”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

Interpreter certification: A fight against the establishment.

May 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many of us have devoted years to the struggle to achieve recognition towards the professionalization of what we do. In most countries, interpreters need not have a college degree, the occupation is highly unregulated, and society lacks the knowledge to demand a high-quality professional service. An important number of countries have exercised to a degree some control over who can interpret in certain fields: legal and healthcare interpreting now requires of a certification in several countries. Whether it is called certification, patent, license, or anything else, this is an important step towards professionalization. It is a way to compensate the lack of formal education by giving individuals a chance to demonstrate that they have the minimum skills to practice as interpreters. It reminds me of the beginnings of other now well-established professions. Two centuries ago, people in the United States could become lawyers by passing the State Bar without having to attend Law School.

Although certification does not guarantee the quality of a rendition, it allows the user to decide if an individual is at least minimally qualified to provide the service. This quality-control becomes very valuable to society, but we must be very careful as it is not always what it should.

All professions certify, admit to practice, or something to that effect, their members in one of two legitimate ways: By an administrative act sanctioned by a government because of passing a knowledge and skills test, or, by an administrative act sanctioned by the individual’s peers through a professional association because of passing a knowledge and skills test.

In the United States, and other countries, court interpreters acquire their certification through the former system, while healthcare interpreters get their credential through the latter.

Both systems work fine because they meet the requirements that guarantee an unbiased decision solely based on merit, not self-serving reasons. Besides meeting certain moral and legal requirements, this is achieved by passing a scientifically developed exam rated by an impartial qualified jury. Certifications can only be universally accepted and recognized when they come from such a process. For this reason court and healthcare certifications have become the standard of the profession in many countries.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of legislation, the high demand for inexpensive interpreter services, lack of knowledge by the potential client, and the existence of paraprofessional interpreters willing to work for next to nothing for their quality-absent services, have created a perfect storm for worthless so-called “certifications” that currently inhabit the market in the darker corners of the ugly face of interpreting, feeding themselves on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of the pariahs of this profession.

Many language agencies advertise their interpreters as “certified” because they have been tested online or by phone and passed an unscientific exam not developed to learn if an applicant is prepared with the minimum professional skills to do the job. Instead, the motivation behind these “exams” has to do with marketing the service, and protecting the agency if a lawsuit occurs caused by the incompetence of their so-called “certified interpreters”. No data is available on the science behind their exams, and there is no information on the quality and impartiality of those rating the examinees.

It gets even worse: many community interpreting, telephonic interpreting, and supposedly healthcare and legal interpreting agencies advertise as “certified” interpreters individuals who attended a workshop, took a class online, read a manual, or went to a class without even taking an exam! The website of one agency brags about the “training” of their “certified” interpreters taught “national ethics and standards of practice for interpreters” in the United States. The problem is there is not such a thing. Each field has its own code of ethics. It also claims that their “certified” interpreters, who apparently work in legal situations, get “…basic skills pre-session preparation…” and they also get skills on “…closing the session…” These are no doubt important issues in healthcare interpreting, but not even the terminology exists in legal interpreting. I wonder how this knowledge, or learning “information on community systems (K-12 schools…)” will show that an interpreter is ready to work in a courtroom, detention center, or law office. Some brag about the number of training hours they offer to their interpreters, but they do not require that they pass an exam; much less a real scientific exam like the ones real certified interpreters must pass. Most of the training hours are devoted to practices to protect the agency from liability, to make the business plan more profitable. Whether they require an online test or just a bunch of classroom hours on a curriculum they created, they have as their main goal to create this impression that their interpreters are certified. They never disclose that their certifications are not officially recognized, that their exams were not scientifically developed, or that they have a vested interest: to offer the paraprofessional services of these “certified” interpreters at a lower cost so they can profit more.

This is not the only problem, dear friends and colleagues, official government policy can also be the main obstacle faced by interpreter certification. I was contacted some time ago by the government of a country outside the United States.  Mexico’s legal reforms took the country from a written court system to an adversarial oral system similar to the one in the U.S.

I was asked to participate in a training program for the new court interpreters for the oral proceedings. I was told this curriculum was necessary for these interpreters to get ready to pass a (certification) test and get what Mexico’s legislation calls a court interpreter patent (same as the certification in the United States, or the licensing in Texas). I was asked to provide may documents and information, even to develop a prospective curriculum and bibliography for my portion of the training (8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for three weeks). The full program was supposed to have a duration of three months at the same pace, and it was to be taught on the campus of the largest college in that Mexican State (Mexico is divided in States just like the United States of America).

After months of negotiations, where I made many concessions regarding the money I would be paid, and my expense account during the three weeks I would be living in that city, and after agreeing to cover my own airfare, to get these young prospective court interpreters what they needed to have a successful and meaningful career, the government officials continued to ask for more documents and concessions, until I gave them an ultimatum. At the end the answer was the one I feared all along: They would not retain me for the program because I was too expensive, but also, because I was a foreigner. They decided that only locals could teach the program. I have no problem with the local talent, and I know some of the other instructors and I vouch for their skill and expertise. The thing that puzzled me was that out of all the instructors, I was the only one who was both: interpreter and attorney, and I was the only one with experience working as an interpreter in court. The decision from above, taken by people who know little, or nothing, about court interpreters, left the certification program for that Mexican State with no court experienced instructors.

In the present world where a college education for interpreters is still years away in many countries, interpreter certification programs play a huge role in advancing the career and protecting the user of the interpreting services. Society must know of these malicious self-serving “certification programs” that are roaming out there with no supervision or regulation. It is imperative that more colleagues get certified as court and healthcare interpreters in the countries, and languages, that the credential is offered. On June 1, of this year, my colleague Javier Castillo Jr. and I have prepared a four-day workshop to prepare those who will be taking the oral portion of the court interpreter federal exam in the United States at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte this summer. The workshop will also help those taking court interpreter oral exams at the State-level, as we will dissect the test, explain what matters to get a passing score, and will practice with tailor-made exercises designed for these workshops you will find nowhere else, so that when the four-day program ends, those who took the course can get a personalized evaluation and know exactly what to do to pass the test. (You can get more information by going to www.fciceprep.com)

As you can see, the road to professionalization is full of obstacles, and some need to be eliminated to get the needed recognition to those legitimate certifications. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this issue.

Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.

We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.

In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.

For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out.  Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.

I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.

I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.

The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.

I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success.  Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.

That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions.  I am the last name on the list, and that is good.

Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap.  Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).

I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better.  I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.

Will my clients find me in this association’s directory?

April 17, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I am tired of getting this call repeatedly: “Hi, I got your name from the ATA directory and I was wondering if you would be available for a medical evaluation (or a worker’s compensation hearing) this Friday…”

Maybe those providing the service would be happy with these calls, but I am not.  Every time I must answer the phone to tell somebody I don’t do that work, and that I refuse to work for peanuts, is a waste of my time.  I do conference interpreting and I don’t like to explain two or three times a week I do not work for fifty dollars an hour.

For years I have almost exclusively worked as a conference interpreter, doing some court or legal interpreting for established Law Firms I regularly work with, generally in civil cases or some federal criminal matters.  Motivated by ATA’s outreach campaign regarding the credentialed interpreter designation and database, I thought that maybe, if I clarified it on the ATA directory that my credentials are United States Department of State Conference-level, and Federal court certification, all these people would stop calling asking me to do work that I do not provide.

I have been an ATA member for many years, and even though the association does many things I am very much against, I also get many benefits from my membership: a monthly publication with some very good articles, a discount on my errors and omissions insurance, good divisional activities, valuable webinars, and a well-known directory.

I logged in to the members section of the website to update my information and take advantage of the new credentialed interpreters’ database in their directory. This happened:

I must start by confessing that I rarely access ATA’s website, so I found it a little bit too crowded; maybe appealing to translators, but I believe it could be a little intimidating for clients looking for an interpreter or translator. After I accessed the “members” section, I looked for a section called “Interpreters’ credentials”, or something similar, but I found nothing. I clicked on the menu where it says “update your contact information” and “update your online directory profile”.

As I got to the profile section, all my information was already there (so I had entered it before). I did not need to change anything. Since I was already inside the program, I reviewed it anyway to see if I needed to make any changes. When I got to the “Interpreting Services” section, I saw that I had previously highlighted “consecutive”, “court”, “escort”, and “simultaneous”. Since I saw a “court” category, I scrolled down to see if I could also highlight “conference”, but the only category left for me to highlight was “sign language”. I thought it was odd. On one hand, if all you are listing are the interpreting you do, then “court” does not belong in here. If they added “court” to make the search easier for the clients, then I would like to see “conference” as an option. I suppose that healthcare interpreters would argue the same for their specialization.

Under the “Certifications” section, I entered my federal court interpreter and my two state-level court interpreter certifications from the drop down menu. I saw nothing for other credentials that are not certifications, but equally important, such as AIIC, U.S. Department of State, European Union, etc. The menu had another category: “other” where I entered my conference interpreting credentials, constantly wondering why I could not find the so much talked about “credentialed interpreter” menu for the new database ATA has been advertising so much. I thought the reason the place to enter that information was somewhere else, perhaps later on the form, was because these other credentials are not certifications and ATA had included them separately.

I kept looking, and my search only found a different category towards the end of the page called: “Additional Information”. That was it. No other place to enter conference interpreter credentials. Knowing I would not get what I wanted, I tested the directory, so I looked myself up. On a simple search I found my information, not as advertised with the credentialed interpreter information, but as I had entered it earlier. I immediately thought of the unwanted agency phone calls that would keep on coming as before.

I ran an advanced search just for English<>Spanish interpreters in Illinois, where I live, asking for State Department conference-level credentials, and the result was “we found none”.  I found this interesting, so I dug deeper to see if there was a problem with the directory search engine. The first thing I tried was a search for interpreters with that same language combination and credentials in the largest state: California. I know several colleagues there with the credentials and are members of ATA. The result was: “we found none”.

At this time I decided that maybe it was a glitch on the search engine, but before concluding that, I wanted to see if I had missed the section where you enter these credentials. I went over the form two more times and I found nothing. At this point I am thinking that maybe I needed to submit my credentials for a verification before the information was displayed, so I went back to the form once again. I read it carefully looking for some instructions or description of such process. I found nothing.

I did the only thing left: I went to the search menu at the top of the page and I typed: “credentialed interpreter process”. The search took me to a page with all the results. At the top I saw one that looked like the information I was looking for, so I clicked on it.

I finally found the explanations and instructions, with a link to a form to start the process. The first thing the program asks you to do is to reenter your ATA membership information. Once you are in the form, you are greeted by a message in red that tells you to submit a separate form for each credential and that you must pay $35.00 USD. As an attorney I must confess that although the red-inked message clarifies that one fee covers all requests, it is ambiguous on a second matter: it reads: “A $35-administrative fee covers all requests for one year.”  I did not understand if this means that for your information to continue to be available indefinitely you must pay $35.00 USD every year, or that any request filed after twelve months is no longer covered by the initial $35.00 USD fee and therefore you must pay again for the new credential.  Finally, I also learned that the process could take up to something like forty days.

After reading this, I stopped for a minute and reflected on what I was about to do: I was ready to send $35.00 USD to ATA (with my documentation) to be a part of this new database, but so far I had had a miserable time looking for, and finding any colleagues with the desired credentials; so far I had found zero conference interpreters. I even had a difficult time finding the instructions to get my credentials reviewed.  My friends, I am pretty active on social media, and even though I am not a computer genius, I am resourceful. Can you imagine how tough it would be for a regular individual looking for an interpreter to navigate through these? Even if I do this, send the documents, pay the fee, and wait the forty days, will my clients find me?

I concluded that I had to do more research first, so I did.

I went back to the directory and tested it:

I did this trying to think like a client and not like an interpreter or an ATA member. The first thing I noticed was that to look for an interpreter, the person doing the search must go through the translators’ section of the advanced search; they must scroll down passing through a section with very confusing questions for somebody who, let’s say, wants to hire an interpreter for a marketing conference at the Marriott downtown. Without being an interpreter, I would not know what to do when asked to indicate if I want an ATA certified or non-certified translator, or what translation tools I will need. As a client, even before reaching the interpreter questions, I would probably close the page and look for a conference interpreter in Google or somewhere else.

Since I had already tried Illinois and California with a result of zero interpreters, I looked first for any conference interpreters with an English<>Spanish combination, with a U.S. Department of State Conference-Level credential in New York State. The result was: none. Then I did the same thing for Washington, D.C. (where most conference interpreters live) Again there were zero. I got the same result in Florida and Texas. Next, I searched the same states for any interpreters with the same combination, but with the AIIC membership credential. The result was: nobody. I considered doing the same for every state in the Union, but (fortunately) I decided against it. Instead, I looked for any conference interpreters with any credential and living anywhere in the world. The result was: 2 interpreters. One U.S. Department of State Seminary-Level colleague in the United States, and one AIIC member in Argentina!

Based on these results, I looked for interpreters in all listed categories. I found this: Under certified court interpreters I found 10 colleagues. Under Healthcare certified I found 4 (2 were also listed as part of the 10 court certified). Under conference credentials I found 2 (one of them is also one of the 11 under court certified). I found 1 telephonic interpreter (also found under another category), and I found zero sign language interpreters.  Looking for simultaneous interpreters I found 10, under escort interpreters I saw there are 9, and as consecutive interpreters they have 14. As expected, all interpreters under the modes of interpretation categories are the same ones listed by specialization. I also noticed that some interpreters I found in this group are ATA Board members.

The page also asks the person doing the search to state if they are looking for a “consecutive, court, escort, sign language, simultaneous, or telephonic” interpreter. My relevant question was stated before in this post, but it is worth repeating for another reason: If I am a client looking for a conference interpreter, how can I find one under this criteria? Ordinary people do not know that conference interpreters do simultaneous interpreting. Even worse, they also do consecutive interpreting in many events such as press conferences for example.

If people we deal with regularly have a hard time referring to consecutive or simultaneous interpreting by their correct name, why would everyday people looking for a conference interpreter know who they need based on this question? If ATA included “court”, and even “telephonic”, they should include conference. Once again, I am sure my healthcare interpreter colleagues want to be heard here as well.

After reviewing the directory my decision was simple. Why would I want to pay $35.00 USD, and perhaps wait up to forty days, to be part of a directory listing a microscopic portion of the interpreting community? Should I encourage my clients to look for a credentialed conference interpreter in a directory that does not even list us as an option, and flatly ignores conference interpreting in their most common questions section, where all explanations and examples are geared to court and telephonic interpreting? And why as interpreters should we reward the work of an association that continues to treat us as second-class professionals by including the interpreter search criteria after the translator search options, instead of having two separate search pages: one for interpreters and one for translators to make it easier for our clients, and to give some respect to the many interpreters who are ATA members? There is no excuse or justification for this.

I know there are plenty of capable people at the helm of the American Translators Association whom I know and respect as friends and colleagues. I also appreciate many of the good things they do for the profession, but at this time, for all these reasons, until we interpreters get from ATA what we deserve as a profession: Unless the search criteria and credentialed interpreter designation process is as prominently displayed on the website as is the translators’ certification; and only when the search criteria addresses the conference interpreter community on a client-oriented, user-friendly platform, I will stay away from the “advanced-options” directory. I hope this post is welcomed as constructive criticism, and as the voice of many interpreters all over the world. It is not meant as an attack on anybody; it is just an honest opinion and a professional suggestion from the interpreters’ perspective. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about such an important issue for all interpreters and for the image of ATA.

Are incompetent bureaucrats scaring away good interpreters?

April 10, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Today we will discuss a delicate subject that cannot be avoided as it impacts all freelance professional interpreters. I am talking about the cost of doing business versus the unreasonable cost of doing business. All professionals know that freedom and independence come with a price and we all know that we must pay it to enjoy the best things in life. It is called the cost of doing business.

The time an interpreter spends developing a client base talking to the best prospects in person, sitting in front of a computer answering their questions, or chatting with them over the phone takes part of our time, and for those who sell personal professional services time is money.  Administrative chores such as printing glossaries, mailing documents and buying office supplies are also part of this cost of doing business. So is invoicing.

Getting paid for services already rendered could be a full-time job unless we are organized and develop a billing system that is accurate, user friendly, and does not take too much of our time. Morose payers, crooked client, and banking mistakes are unavoidable, they will always be there and we must factor them in as part of our business. We consider all these factors when bidding for a contract or providing an estimate. The thing we cannot factor in, and we must stay away from are never-ending bureaucratic proceedings filled with nonsensical steps and inspired by the most pure form of institutional chaos and individual incompetence.  We can encounter this condition anywhere, but it is frequently found in government invoicing procedures.

We are all familiar with the long government invoice forms requesting absurd, and often repetitious, information. Nobody likes them, but sometimes the importance of the contract, or the monetary reward, for jumping through all the hoops justifies the sour moments.  The unforgivable part is when interpreters go through this enormous waste of their time, answer dumbness award-winning questions from a bureaucrat, are disrespected, and what they collect is worth less than the time and energy spent navigating the bureaucratic maze of mediocrity.  This is where we must draw the line.

All governments have obsolete, and often outdated, systems and procedures to pay interpreters. This is clear in the judiciary. You all know of puzzling methods followed by your respective states to pay you for work you did sometimes two or three months earlier. Once they realized they were losing money by working with a court system, some interpreters quit working with these clients, while others thought about it, but for different reasons: real financial need, fear, or ignorance, they remained as contractors for that court system. I stopped working federal cases with Criminal Justice Act appointed attorneys (CJA) two years ago when they changed to a system that injected the attorney as an intermediary between the service provider (interpreter) and client (courthouse) and never regretted the decision. I was losing more money doing paperwork and chasing after CJA attorneys and courthouses than the fee generated by my interpreting services.

I understand that to leave that work or stay and take it on the chin is a complex personal decision that only you can make. I also know of the fact that government agencies will always move slowly and have endless checks and balances because of their work volume. This makes it harder to decide what to do; unless there is a case so full of abuse and lack of respect for the interpreter as an individual, or our craft as a profession you have no choice but to get out of the zest pool before you are permanently harmed. This is what I am told has been happening for some time in a particular state.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you remember other occasions when I have written about irregularities in several court interpreter programs at the state-level, including this state, but this time the stories have a human aspect I could not keep to myself.

Sometime ago, this state adopted a billing system similar to the one used by other states (and non-judicial government agencies) that required certain information from the interpreter and some data about the work performed. In that state, interpreters are paid by the hour with a two-hour minimum guarantee (and a bunch of bizarre rules requiring the interpreter to travel to other cities and counties within the guaranteed period of time we will not discuss in this post). The billing system asks interpreters to enter their time, including the time when the “proceeding” ended. The billing system is confusing and it takes some skill and time to understand it and use it correctly. There is no technical help available on line from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts as far as I know.

As we all know, interpreters are busy interpreting, understanding the culture of the foreign client, and in a court setting they are also paying attention to their surroundings to protect their physical integrity. And to any regular human, the requirement of reporting the time of an assignment and writing down when the “proceeding” ended would be met by entering “3:30 pm”.  In the dark dungeons of immeasurable insanity, an invoice can be rejected if I entered “3:30 pm” and the recording machine that keeps the record shows it ended at “3:24 pm”. The invoice will be sent back even when the times coincide because I entered “3:24 pm” instead of “15:24”. Dear friends and colleagues: They want military time!

You can see that the billing system is twin brother of the bizarre, and it could be intimidating for some colleagues. Depending on where in the world you come from, certain things can make you uncomfortable. Add to it the fact that, in the opinion of many, the staff in charge at the Administrative Office of the Courts (where there is not a single certified court interpreter) is not known for their warmth or devotion to the interests of the interpreters or the well-being of the profession, and you can get situations like the one of a very well-respected interpreter who I have known for many years, and strikes me as a professional and dedicated colleague.

This individual is an interpreter in a language combination common in some parts of the country, but rare in a small state like this one, although there are many speakers of the language all over the state. He felt confused, embarrassed, and intimidated to where, after having some invoices rejected for petty reasons like the one above, he did not invoice the state for about a year. A rare language interpreter, actually, the only certified interpreter with that language pair in the State, worked for a full year without getting paid. Finally, when he sent in all of his invoices to the Administrative Office of the Courts, he was met with a bunch of one-sentence communications (I saw 44) rejecting all of his filings because of some nonsensical excuse. To this day, even without pay and after being disrespected, the interpreter continues to work within the court system because he knows he is the only interpreter in that language combination in the state, and he feels bad for the people who go to the court system seeking justice.

This is not an isolated case. A year earlier, the same thing happened to another interpreter whose invoices were also rejected for petty reasons. This interpreter, also one of the most professional in the state, reacted differently, and after being retaliated against by the Judicial Branch administrative authorities, he decided he had had enough and quit. He is now interpreting for the courts in a different state.  I was told by at least three interpreters that depending on the individual doing the filing, the same insignificant billing mistakes are often overlooked by the administration.  If this was true, it could have something to do with who the person filing the invoice is.  I will not get into that because it is a legal matter that interested parties will no doubt take to court.  The issue we are discussing here is the collateral damage that irrational billing requirements by federal and state-level judicial authorities are creating.

These actions, presumably adopted to protect the quality of the services provided, and watch over the taxpayers’ money, are scaring away many good interpreters because of the undue burden and lack of flexibility by often well-intentioned, but not very knowledgeable, government workers who apply these policies with no discretion or awareness of the damage they cause, and the money they cost to the state.  I for one stopped doing CJA attorney cases, one interpreter in the story moved to a different State, and the only certified interpreter in a rare language pair in the state may decide that he will not take it any longer and decline court assignments, forcing the authorities to hire out-of-state interpreters at a much higher cost to the citizens of the state.  I now invite you to share your stories with the rest of us, and if you fear retaliation, I assure you that your name, place of residence, language combination, and any other information that could identify you, will not be included in your comments.

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

Interpreting depositions correctly.

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Next to interpreting in a hearing, legal depositions are the most common professional service provided by court interpreters. They are in high demand, the field is full of potential direct clients, and they usually pay much better than an assignment by the court. With so many apparent advantages, the question that first comes to mind is: Why so many court interpreters do not pursue these assignments? And even among those who provide the service regularly, why is it that so few of our colleagues know what depositions are for, and how to correctly provide the service to ensure top accuracy and quality? Let’s see:

A deposition is the testimony of a witness taken orally (oral deposition) or in writing (interrogatories) outside open court, but in compliance with a court order or statute. It is a pretrial discovery device by which one party, through their attorney, ask oral questions of the other party or of a witness of the other party. It is conducted under oath or affirmation, without a judge, usually at the law office of one of the attorneys or at a court reporters’ office, and a word-for-word transcript is made. Interrogatories are answered in writing under oath or affirmation as well.

Depositions take place in both, criminal and civil proceedings and they are an extremely important part of the discovery process that takes place in an adversarial system, so that the attorneys of one party know what the counterpart or their witnesses will say during the trial. (Fed. R. Civil P.26 et seq.; Fed. R. Criminal P.15)

Oftentimes I run into colleagues who complain about “having to interpret” during a pretrial hearing “instead of interpreting during the trial”. My usual answer has to do with the importance of the pretrial motions and the discovery in general. I try to convey the concept that most cases are won or lost during the pretrial. Ascertaining the facts, excluding illegally obtained evidence, impeaching a witness based on statements made during a deposition, are invaluable as these legal actions and decisions determine what a jury will and will not hear at trial. A litigant exits the pretrial process with a strong winnable case or weakened by the discovery and pretrial motions argued before the judge.

Because of the importance and complexity of a deposition (and all pretrial actions and motions in general) it baffles me how extreme professional interpreting services can be at this stage of the process.

As depositions do not take place in the presence of the court, interpreting services for non-English speaking deponents are left to the professionalism, knowledge, and pocket of the attorney who represents the client. Because many attorneys seldom deal with foreign-language speakers, and for that reason know very little about interpreters and their services, they tend to seek the services of an agency, not for its quality or reputation, but because it was suggested by another colleague who had a case involving a non-English speaker in the past. For the most part the recommendation by the other attorney has to do with things such as: “they are cheap and they are quick”. Quality and experience are mentioned every once in a while.

We all know that, for the most part, there are no standards or policy regulating who can be an agency in the United States. This is an invitation to those with little to no interpreting knowledge to throw their hat in the ring and profit from this very popular professional service.

For the same reason: lack of basic quality standards, many paraprofessionals who unsuccessfully attempted to become certified court interpreters and failed, gravitate to this goose with the golden eggs where they will be on high demand by the above-mentioned ignorant agency owners who in turn will satisfy the requirements of the law office by providing interpreting services that are quick and cheap, regardless of their questionable quality.

But the landscape gets more complicated: For the same good reasons that bottom feeder agencies and paraprofessional interpreters are attracted to depositions, the best of the best in the world of legal interpreting participate in this market as well.

You see,  federal and state court systems retain the services of certified court interpreters, these professionals are for the most part better than non-certified, and from that point of view they are in demand. The problem is that the judiciary does not pay that well, with federal fees being half or less of what a conference interpreter makes, and under constraints of fixed fee schedules and budget cut limitations, the courts are less attractive to the very best in the profession. On the other hand, these top-notch court certified interpreters can negotiate with responsible and experienced law firms that value quality over rock bottom prices. This is the world of the direct client. Reputable agencies who handle big law firms and have a name to protect will also approach and retain these same high quality individuals. In fact, the field is so attractive that even interpreters from the highest caliber who usually do not work in the court system, and despite their vast experience and great skill have never pursued a court certification (but no doubt that candle these assignments because of their knowledge and capacity) provide interpreting services in depositions.

The result of all of the above circumstances and the participation of the wide range of individuals involved in this professional service is a reality where some depositions are interpreted at the highest possible level while at the same time many others are being butchered by paraprofessional interpreters, unscrupulous agencies, and careless lawyers. What a mess!

The good news is that, if they choose to do so, the best interpreters will be able to find good professional profitable clients whose clients will benefit immensely of a properly conducted discovery. The bad news is that many litigants, unaware of this reality, will trust the judgement of their advisers and end up with a defective interpreting service that most likely will impact the outcome of their case one way or another.

The solution to this problem, from the interpreters’ point of view, is relatively simple: stick to the good clients and ignore the bottom feeders. You do not need them, and they think they do not need you.

To me the biggest problem for the best interpreters who work depositions is, dear friends and colleagues, the alarming practice followed by so many of the top interpreters who accept to work alone in a deposition. Yes, I am referring to all of those who work solo, even when they provide services to the richest law firms in the world, including the work they do in very high-profile cases.

Team interpreting is a typical professional practice where two (or more) interpreters work as equal members of a team, rotating responsibilities at prearranged intervals and providing support and feedback to each other. This practice provides continuity and accuracy in the message transmission as it avoids fatigue and allows for word and concept checking during the rendition.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators of the United States (NAJIT) clearly spells out the function and the need for the second interpreter: “…The typical team is comprised of two interpreters who work in tandem, providing relief every 30 minutes. The interpreter engaged in delivering the interpretation at any given moment is called the active interpreter. His job is to interpret the court proceedings truly and accurately. The other interpreter is called the support interpreter. His job is to… (2) assist the active interpreter by looking up vocabulary, or acting as a second ear to confirm quickly spoken… 4) be available in case the active interpreter has an emergency; and (5) serve as an impartial language expert in the case of any challenge to interpretation…” (NAJIT Position paper Team Interpreting in the courtroom. Primary author: Andrew Erickson. 2007)

Scientific studies have shown that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of sustained simultaneous interpretation, resulting in a marked loss in accuracy. This is so regardless of how experienced or talented the interpreter may be. A 1998 study conducted at the École de Traduction et d’Interprétation at the University of Geneva, demonstrated the effects of interpreting over increasing periods of time. The conclusion of the study was that an interpreter’s own judgment of output quality becomes unreliable after increased time on task.  (Moser-Mercer, B., Kunzli, B., and Korac, M. 1998. “Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Vol. 3 (1), p. 47-64. John Benjamins Publishing Co.)

It is true that most reputable agencies and experienced law firms grant the solo interpreter, who is providing the services at the deposition, the choice to take as many breaks as needed. This is often the justification I hear from my colleagues as well.

I am glad that they get to rest their brain and voice every now and then, but it is not enough. There is no scientific conclusion as to how long the interpreter needs to rest before being back in optimum shape in order to continue the rendition with the same quality and at the same level as it was done at the beginning of the session. Obviously, the University of Geneva’s findings suggest that it takes about 30 minutes to get back to the top of your game.

I do not work under these “solo” conditions, but I could assure you that interpreters do not get a 30 minute break for every 30 minutes of service, and if they do, the attorneys would be better served by having a second interpreter actively interpreting during those 30 minutes. You see, it is a myth that having short breaks here and there will protect the interpreter and assure the quality of the service. This “solution” was developed to make everybody feel good even though nothing is really accomplished from the interpreter’s and the interpretation’s perspective. The only “positive” outcome of this solo work with “as many breaks as needed” has to do with the pocketbook of the law office and the profits of the agency. That is all.

But moving beyond that, there is a second, and equally important issue that goes unsolved without team interpreting.

Interpreting is a human task. It is extremely complex and delicate. Depositions present difficult situations that interpreters must solve in order to fulfill the ultimate purpose of the deposition: to ascertain the facts of the case, and to learn the unknown, to be able to ultimately prevail in court. In a deposition setting, interpreters need to understand and convey the message in two different languages, often spoken by individuals of different backgrounds, education, and willingness to disclose the truth. Interpreters need to find in their brain the appropriate scientific terminology, technical word, and regional expression that a deponent has used in the source language. The need to double-check a term, clarify an idiomatic expression, and research a concept are always present; In fact, they are the regular practice of the best interpreters who understand the relevance of the task at hand, and professionally look for the appropriate equivalency with the right syntax and grammar. This is not a job for one. Team interpreting allows the active interpreter to remain mentally fresh, while the support interpreter takes on other functions that would lead the active interpreter to cognitive overload.

For these reasons, it is universally accepted that team interpreting is the standard practice in courtrooms, conferences, international organizations, government events, and any other assignment that may last over 30 minutes. I only agree to do a deposition when I am working with a partner. My sense of professionalism, my reputation, my health, and my sanity, would not allow me to do anything else.

I invite you to stand up for what is right for you and for the profession. Just as you refuse to interpret a trial unless you have a partner, I encourage you to demand team interpreting in all depositions. It is only then that you will be living to the highest standards that a legal process requires. It is only then that you can unequivocally say that you did your best job at a deposition. Working solo, even if you take short breaks, will not relieve fatigue and it will not magically produce a support interpreter who will help you navigate the treacherous waters of legal interpreting.  I now invite you to share your thoughts on this extremely important issue and the terrible practice that permeates deposition interpreting.