September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments
On May 15, 2021 the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) released a study suggesting that an English-to-English exam might solve the shortage of healthcare interpreters in what they call “languages of lesser diffusion,” meaning languages other than Spanish, Arabic or Mandarin. The reason for this “sui-generis” affirmation is very simple: developing actual interpretation exams to test candidates on simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, and sight translation in both: source and target languages would be too expensive and therefore not profitable. Interesting solution: examine candidates’ English language skills (reading comprehension, medical concepts, fill-in the blanks, and what they consider can show the candidate’s “potential correlation with overall interpreting ability”: “listening comprehension.”) An English only exam will catapult an individual into an E.R. to perform as an interpreter without ever testing on interpretation!
What about native English speakers, who in the study scored an average of 87.9% compared to non-native speakers, who scored an average of 76.6%? No problem, says CCHI; passing score is 60% and Spanish language interpreters will continue to take the interpretation exam already in existence. I suppose the expectation might be that people who speak other “languages of lesser diffusion” in the United States have a higher academic background and their English proficiency is higher. Another point that makes this “solution” attractive is that most interpreter encounters in hospitals, offices and emergency rooms involve Spanish speakers, which brings the possibility of lawsuits for interpreter malpractice to a low, manageable incidence. I would add that many people needing interpreting services will not even consider a lawsuit because of ignorance, fear or immigration status. The good news: CCHI concluded that although this English-to-English exam option “is a promising measure…(it)…requires additional revision and piloting prior to use for high-stakes testing.” (https://slator.com/can-a-monolingual-oral-exam-level-the-playing-field-for-certifying-us-interpreters/)
Reading of this report and the article on Slator got me thinking about the current status of healthcare interpreting in the Covid-19 pandemic. How long will the American healthcare system ignore that the country is everyday more diverse and in need of professional, well-prepared healthcare interpreters in all languages? The answer is difficult and easy at the same time.
A difficult answer.
It is difficult because we live in a reality where every day, American patients face a system with very few capable healthcare interpreters, most in a handful of language combinations, and practically all of them in large and middle-sized cities. The two healthcare certification programs have poor exams. One of them does not even test simultaneous interpreting, and the other tests a candidates’ simultaneous skills with two 2-minute-long vignettes (one in English and the other in the second language). Consecutive skills are also tested at a very basic level with four vignettes of twenty-four 35 or fewer-words “utterances” each. It is impossible to assess somebody interpreting skills with such an exam after just 40 hours of interpreter training. (https://cchicertification.org/uploads/CHI_Exam_Structure-Interface-2020.pdf).
Except for those interpreters with an academic background or prepared on their own because they care about the service they provide, the current system provides a warm body, or a face on a screen, not a healthcare interpreter. Because the motivation is a robust profit, it is conceived and designed to protect the interests of insurance companies, hospital shareholders, and language services agencies. It has been structured to project the false impression these entities are complying with the spirit of the law; It is not designed to protect the physician or the patient.
In 1974 the United States Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin (https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2000/08/30/00-22140/title-vi-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1964-policy-guidance-on-the-prohibition-against-national-origin). The ruling was later broadened and implemented by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (https://www.ada.gov/effective-comm.htm) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) commonly known as “Obamacare.” (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/1557-fs-lep-508.pdf) This legislation specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for patients of limited English proficiency and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
An easy answer.
Despite the reality we face, the answer to the question above is easily attainable because the healthcare industry has immense financial resources and a system that lets them capture money at a scale no other industry can.
The healthcare sector deals with the lives and quality of living of all individuals present in the United States. Their reason to exist is to save lives, not to produce ever-growing dividends to its shareholders every year. This is an industry that spends unimaginable amounts of money in medical equipment, state-of-the-art technology, physicians, surgeons, nurses, therapists, researchers, attorneys, and managerial staff salaries. New expensive hospitals, medical office buildings, clinics, laboratories, and rehab centers are built all the time. This industry can spend top money in those sectors because it is good for business. It is an investment that produces a profit. I am not even scratching the surface of these expenses, but even if we ignore the money spent in food, gear, vehicles (land and air), utilities, clerical staff, janitorial staff, and medical aide positions, we can safely conclude this is an industry that knows how to spend money when an expense is viewed as an investment that will produce a financial benefit.
Designing good medical interpreter exams in many languages is expensive, paying professional-level fees to healthcare interpreters will cost money, managing a continuing education program will not be cheap, but the healthcare sector cannot cry poverty. They have the funds to do it. It is incomprehensible how a business that bankrupts its patients after one surgery or a chronic disease can argue with a straight face, they can only pay 30 to 50 dollars an hour to a medical interpreter. This is an industry that charges you fifty dollars for a plastic pitcher of water or twenty dollars for a box of tissue they replace every day.
Quality interpreting, and living up to the spirit of the law, cannot happen when an organization spends money to look for shortcuts such as testing English-to-English in an interpreting program. Only the promise of a professional income will attract the best minds to healthcare interpreting. Current conditions, including low pay, an agency-run system, and searching for shortcuts to go around the law will never produce quality interpreters.
If those deciding understand good professional healthcare interpreters are an investment as valuable as good physicians, surgeons and nurses, the solution can begin immediately. Designing and administering a quality interpretation exam will take time, getting colleges and universities to start interpreting programs that include medical interpreting will not be easy, but there are steps that can improve the level of interpreting services right away.
A higher pay, comparable to that of conference interpreters will immediately attract top interpreters in all languages, at least temporarily or part-time to the field. Many top interpreters see the need for quality services during the pandemic, and they feel a need to help, but they have to make a living and healthcare interpreter fees do not meet the mark.
Instead of thinking of English-to-English exams to create an illusion they are forming interpreters, stakeholders should recruit native speakers of languages where interpreters are hard to find, but they must stop looking for “ad-hoc” interpreters in restaurant kitchens and hotel cleaning crews, and start talking to college students and professors, to scientists and physicians from those countries who now practice in the United States. With current technology, hospitals should look for their interpreters among the interpreter community in the country where a language is spoken and retain their services to interpret remotely, instead of opening massive call centers in developing countries, using the technology to generate a higher profit instead of better quality.
Hospital Boards must find the money and allocate it to interpreting services. In these cases, such as Medicaid and others, the cost of interpreter services should be considered an operating expense. Insurers do not reimburse for nursing and ancillary staff. Hospitals and practices pay their salaries.
Payers may also benefit by covering interpreter services. Although data are limited according to the Journal of the American Medical Association Forum, studies suggest that when physicians struggle to communicate with patients, they are more likely to order unnecessary tests and treatments. This not only puts patients at increased risk, but also directly increases payer spending. Limited English proficiency patients may need care more frequently or seek treatment in more expensive settings, such as the emergency room, when they cannot communicate with primary care providers. Similar to insurers in fee-for-service arrangements, risk-bearing provider groups in alternative payment models face a similar incentive to curtail unnecessary or wasteful utilization. Poor interpreting services will also result in malpractice lawsuits against hospitals, language service providers, insurance companies and medical staff. In the long run, by far, this makes investing in quality interpreter services and interpreting education/certification programs a smaller expense. “Paying for interpreter services, from cost-based reimbursement, to their inclusion in prospective payment models, to insurer-led contracting of remote interpreters, would not only address the disparities exposed by the pandemic, but also help support practices facing financial peril due to the pandemic.” (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama-health-forum/fullarticle/2771859) It is time to grow up and stand up to the stakeholders in the healthcare sector; it is time to unmask the real intentions of language service providers who take advantage of often-poorly prepared interpreters to get a profit. It is time to have a serious healthcare interpreter certification exam that really tests the candidate’s interpreting skills. We need university and college programs, and a different recruitment system led by hospitals and insurance companies not multinational interpreting agencies, or ill-prepared small local players. Interpreters cannot be made in 40 hours and we can’t have newly trained interpreters learning at the cost of real patients’ safety. The pandemic showed us the importance of healthcare interpreting, let’s seize the opportunity to professionalize it.
August 9, 2021 § 10 Comments
There has been some misleading information on line about the income Spanish court interpreters can make in the United States once they are certified at the federal level. This is motivated by the apparent dates for the next certification exam; and I refer to these dates as “apparent” because, not surprisingly, there is no official information, notice, or update on the website of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This is not unexpected as lack of accountability kept in office the same people behind the last fiasco.
As a marketing strategy, some exam preparation vendors have said, or at least implied, that federally certified court interpreters make $418.00 U.S. dollars per day, which multiplied by 5 days a week gives you $2,090.00 U.S. dollars per week; and this amount, times 52 weeks in a year is $108,680.00
The daily fee for a federally certified court interpreter is correct. Federal District Courts must pay freelancers said amount when retained for a full-day of work in court. “Unfortunately,” this is the daily fee for freelancers, and independent contractors are not staff interpreters, they do not work for the courthouse 40 hours a week; they are only asked to work when needed, perhaps several times in a month in a “good month,” and usually they are retained for half a day, at the official fee of $226.00 U.S. dollars, not $418.00
Frequency depends on the caseload, but it also depends on other factors such as the place where the interpreter is physically located, the number of certified interpreters in the area, and other criteria developed by each one of the federal districts. A good portion of this interpreter requests are not to work in court, but to assist attorneys from an existing panel, appointed to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, in terms of the Criminal Justice Act, commonly referred to “CJA attorneys.” These interpretation services are paid at the same federal fees approved for court services above, most of these assignments are for half a day, and to be paid, interpreters must do some paperwork, ask the panel attorney to approve and file the invoice, wait until the lawyer gets around to do it, and then wait for the court to pay. In some districts the wait could be substantial.
Unlike state courts, there are few trials in federal court, even fewer that require interpreters, and most scheduled trials end up cancelled because the defendant enters into a plea agreement. In these cases, interpreters often get no money because of the advanced notice of cancellation, and in others, when there is a last-minute cancellation, interpreters get paid for just a few days, even had they set aside weeks for a lengthy trial that is no more.
Lengthy trials are paid as full days, and sometimes interpreters make an important amount of money, but traveling to another city for a federal trial can be tricky. The district court will reimburse all travel and lodging expenses incurred by the interpreter; the key word is “reimburse.” Interpreters have to buy fully-refundable plane tickets, paying for expensive tickets since “airline specials” are not fully refundable and carry many restrictions unacceptable to the federal government. Interpreters also pay for their hotel rooms (here they catch a break because they must get the hotel’s federal employee rate considerably lower that a regular fare) their ground transportation, and all of their meals. The courthouse will reimburse all the expenses after reviewing all invoices submitted by the interpreter, but reimbursement could take several weeks and even months (usually longer that a credit card payment cycle). Many interpreters turn down this out-of-town trial assignments. They cannot afford to advance such amount of money.
Some of you may be thinking: Why should I get certified then? The answer is, because interpreting in federal court pays better than most state courts, and it definitely pays better than most abusive agencies. The important thing is to understand what the federal certification is good for.
If your expectations are to make a high income by working for the federal court system as a freelancer, then you have to reconsider your options and think about applying for a staff court interpreter position in a federal courthouse. But if you value your freedom as an independent contractor, and you have professional plans beyond interpreting the same subjects for the same judges for the rest of your career, then you have to understand the federal certification credential is helpful when you know how to use it.
First, as a newly certified interpreter, you will gain a lot of experience. This is extremely valuable when you start as an interpreter and recognize when it is time to move on. By going to interpret at the federal courthouse, you will meet attorneys (not federal public defenders or CJA panelists) from big law firms who will hire you as your direct clients. Most of the law firms I am referring to practice civil litigation and corporate law. Working for these clients will eliminate most of your competitors, as most interpreters stay with criminal courthouse work. It will also challenge you to be a better interpreter as cases are varied and usually more complicated than criminal trials. You will also meet the attorneys’ clients, many multinational businesses and Fortune 500 companies, and they will become your clients for non-legal matters where they may need interpreting services.
If you stay in criminal law because of personal reasons, you can also target the big criminal law firms that handle private clients, among them businesspeople and celebrities that could end up as your clients. If you cannot gain access to these law firms and their clients at this time because of your lack of professional experience or due to your physical location, the federal certification will let you work with the United States Attorney where you can negotiate your fee and work conditions without being limited to the official federal fees (as with the court, CJA attorneys, and federal public defenders).
Working as a freelance certified interpreter in federal court is a great back-up income strategy. Sometimes, direct clients will be scarce. When this happens, contact your federal courthouse and offer your services. They may ask you to work on a day you have nothing scheduled. Under those circumstances, it is better to work for the federal full-day or half-day fee than state court fees, or abusive agencies. Just make sure when you work in federal court you act as a consummate professional, do your best work, and be courteous to all. Courthouse interpreter coordinators will appreciate the work you do, and will understand you are not always available because you are constantly looking for ways to be a better interpreter and move up in the profession.
I hope you now understand better what to expect from a federal court interpreter certification, its potential income and possibilities; and how, when done wisely, it can help you grow as a professional interpreter. You must get certified. Please feel free to share your comments with the rest of us.
July 20, 2021 § 3 Comments
Escort interpreting is a unique type of work. It is frequently exhausting, and often it is rendered under stressful or difficult circumstances. Long hours, picky clients, celebrities, noisy environments, could act as a deterrent to these assignments, but the interesting people, beautiful places, and memorable occasions pull interpreters into this work, sometimes provided as consecutive interpretation, and others as whispered simultaneous.
The difficulties above come to mind to many colleagues when considering an escort interpreting assignment, but what most interpreters rarely consider are the potential uncomfortable, and sometimes embarrassing situations we have to live through because of a word, gesture, or attitude of the client we are interpreting for.
Interpreters’ clients are humans, and they sometimes do or say the wrong thing at the least expected moment. Occasionally it is deliberate, often it is a mistake derived from ignorance and not bad faith; but several incidents are created by cultural differences that can be interpreted as bad manners, callousness, or aggressiveness.
As interpreters we must make quick judgements and decide how far we have to take these unintentional mistakes when interpreting.
Intentional insults, ironic comments, and disrespectful attitudes must be interpreted. That is why the client said it. The client wants us to convey that message with our rendition.
When the embarrassing situation is the product of an offensive comment or a remark our client made without noticing it, or perhaps due to the lack of understanding of the other person’s culture and traditions, we have to assess the relevance of the comment, and based on that judgement, interpret the remarks, soften them up a little, or even leave them out of the conversation. It is all a matter of relevance.
Irrelevant comments need not to be interpreted when uttered by mistake or out of ignorance. They add nothing to communication, and for no reason relevant to the discussion, they could create an obstacle to the success of the encounter. Let’s see examples:
One time I was retained to interpret an important business negotiation between the presidents of two Fortune 500 companies. During a reception before the first round of negotiations, the event’s host I was interpreting for approached the president of the visiting firm and his spouse; trying to be nice and welcoming, he greeted them, told them how much he loved their beautiful country, and asked them to recommend him a good beach for the summer. Nice conversation, right? The problem was that the visiting president’s country is land-locked! Instead of interpreting the question as asked, I simply asked for suggestions on places to see during a visit to their country. The question was irrelevant; nobody was offended, and everybody enjoyed the event.
During a formal dinner, my client was sitting next to a very important person from a not-so-wealthy, but very proud nation. Chatting about their children during dinner, the other person bragged about her children’s academic accomplishments, and how it would be easy for them to be admitted to the top university in their country. After listening to this narrative, that went on for several minutes, my client asked: “if your children are such good students, send them to my country so they truly get a good education.” I did not see a need for antagonizing the mother of these kids, so I softened the remarks, and said: “Your children are remarkable students, they could attend college anywhere they wanted to. They will get a great education.”
Under similar circumstances, remarks as the ones in these examples, and many others I have lived through, have been left out or softened up to make them more palatable to the other party. Comments irrelevant to the matter in question, such as: “I did not expect to find your country this clean,” “with such heavy traffic, I don’t understand why you don’t build better roads,” or “all I see on the streets are ugly old cars you never see in my country,” have been left out of conversations because they added nothing to the success of the encounter. Some say that when negotiating peace, a foreign envoy remarked in the presence of Russian Empress Catherine the Great that negotiations with a woman would never be fruitful; the comments were omitted by the interpreter, and peace was achieved.
As interpreters we have to be ready to react instantaneously when presented with these situations, and do our best to interpret what is being said, while recognizing the irrelevant, unintentional offenses, and leaving them out of the rendition. A rigid, inflexible interpreter would create chaos instead of facilitate the communication.
Please share your comments on this important, but rarely discussed peculiarity of escort interpreting.
July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments
Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.
I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:
The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.
This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.
The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.
More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.
There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.
Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.
Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.
Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.
Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.
I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.
June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments
September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.
These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.
The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.
Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.
Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.
This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.
Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.
May 3, 2021 § 6 Comments
Sometimes freelance interpreters face a scenario where a client agrees to pay a professional fee, and after the interpretation they refuse to pay, make a late payment, or try to pay less than the fee agreed by the parties. It is not unusual to hear from a colleague struggling to stay afloat as a business because of morose or dishonest clients.
The first thing we must do is assess the client before agreeing to the service, we have to do our homework, find out who the client is, what is their track record. This due diligence is essential to decide if we want to enter a professional relationship or not. The next step should be a negotiation where you listen to the potential client’s needs, establish your conditions, and give expert advice to the client. Once an agreement is acceptable to both parties, you must sign a contract, preferably your own, or the client’s when they require it, as long as all your negotiated conditions are included.
Many times, there is not enough time for a lengthy negotiation, especially when this assignment is short or urgent. When you find yourselves in this situation, negotiate by email, text, or over a telephone or video call. Do noy skip this step. Many times, there is no time to draft a lengthy, written contract; some clients have a less formal approach to their hiring practices. That is fine, but there is something you must do regardless of the situation or the client: You must have proof of the essential terms of the negotiation, in case you have to take action against that client. Let it be very clear I am not giving you legal advice; if you need legal assistance, please see an attorney in your jurisdiction. I am only sharing what I do in these cases:
Email or text your client, even if you were just retained and you are on your way to the assignment; even if you are on the phone with the client. Just let them know you are sending an email spelling out the conditions just discussed because you need it for your internal paperwork. This text or email must include all relevant terms of the agreement, and it should be short and straight to the point. Something like: “Per our recent conversation, this is to confirm that you have retained me to interpret “X” Conference (or other event) to take place in (city and country, or on “X” platform to be used if RSI) on (dates and times of the event). My fee will be “X” amount per day (up to 4, 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of service: distance or in-person) with an OT hourly rate of “X” amount after that, payable within (30, 45) days from the time I send my electronic invoice to this same email address, and a late interest payment of “X” percent if not paid on time. Please confirm these terms by responding to this email the word: “Confirmed”.
Then, in small print (to keep the email short) but before my signature, I add: “It is agreed by the parties that the recipient of this communication has 48 hours from the date of this email to reject its terms, and not responding to this communication within that time will constitute agreement to all the terms in this communication.” Once again, remember this is not legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have questions.
When a client does not pay by the date agreed in the contract, send them an email (never a phone call because you want to have proof of this communication) attaching your invoice with a legend stating “Overdue.” And politely “remind” them of the payment. This is enough in most cases. If the client cries poverty, or ignores you, wait 30 days or whatever is customary in your country but charge late payment interest. After that, you repeat the same 30 days later. If the client does not pay, then retain a collection agency. They will charge you to collect, but that is better than nothing. Finally, if this does not work, or if you prefer to skip the collection agency step, take the client to court. Sue for payment of your fees, late payment interests, court costs, and attorney’s fees (when retaining a lawyer). Most morose clients will settle at this time, but if they do not, move ahead with the lawsuit and get a judgement against the client. This does not guarantee you will collect any money, but will go to the client’s credit report. You should also take that judgement to the Better Business Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and local Consumer Affairs authority where the client resides. Next, report the incident and provide copy of the final judgement to the client’s professional associations (for disciplinary action) and to your local, national, and international interpreter associations so this client can be included in all black lists to benefit your colleagues. Finally, if applicable, share this information with the ethnic media target of that client’s business, and share it on your social media, just stating the facts, without editorializing to avoid any future complications. This will get your money most of the time, and will teach a lesson to those who violate your professional services contract. It will also send a message to others that you take your work seriously. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your policy to avoid this breach of contract, or to collect unpaid fees.
April 19, 2021 § 10 Comments
The post-Covid interpreting market looks very different from what we knew before 2020. Distance interpreting brought in globalization at an unprecedented pace, and with that a new set of rules that for now look like the Wild West. Much remains to be done, and many things will happen before the market settles down and we have a clear view and understanding of a more permanent, stable workplace; but for now, misrepresentations, ignorance, and opportunism, coexist with professionalism, quality, and experience.
The impact of false advertisement and entry of inexperienced individuals has been such, that even well-established working relations between professional interpreters and long-time clients have been affected to a degree.
My professional practice is now strong and steady, but in the last twelve months I experienced first-hand, three times, what this chaos and confusion can do to my business.
First, I was contacted by a long-time client to let me know that the annual assignment I have been doing for seven years was no more. When I asked if the event had been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, I was told the conference would be held on line, but it would be interpreted by other interpreters from a developing country charging less than half of my fee. The client told me that to them costs were THE priority, and no argument about quality, experience, cultural knowledge would make them change their minds. I understood. I had lost my first long-term client to a group of inexpensive interpreters with (in the words of the client) had zero experience in these events, but were “enthusiastic, energetic, and cheap.”
Several months later, I was asked by another client who has worked with me for over fifteen years to interpret a one-day event. It was a distance interpreting assignment on a topic I have interpreted often before. The event took place without incident and I invoiced my client. To my surprise, this client’s accounting department contacted me a few weeks later asking me to explain and justify the fee I had charged. The invoice was straight forward; in fact, it was identical to many other invoices I had submitted for similar services. It was a full-day fee. Nothing else. I replied to the accountants, and two weeks later I was contacted by my client. I was told my service rendered on that date did not justify a full-day fee because there was a 2-hour intermission after the first 2 hours and before the final two. I explained that such a service is a full-day because the interpreter is dedicating the full day to the event, including interpreting when the event goes over the first two hours. I also reminded them they had paid this way for years without ever questioning the charge, and the contract obligated them to pay for a full-day of work. The client listened carefully to my arguments and replied that they appreciated my services, but other interpreters who they had been hiring for other language combinations, all court or healthcare interpreters, were charging them by the hour, and they did not charge for the hours in between. We had a good conversation about conference interpreting, quality of the service, and meeting their needs. At the end of a long conversation, we agreed to continue our professional relationship as always, but the client express their hesitancy about replacing their other language combinations court and healthcare interpreters with conference interpreters in the immediate future. I did not lose the client, but it was clear they were moving away from conference interpreters in other less-commonly used languages.
My third experience concerned another very good client that comes with less frequency, but always with multi-day, high-profile assignments. This client sent me an email asking for my availability for a multi-day assignment. After I replied telling them I was available, they responded by asking me if I would do the assignment for a full-day fee about twenty percent below what I usually charge. My answer was no. I got another email a few days later asking me if I was still available, and willing to work for a full-day fee about fifteen percent below my normal fee. I said no again. A few weeks went by and I received a third email informing me that if I was still available, they had “found the funds” to pay me my usual full-day fee. I was available (the assignment was months later in the year) so I agreed to do the job. After signing the contract, I wondered what had happened, and it came to my knowledge from other sources (in the world of interpreting we discover everything sooner or later) that they had “auditioned” other interpreters willing to work for the lower fee, but the client was not satisfied with their performance. I was fortunate the client was looking for quality and they valued my services, even though they hesitated for a moment as they were tricked by the social media mirage we see every day.
These episodes make me wonder what is going on that interpreters will accept worse conditions than the ones offered 20 or 30 years ago. I believe it is fear:
Interpreters fear the client. Instead of starting a negotiation from a place of power, knowing the service they offer has quality, they fear clients will never call them again if they raise any issue. Interpreters fear saying no to a shrinking fee because they think all the work will go to those diving to the bottom, instead of shedding those clients and focusing on quality-seeking organizations. Interpreters fear saying no to long RSI hours because they think the platform will never call them again. They agree to these market-devastating conditions instead of considering taking the client to another platform or even staying with the same one, but working directly for the client without an agency-like platform in the middle. They are equally afraid of charging full fees for RSI cancellations; afraid of asking for team interpreting on depositions and other legal community interpreting events; they will not dare to charge overtime, or a higher fee for complex assignments that require many days of preparation, because they do not understand they do not need the agency if they go to the client directly: There can be interpretation without the agencies, but there cannot be interpretation without interpreters.
Even when there is a contract, interpreters are afraid of charging full-day fees when retained to interpret a few hours throughout the day, and they are afraid to stand up for their rights when the client cuts their fee after the service was rendered as I did in my examples above. Many interpreters sacrifice quality, and put their reputation at risk, hurting their opportunities in the future because they are afraid the client, and more frequently the agency, will be upset if they keep asking for materials, programs, and the name of their boothmates. They do not dare to raise their fees when everything else is going up, including their cost of doing business. Some colleagues willingly take low-paying jobs to post their assignments on social media, and keep quiet on the fee issue because they are ashamed to admit they worked for peanuts, instead of having the courage to denounce the job offer. When offered a rock-bottom fee or despicable working conditions, interpreters must turn down the agency or de-facto-agency platform and, unless contractually impaired, contact the client directly, offer their services and eliminate the middle man. When harassed by a platform or agency for not agreeing to draconian terms, interpreters should move on and look for a better option. There are thousands of agencies, and many interpreting-dedicated platforms that basically do the same. Yes, you may lose clients, as I lost one of three, but you will keep, and find better ones; clients that will let you provide a quality service, protect your health, and develop your reputation and brand for a better future. Let’s get rid of the fear and face the Wild West with courage, determination, and convinced that, unlike agencies, we are an essential part of the process. I now invite you to share with the rest of us how you have protected your market and reputation.
March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments
By now we all know of the challenges interpreters face in remote depositions, but when the deposition to be interpreted remotely involves high profile individuals, a large sum of money, and difficult legal and jurisdictional issues, additional considerations need to be addressed. I was recently involved in one of these cases.
I was part of a team of interpreters retained to interpret the deposition of a well-known individual involved in a very important multi-billion-dollar litigation with an army of attorneys virtually attending the event from three continents. A job of this nature presents very specific issues that can be grouped into three categories:
Issues with the deponent.
There are certain factors to consider when deponents are celebrities in the world of politics, sports, business or entertainment; things that would not be an issue when the person to be deposed is an ordinary citizen of the world. Tight schedules, avoidance of media coverage, deponent’s convenience, and star power have to be discussed and resolved before the interpreter commits to a date and time. Here, the complexity was exacerbated because the attorneys involved in the case were in three continents, with some physically participating in-person from the same city the deponent would appear. On top of multiple professional agendas and all factors above, time difference had to be addressed. At the end it was decided the deposition would take place at a time of the day when the deponent would be rested and alert. Because of the status of this individual, it was agreed to block ten straight workdays for the deposition. The event itself was expected to last one day, but there was no way to pin it down to a specific date. A ballpark date was all the parties could agree to. This had to be scheduled twice. The deponent could not appear during the originally scheduled ten-day period, so the event was rescheduled for another ten straight workdays two months later.
The second factor to remember is these deponents are difficult to interpret because they are very resourceful. It is expected that regular deponents be smart individuals with a sharp mind, and a sophisticated varied vocabulary; after all they are usually company executives or government officials. Celebrity, high-profile deponents have the above, plus years of experience with previous litigations, giving impromptu speeches, and they have the “star factor.” It is not uncommon to find attorneys who cannot get over the fact they are deposing their childhood heroes, role models, or favorite athletes or stars. This complicates things for the interpreter when deponents answer a question with a long, winded speech full of half-truths, equivocal affirmations, and little substance.
Issues with the interpreters’ client.
There were many attorneys involved in this activity, but only a team of lawyers from one firm required interpreting services. Some of these attorneys were physically present at the site of the deposition, most were virtually attending it from their home country. Because the deposition was scheduled to be taken in the deponent’s first language, and most attorneys shared that language with this person, even if they were not all from the same country, most interpreting details were overlooked until we raised them. The fact some attorneys are the gold-standard in their profession, they are known around the world, and they command a hefty fee, does not mean they know more about remote interpreting than a modest solo practitioner representing the victims of a traffic injury. We soon realized the attorneys had not even considered that the interpretation would be rendered simultaneously by three interpreters sitting at their own respective studios thousands of miles away. We explained how this works, and gave them the reasons why this could not be done over the phone with a long-distance conference call. This does not differ from the conversation interpreters have with their clients everyday all over the world, so why am I singling it out as an issue specific to high-profile depositions? I am mentioning it, because after we listened to our client’s concerns, and the comments and objections from the other attorneys that were not our clients (remember: we were working for one of three law firms) based on the multi-billion-dollar nature of the controversy, we could have easily recommended the most expensive RSI platform. We did not.
We did not ask for one of the dedicated, more costly platforms because it was unnecessary. This was a bilingual event with no relay. We saw what was the platform all law firms had in common, we agreed to communicate among ourselves through a separate platform like WhatsApp or Facetime, and we selected Zoom for this assignment. We had to request headphones and good microphones for all those involved, and everybody complied. The only other wrinkle we encountered concerned the lack of familiarity with the way interpreters work when providing distance interpreting. The client expected the interpreters would have their video cameras on during the deposition until we explained that in-person simultaneous interpreters work from a booth where nobody sees them, and when simultaneously interpreting remotely, the off video is the equivalent to the in-person booth. There were no issues or complaints after we gave the explanation.
Issues with the interpreters’ preparation, availability, and compensation.
Because of the complexities in a proceeding that started over a decade earlier and has been through different countries’ jurisdiction no less than three times; the amount of study materials; the needed research on the deponent’s career, personal life, and speech style; all terminology research and development of glossaries; possibility of last-minute cancellations; and number of days needed to be set aside for this deposition, even though the event itself would not last longer than one day, it was decided that all interpreters would be paid for full interpreting days on all booked dates, regardless of cancellations, postponements, or days of actual interpreting. There was no bargaining or hesitancy by the client. They immediately agreed to these terms because they perceived them as fair. Another critical issue was the availability of study materials early in the case; fortunately, the client provided all materials, and a list of internet links to more information early in the assignment, and they did it without us having to request it. Because the interpreter team has worked similar cases for a long time, coordination, assignment of tasks, and collaboration was not an issue this time, and it underlines the importance of working complex assignments with trusted, compatible, capable colleagues.
I know many of you are now facing these high-profile, complex assignments with RSI. I hope this experience and suggested pointers are useful and valuable to your professional practice. I now invite you to share your own experiences and suggestions when dealing with complex or high-profile remote depositions.
February 18, 2021 § 7 Comments
This is an article I wrote for the ITI. It was published several months ago, and I now reproduce it on my blog:
The pandemic has been an eye-opener on the future of the profession, and an opportunity to assess everything I was doing right before this crisis. During the last couple of months, I have strengthened my professional bond with my direct clients. Because of the uncertain future, and complicated present, I saw the need to contact my best clients with three objectives: To reassured them I am here to assist them at this time; to show them empathy and remind them I am going through the same difficulties they are facing to remain viable; and to advise them on their best options to deal with urgent matters using RSI until they meet in person again. COVID-19 showed me I did the right thing years ago when I looked for direct clients instead of waiting for the agencies to contact me. I validate this decision every time I hear how agencies are trying to lower interpreting fees; or how they are taking advantage by recruiting desperate or inexperienced interpreters willing to be paid by the minute. I see there is an RSI hype that, from the platform’s perspective is a total success. You can hardly spend a minute on social media without running into an interpreter bragging about their newly acquired skill. Unfortunately, I see how many of these colleagues believe that learning the platform translates into assignments and income. I feel sorry for them because nobody reminded them interpreters get hired based on the quality of their work and their professional experience. It breaks my heart to see how many are spending the limited money they have on expensive microphones, headsets, and even soundproof rooms. Isolation made me appreciate things I never considered before: genuine solidarity among professional colleagues, human contact, my time in the booth, talking to the client face to face, touring a venue before the event, crowded airports, hotel bars after the event, shaking the hand of a good technician in appreciation for making me sound good. Interpreters are social beings and there are many cultures in the world that will demand in-person conferences and meetings when it is safe to do it. Before the virus, RSI was a small business; now tech giants are pouring in their resources. It may be a matter of time before the RSI platforms interpreters are talking about are Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Finally, I learned two lessons: Some professional associations are helping us through these ugly days while others prioritized money over humans and are forging ahead with expensive conferences no one will attend. I learned RSI will get better every day and it will remain the choice for small and preliminary meetings. It will also be used by companies that could not afford in-person events before. We must decide the professional fees and work conditions we need and want. It must be the interpreter who gets the client, not the platform. If we do our job, there will be a bigger pie for all interpreters.