What we learned as Interpreters in 2016.

December 29, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2016 is coming to an end and we are working towards a fruitful and meaningful 2017, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months.  As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, 2016 was no exception.  The year that ends gave me once again the opportunity to work with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession had some positive developments this year:  In the United States, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and in Mexico the Organización Mexicana de Traductores (Mexican Translators Association, OMT) held very successful conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Guadalajara, Mexico respectively. In April I attended the Sixth Latin American Translation and Interpreting Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina where some of the best professionals gathered to learn and share experiences in a high-quality, professional environment. I also had the opportunity to participate in other professional conferences and seminars of tremendous level where I was honored to share some experiences and exchange ideas with many professional colleagues. Thank you to all my colleagues who attended my presentations, workshops and seminars in Cancún, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Querétaro, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Lima, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Pachuca, Phoenix, Ohrid, Beirut, and Guadalajara. It was a pleasure to spend some time with all of you in 2016.

The year that ends in a few days saw the growth of our profession in the healthcare and media fields, where we currently have more and better prepared professional certified interpreters than ever before. I also noticed the growth of our profession in Africa where our friends and colleagues held several professional events, and 2017 promises to be even better. And just this week we learned that, after many months, our Vietnamese court interpreter friends and colleagues in Melbourne, Australia Magistrates’ Court won their hard fought battle against the system and an opportunist contractor and are finally going to be paid a decent professional fee under favorable work conditions.

Unfortunately, not everything was good.  Our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States continued their fight against mediocrity and misdirected greed with SOSi, the contractor selected by the U.S. federal government to be the sole provider of interpreting services in all immigration courts of the United States. 2016 was the year when this contractor took working conditions and the quality of interpreting services to an all-time unprecedented low.  Some professional associations, individual judges, and attorneys have voiced their objections to this practices, but not much has changed. The war is far from over, and these colleagues should use the Melbourne Australia success story as a source of motivation.

Our colleagues in the American immigration courts are not alone in their struggle, the Workers’ Compensation Court interpreters of California, state-level court interpreters in New Mexico, and other court interpreters in some American east coast states are also fighting against low pay, deplorable working conditions, favoritism, ignorant government program administrators, and others. Some European countries, like Spain and the United Kingdom, are under siege by governments that want to lower the quality of translation and interpreting services in the legal arena to unimaginable levels of incompetence.

Interpreters around the world faced attempts from special interest groups to erode our profession by lowering professional standards and creating questionable certification programs, the multi-national language agencies continued to push telephone interpreting whenever, and wherever they can, offering rock-bottom per minute fees to the interpreters. A handful of translators attempted to disrupt one of the top professional translator and interpreter associations in the world because they refused to understand the legal system where the association was incorporated, wanted to advance a personal agenda, and in a way that raises deep concerns, attacked the association because of the national origin of its board. The year was also marked by many efforts to distract, and perhaps mislead interpreters and translators, through carefully crafted conferences, webinars, publications and other events where some renowned colleagues, for reasons unknown to me, addressed our peers with a new carefully planned tactic that consists on making interpreters and translators believe that the agency is on their side by softening the rhetoric, showing some cosmetic empathy, and advancing their low fee, low quality service agenda on a stealth way.

Of course, we also had our “regulars” just like every single year: 2016 was full of para-interpreters trying to “take over” the market by charging laughable fees under shameful working conditions in exchange for miserable services. As you can see, much changed and much stayed the same. I choose to think that there were more good things than bad ones, but I continue to be aware of the awesome problems we still face as a profession from threats that come from without and within. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your learned lessons (good and bad) of 2016. I wish a Happy and Productive New Year to all my friends and colleagues!

The Christmas traditions of the United States. The Professional Interpreter blog

December 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The end of the calendar year marks a time when most cultures in the world slow down their work routines, gather with friends and relatives, and reflect on what was accomplished during the year while setting goals to achieve what was not.  Some give the season a religious connotation, others choose not to do so. Regardless of the personal meaning and importance that each one of us give to this time of the year, there is a common denominator, certain actions, traditions, and celebrations that are observed and held dear by many. They vary from country to country, and are part of the national pride and identity of a nation.

The United States is a unique case because of the convergence of cultures and populations from around the world who have brought with them their language, beliefs and traditions.  With globalization many other regions in the world now start to live the same situation where not everybody celebrates everything, not everybody celebrates the same, and even the ones who celebrate a particular festivity or observe certain event will do it differently depending on their cultural background. I also want to point out that, due to the immense commercial and cultural influence of the United States just about everywhere in the world, some of the traditions below will be recognized as something that you do in your country as well.

Although Christmas is not the only festivity where we see this American reality, I decided to share with you our national traditions on this day because it is widely observed and understood throughout the world, and because it is a nice thing to share with all of you during this time when many of us are slowing down and waiting for the new year.  Finally, before I share these American traditions with you, I want to make it very clear that although this entry deals with Christmas traditions, it does it from a cultural perspective with no religious intent to endorse or offend anyone. I am very aware of the fact that many of my dearest friends and colleagues come from different religions, cultural backgrounds, and geographic areas; and the farthest thing from my mind is to make you feel left out, ignored or offended. Please understand that this post is written with the sole intention to share cultural traditions, and invite an exchange of information about other customs observed at the end of the year by other groups and countries.  Thank you for your understanding, and please enjoy:

In the United States the Christmas season, now referred to as the holiday season in an effort to make it more inclusive, starts on the day after Thanksgiving known as “Black Friday”. Many schools and businesses close between Christmas (December 25) and New Year’s Day (January 1). Most Americans take this time out from their professional and academic schedules to spend time with their friends and families. Because of the high mobility we experience in the United States, it is very common that families live very far from each other, often in different states; so the fact that children go home to the parents’ is more significant as it may be the only time they see each other face to face during the year.

Many Americans decorate the exterior of their homes with holiday motifs such as snowmen, Santa Claus, and even reindeer figures.  As a tradition derived from holding Christmas in the middle of winter in the northern hemisphere when daylight is scarce, and before electricity it was practically non-existent, Americans install temporary multi-colored lights framing their house or business.  Because of its beauty and uniqueness, this tradition has spread to southern parts of the United States where winters are mild and daylight lasts longer. The American southwest distinguishes itself from the rest of the country because of the lights they use to decorate their buildings: the luminarias, a tradition (from the Spanish days of the region) of filling brown paper bags with sand and placing a candle inside.

The interior of the house is decorated during the weeks leading to Christmas and at the latest on Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in Canada and the United States provide enough trees for people’s homes, although many prefer an artificial tree.  These trees are placed at a special place in the house and are decorated with lights and ornaments, and at the very top an angel or star is placed on Christmas Eve.  Unlike many other countries, in particular those where a majority of people are Roman Catholic, Americans do not hold a big celebration on Christmas Eve, known as “the night before Christmas”, the time when Santa Claus visits their homes while children are sleeping and leaves presents for the kids to open on Christmas morning.  As a sign of appreciation, or perhaps as a last act of lobbying, children leave out by the tree a glass of milk and cookies for Santa to snack during his visit.

Special Christmas stockings are hung on the fireplace mantelpiece for Santa to fill with gifts called “stocking stuffers” that will be found by the kids on Christmas Day while the yule log will provide some heat and holiday smells. Even those homes that have replaced the traditional fireplace with an electric one have kept the yule log tradition; and when everything else fails, cable TV and satellite TV companies offer a TV channel that broadcasts nothing but a yule log all day.

Adults exchange presents that were previously wrapped in festive seasonal wrapping paper, and even the pets get Christmas presents every year.  With the presents exchanged,  people move on to their Christmas dinner that will usually feature ham, roast beef, and even turkey with stuffing, although many families skip the bird because they just had it for Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks before.  Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables, cranberries and salads are part of the traditional meal, but in some regions of the United States, demographic cultural fusion has added other dishes to the traditional family dinner: It is common to find tamales in a Hispanic Christmas dinner, poi and pork in Hawaii, BBQ turkey or chicken in the south, and sushi and rice in an Asian household. Unlike Thanksgiving when pumpkin pie is the universal choice, a variety of desserts are part of the meal: pies, cakes, fruit, and the famous fruitcake.  They are all washed down with the traditional and very sweet eggnog or its “adult” version with some rum, whisky, or other spirits.

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls have made it a tradition to have home NBA basketball games on Christmas Day that are broadcasted on national TV.  Other traditions include Christmas carols, window shopping the season-decorated department stores, special functions such as the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show and the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York City, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the National Christmas tree in Washington, D.C., the Very-Merry Christmas Parade held simultaneously at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, the Nutcracker ballet in theaters and school auditoriums all over the United States, and endless Christmas movies and TV shows, including the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch.

I hope this walk through American Christmas traditions was fun, helped some of you to understand a little better the culture of the United States, and maybe part of what you just read will be handy in the booth one of these days. Whether you live in the U.S. or somewhere else, I now ask you to please share some of your country or family’s Christmas or other holiday-related traditions with the rest of us.  I sincerely hope that you continue to honor us by visiting this blog every week in 2017. Thank you for your continuous preference, and happy holidays to all!

Las Posadas: Christmas Season and Terminology of Mexico. The Professional Interpreter blog.

December 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

It has been a great year full of professional activity. I have been honored with your preference for this interpreting blog where we explore all facets of our craft and other disciplines and events that help us improve our services while advancing the profession. We will continue to tackle these issues in 2017, but for the next two weeks I will try to get into the Christmas/End of the Year spirit with a couple of posts that I hope contribute to the season’s mood while providing some useful information at the same time.  Today, I will go back to a theme that seems to be quite popular every year: “Las Posadas”.

Every year when December comes along I find myself answering questions from friends and acquaintances about how Latin America, and specifically Mexico, celebrate the holiday season. American friends who want to organize a celebration for their children, school teachers who are staging the festivities for the school play, community center activists who want to celebrate the season with a cultural event, come to me to learn about the traditions, food, celebrations, and vocabulary.  Because this year has not been different, I decided to repost one of my most popular articles where I write about the most Mexican of these traditions: The posada. In Mexico the fiestas decembrinas begin unofficially with the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and last through January 6 when they celebrate the Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) but the festivities are in full swing with the beginning of the posadas. Mexicans celebrate the posadas every evening from December 16 to 24. They actually started as a Catholic novenario (nine days of religious observance based on the nine months that María carried Jesus in her womb). The posadas re-enact Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter; the word posada means “lodging” in Spanish.

Traditionally, a party is held each night in a neighborhood home. At dusk, guests gather outside the house with children who sometimes dress as shepherds, angels and even Mary and Joseph. An “angel” leads the procession, followed by Mary and Joseph or by participants carrying their images. The adults follow, carrying lighted candles.

The “pilgrims” sing a litany asking for shelter, and the hosts sing a reply, finally opening the doors to the guests and offering Mexican traditional Christmas dishes such as hot ponche, a drink of tejocotes (a Mexican fruit that tastes like an apricot/apple) guavas, oranges, sugar cane, and cinnamon mixed and simmered in hot water and served with rum or brandy; fried crisp Mexican cookies known as buñuelos, steaming hot tamales, a staple of the Mexican diet since pre-Hispanic days, and other festive foods.

Spanish priest and chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún observed that the first thing Aztec women did when preparing a festival was to make lots of tamales: tamales with amaranth leaves for the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, tamales with beans and chiles for the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca, shrimp and chile sauce tamales for the ancient deity Huehuetéotl. Besides tamales stuffed with turkey meat, beans and chiles, the Aztecs used what they harvested from the shores of Lake Texcoco, including fish and frogs, to fill tamales. Sahagún tells us that pocket-gopher tamales were “always tasty, savory, of very pleasing odor.” The Maya also produced artistic, elaborate tamales; toasted squash seeds and flowers, meat, fish, fowl, and beans were all used as fillings. Deer meat, especially the heart, was favored for special offerings. Besides being steamed, tamales were roasted on the comal (grill) or baked in the pib, or pit oven.

Finally, after everybody ate and had fun, the party ends with a piñata. In some places, the last posada, held on Christmas Eve (December 24) is followed by midnight Catholic mass, a tradition that lives on in countless Mexican towns.

These are the lyrics to the traditional posada litany.  I have included the original Spanish lyrics and a widely accepted English translation that rimes with the tune. Now you can sing the litany in Spanish or in English at your next posada, or even better, have a bilingual posada and sing the litany twice.

                        Español English
Outside Singers Inside Response Outside Singers Inside Response
En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.
In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.
This is not an inn
so keep going
I cannot open
you may be a rogue.
No seas inhumano,
tennos caridad,
que el Dios de los cielos
te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir
y no molestar
porque si me enfado
os voy a apalear.
Don’t be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
You can go on now
and don’t bother us,
because if I become annoyed
I’ll give you a trashing.
Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret,
yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.
No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que no hemos de abrir.
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
I don’t care about your name:
Let me sleep,
because I already told you
we shall not open up.
Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.
Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?
I’m asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
Well, if it’s a queen
who solicits it,
why is it at night
that she travels so alone?
Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.
My wife is Mary
She’s the Queen of Heaven
and she’s going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.
Dios pague, señores,
vuestra caridad,
y que os colme el cielo
de felicidad.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la Virgen pura.
La hermosa María!
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
Blessed is the house
that shelters this day
the pure Virgin,
the beautiful Mary.
Upon opening the doors at the final stop, the tune changes, the pilgrims enter, and all sing these final verses in unison:
Entren, Santos Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os la doy de corazón.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.
Oh, peregrina agraciada, oh, bellísima María. Yo te ofrezco el alma mía para que tengáis posada. Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.
Humildes peregrinos
Jesús, María y José,
el alma doy por ellos,
mi corazón también.
Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Cantemos con alegría
todos al considerar
que Jesús, José y María
nos vinieron a honrar.
Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, and thank you for reading this blog during 2016.  Please feel free to contribute to this post by sharing some holiday traditions from your home countries.

Immigration interpreters: Show courage, or prepare to die!

December 5, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Last week many of our immigration court interpreter colleagues in the United States received written communication from SOSi, the government’s contractor, asking them to accept a new adhesion policy, which would require them to bid as low as possible in order to qualify for continuing sub-contractor status, as immigration court interpreters, after their current contract expires in a few weeks.

This notice, in the form of an ultimatum, required interpreters to provide their lowest possible hourly “rate” bid for the entire period of performance, and would become the sole basis for priority of case assignments in the future.  Moreover, the agency set top possible fees according to language combinations, and indicated that those bidding above said amounts would not be considered.

The maximum fees to be used as point of departure for this dive to the bottom of the barrel are insulting at best.  If you received the communication you saw the proposed maximum amounts, but for those of you who did not, it is important to be aware of the fact that these fees are way below the court interpreting fees set by the other federal courts (Article Three). The communication expressly mentions that SOSi will not honor the full-day or half-day rates policy that all other federal courts observe.  They also decided that travel expenses will be standardized with no room for negotiation, ignoring variations in cost of living, weather impact on travel, and so on. Finally, for obvious corporate reasons such as lack of candidates to be exploited at this time, and keeping up with this “serf-landlord model”, the agency gives interpreters a chance to extend their present fee conditions for a period of 45 days or until the end of January 2017.

The current Article Three federal court interpreter fees are: for a full-day of work $418.00, for the first half of the day: $226.00, for the second half of the day: $192.00, and $59.00 per hour or part thereof when the interpretation goes past 8 hours.

If you consider that the above federal court fees are for interpreters working under better conditions, such as team interpreting, access to court files for preparation, sometimes one or two cases for the day, reimbursement of travel expenses according to cost of living of the place interpreters travel to; and then you compare it to the conditions historically endured by immigration court interpreters: working solo (with bathroom breaks if you are lucky) hostile treatment in many courts, dozens of cases when interpreting Master Hearings, etc., then you come to the natural conclusion that immigration court interpreters should make the same fees as other federal court interpreters, or perhaps even more if working conditions do not improve. We cannot forget the difference in time elapsed before payment either.  As you probably guessed, immigration court interpreters have to wait longer to see their meager paychecks.

I am not going to go back to my conversations with many of you about a year ago when I warned you of future deplorable working conditions with this agency, and many of you assured me that everything was fine, that you had negotiated a better deal than ever before, and that SOSi had realized that interpreters should be treated as professionals. Well, it turns out that I was right, and that all those of you who refused to sign a contract and decided to look for other green pastures did the appropriate thing, broaden their professional horizons, and avoided having to deal with an agency that is so demeaning to all professional interpreters.

Obviously, as I said before, these posts are directed to those real professional court interpreters who are constantly improving their skills and pursuing certification (or qualification for those languages where no certification is available). I have nothing for those who refuse to pursue certification; that avoid continuing education, or argue that immigration court interpreting is so unique that no professional credential can benefit them.

But to those proud professional immigration court interpreters who view their occupation as a professional service and understand the importance of what they do, I invite you to consider this: Another year went by and SOSi continues its path to commoditization of immigration court interpreting; they moved ahead with their plan to transform you into language laborers who will blindly obey any order given without questioning. Their goal is to profit as much as possible (nothing wrong with that) by creating the illusion that they are providing a professional service while in reality delivering sub-standard interpretations without any regard for the consequences on the lives of those directly (respondents) and indirectly (American society at large) involved (this is wrong).

Dear colleagues, this is your last chance to act; by next year the monster will be too big for you.  It is clear that the agency’s goal is to get the cheapest possible “interpreter” available, and to continue to look for a cheaper one. It is also clear that they do not have enough of these language laborers at this time. Thus the reason for them to extend your current contractual terms for another 45 days or so. They need this time to find your replacement, not based in quality, but in bargain price.

As of today, without you they have to close shop. They just cannot provide the service EOIR hired them to do. Understand that you have leverage, keep in mind that by next year, with a more aggressive prosecution of immigration cases under a new White House, EOIR will surely need more interpreters than ever before. It is simple demand and supply. Today you control your destiny.

For this reason, it is important that you act, seize the moment, and protect your dignity. I invite you all to send a message loud and clear to SOSi, EOIR, and the immigration attorneys. Send your bids for a fee not lower than the federal court interpreter fee, and send it for full-day, half-day, and overtime. Tell them that reimbursement of travel expenses will be negotiated on a case by case basis, and do not sign the contract extension. Moreover, send your bids to SOSi, but copy the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), your local immigration courthouse, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Let them all know that you are professionals providing a critical service to the administration of justice.

Explain that you cannot accept the proposed conditions because of the complexity of what you do. Tell judges and lawyers that a SOSi certification is not a court interpreter certification at all; let them know that Spanish interpreters can obtain a federal court certification, that other languages can get state-level certifications, and that for those languages with no certification program, there are other options to prove your professional qualifications such as college degrees, translator certifications by the American Translators Association (ATA) or a passing grade on the translator or seminary-level interpreter exams by the U.S. Department of State (DOS).

During the last twelve months I learned how many people at EOIR were under the impression that a certification by SOSi was the same as the federal court interpreter certification. I saw the faces of many immigration attorneys when they learned that so many of the interpreters they regularly use in immigration court are not court certified, and I heard many of them telling me that, knowing now of this lack of certification, they understood why they never saw them in any other courthouse.

It would be unfortunate to learn that some of you decided to lower your head and take the extension, or bid according to their unconscionable terms. It would also be a gigantic waste of the greatest opportunity you will ever have to finally professionalize immigration court interpreting. Giving in, or giving up at this time would be the first step to your professional death. Immigration court interpreters, it is time to show courage and determination, or to prepare to die.

I now invite you to share your comments on this important topic at this crucial time.

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