September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments
Lately, it seems to me that there are requests everywhere for interpreters to work for less and even for free. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the political campaign events in the United States, or the community organizers’ voter registration actions. Everybody seems to want a free ride. At first impression, it looks like these are worthy causes and we as interpreters should be on board; unfortunately, when you take a second look at the request, you start wondering what is really going on. You see, Olympic Games’ organizers ask us to provide our professional services for free, they tell us it is a righteous idea, it will help to bring people together, and it will contribute to world peace. Then you realize that the physicians, paramedics, attorneys, dietitians, and many other professionals involved with the Olympic movement are not doing their jobs for free, they are getting paid for their professional services. The same thing happens when you notice that the person asking you to volunteer your interpreting services to a political campaign or to a community organization’s event are paid staffers who do nothing for free. Something is not quite right.
Principled causes and ideas are great and we celebrate their existence, but professional services should always be remunerated, regardless of the virtuous cause they help advance. Otherwise, professionals should only get paid for awful, despicable activities. Under this criteria, healthcare workers should always work for free.
This reminds me of an occasion, many years ago, when a judge asked me to interpret a restraining order application form for free. When I refused stating that I would not do it unless I was paid for the professional service, the judge told me that it would be my fault if I refused and the victim was later harmed by the alleged perpetrator she was seeking protection from. He said that I was greedy.
Despite the fact that this judge was backed by an ignorant selfish interpreter coordinator at that courthouse, I immediately responded that my services were professional, just like the judge’s. I then asked him what kind of moral authority he had to scold me for not working for free while at the same time he was making a pretty fat check for presiding over the hearing. I did not interpret and I never knew what was of that alleged victim that a judge refused to help, because it was up to him to lend her a hand by just approving the payment of my professional interpreting services of the restraining order application. You see, it is easy to be a Good Samaritan when it is on other people’s dime, it is more difficult when it affects you directly.
It is easy to ask for volunteer work when you are getting paid for asking others. I have nothing against volunteer, charitable work, but it has to be on my terms. I am a professional just like the physician, or the judge of my story, I run my own practice and I have to generate an income to cover expenses and to live the way I want to live; in my particular case, I work hard and provide an excellent professional service to be able to live my lifestyle.
As professionals, we must never lower a fee to give someone a break because they are poor, needy, or just need a break to get back on their feet. You see, the day you agree to reduce your fee to a client, regardless of the motivation behind your decision, will be the last time you were able to charge your regular fee. From that point on, because everything gets to everybody’s ears in this world, all clients will always ask why you are charging them a full fee when you charged a lower amount to another client. It is a dead end with no return. It is a terrible business decision. I think you are starting to see why a lawyer or a doctor ask you to lower your fee for their “needy client or patient” while at the same time they charge them their regular fee. When someone asks you to provide a professional service for free or at a reduced fee they are belittling the profession; they are automatically placing you in a separate category from the one where doctors, engineers and accountants are. To lower your fee is a disgrace.
People, clients included should know that they will always be able to find someone else willing to work for a lower fee, but you are not that person. Your services are of the highest quality and that goes hand in hand with a robust fee. On the other hand, because we should have a spirit of social empathy and solidarity, we must provide certain services pro bono.
Please pay close attention to what I am about to say: As a professional, I am who decides when to volunteer my services, I decide the causes that are worthy of my time and effort. Professional interpreters should set aside a time for these free services, buy it should be at a time and place you decide; that way you can set the time aside when it does not interfere with your professional practice or your personal life. You should designate, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon to assist anyone who needs your services for free, and you should do it at a church, community center, or similar venue. During that time, chosen by you, you will interpret legal, healthcare, school or any other community situations that those attending the facility during the previously set hours many need. Once the time is up, and at any other time, you will only see full-fee paying clients. This is very different from living at the mercy of others who may want you to provide free or discounted professional services at times when you should be taking care of your professional obligations towards your paying clients. This will immediately put you on the driver’s seat and will make it clear to everyone that you charge for your services, and sometimes, when the cause is righteous, and on your terms, you provide services free of charge. By doing so, you are not lowering the professional standards, you are not harming your own practice, and you are not insulting the profession.
Next time that you are asked to lower your fees or to work for free because the client deserves a break, stand firm on your regular fees, and if you decide that you want to provide a service for free, not discounted, then let that person know the terms of your pro bono services. I ask you to please share your thoughts on this very delicate issue that is vital to us as individuals trying to make a living, and to the profession at large.
September 6, 2016 § 9 Comments
Let me start this entry by saying that I am a strong supporter of continuing education for all interpreters. I know that the topic is somewhat controversial and some colleagues believe that it is unnecessary to have an organized practice of checking on colleagues who have already graduated from school or achieved certification or accreditation. I have been contacted by colleagues telling me that they consider continuing education a waste of time; that they are already certified or accredited and there is no other professional level above that; they have said that there is nobody out there who knows enough to teach anything to interpreters that are already at this level.
There is another group of colleagues who believe that continuing education is just a way for some interpreters to make money from teaching others what they can learn on their own; Some even claim that it creates a false sense of insecurity and need to take a seminar or a workshop, especially when these courses are sanctioned or even organized by government agencies or professional organizations.
Finally, there is the position of others who acknowledge the value of continuing education, but oppose it de facto when they state that as a policy or program, continuing education is too expensive to run and control. That there is not enough money to do it, and for this reason interpreters are not required to comply. This is the position adopted by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, the only court jurisdiction in the United States with an interpreter certification requirement that does not include continuing education as one of the elements to maintain a valid certification.
In my opinion, it is not possible to provide a truly professional service without preparation. Interpreting is a complex task that requires of sharp skills and huge amounts of knowledge.
The practice of any profession in a developed country requires that those individuals providing the service have a degree and a license, patent, certification or accreditation to show that they meet the minimum standards needed to work as a professional. Then, in order to keep said certification or whatever license is required, the professional individual must comply with continuing education requirements to guarantee society that they have kept up with the changes in their profession. Lawyers, physicians, accountants, engineers, teachers, and in many cases interpreters, must abide by these rules. Everyday more developing countries are following on these steps, and (in some cases with huge opposition from special interest groups) are beginning to require continuing education for their attorneys and doctors among many others.
Interpreters are aware of their reality: you need to study and prepare for a conference if you want to do a good job. Most colleagues would not disagree.
I believe that the need for continuing education becomes more apparent and crucial in the case of those interpreters whose work is linked to the life, health, freedom, and wellbeing of a person.
As interpreters, we all work with something that is constantly changing, permanently evolving: we work with languages. As interpreters who work in the real world, we are also impacted by science and technology. They have changed the way we work: from simultaneous interpreting equipment to note-taking on a tablet; from digital dictionaries to video remote interpreting. The language we spoke when we first started working and the means used to deliver our rendition do not look like the ones we presently use on a daily basis. There is a constant need to learn.
Moreover, healthcare, medical, court, and legal interpreters work with medicine and legislation. Sometimes these fields are less permanent than language and technology. Those agencies that certify or accredit these interpreters, whether they are run by a government or by a professional association, cannot put the client at risk. They have to assure the consumer of the professional service (a physician, attorney, patient, defendant, plaintiff, or victim) that the interpreters who have achieved certification or accreditation meet the standard requirements to practice the profession, and that they have been able to update their skills and knowledge by complying with continuing education requirements. Remember, we are dealing with human life, freedom, and assets.
Most court and healthcare interpreters in the U.S. acknowledge the importance of continuing education in ethics, interpreting, science, legal changes, and technology. There are also many colleges, professional associations, independent interpreter trainers, and government agencies that organize and offer quality continuing education at all levels. In the United States, continuing education is accessible all over the country at one time or another. The problem is not the willingness of the interpreter to attend the seminars, courses or workshops (even though sometimes the motivation to study may be the risk of losing the certification or accreditation for lack of credits); the real problem is the difficult and sometimes absurd requirements that some government agencies ask for in order to approve a workshop or a seminar for continuing education.
There are government agencies where an ethics workshop will never be approved for continuing education, even when the only subject matter of the class is ethics, unless the word “ethics” is included on the title of the workshop. Sometimes a workshop that deals with the business aspects of the profession, or a seminar on legislative changes are not approved for continuing education because the individual who makes the decision does not understand the subject matter or its relevance. There are also places where continuing education credits are only granted when the course or workshop is offered by the government.
There are some government agencies where the person deciding what does or does not constitute continuing education for an interpreter program has never interpreted, or has never been involved with interpreting or translating. Many times these are people who were transferred from another bureaucratic post because of their clerical skills, not their professional knowledge. Sometimes the people running a program decide to exercise their “power”, and only approve for continuing education credits those workshops that they contracted and organized; ignoring, and for all practical purposes running out of the state, all seminars and courses offered by reputable entities and instructors that, in the judgment of this government bureaucrat, “are too expensive”, even when the presenters are world-class.
I believe that certifications and accreditation at all levels and in all specialty fields are too important to leave them at the mercy of individuals who are only interested in covering their own behinds or favor their buddies. The granting of continuing education credits should be decided by government officials who are interpreters and know the profession, or even better, by a committee of local reputable interpreters who know what the profession needs because they know what it is all about. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your experiences in dealing with these unreasonable government officials, or your ideas as to how continuing education credits should be granted.
August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments
A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico. With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.
Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters. What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere. Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.
Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree. Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.
The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights. The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.
The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court. During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam. Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court. Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.
Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.
I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice. Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages. The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.
I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.
I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.
August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments
It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:
2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services. This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.
The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.
At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.
During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:
“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”
In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid. Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.
I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:
“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates. You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”
The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”). By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work. Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.
Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”
Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better. The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear: They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).
I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees. From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee. The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million. There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)
Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.
July 13, 2016 § 6 Comments
The interpreters’ work is very difficult and complex. We have to prepare for every assignment, pay attention to many details; and on assignment day, we are expected to be on top of our game. Any mistakes, misuse of words, or omission could be critical and carry dire consequences.
We know this. We understand that, as court interpreters we need to do a complete and accurate rendition keeping the correct registry so that the judge and jury can assess the credibility of a witness. We are fully aware of the importance of an accurate and culturally precise interpretation in the emergency room. We know that people go to a conference to learn and be informed; and we never forget that those in attendance have paid a lot of money to listen to the speaker, or were sent by their nation or organization to defend or advance an idea that could affect the lives of millions. This is all part of our job. As professionals we embrace it, and we strive to render interpretations of the highest quality and precision. As interpreters, we also know that sometimes we have to reach our goal under adverse and unfriendly conditions.
The difference between a professional interpreter and somebody attempting to interpret, is that resourcefulness and professionalism let us do our job not just by excelling in the booth, courtroom or hospital, but by anticipating and solving many problems that can arise during a medical examination, a trial, or a keynote speech. We come prepared, and direct clients, promoters, agencies, courts and hospitals know it. This is a fact and we are proud of it; however, we should never take the blame for an agency’s mistake, or take on the burden of solving a situation when it is clearly the agency’s duty to do so.
I know so many cases when good, solid, reliable interpreters have damaged their reputation because they covered up for the agency. In my opinion this is a huge mistake.
As professionals, we should own our mistakes and shortcomings; we should also assist the agency and protect them in force majeure cases and when it does not harm our own interests. This does not mean that we need to fall on our swords for a language services agency.
I am not saying we should rat or snitch. I did not say that we should become an additional problem either. All I am saying is that just as we should own our mistakes, the agency must do the same. The good news is that all reputable professional agencies do. The bad news is that many mediocre organizations find it convenient to blame it on the interpreter to save their behind. This is unacceptable. We are talking about our profession and livelihood.
If something happens to the interpreting equipment in the middle of a speech, we should solve the problem by applying our knowledge, skill and experience. Sometimes a little console or headset adjustment can save the day. On occasion, we will have to leave the booth and interpret consecutively while the tech support team works frantically to fix the problem. This is expected from a top-notch professional interpreter; but let it be clear that we must never assume the liability or take the rap for mistakes of the agency.
Let me explain: If a judge complains that the interpreter is mixing up the names of the parties to a controversy, or is referring to a male individual as female because the agency (or court) failed to provide the proper documentation before the hearing, the interpreter should say so. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault, and the powers that be need to know it.
If an interpreter fails to properly interpret a patient’s idiomatic expression because she was not privy to the individual’s nationality, let the physician know that despite your efforts to learn more about the patient and his medical condition, the agency, hospital, or nurse, refused to share that information with you. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it.
If the interpreters show up to an assignment one hour before the conference starts, and they learn that there are no working microphones or headsets in the booth, they need to let the speaker and organizers know. We need to make it clear that certain things are the responsibility of others. It is their fault and the powers that be need to know it. Even if the interpreters decide to start the event with a consecutive rendition, they have to make sure that all interested parties know that it was not their fault, and if they decide to walk away from the assignment, they will be acting according to the law and protocol. They were retained to do a simultaneous interpreting assignment, not a consecutive gig. The agency would be in breach of contract and the organizers and promoters need to talk to them, not the interpreters.
Remember, from the client’s perspective, it is a matter of clarity and education. They need to learn what interpreters are responsible for, and what they are not. From the interpreters’ perspective, it is a matter of professional pride, reputation, and ethics. We will always be judged by our work in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or battlefield. We must never let the assessment extend to the responsibilities of others. This is very important.
Fortunately, this that I write will be a welcome affirmation to all real professional high-level agencies. They know their responsibilities, and they strive, just like we do, to deliver an immaculate service every time they are retained. Unfortunately, this will be read by para-professional wannabe interpreting “agencies” who will feel offended and threatened by the suggestion that interpreters should act professionally while, at the same time, cover their reputation and protect their careers by letting the end-client know that they made a mistake by retaining high quality professional interpreters and a mediocre agency. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your comments on this extremely important subject for the education of our clients and our professional reputation and livelihood.
May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments
Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.
Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.
Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity. Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.
The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.
I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance. I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication? Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.
If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.
On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad. It is only then that you can start the client’s education.
Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.
If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience. If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.
If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.
When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference. A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth. The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.
Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.
In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.
February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
Like all human beings, interpreters have fears and concerns. Everybody has experienced adverse situations and tough times, and nobody wants to be in that situation ever again. We all worry about getting sick, having no money, experiencing loneliness, suffering a tragic accident, having serious problems at home, and so on. This is normal, and in fact, the possibility of facing one of these scenarios worries most individuals, not just interpreters. Then, we have the career related concerns: losing your job, not getting any assignments, losing your hearing or your voice, fighting with the bad agencies and unscrupulous colleagues, dealing with morose clients who only pay every other leap year, and many others. All these things make us miserable, most of them will never happen to us, and if they do, they will likely come into our lives as a “light version” of the problem; but we worry nevertheless.
Everything mentioned above has the potential to keep us up all night and make us lose our appetite, but not one of them can be truly referred to as our worst nightmare. You see, talking to many colleagues all over the world throughout the years, and reflecting on my own personal fears, I have seen how the things that impact us more, strictly from the professional perspective, are those situations where we cannot perform as expected and, on top of the professional failure, we go through professional embarrassment. We have all experienced situations when a certain term, word, or fact that we know (or should know) does not come to mind. This is usually cause for concern, and more so when it happens often or for a fairly long period of time. For the most part this is taken care of by a note or a whisper from our booth mate with the right term, word, or facts. We correct ourselves, nod at the colleague with a “thank you” gesture, shake up the embarrassing uncomfortable episode, and move on.
The facts I just described above are part of the interpreter’s nightmare, but they are still missing the coup the grace. For this to turn into a horrendous situation, the interpreter’s mishap has to be in public. This sense of embarrassment and professional shame will make you want to shrink to the size of an atom and disappear for the next twenty centuries. Let me share a story that I witnessed first-hand:
I was retained to work an important high-profile assignment that was going to take place at a country’s top military facility. The name of the country will remain undisclosed for professional courtesy reasons. The event was attended by people, including many journalists, of about eighty different countries, so there were many interpreters in many language combinations. On this occasion I had the fortune to work with an excellent colleague, and although I did not know all of the other interpreters, I also recognized many of the other colleagues at the event who had been hired to work other language combinations. The event presented two tasks for the interpreters: We had speeches and presentations that were to be interpreted simultaneously, but at the end of every high-profile speaker’s presentation there would be a question and answer period that had to be interpreted consecutively. Interpreters had a table at the end of the stage, and one interpreter from each language pair was supposed to go to the table for the questions while the other interpreter remained in the booth for a simultaneous rendition of the answers. If necessary, interpreters were to rotate every thirty minutes.
The presentations were very technical and many of the questions were more of a political statement by journalists from foreign countries, as it often happens in these events. Throughout the day, my colleagues did a superb job in the booth and with the consecutive rendition at the table. Things were smooth until a journalist, from a country where a language other than English or Spanish is spoken, asked one of this “political statement” type of questions. The question was long, but nothing different from what the others had been asking, and definitely something an interpreter at that level should handle without any trouble. Once the question was posed, the interpreter looked at her notes and started her rendition. Once she started her interpretation, I noticed that she was not saying what the journalist asked; I am not an expert in this other language, and I would never dare to add it to my language combinations for the booth, but I noticed a big mistake; in fact, as the interpreter was interpreting back the question, I looked at one of my other colleagues who also understands the language at a level like mine or better, and her face told me that I was right. As the interpreter was speaking, the journalist who asked the question got up from his seat in the audience and without a microphone shouted: “…That is not what I asked. The interpreter is wrong. She did not understand the question, so I will repeat it in English…“ The interpreter sat there quietly, she did not make any noise. She lowered her head and stayed there while the journalist repeated the question in English. The next few questions were in different languages, so this interpreter did not have to intervene anymore.
Dear friends and colleagues, this is an interpreter’s worst nightmare: to make a mistake and be corrected by the person you are interpreting for; to know that this person, who is not an interpreter and does not speak the target language at a level comparable to yours, is right and you were wrong; to have this all happen during a very high-profile event, and for this to be witnessed by many of your colleagues who work at this very top level of the profession.
In this case the interpreter did not do anything, she did not defend her rendition; she did not ask for clarification of something she did not understand; she did not apologize; she did not get up and leave; she did not cry; she did not ask for her booth mate to replace her; she just remain there, sitting with her head lowered and her hands on her lap.
I did not know this colleague, although I believe that I had seen her in the booth a couple of times before. I do not know if she is new to the profession, which I doubt because no newbies start at the level of the event where this happened. I do not know if she is a great interpreter, or if this was not her preferred language pair; I do not even know if she was ill, or going through a personal crisis at the time of the incident. All I know is that she had to endure this interpreter’s worst nightmare, and she handled it by staying there, quiet, without moving a finger.
After the event ended I tried to see if those who knew her best were approaching her to show their support, or to show their contempt as it happens sometimes, but no one did. She continued acting as if nothing had happened for the rest of the day, and for the next few days that we worked together at the event.
That night at the hotel, I thought about the incident and wondered how I would have reacted to that situation. I could not tell for sure. I do not know. Maybe she checked her rendition as soon as she could to make sure she was truly wrong; maybe she reached the journalist who asked the question and apologized afterwards; maybe she talked to the event organizer and explained what had just happened; maybe she cried with a dear colleague in private; maybe she realized that she was not ready for these events yet.
That night I fell asleep with two certainties: That we are all vulnerable to a situation similar to what happened to this colleague, and that nobody really knows how they are going to react when faced with this horrendous scenario; all we can wish and hope is that it never happens to us and that if it does, our training and experience will guide us to the best reaction to minimize the damage caused by our mistake and to control the negative effects this could have on our professional careers. I now invite you to tell us about your worst interpreter’s nightmare and how do you think you might react if something like this happened to you.
December 15, 2015 § 4 Comments
We all know that the client’s best ticket to a high quality professional interpreting service is a good fee, but it is not necessarily the only factor a top level interpreter weighs in when deciding to accept or reject an assignment. There are times when other considerations are more, or at least as important as the fee: an interesting subject matter, a well-known speaker, a prestigious conference, a long-term relationship with a client, and even a favor to a colleague, are all factors that can tip the balance in favor of accepting an offer that pays fine but below our usual fee (of course, because of the permanent damage it causes to our career, working for peanuts is always out of the question regardless of the event, speaker, colleague, or anything else). We have all provided our services at a lower fee to government agencies or private companies when we see that volume will compensate for the lesser pay; and invariably, once we accept an assignment, we provide the best possible service regardless of the conditions we agreed to with our client.
The truth is that we would take more of these jobs if we had fun performing our services. Dear friends and colleagues, I just gave potential clients the key to top-level interpreting services that they usually cannot afford due to their lack of funds: Call us with interesting or prestigious assignments and we will take them for a little less than our usual fee, as long as we enjoy the job.
Of course enjoying the job can be understood in many ways, we all have different tastes and interests, but the common denominator to all “happy assignments” is respect. If the direct client, event organizer, government entity, or agency treats us as professionals we will likely do the job, and perhaps repeat in the future. Moreover, even good paying clients should take note of this circumstance because a high fee can lose to lack of respect as well, in other words, even a client that pays good and pays on time can lose the good interpreter when there is no respect.
I know that there are many ways to show respect for the interpreter, and no doubt each one of you has a set of rules and principles that are a must for you to feel comfortable during an assignment. I hope you convey that to your client so they can keep you. I also know that many of us share some of the same basic ideas, and for that reason, I am going to share with you the things that I consider demeaning to the interpreter, and therefore will keep me from taking a job or will motivate me to drop a client as soon as I have a good replacement. Here we go:
- When the client treats you like a laborer, not a professional. There are few things I hate more in life than an ignorant bureaucrat or agency employee who retains you because of your credentials, skill, experience, and reputation, and after you reached an agreement, he sends you an email “instructing you” to arrive thirty minutes before the assignment, to call them “immediately” after the interpretation ends so they see how long you really worked, or a bureaucrat (often a former interpreter) who makes you go to their office for them to physically see you before you immediately leave their office to go to the place where you are going to work. To me this is insulting and inexcusable. How do they think you built a reputation? Because we are not construction workers (although I have nothing but respect for those who do such a physically demanding job) but professional service providers, I will not accept assignments from these individuals, and if the circumstances compel me to do it, be assured that I am only complying with these absurd rules while I find a replacement for that disrespectful client. I understand that some clients ask for such non-sense out of ignorance, in that case I try to educate them, and if successful, I continue to have a professional relationship with them, but if they do not change their policy… there are other decent clients out there in the world.
- When the client asks you not to talk to the end-client, or event organizer at the venue, or “forbids you” to have tea or coffee from the conference refreshments offered to the participants during the breaks. Once again, there are not too many things more insulting to a professional than “forbidding you” anything, concretely, to have a civil attitude towards the end-client because the agency thinks that, the crook you are, you will steal the client from them, or even worse: you may learn how much they are charging the end-client and wonder why they cried poverty and paid you so little. My friends, a true professional does not go around stealing clients from the agency! Show us some respect and let us be courteous with your clients and interact with them so we can get whatever necessary to make the event successful, because in case you do not know it, that will make you look good as an agency. As far as the “no-coffee, no-tea, no-pastries” rule, it only happened to me once years ago and I just ignored it and defied it. When the agency owner approached me and asked me why I was having coffee from the conference room, I simply answered: “because it is for the conference participants, and I am one of them. Do you have a problem with that?” I had all the coffee I wanted and never worked for those folks again nor referred anybody to their obtuse-minded business
- I avoid those clients who do not provide the basics for the interpreting job such as study materials, presentations, background information, speeches, or even water in the booth. It says a lot about an agency or a government officer when they tell you that no materials will be provided because “they are confidential” or because their client “does not like to share the presentation”. I wonder if they think that we work for some Chinese pirate and we are going to risk going to jail and losing our careers so that we can see a power point on a subject matter we couldn’t care less about. This tells me that the entity trying to retain me has no idea about our job, and when their answer to my request is “we have used other interpreters before and they never asked for any of that”, then I definitely know that it is time to turn down the job offer and move on to more useful things like perhaps watch the grass grow. The same can be said for those bureaucrats in courthouses all over the country who refuse to share the file with the interpreter because it is confidential. Who do they think they are hiring to interpret? Certainly not a professional. Their ignorance keeps them from thinking that the court interpreter is a professional trained to tell privileged and confidential information from public record, and to know what to do with it. Now, it is even worse when a former court interpreter is the one denying the information, because you know they are doing it out of convenience and fear to rub anybody the wrong way in the courthouse. In other words, they couldn’t care less about the interpretation, all the care about is to keep their job.
- To me, it is a tremendous sign of disrespect to ask the interpreter to do the agency’s job. All those entities who impose duties on the interpreter different from interpreting, such as endless paperwork, statistics, and so forth, without explaining these “extra chores” when offering the job, and demanding performance without paying for the interpreter’s time (because they only pay you for the time you interpreted, not the time you spend doing their paperwork) do not treat us like professionals, and since I do not have the vocation of a clerk’s assistant, or a Girl-Friday, I refuse the assignment, and if ambushed and cornered a posteriori with this free-work, I will never work for that entity again nor I will refer anyone to them.
- I believe that it is insulting that a client do not pay for travel time and travel expenses when the assignment is somewhere else. The interpreter is a professional, and unless the negotiated fee is high enough for the interpreter to include travel expenses as part of it, the client should absorb travel expenses as part of doing business. I have no room in my client file cabinet for agencies or government entities who refuse to pay for transportation (air, train, highway tolls, gas, and parking), lodging, meals, internet, and other basic services. There is no room either for those who pay them at some ridiculously rock-bottom amounts. No bureaucrat or agency clerk will force me to take five airplanes to fly 200 miles, sleep on a bedbug infested bed, or eat at a fast food place so they can save some money.
- The list could go on and on, but I will end with something that makes my blood boil because it is insulting, disrespectful, and hurts the interpretation: Those speakers who preface everything they say with: “I don’t know if this will be translated correctly” or “I hope the translator can get at least some of what I am saying because it is very technical” or the variation of this last one: “…because I speak really fast…” Again, I do not know if they know what happens in the booth, obviously they don’t, but they need to realize that on top of insulting, this makes the speaker, and the event organizer, look bad because thanks to that unfortunate remark, they now have an auditorium full of people who are second-guessing the ability of the interpreters. This is so silly that I just leave it out of my rendition.
As you can see, these are all simple things that a smart agency, organization, or government office, could easily avoid, and as a result create a better environment where interpreters would be happy and even willing to work for a little less money than usual when the event, the topic, or the speaker were so attractive that the fee would become, within certain limits, secondary at the time of deciding whether to accept or turn down an interpreting assignment. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of your demeaning examples that, when easily fixed or avoided, would make you take an interpreting job for a little less money.
October 21, 2015 § 7 Comments
In recent weeks I have been contacted by two different colleagues who basically had the same problem: What do you do as an interpreter when you did not hear what the speaker said, and the cause of the problem is the speaker himself? I thought about the question, and I realized that this situation is more common than we may think when we first consider it.
There are many reasons why an interpreter’s professional life can get complicated, and one of them is a poor speaker. There are also a multitude of circumstances that arise during a conference, negotiation, trial or interview, that will not let us hear what was said, many of them can be traced to a deficient sound system, bad interpreting equipment, wrongly situated interpreters’ booth, technician’s ineptitude, and others. Today we will focus on those occasions when the problem can be traced back to the speaker.
There are basically three kinds of speakers for the matter that occupies us this time: The experienced speaker, the novice, and the careless. A seasoned individual used to public speaking will speak clearly, at a good pace, and with the audience in mind. If these speakers are used to an international audience, they will also adjust the form and content of their speech so it can be interpreted to a series of foreign languages without major problems. With some exceptions, we find these orators at the events of the highest level. They are the group that creates the least problems for the interpreters, and can be approached with suggestions to improve the rendition into the target languages.
Many novice speakers have to deal with fears and insecurities, their experience addressing a crowd is non-existent or at best very limited, and they ignore the details and even the basic rules that must be observed when talking to a diverse, multicultural, and foreign language speaking audience. They can be very difficult to interpret, and hard to hear; but once they are past their fears and insecurities, they are usually receptive, coachable, and willing to work with the interpreters.
It is the careless speaker that causes most of the interpreters’ headaches. Many of them have been around long enough to know how to speak in public and how to address a foreign language crowd; they all know that there are special considerations by the orator when a speech needs to be interpreted into another language, but they consider it of little significance and dismiss it. Some of them are even worse, as they truly ignore the basic rules of public speaking before an international audience because they just don’t see any benefit or motivation to learn them. These are the speakers that will keep interpreters sleepless all night.
Besides separating this problem from all technical and logistics occurrences that can cause difficulties when listening to the speaker, to be able to look at this issue in detail, we must deal separately with the different types of interpreting where the situation may be present sometimes.
The most common situation is when the speaker abandons the microphone. The presenter leaves the podium with the fixed wired microphone and walks around the stage speaking directly to the audience without any devise, or holds a handheld mike as he speaks, but keeps the microphone pointing to the opposite direction from his mouth, making it impossible to hear in the booth what was said. The problem could also exist when the speaker has a lapel microphone which has been poorly placed on his body or when he ruffles the mike with his hands or clothes.
The best way to avoid this issue is through education. With the exception of the experienced speaker, most people will benefit from a brief orientation on how to work with interpreters. Reputable truly professional agencies and event promoters will likely take care of this issue by providing some literature to the presenter ahead of time, or by asking the speaker to set aside a few minutes before the speech to talk to the interpreters who will let him know what adjustments he needs to make for the benefit of the booth and more importantly, for the benefit of the foreign language speakers who are in the audience as guests or as paid ticket holders. I suggest that you have a standard brochure, prepared by you to be given to the speaker, where you address and explain all these nuances and considerations that must be kept in mind when speaking before an audience with interpreters. This can be used when the agency is not that reputable or experienced and does not even think about this speaker orientation aspect of the event, and you can offer it as an added value to the client, and charge for it.
Next, unless it is an experienced individual or a very busy dignitary or celebrity with no time to spare, you need to be ready to meet with the speaker before the event anyway; even if it is just to ask if he read the brochure and to inquire if he has any questions, or, as it will no doubt happen many times, to go over the contents of the brochure with those orators who “did not have time to read the brochure ahead of time”. It requires that at least one interpreter from the team (usually the lead interpreter for the event) arrive to the venue a little earlier. When there are several booths, you can distribute responsibilities so that an interpreter is testing the equipment with the technicians while you are meeting with the speaker about the orientation brochure.
The strategy above should take care of most situations, but you have to be prepared for the speaker who forgets what he was told during the orientation and leaves the microphone behind in any of the ways described above. In that case your options are limited a somewhat drastic measures: (1) Your first option should be interpreter console in the booth (when available) and let the speaker know that he is not using the microphone, or that he did not turn it on, by pressing the slow-down button on the console. This is a discreet way to communicate with the presenter without leaving the booth. (2) When the interpreter console does not have this button, as many older models do not, then the interpreters should use the help of the technician, and ask him to let the speaker know that there is a problem, either by the technician approaching the stage and communicating with the speaker by discreet signs, or by passing a note to the podium. (3) If the technician is not around at that particular time, one of the interpreters will have to leave the booth and hopefully, from the back of the room, get the attention of the orator. If this is not possible due to the booth location, lighting of the room, or the distance to the stage, then the interpreter should approach the stage and deliver the note to the speaker. (4) Finally, there will be times when none of the above options may be available because the interpreters’ booth is in a place relatively inaccessible from the stage (many built-in booths have access from the street through a separate entrance from the main auditorium’s). In those rare cases the interpreter can get to the speaker by asking the audience he is interpreting for, to please ask the speaker to speak into the mike. This is a drastic measure but it is better than leaving half of the attendees in the dark as to what the speaker said during the presentation.
The situation in court is different. First, unlike a conference setting, there will be several people speaking back and forth during the same occurrence, usually a hearing. Some of them will be aware of the need to be heard by the interpreter while others, like the witnesses and the parties to the litigation, will not even realize that the hearing is being interpreted into a foreign language. The most common scenarios where it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hear what has been said will be when the person speaking moves away from the microphone. In the case of the witnesses and litigants the problem could also be that they simply do not speak loud enough.
Because of its rigorous rules and protocol, and because there is a record being kept of the hearing, interpreters in this setting have an easier way to correct a party when they cannot hear what was said. It is enough for the interpreter to raise her hand and voice and state aloud (in the third person because there is a record of the hearing and therefore the voice of the person speaking has to be announced for the transcriber) that “the interpreter cannot hear the attorney, judge, witness, plaintiff, etc., and ask that the parties speak into the microphone. Thank you”. Some interpreters may prefer to ask the judge to admonish the parties to speak louder or using the microphone, by stating aloud, immediately after the word or phrase was uttered, that: “the interpreter respectfully asks the court to instruct the parties to speak louder and into the microphone”. Because as a general rule there are no booths and the interpreters are very close to the judge and litigants, this can easily be accomplished in an expeditious way. The only word of caution would be that the interpreters must find the best place to locate themselves (in those courtrooms where there is no interpreter desk) to avoid interrupting the proceedings very often. Another valuable resource that should be used before interrupting the hearing is a simple consultation with the passive interpreter in the team. Many times the passive interpreter may be able to discern what was said because, unlike the active interpreter, she is not listening to the hearing over her own voice at this time.
This problem could be easy to solve or very difficult during a consecutive rendition. It depends on the venue. When doing consecutive interpreting in court, usually for a party or witness who is testifying from the stand, the solution is the same as in the case of simultaneous court interpreting above. Sometimes, if the word that was not heard is irrelevant to the hearing, the interpreter can ask the witness, who is sitting next to her, directly. It would be better, and safer, to announce this circumstance first by stating aloud: “the interpreter will ask the witness to clarify (or repeat) a word that the interpreter did not hear…”
When the interpreter is working as an escort and there are words that he did not hear because of background noise, or because the speaker turned her heard the other way when she said the word, the interpreter can simply and informally stop her on the spot and ask her to repeat what she just said. This is quite common when visiting touristic attractions, industrial plants, or places where crowds gather such as markets, plazas, train stations, and so on. The same solution can be applied to healthcare interpreting during doctor or nurse appointments.
The situation is quite more complicated in the case of a long consecutive rendition during a press conference, diplomatic negotiation, or a ceremony. In this case there could be different scenarios: (1) When the interpreters are working as a team, the passive interpreter can help the active colleague in a similar way as described above when we dealt with court interpreting. (2) The situation is more difficult when the interpreter is working alone. Many times the solution will depend on the style of the interpreter as he could start the rendition while slipping a note to an aide asking for a term that he did not hear, he could ask the speaker to repeat the term after he finished his statement and before the interpreter starts the consecutive rendition, or the interpreter can go ahead with the rendition and stop to ask at the time when the word that he did not hear was said by the speaker. This may sound quite scary, but we must remember that this case scenario will rarely happen as interpreters are well-prepared for these events and know the relevant terminology; Many times the word that the interpreter did not hear can be inferred from the context of what the speaker said, sometimes the name is repeated later on the speech and the interpreter heard it the second time, and the word may turn out to be irrelevant to the message and therefore it can be left out. Remember, this is not short court consecutive interpretation.
As we clearly see, once again we face the reality that interpreting is a very difficult profession, but many of the complications and problems that appear during the rendition can be prevented and resolved with good preparation, which includes educating the speaker. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some of the times when you had to face this same issue, and tell us how you solved the situation and saved the day.