October 31, 2019 § 3 Comments
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that occasionally I write about issues part of the American culture that sometimes pop up during a speech and can be useful to interpreters in the booth that are not familiar with U.S. history or traditions. Every year I write about Halloween because it is one tradition everyone follows in the United States not widely known or understood abroad. You can go back to this blog’s archives and read the articles I posted during October on previous years.
This time, I decided to talk about a very popular and unique celebration in Mexico, and among Hispanics in the American Southwest: “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead).
The Day of the Dead originated before the Europeans arrived to the Americas. It was motivated by the view native people had of death and those who had passed away. Many celebrations varied from town to town. I will focus on the Aztecs because they were the biggest empire in what we now know as Mexico and the southwestern part of the United States, and because observing this holiday was documented by the conquistadors in the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún (originally titled “La Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España” _The Universal History of the Things of New Spain_) (Florentine Codex. De Sahagún, Bernardino. 1793. Laurentian Library, Florence, Italy).
Originally the Aztec Empire observed the Day of the Dead holiday during what is now the month of November. In its current, form it was included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 2008. It was a religious holiday dedicated to the god and goddess of the underworld (Mictlán): Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.
When a person died, their soul had to go through several obstacles before it could reach eternal rest. Mictlán (the underworld), was created by the gods of creation (Xipetótec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcóatl, and Huitzilopochtli) and it was divided in nine regions according to the manner of death. The House of the Sun (Tonatiuh Ichan) was reserved for those warriors who died on battlefield. Women who died during childbirth would go to Cihuatlampa; and Cincalco, home of the god Tonacatecutli, was the final resting place for those who died as infants.
The death of an Aztec was announced with chants and tears by elderly women. Next, the body was enshrouded along with its personal belongings and it was symbolically fed the most exquisite dishes. After four days, the body was buried or cremated. At this time the soul started its journey. For four years on the anniversary of the demise, friends and family members would hold ceremonial rituals at the site of the burial to help its soul on its way to its final resting place.
When the Spaniards arrived to Mexico, the holiday was replaced by the Catholic All Saints’ Day, to honor those who died as infants (Día de Todos los Santos), and All Souls’ Day, to honor those who passed away as adults (Día de los Fieles Difuntos) observed on November 1 and 2 respectively.
According to tradition, the souls of those who died come back to visit their family, and their living relatives greet them with an offering, on an altar, where they place a portrait of the deceased. They burn incense or copal (from the Náhuatl word copalli, meaning incense) an aromatic tree resin from the copal used as incense by pre-Columbian people during religious ceremonies so the deceased relative can smell it and find the altar where the family awaits. They also put veladoras (candles) to represent fire and light. They also help the soul of the deceased by showing them where the offerings in their honor are. Water and the person’s favorite beverage in life are on the altar, with cempasúchil flowers, the twenty petal flower, sugar skulls (Aztecs used real human skulls during their empire) and a special sweet bread called Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) named this way because it complements the sugar skull, as this bread is the representation of the skeleton of the deceased. Sometimes, cigarettes, paper ornaments in festive colors, and festive, funny poems about the person who passed away (calaveritas literarias) are also part of the offering.
This tradition is popular in Janitzio, an island in Lake Pátzcuaro (Michoacán) and San Andrés Mixquic, a former island in the middle of the now dry Lake Chalco, in southeastern Mexico City (Tláhuac Borough) where friends and family members go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and set up the offerings, including food and drinks, before they sit down and spend the night by the gravesite waiting for thee souls to come. During the night, family members do an “alumbrada”, the lighting of thousands of candles that make the cemetery glow. Although the festivities at these two cemeteries are now touristic attractions, seen by thousands who go to these towns from all over the world, this tradition can be seen in most Mexican homes and cemeteries, and in the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States where Mexicans and other Latin American groups observe the traditional offerings, and religious rituals.
In the 21st century, many people have combined the Day of the Dead holiday with Halloween. It is common to see families participating in both traditions in both, Mexico and the United States.
Next time you are interpreting, and a speaker refers to the Day of the Dead, or somebody asks you if it is the same as Halloween, you can now explain what it is, and you can tell them the difference between them. Because the Day of the Dead is observed in many countries throughout the world, I now invite you to share with us the traditions and festivities linked to this season in your country of origin.
October 17, 2019 § 15 Comments
The idea to write this piece came almost a year ago when talking to some interpreters I noticed a growing tendency to quickly move the still very young remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) from the studio to the interpreters’ homes. I conversed with many of my colleagues throughout the world, attended conferences where the topic was discussed, spoke with clients, event organizers, and I also had long, detailed conversations with lawyers and people from insurance companies.
RSI is a true achievement of science and technology, combined with interpreting expertise by some prominent interpreters. Many of its more serious technological issues have been solved, and we are at a point where quality interpreting can be delivered remotely when done as many of my colleagues and I understood it was supposed to be done.
My personal experience, and that of other trusted interpreters, show Interprefy and Kudo (which I have not tried yet) as the most user -friendly platforms, and technology is not the only reason. These platforms were carefully developed with great input from experienced professional interpreters whose comments, suggestions, and opinions were essential to the final product. Unlike others, from the beginning, the people behind these platforms understood RSI was a different way to deliver professional interpreting services; they recognized that quality interpreting can only be delivered when interpreters interpret under the most favorable conditions. Their success depended on getting the best human talent, optimal working conditions, and the best support team. They presented a serious, viable alternative to in-person interpreting by creating RSI studios where interpreters could work in a booth, as a team, and with the required technical support. This was a great idea and positive results came in in both cases. Up to here, everything was on the right path, with perhaps a few wrinkles to be ironed out, and we will talk about them in a moment, but with some of the biggest issues already addressed.
Unfortunately, sometimes greed, overconfidence, or lack of knowledge can cloud even the most successful vision, and it is happening now with these and other platforms: For all, or some, of the reasons above, those in charge of recruiting talent, or organizing events, are encouraging RSI from home. The idea of the studio where interpreters would work as a team sitting side by side in a virtual booth at a facility where technical support would be available has moved aside to leave a prominent place to remote simultaneous interpreting from the interpreters home or office.
I have attended conferences and other events where RSI platforms and agencies are actively recruiting interpreters from countries with emerging economies to provide remote simultaneous interpreting services from their homes. These colleagues are told of the professional and economic personal benefits of working big events, often otherwise inaccessible to them because of geography, by setting up a “studio” in their own house. They hear all they need is a highspeed internet connection, a professional quality microphone and headset, a computer, and two good screens. Sometimes they are told to condition a house room to be soundproof, which they are told, would be easy and inexpensive. These colleagues are offered fees well below those charged by interpreters in developed markets.
The above proposal is enticing and it sounds great to many interpreters all over the world. Some think of a little corner in their house that can be turned into their home studio; others believe that they are good at repairing things, or they know a lot about computers, so setting up their hardware would be a piece of cake. All that may be true, but it is like the worm on the fisherman’s hook, it looks good, but it also brings all kinds of hidden dangers to the individual interpreter. Let me explain:
The first thing interpreters considering RSI need to understand, and this also applies to those who only work at the RSI studio, is this is a new kind of interpretation. It is not conference interpreting, even though they both share many things as far as preparation and rendition. RSI interpreting requires interpreters do extra tasks they need not perform when interpreting a conference in a traditional booth. RSI interpreters must use a keyboard to communicate with each other, the tech support team, and sometimes the person directing the event. They read messages on their screens and hear things in their headsets traditional conference interpreters do not: “get closer to the microphone”, “do not move around that much because the microphone captures the noise and transmits it to the audience”, “we will run a sound test during the break”, are some instructions RSI interpreters will hear during an event while they are interpreting. They will also have to answer questions from technical support, the person directing/coordinating the event, and other interpreters from different booths, by typing messages while interpreting. RSI interpreting requires interpreters perform more tasks than those they perform when working a conference in a traditional booth. This is doable; interpreters can practice and accomplish these tasks, but the bottom line is that, compared to traditional conference interpreting, these interpreters are asked to do more work. We all would agree that more work = higher pay.
Contrary to interpreting agencies’ talking points, RSI interpreters should be paid more than their counterparts working in person. Agencies and organizers are getting their savings from avoiding travel expenses and setting up equipment at the venue. Interpreters should get paid according to the work they do.
Another issue of great concern to interpreters, not so much to agencies and event organizers, is the risk of acoustic shock. As many of you know, acoustic shock disorder (ASD) is an involuntary response to a sound perceived as traumatic (usually a sudden, unexpected loud sound heard near the ear), which causes a specific and consistent pattern of neurophysiological and psychological symptoms. These include aural pain/fullness, tinnitus, hyperacusis, muffled hearing, vertigo and other unusual symptoms such as numbness or burning sensations around the ear. Typically, people describe acoustic shock as feeling like they have been stabbed or electrocuted in the ear. If symptoms persist, a range of emotional reactions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression can develop. (http://www.hyperacusis.net/other-factors/acoustic-shock-disorder/)
We are talking about losing our hearing! This is a career-end risk that interpreters are not told when offered a job to deliver RSI from home. The dangers of this happening to any of us should not be taken lightly, but when working from an RSI studio, we can demand the best conditions to prevent an event that causes these incidents, and to minimize the impact of the event if it happens. All interpreters should discuss this risk with their clients, and demand the proper infrastructure and hardware to prevent a tragedy, including appropriate headsets for those colleagues without their own. This situation could happen when interpreting at the RSI studio, it could even happen during a traditional conference interpreting assignment, but the risk will be much smaller because the service would be provided in a controlled environment with the appropriate equipment. When working from home, interpreters have no control over these dangers: power supply fluctuations, solar flares, weather-related factors such as electric storms, satellite trouble, internet or telephone system failure, are all risk factors interpreters are exposed to when working at home. Remember: this can be a career-ending event, or at the least a very expensive medical treatment, coupled with loss of income due to a long period of interpreting inactivity due to poor hearing. Interpreters need to make sure these issues are discussed with their clients and covered in the professional services contract.
There are many other concerns derived from RSI interpreting at home: Interpreters are professionals and they are expected to do their job: Interpreting, researching the subject of the conference, adapting their delivery to cultural considerations to make communication happen between those who do not share a common language. They are also expected to prevent and solve language-related problems that may come up during their rendition. They are neither equipped, nor expected, to deal with technical difficulties or problems derived from the installation or performance of the interpreting equipment, sound system, or any other non-linguistic or cultural issue. Interpreters are not mechanics, electricians, sound engineers, telephone repairmen, software engineers, or IT experts. Even those who claim to be “amateur experts” do not have to be so. These services are needed to deliver interpreting services, but they are not provided by the interpreting team.
Because technology is so important in RSI, and because interpreters have limitations, the only way to guarantee (to a high degree) a successful event is by delivering the interpretation from an RSI studio where interpreters wit side by side and work as a team, and technical support is on site.
There are other considerations that are as important as the ones so far expressed in this section, that cannot be satisfied to professional quality when interpreting takes place in a house, office or apartment. Interpreters do not have all needed equipment, and even if they think they do, it will probably be outdated. Technology changes so quickly that it would be practically impossible and unrealistic to expect interpreters to keep up with the latest products, and then acquire them at their own expense, and properly install them to be used at the next home RSI event. At home, interpreters are alone, there is no technical support, other than a guy a the other end of the phone line, trying to explain to a lay person how to troubleshoot, diagnose and repair a technical issue while the event is in progress, and the other interpreter takes over the rendition for an uncertain period, with all its unwanted consequences due to mental fatigue and additional stress, until the problem is corrected or the event has to be cancelled.
When working from home, interpreters do not have a boothmate next to them. There is no support/passive interpreter assisting with research, writing down figures, and so on; in fact, to communicate with each other, they must type a message while interpreting, adding another layer to the very complex task of simultaneous interpreting. There is also the possibility of having technical difficulties that may keep an interpreter from taking over when their turn comes up, leaving the original interpreter on the mike for potentially hours. There are also the mental and biological considerations. Because RSI happens worldwide, one interpreter could be working from her home in Tijuana, Mexico while the other could be in Fukuoka, Japan; a difference of 18 hours. One interpreter could be fresh and energetic while the other could be tired and fatigued because she would be working during the night. This differs from traditional interpreting when we travel to the venue and get used to the time change before the rendition. With RSI from home, one interpreter could be sound asleep and then interpreting a complex scientific conference 30 minutes later. This is bad for the well-rested interpreter counting on the exhausted interpreter; it is unfair to the interpreter who just woke up because she is now working during the night after working all day the day before; and it is bad for the client as the rendition will suffer.
One danger from RSI at home concerns national infrastructure. I see agencies and promoters recruiting interpreters all over the world; I have seen them selling the job to colleagues who work with less common language combinations, a very desirable resource to these agencies, but live in countries where the technology and infrastructure may not be at the level needed for a successful RSI job. Power outages are an everyday event in many countries; this would kill an event, or at least, leave one interpreter working solo because the other one will have no way to continue. Outdated telephone systems, sub-pair internet speed, unreliable infrastructure such as poor satellite coverage or cellular phone towers will also kill the event, or at the least deliver a low-quality rendition for causes with nothing to do with the interpreters’ performance.
Living conditions can be a real problem. A dog barking, a neighbor mowing the lawn, kids playing next door, or ambulance sirens from a nearby hospital could diminish the quality of the service. Unlike an RSI studio, a “sound-proof” home studio by an interpreter is not a professional studio.
Now let’s talk liability. Does the RSI home interpreter’s professional insurance policy cover RSI from home? Until today, I have seen no policy that covers such service; interpreter professional liability insurance policies do not even cover RSI at the studio. Period. The thing is, until there is clear coverage of this professional service, interpreters can argue that RSI at the studio can be equated to conference interpreting from the booth. Also, just like at the convention center, interpreting from the RSI studio falls under the agency’s or organizer’s liability, not the interpreters’.
This is a real issue and we need to talk to the insurance companies to make sure there is a policy that covers these new modes of interpreting. The premium will be higher, and we need to be ready for that by factoring in the new cost into what we charge for providing our services.
A lawsuit could put you out of business for good, and losing in court because of a power outage , a poor telephone service, slow internet, or a noisy neighbor, while the agency/organizer who transferred this liability to you by getting you to work from home, stays in business would be an injustice.
This problem does not go away, even when interpreting from a different country, half world away from the event. Some countries’ legislation allows the injured party (client) to sue you regardless of where you are from, where you live, or where you provided the service from. The United States is one of these countries. It is a matter of jurisdiction.
The law allows for long arm jurisdiction, so a court, let’s say in the United States, can admit a lawsuit against individuals or corporations not physically within the United States, as long as there is a connection to the country, such as the client, the venue, the agent/organizer, equipment manufacturer, etc. (Becerra Javier. Dictionary of United States Legal Terminology. English-Spanish. Escuela Libre de Derecho 2008). All that is needed is the commission of a tortious act within the United States or affecting an individual, organization, or corporation from or doing business in the United States (International Shoe Co. v State of Washington. 326 U.S. 310, 316, 66 S.Ct. 154, 158, 90 L.Ed. 95) These are some reasons why the United States can create a trade embargo against foreign nations. In the past, even when the parties had no apparent link to the United States, American courts have taken jurisdiction because of certain nexus to the country. Even if you are at home in South America interpreting a conference in Africa for a European client, if you used Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, INTEL, an American telecommunications satellite, etc., a judge could admit a lawsuit against you for professional malpractice or negligence due to a defective internet connection or outdated hardware at your house.
The United States follows a contributory negligence system, so even if the agency/promoter is sued, you could be sued as well for contributing to the problem by such things as providing this service from home without knowing about computers, remote interpreting, sound, the condition of your home electrical outlets, the last time you backed up your system, etcetera. Having professional liability insurance coverage that works in the United States will help, because even if sued, the policy will protect you to your liability limit. These are issues that must be discussed with insurance companies, and I believe that until there is a policy that clearly covers these legal situations, I would close the home office and go back to RSI from the studio. I have talked to several tort, malpractice attorneys and insurance company lawyers and they are all catching up. As of now, insurers’ efforts are focusing on how to deny you coverage under current insurance policies.
I understand there is much to be said and researched, including how long is the arm of the law, but for now, and until we know what we professionally, medically, and legally face, I believe the success and full acceptance of RSI in our corporate, academic, diplomatic, and governmental worlds should be handled with caution. This includes going back to RSI at the studio as it was once welcomed and cheered by so many of us. I for one, as an experienced professional interpreter, and as a lawyer, will limit my RSI practice to the studio with a real partner next to me. I will also continue to educate my clients and colleagues on the dangers of working from home, and will talk to many more lawyers and insurance companies about the lack of coverage. That will give interpreters peace of mind. I hope the prestigious platforms follow and those greedy agencies/organizers understand the enormous risk they are taking by continuing to foster home-based RSI. Please let me know your thoughts on this so dangerous risk many of our colleagues are taking without even thinking about it.
September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments
Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.
Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.
I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.
Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.
There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:
To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.
Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.
By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.
Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.
I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.
Who to vote for?
I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.
The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.
For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.
In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.
For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.
I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.
For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.
You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.
September 23, 2019 § 12 Comments
Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.
This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:
Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)
Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language. To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)
Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.
A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)
Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.
Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.
Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.
Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.
Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.
There are differences on the way the services are performed:
Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.
Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.
There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.
Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court. Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.
Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.
Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.
As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.
Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.
There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.
Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they are paid less money than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.
I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.
August 20, 2019 § 5 Comments
My job takes me to many places all over the world, this means constant traveling by air, and sometimes by land. Transportation is very important and it is key to my performance as a professional interpreter. Recently, some of my travels have taken me to three continents where I have attended professional conferences where I saw many of my friends and favorite colleagues. As always, the conversation took us to a common topic: traveling. We shared how we got to these conferences, and then I realized that most interpreters I know live in a market at least two-flights away from conferences, business meetings, and international events. They all had to travel longer and spent more hours at airports waiting for connecting flights. I immediately thought of how difficult it must be for them to get to an assignment. This is something I rarely considered before; they took twice as long to get to that interpreting booth they were now sharing with me.
I have lived in big and small markets. The difference is huge. We always think of small markets as unattractive for a professional career as an interpreter because of lack of opportunities: no assignments, no venues, no events; sometimes we also discard them due to the shortage of interpreters in less frequently used languages. These are all valid reasons not to live in such markets when your expectations are to find work where you live, but these markets are less than ideal for those willing to travel.
Living in a small market means you have to catch a plane to an airport that is hub to the airline you will fly, switch planes, wait for hours at the airport until it is time for your connection, and then you finally arrive. Some interpreters would even have it more difficult as they have to take three planes, or drive to the first airport from a smaller town where they live. Sometimes this means an additional travel day than those who will get to the assignment from a big city. These colleagues will likely travel on the first airline available because their market does not give them any options, therefore, they will be less likely to achieve airline status.
The biggest disadvantage for these interpreters is their availability. They cannot take as many assignments because it takes too long to get to the venue; and even when they arrive, they will be more tired than their colleagues who took a direct flight and slept on the plane, avoided the stress associated with catching connecting flights, and will have a much better chance to find their luggage at their destination than those whose bags had to be transferred from plane to plane. This is also very important for interpreters who work business negotiations and often need to be somewhere far away on short notice.
For all the professional reasons above, and mainly, because of its airports and geographical location, I chose Chicago as my operations center. The city has two of the largest, busiest airports in the world, and especially O’Hare International Airport offers me options no other airport can offer me in the United States. Chicago is the only city in the United States, and one of only five in the world (London, Johannesburg, Doha, and Dubai) with direct flights to all continents except Antarctica (https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/chicago-international-flights). It is hub to the two biggest airlines in the world: #1 American Airlines, and #2 United Airlines; it is hub to the biggest discount airline in North America: Southwest Airlines, and it is a focus city for Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, and; O’Hare International Airport is considered America’s best-connected airport.
These are the top ten airports with the most connectivity:
- London Heathrow Airport
- Frankfurt Airport
- Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
- Chicago O’Hare International Airport
- Toronto Pearson International Airport
- Singapore Changi Airport
- Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
- Kuala Lumpur International Airport
- Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
As professional interpreters, we need to get to the place of the assignment stress-free, and as soon as possible. Traveling wears out your body, it tires your brain. We need to be at the site of the assignment rested and mentally sharp. Direct flights help us do that. Even with the growth of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) big cities will continue to have a competitive advantage over smaller population centers. Shortage of interpreters in many languages other than Spanish and other Western European languages; and lack of facilities where (RSI) interpreters can go to a virtual booth and work side by side with a colleague and a technician, will limit the options of these interpreters in outline areas. I personally do RSI, but I will not do it at home, without a boothmate and on-site technical support, left to my own technical skills to troubleshoot a problem, and hoping for the best as far as internet speed, connectivity, background noises, etc.
The way to get to the next professional level must include living in a big city, and to succeed in the private sector, you need the competitive advantage of having an airport that puts you one flight away from practically everywhere in the world. I now invite you to please share your comments on this important issue.
August 6, 2019 § 3 Comments
Getting a college degree is no minor accomplishment, but in most countries, you need a certification, license, or patent to practice your profession. Interpreting is no different.
Unfortunately, a degree and a certification do not guarantee you anything. We live in a globalized society where only the best will reach success. Interpreters work with languages and human knowledge, both characterized by their constant, eternal change. Modernity brings changes in science and technology, and globalization makes all interpreters your competitors, regardless of their location. Continuing education is as essential to interpreters as the air they breathe.
Continuing education costs money, and interpreters need to spend time studying instead of earning a living. When faced with the need to continue our professional education to survive in a market economy, we have to be very careful as to how we spend that hard-earned money. At this point in their careers, interpreters have spent large amounts in their education: College and certifications were not cheap, and now it is time to decide how we will invest our financial resources, and our time, to further our professional development.
Continuing education is an interpreter’s need, but it is also a business. We will now look into some options out there, describe what we need, and provide a profile of fraudulent and poor-quality programs that exist.
The first question to ask ourselves is: What do we need when we seek continuing education? We need to keep a certification or license current; we need to pass an exam, we need to get certified, or we just need to learn and improve to succeed.
To achieve these goals, we need to seek education in five fields:
2. Our specialty area
We also need to stay up to date on current events and accumulate general knowledge.
There are several ways to get the education we need on these areas:
By entering a structured education program in a college or other higher learning institution to get a post-graduate degree; by attending summer courses for those who cannot be full-time students. There are also one- and two-week diploma/certificate programs, weekend workshops and presentations by professional associations, universities and colleges, agencies, the government, and well-known professional interpreters who teach.
There are also international, national, regional, and specialized conferences by professional associations.
Webinars by professional associations, universities, and professional interpreters are another source of education (ATA, IAPTI, eCPD, and others) and individual mentorship or internship programs with experienced interpreters as mentors.
Some colleges, professional associations, and experienced interpreters offer a virtual classroom experience, and this is where we see a higher risk to end up with a poor-quality workshop by an unknown interpreter turned instructors. Although some of these programs may offer continuing education credits, they are of little use in a professional life.
Because of the blog, many friends and colleagues contact me to let me know of workshops, seminars, and courses they regret taking. Most include at least one of these characteristics: The instructor is an unknown interpreter considered a “local hero” where he works and lives. These people have secured a local market as “instructors” because they have been around for a long time, or due to their impeccable social skills that have positioned them within a sphere of influence of judges, court administrators, school principals, and others. The classes are held at a person’s home or office, without a proper learning environment and with very few resources. Sometimes the instructor has her children at the venue, and occasionally, the workshop takes place at the same location where other activities are happening, such as a community theater, religious activities, or sporting events. At these courses enrollment is way less expensive than at legitimate programs.
Often a workshop could cost as little as an admission to the movies. Maybe these so-called “continuing education” programs are offered overseas in a resort, and they are handled as destination events or a family vacation instead of a professional event. I suggest you think long and hard before enrolling on a professional program run by a travel agency, or a workshop advertised in a brochure that describes tours, beach activities, and similar options side by side to a professional schedule. Finally, these workshops are often advertised in tacky signs, unprofessional poster boards, and online adds that are misspelled or improperly written.
Because we are in a very competitive market in a globalized economy that pushes us towards continuing education to survive and then excel, you must take care of your time and finances. Do your homework when going for a Master’s Degree or to attend a workshop to pass a certification test. Always select a program that covers the subjects you want to study, and use common sense when selecting a service provider. Trusted colleges, recognized professional associations, well-known experienced interpreters will offer programs that make sense, are useful, and unfortunately, are expensive. When a class it taught by an unknown, the instructor credentials are questionable, the course takes place in a factory cafeteria or the basement of a church, and the course is cheaper than others, look the other way and avoid the workshop, even if it offers continuing education credits.
Study every day on your own, and try to attend workshops, courses and seminars that will cover the five fields above: interpreting, your specialty area, ethics, technology, and business. Attending reputable professional conferences at least once a year may let you cross off your list two or more of them. Remember, look at the program and mistrust conferences that publish the program at the last minute.
Often a local conference may offer what you need. Sometimes you need not travel long distances to get your continuing education. I now ask you for your comments and experiences with good and not-so-good continuing education programs.
July 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
Several weeks ago, the president of Mexico held one of his daily press conferences in Mexico City; on this occasion, Jerry Rizzieri, General Director of Mizuho Securities spoke of a credit his bank and others granted to Mexican state-owned oil company PEMEX as an attempt to rescue it from the enormous debt it faces. The event was important for the Mexican government and its president who has vowed to make the oil industry a key component of the Mexican economy. Rizzieri briefly spoke in English, and his prepared speech was sight-translated as a consecutive rendition not by one of the magnificent interpreters that regularly work with the Mexican president, but by Mexico’s Foreign Affairs secretary Marcelo Ebrard. From the moment Jerry Rizzieri stood up and walked towards the podium, Secretary Ebrard followed as if this had been planned ahead of time. The speech was a simple thank you written speech similar to the ones by those who win an Oscar or Emmy, apparently Ebrard speaks English, so there were no incidents except for the awkwardness of having the Secretary of Foreign Affairs sight translating a speech, and his obvious hesitation and confusion about the microphones.
Much was said in Mexico about the unfortunate episode, there was speculation as to whether the left-wing Mexican president, famous for cutting down on public expenses and reducing the budget, had used the services of the Foreign Affairs Secretary instead of retaining professional diplomatic interpreters. Some criticized the incident, others celebrated the episode; even interpreters wrote about it, both: for and against what happened. Opinions are always legitimate, journalists, interpreters, and the people may opine about the issue; but after watching the video, it is clear there were inaccuracies: First, Secretary Ebrard did not do a simultaneous interpretation; he did not do a consecutive rendition either. It is clear from the video that Rizzieri read from a written speech on the podium, and Ebrard did the same. The short speech could have been interpreted simultaneously or consecutively, but apparently government officers decided against it. It is false that you could not do at least a partial simultaneous rendition unless you had interpreting equipment. A diplomatic interpreter could have simultaneously interpreted the speech into president López-Obrador’s ear using chuchotage. Journalists and public would have not understood the speech, but it was a possibility at least for the president. (see minute 0:43 of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLcxFj-sX_s)
The biggest problem was the lack of professional interpretation, not just for Rizzieri’s speech, but for the event. The president spoke Spanish, and from the video you could conclude that not a word was simultaneously interpreted from the booth, leaving Mr. Rizzieri and his entourage without understanding what was said during the event.
You cannot defend what happened just saying it was a great move that saved taxpayers money by not hiring interpreters for this event. You cannot excuse it by arguing this was an informal event that, due to its brevity, did not justify retaining interpreter services because Secretary Ebrard speaks English.
Far from it, this was an insult to the foreign bankers who traveled to Mexico City to bail out PEMEX. C-Suite executives of international corporations, such as these banks, are used to meeting foreign dignitaries, attend official ceremonies, and speak to their counterparts aided by interpreters. It is likely (at least we hope) that meetings and negotiations took place in the presence of interpreters who make communication possible between the parties. Not having interpreters for the negotiations, or having them, but dismissing them before the press conference was a sign of incompetence, and a show of disrespect to the foreign visitors and those watching the press conference without a professional interpreter. No, this was not cute, this put the office of the president of Mexico in a very uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, it also confirmed rumors and stereotypes circulating outside Mexico. Professional diplomatic interpreters exist for a reason, they are qualified to bridge the communication gap between two or more parties, respecting the other party’s culture, and this way contributing to the harmonious relations among nations and individuals.
No, this was not a job for the secretary of International Affairs, and no, this cannot be addressed by having a pool of interpreters who volunteer their professional job to interpret for the richest level of the government they pay taxes to. These events require professional, experienced interpreters retained by the Mexican federal government, who are paid like the professionals they are. Anything short of that sets the profession back to the dark ages, in this case interpreting in Mexico. I now invite you to share your comments on this issue or similar experiences you have seen in other parts of the world.
July 11, 2019 § 13 Comments
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know my position regarding California’s AB5 bill that will benefit independent contractor interpreters who are currently prey to abusive practices by many agencies that treat them like employees but provide no labor benefits in that state. If enacted into law, this legislation will protect those who cannot move or seek other sources of work due to personal circumstances such as a sick child, and elderly parent, or unaffordable individual health insurance coverage. (For more information, please see my post of June 12).
I have no problem with those colleagues who, acting as small business owners, not professional interpreters, seek to influence the legislature and kill the bill. They have a legitimate right to do so, just like I exercise my right to support the bill and advocate for its passing.
The situation turns problematic when an association the size of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) apparently injects itself into a controversy that affects many of its members on both sides of the bill, and throws its support behind one sector of its membership: the agency owners.
It concerns me that a national association decided to participate on a state-level issue in a way that goes beyond its mission to advance the quality of the services provided by its membership, and the professionalization of interpreting, and decides to adopt a position fueled by the commercial interests of some of its small agency members, and those who have listened to the one-sided arguments by these businesspeople, and erroneously think the legislation would harm them. A professional association should concern itself with continuing education, position papers, and support of its membership’s efforts to become a recognized profession, not a commercial entity or a merchant guild. It should not support the other side either.
Independent contractor interpreters have the support of the California Labor Unions and Guild; Agency owners are represented by the Association of Language Companies (ALC), an entity conceived to advance their business interests, not the professional status of individual interpreters or translators. On this issue, agency owners who are NAJIT members should turn to those who share their interests in ALC.
Professional associations should refrain from taking positions and acting on behalf of a membership segment at the expense of another. From the beginning of this controversy, at the time of the Dynamex decision, the American Translators Association (ATA) took itself out of this issue by announcing they would not take sides. That was the right decision, they did not put some members over the rest.
The second thing that troubles me is the way NAJIT got involved in this issue. The membership was not informed of any discussion about this support; as far as I know there was never a Board meeting to deal with this issue. No decision was ever made, and the Board was not consulted. For all these reasons, it is very disconcerting, and extremely troublesome to see NAJIT’s Chair actively participating on these actions through social media, by letting others use the name of NAJIT in a way the public could think the association and its Board were behind these efforts, and (according to social media) by actively attending the legislature’s session, not as a private member, but representing NAJIT (there are social media posts showing her approval of these actions). In fact, to foster trust on the leadership, I believe Board members should remain neutral even as individual members of the association for as long as they are part of the Board. I have no way to know if any other members of the Board participated in such an unfortunate incident, because there is no evidence they did, but if this were the case, they would have acted ultra vires as well, and without discussing these actions as a Board.
Fortunately, the California Senate’s Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee passed the bill on Wednesday, and it now moves to the Appropriations Committee before it can reach the Senate floor. Assemblywoman Lorena González (D-San Diego), author of the bill, added business to business services to the list of exempted occupations. This can be used to escape the law by some of those who claim the legislation will put them out of business.
It is my sincere hope that NAJIT and its Board, thinking of its membership as a whole, publicly take a position of neutrality and clarify they will not support some of its members over others.
June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments
It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.
It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.
It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.
It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.
I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.
I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.
I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.
These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.
This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.
Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.
This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.
Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.