpretation follows.

Extremely short segments risk the possibility of producing a testimony that nobody can understand, and cutting the witness’ train of thought, resulting in unintended omissions by a witness who can never get to the point of concentration, and that could be very serious.

Short consecutive in court must be long and flexible enough, for a witness to tell part of his story in a coherent, logical fashion where he feels free to finish an idea before having to stop for the interpretation. Sometimes, this can be achieved with a ten second segment, but sometimes the witness may need three or four minutes to share the facts of the case in a way that is clear, complete, detailed, and gives the judge and jurors the necessary tools to evaluate the credibility of that witness.

It is also important to mention that the court interpreter should always allow the witnesses to finish his statement (unless the judge orders him not to). Because of this complex interpretation, that is almost like a dance between witness and interpreter, a good interpreter must talk to the witness ahead of time, explain what is needed to have a good accurate rendition, and in my opinion, the interpreter must be in the proximity of the witness (being careful not to obstruct the view of judge and jurors) so that clarifications, repetitions, and hints as to stop at the end of a segment (maybe through eye contact, a hand signal, or other) can be done without disrupting that rhythm. This is, in my opinion, the main reason why we have not seen the proliferation of two-way simultaneous interpretation from the witness stand. The interpreter needs to be with the witness, not in the booth or somewhere else.

You see, court interpreting is sui generis; it often breaks the rules of other more conventional types of interpreting. It is not just about the message, it is about the credibility of the individual delivering the message, and for that reason, the obvious, the redundant, and the obscene have to be interpreted from the witness stand. I now ask you to share with us your comments about consecutive court interpreting from the witness stand.

My last word on interpreting for this political season.

November 7, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Tuesday is Election Day in the United States, and people going to the polls means the political season is over for politicians, campaign staffers, beat reporters, and yes: interpreters.  Unlike any other presidential campaign during my professional life, the last eleven months were full of surprises and unusual challenges for the interpreter.  First, we had sui-generis primary elections; on the republican side we interpreted stump speeches and presidential debates full of disqualifications, insults, rudeness and unparalleled vulgarity, and we learned to interpret for non-politicians like Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. On the democratic side we interpreted stump speeches at campaign rallies where the candidate who motivated and inspired the crowd the most did not get the nomination, and we worked presidential political debates that, compared to what was going on at the republican party, seemed low-key and frankly boring. Even some of the victory and concession speeches after the primaries were bizarre at times. And then came the general election campaign.

Although it may seem that from the interpreter’s professional perspective both campaigns were about the same, and they are both ending with speeches where nobody talks about their platform, but about how awful the other candidate is, it was not like that at the beginning. Starting with the democratic convention, Clinton run a very conventional campaign; the speeches were of the kind the interpreter expects to hear during a presidential race. On the other hand, the republican campaign started with a very different convention full of insults and disqualifications among the supporters of the different candidates. There was also a very strange “endorsement” speech that really was a non-endorsement address by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (followed by one of the strangest press conferences I have interpreted in my life) And of course, the constant chants of “lock her up” from the floor of the convention that we as interpreters decided not to interpret since the chants did not come from the podium, and we were there to interpret the speeches, not the crowd’s reactions, the same way a sports interpreter is there to interpret what journalists and athletes have to say, not the screams coming from the bleachers. And then, we had the three debates.

Even though I only interpreted the second and third debates, I watched them all, and for the first time in my life, partly out of curiosity, and partly motivated by many blog posts by other colleagues, I also watched the interpretation rendered by friends and colleagues from other countries.

Because of the unusual candidates and the tone of the presidential campaign, many foreign radio and TV stations carried the debates, and in many cases the interpreters were not from the United States and they were physically abroad working from a studio in their hometowns. First, I congratulate my colleagues for the great job they all did; despite the fact that I could not understand the rendition into some of the languages I watched, I observed the professionalism and delivery of the interpreters working the debates and I salute them all. I also want to take a moment to address all of my colleagues who have ferociously criticized the work of some of these colleagues, and ask them to please consider the difficulty of doing this work with technicians, radio or TV equipment, and the awareness that many people are listening to your rendition live, and later on to the recorded version that will be replayed over and over again. Next, I ask the same critics to recall the times when they have interpreted a live unscripted event before millions of people and assess their performance. I suspect that most of those screaming the loudest against these interpreters have never done this kind of work. I did not listen to all of my colleagues, and I suspect that there were probably some bad renditions, especially if the interpreter selection was left to an agency more interested in finding cheap interpreters and less inclined to pay for high quality, but the overwhelming majority of those who interpreted the debates did a magnificent job.

For me, it was interesting to see how some of these foreign interpreters had difficulties with things we don’t even think about because we live in the American culture and system. Basic political concepts, idiomatic expressions, and references to U.S. geography and history were cause for pause and struggle. The mechanics of the debates presented an unfamiliar situation to some colleagues who grew up and live in countries where there are no political debates, and if there is such a thing, it is often a staged show with soft questions by a friendly panel, that look more like a press conference where the candidates take turns answering questions and ignoring the other opponents also at the podium.  Because of our socio-political reality in the United States, we do not interpret foreign leader debates for the American audience, and for this reason I do not really know what it feels like to interpret a foreign debate such as the ones between Clinton and Trump, but as an interpreter who lives in one State and often interprets gubernatorial, congressional, and local government debates somewhere else, I have to prepare to deliver a professional rendition.

Some of the things I do to get ready to interpret for a political debate include:  reading about local and campaign issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work, learn the structure of the State government, read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, search the web, know basic history and geography of the place where you will interpret the debate, know national and world current events in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer; and finally: know the rules of the debate.

Finally, there is another issue that merits comment: From their own comments, it was clear that for many colleagues interpreting Donald Trump was nearly impossible. I disagree.

It is true that Trump often leaves sentences unfinished, that he does not follow a logical pattern when he talks, and he often interrupts others. Interpreting somebody who behaves this way may be hard, but it is not uncommon. My years of court interpreting took me to many individuals whose speech is much more difficult to interpret, yet I did, and so do hundreds of colleagues who work at the federal and state-level courthouses of the United States every day. If an interpreter spends an entire professional career interpreting in the booth, working with highly educated people, or just with those whose main objective is to convey their message to an audience, interpreting for a person of Trump’s characteristics will be extremely tough; however, those interpreters who had a broader formation, including some work with criminals and witnesses who will do anything to say as little as possible in a court of law, and to mislead a judge and jury every time they have a chance, will find themselves in familiar territory when they listen to Donald Trump.

We have a few days to go: Election Day and the aftermath when we will deal with the results. There are a few more things to interpret in this political season, but we are at the very end of what will forever be a unique presidential campaign cycle for everybody, including the interpreter community that had to deal with situations we never encountered in the past, and for the first time, turned into an international affair for interpreters everywhere. I now ask you to share with us your experiences, thoughts, and comments, from an interpreter’s perspective, about this political campaign, the conventions, the presidential debates, and interpreting for Donald Trump.

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