Will greed win over quality medical interpreting in the middle of a pandemic?

September 9, 2021 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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.

Should healthcare interpreters in the U.S. be concerned?

April 9, 2018 § 36 Comments

Dear colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by colleagues who provide their services as interpreters in the health sector of the United States. They have all expressed the same sense of confusion, anguish, anger, and uncertainty many of us have noticed in social media and professional forums on line.

This environment started after the decision by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) to not renew the accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) effective January 1, 2018, and it ballooned after the video of a speech during the California Healthcare Interpreters Association (CHIA) annual conference in Irvine, California in early March was uploaded to the web and watched by interpreters all over the world. Apparently, most interpreters were upset about four things: (1) The decision to terminate the NCCA accreditation; (2) That many learned of this decision by the NBCMI at this conference; (3) That the NBCMI authorities did not informed those candidates scheduled to take the certification exam that the exam they would be taking in 2018, although the same test taken by interpreters certified in the past, was being offered after the Board had quit their accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the NCCA; and (4) That many did not like NBCMI’s decision to change the wording on their website portal to show in a casual way, hidden in the text, or at least not highlighted, that they had not renewed said accreditation, and the unofficial explanations and assurances by apparently some people associated with NBCMI that such change would not impact their certification.

I am a veteran of the profession, but like many of you, even though I have interpreted my share of medical events as a conference interpreter, I have never been a healthcare interpreter. Let me explain the healthcare interpreting scenario in the United States.

Healthcare interpreting is an essential part of the health sector in modern society, but despite this and the need to elevate this service to a professional level, healthcare interpreting had a later start than other community-based fields of interpreting like court interpreting.

The United States was no exception, until finally, a few years ago, two organizations took the lead towards the professionalization of the field. Embracing the basic principles and values of the certification program the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) had written about, the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters developed and implemented two interpreter certification programs. Both understood the overwhelming need to certify interpreters in the most widely spoken foreign languages in the United States, and they both developed a program for interpreter certification in Spanish (there are other languages now. Please visit their websites to learn about the languages covered by each program).

Unlike court interpreting, which developed certification programs sanctioned by the government at its different levels (federal, state, and initially sometimes local), the healthcare sector had no government authority sanctioning the validity of its certifications; and even though this brought healthcare interpreters a professional freedom enjoyed by other professionals like physicians and lawyers, and denied to court interpreters who have no control over the administration of their certification exams, it also created an uncertainty about the validity of their interpreter certification programs.

Because in a private sector-oriented society like the U.S., the situation healthcare interpreter certification programs were facing is not the exception, but the rule, there is a reputable trustworthy entity that solves this problem: The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE).

The Institute for Credentialing Excellence, or ICE, is a professional membership association that provides education, networking, and other resources for organizations and individuals who work in and serve the credentialing industry. ICE is a leading developer of standards for certification and certificate programs and it is both, a provider of and a clearinghouse for information on trends in certification, test development and delivery, assessment-based certificate programs, and other information relevant to the credentialing community. ICE created the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) in 1987.

The NCAA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, which were created in the mid-1970s, were the first standards developed by the credentialing industry for professional certification programs. The NCCA Standards were developed to help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public. They highlight the essential elements of a high-quality program.

The NCCA standards follow The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999) and are applicable to all professions and industries. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products and not the content; therefore, the Standards are applicable to all professions and industries. Program content validity is demonstrated with a comprehensive job analysis conducted and analyzed by experts, with data gathered from stakeholders in the occupation or industry.

NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations including nurses, automotive professionals, respiratory therapists, counselors, emergency technicians, crane operators and more. To date, NCCA has accredited approximately 330 programs from over 130 organizations.

Accreditation for professional or personnel certification programs provides impartial, third-party validation that your program has met recognized national and international credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance of certification programs. This solved the problem for both programs and two certification programs were born:

The Certified Healthcare Interpreter credential (CHI) developed by the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin in 2 steps: First, a core exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions, to be answered in English, on medical terminology, healthcare scenarios and ethics; and to those who pass the core exam, an interpreting exam that tests the candidate’s skill on sight and written translation, and simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

The Medical Interpreter credential (CMI) developed by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese to those who pass (with a score of 70 percent, 80 percent in Mandarin) an interpreting exam that tests skills on sight translation and consecutive interpreting (no simultaneous interpreting or written translation).

Besides competing for interpreter candidates in the same market, both programs needed to convince healthcare providers, insurance companies, patients, and attorneys, that their credentials were reliable, trustworthy, and standard. They started an intensive and successful education campaign that used the NCCA accreditation as one of its most valuable resources.

Even today, CCHI’s website proclaims the validity of its program and skill of its certified healthcare interpreters:

“…Just as healthcare interpreters work hard to get credentialed as “certified healthcare interpreters,” certification programs can also “get certified!” The process is called “accreditation” and, today, it is administered by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accreditation arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Accreditation is the process by which a credentialing or educational program is evaluated against defined standards by a third party and is awarded recognition when found in compliance with these standards. It’s more than just a voluntary membership in an association. Accreditation (and renewal of accreditation) involves a rigorous process that ensures the quality of examinations and certification offered by organizations like CCHI. In fact, NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations, including nurses, pharmacists, counselors, EMTs, HR professionals, defense security specialists, and more. CCHI is proud to represent the healthcare interpreter profession as equal among other allied health professions…today, CCHI is proud to offer the only nationally accredited certifications in the interpreting industry. NCCA’s accreditation validates all aspects of CCHI’s certification programs and CCHI as a certifying body…”

To this day NCCA accreditation continues to be a crucial element of the CCHI program.

Apparently, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) disagrees with this principle, and even though their website lacks detailed explanations or reasons for the decision not to renew accreditation; some colleagues claim they have unofficially argued that continuing NCCA accreditation is unnecessary because their program is now well-established, the accreditation only covered the Spanish certification program, and their exams have not changed from the ones offered during the accreditation era. Several interpreters have indicated that NBCMI claims that a renewal was too expensive; that they had spent fifty thousand dollars on the initial accreditation, and that their Board had directed those financial resources to the development and administration of certification exams in other languages; activity that would be more profitable.

On its official website, NBCMI addresses its decision to end NCCA accreditation:

“…Prior to 2018, the Spanish CMI certificate was subjected to an additional level of NCCA accreditation, but while the National Board remains a member of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence (ICE), each of the National Board programs have been standardized to ensure the CMI certification in each offered language best meets or exceeds nationally accepted standards, including transparency, inclusion, and access…”

It mentions they continue to be members of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), the parent entity of NCCA, and adds a self-serving statement where they praise their own CMI certification. They emphasize their continued ICE membership adding this statement to their official website:

“…As a proud member of ICE, we stay informed on best practices in developing and administering quality certification [certificate] programs so that we may better serve you…” 

This could be a simple statement of facts, but unfortunately, it could also be misunderstood by some who may think that continued ICE membership affects their CMI program after January 1, 2018.

ICE clearly tells us what membership means:

“…An organization may join ICE at any time whether or not it has any programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE…”

Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE. We can see this means more than no more accreditation. According to ICE itself, membership means no approval or any other endorsements.

As I write this post, my only goal is for NBCMI to published a written detailed explanation of the reasons they abandoned the NCCA accreditation, the potential consequences this decision can bring to certified medical interpreters, and why candidates scheduled to take the exam in 2018 were not informed of this important change so they could decide to either pursue the CMI certification or perhaps take the CHI exam instead. Spanish language CMI interpreters have a right to know why a certification exam after the NCCA accreditation ended has the same cost as the one offered when the accreditation was in place. How does a business decision to add more languages to the certification program benefit the Spanish language CMIs whose credentialing program lost NCCA accreditation? So far, NBCMI has limited its answer to a statement posted on their newsletter that repeats what they previously said about the validity of the exam and CMI certification, but the explanation of the reasons to discontinue the accreditation have not been disclosed. Dismissing social media as myths and misinformation does not answer the questions so many interpreters want answered.

Some changes have already been impacting those who hold a CMI certification: Some institutions stopped reimbursing the certification exam fee to certification candidates taking the exam in 2018. It has been reported that some clients are now preferring those interpreters holding a CHI certification over a CMI credential; and, a good possibility is that in the future, CMI credentials will be questioned and tested by attorneys who will cross-examine NBCMI certified medical interpreters in the presence of a jury during a medical malpractice trial.

NBCMI needs to explain why NCCA accreditation went from being something they were proud of a few years ago to something no longer needed:

“…The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) is pleased to announce that its Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) program has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), thus joining an elite group of certifying bodies dedicated to public protection and excellence in certification… NCCA accreditation was one of the objectives the National Board set for itself at the very outset…” (NBCMI press release dated January 18, 2013 at Miami Beach Convention Center)

These are valid questions we hope NBCMI will officially address, and they are all legitimate reasons in a free market economy like the United States’ for any interpreter working on the healthcare sector to think very carefully about which one of the two certifications she or he should hold. Let’s hope that at the end of all the confusion and uncertainty the answer is either one of the certifications, but as of today, we do not know if that will be the case, even if both certifications were equally recognized, because one continues to have an accredited certification program and the other one does not. Many of our colleagues would like to know the reason for the changes that both, NBCMI and its parent organization IMIA experienced just now: a new president for NBCMI (we wish her well) and the resignation of IMIA’s president-elect before he officially took office. Interpreters want to know if these changes at this confusing times are related to the decision to end accreditation, or it is just a coincidence.

I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue, and please, do not write personal attacks, and unless you are officially commenting on behalf of NBCMI, please abstain from sending surrogate comments defending the Board.

Languages in times of crisis. (The Mexican earthquakes)

September 21, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The natural disasters that hit the western hemisphere in the last few weeks, and that I was unfortunate enough to experience one of them first hand, made think of the importance of all languages to achieve effective communication when human lives are at stake.

Natural disasters are not new, they are with us throughout the year during our entire lives, but unless they directly affect us, we ignore them beyond barely learning the superficial facts. This month, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean nations were hit by strong hurricanes. Mexico was struck by two devastating earthquakes. Because these events happened in my backyard, where I have many colleagues, friends, and relatives, I was interested on the details. I wanted to learn about damages, loss of lives, and I wanted to know if the people I care for were safe.

Mexico had two earthquakes: first an 8.2 earth tremor, followed by a devastating 7.1 seismic activity two weeks later (on the anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed Mexico City 32 years earlier). I was working in Mexico City for the first of these tremors, the strongest one in the country’s history, so I got to see first-hand what was done, and what did not happen communication wise.  I was in the United States for the second one. This allowed me to see the language and cultural deficiencies from the perspective of the individual not physically at the scene, who needs to learn as much as possible about the tragedy.

Although I will use Mexico as an example for the things that must enable effective communication during a crisis, I believe that my comments are valid for the terrible hurricanes that hit the United States and many Caribbean countries, and apply to all natural disasters, terrorist acts, and other calamities anywhere in the world.

The first earthquake was on September 7, almost at midnight. It was a terrifying 8.2 on the Richter scale. The earth moved back and forth on a circular motion that lasted for about 90 seconds that seemed like an eternity. I was there. This gave me the perspective of the eyewitness. The second one took place on September 19 shortly after 1 pm. It was a devastating 7.1 on the Richter scale. First, the earth shook up and down followed by an oscillatory movement.  The first earthquake was the strongest (8.2 equals over 20 billion kilograms of dynamite; 7.1 is about 20 billion) but the September 19 tremor caused more damages because unlike the first one, its epicenter was close to Mexico City.

I am sure there are many stories and there will be many official reports on earthquake readiness, construction safety codes, search and rescue operations; the work of the thousands of volunteers who saved so many lives, and government actions in general. No doubt some will be positive and some will be critical of the authorities, but I am not convinced anybody will have the will nor the interest to do an analysis from the language access perspective.

Let me start by sharing my observations as an individual physically present at the scene of the disaster. I acquired this experience during the first of the two earthquakes.  The first thing I noticed was the lack of emergency, evacuation, and similar signs in a language other than Spanish.  There were no signs, in English at least, as lingua franca of this globalized society we live in.  Nothing on Braille either. At the moment of evacuation, based on my conversations with several friends and colleagues staying at different Mexico City hotels, all recorded public announcement messages were in Spanish (I guess this was good news for blind Spanish speakers). Nothing in any foreign or indigenous language.

Once on the street, non-Spanish speakers were given no direction. Nobody approached them to inform them or tell them in their language what they needed to do to be safe.  There were no Sign Language interpreters of any language to communicate this vital information to the deaf and hard of hearing. People were at the mercy of other bilingual tourists who jumped in to brief these foreign visitors on security protocol and the status of the disaster (at least to tell them where to get a blanket. Remember, this was almost midnight in September and many were asleep when the alarm woke them up).  There were no indigenous languages interpreters or bilingual personnel either. Once again, indigenous Mexicans were treated as always: the invisible people no politician dares to talk about.

What needed to happen and must be common practice the next time an earthquake hits Mexico City? Basically, the solution is not cheap, but it is not outrageously expensive either. They must start by translating all signs, and emergency and evacuation instructions into the most popular languages in the world. I would say at least the main Arabic, Asian and African languages, English, Russian, and those of the European Union. They must have translations into all Mexican indigenous languages, and a video with the translation into Mexican Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign Language at a minimum. When a guest checks in, or when a person is hired as an employee, they should get this information in their own language. Once the information is translated, the hotel needs only to print a page, retrieve a Braille version from the filing cabinet, or issue a USB flash drive with the Sign Language translation.  They can ask guests and employees to return the memory sticks when they check out of the hotel or leave the employment.

They also must have evacuation recordings for their P.A. system in at least Spanish, English, and other commonly used languages in their business (if applicable) and train their staff so they can provide basic orientation in many of these foreign, sign, and indigenous languages to the people during evacuation, at least to the point of steering them towards a rescue camp or to a video or telephonic interpreting emergency service where they can talk to real interpreters providing their services remotely.  I am not suggesting that all staff learn how to assist all non-Spanish speakers. Staffers will be assigned one or two languages to memorize these basic instructions. After what I saw in Mexico City, this would be a major improvement, and it can easily be applied to hospitals, airports, train stations, etcetera.

Finally, I think that too many of my interpreter and translator friends and colleagues wasted valuable time addressing concerns of well-intentioned, caring people from abroad who were constantly contacting them to see if they knew if this and that individual were safe.  Most people they were asked about lived in Mexico, but not in the disaster area.  I believe that it is legitimate and humane to care for others and to want to know, but I also think it would be much better if people abroad were to check on a map where the earthquake happened and where their friends live. Understanding that Mexico is a very big country, they would immediately see that people living somewhere else in Mexico would be as susceptible to the earthquake as a Spaniard from Madrid would be had the earth tremor happened in Warsaw. Simple research would save so much time and energy. We can all contribute during a crisis, even from abroad.

My perspective during the second earthquake was very different. This time I learned about the tremor while working in Chicago. I have many relatives, friends, colleagues and clients in Mexico City and I wanted to know what happened: if they were safe, and if there was anything I could do to help.  With a Mexican population in the United States in the tens of millions, this put me in a category shared by a significant segment of the American population right away.

My first reaction was to check on line. I went to Twitter and the internet news organizations to see what they were saying, next, I opened Facebook and WhatsApp to see if there were any concrete updates on the people I care for. Mexicans use Facebook as Americans use Twitter, so this was a good choice. I also remembered how many people communicated by WhatsApp when the telephone lines were down during the first earthquake two weeks earlier.

While I was doing this, I headed to a T.V. set to see what they were showing. I had only access to American TV in English and in Spanish.  Over the air U.S. English TV carried nothing. The cable news networks were showing some images of the devastation, and stayed with the coverage for about thirty minutes before they went back to their usual Trump bashing by the left-wing networks and Trump worshipping by the right-wing networks. Nothing relevant, nothing new, just the same stuff they repeat ad-nausea day in and day out. I was surprised they covered “that much”. That is usually not the case, but with so many Mexicans in the United States I guess they decided this was a sound business decision.

It was time to watch American TV in Spanish. CNN en español, Telemundo, and Univision. All three networks were carrying live coverage. Unfortunately, their coverage was flawed. Let me explain: First, their anchors and most of their on-site reporters were not Mexicans nor knew enough about Mexico to cover such an event. They were saying things that made no sense, not because they are bad journalists, but because they do not know the subject, in this case, Mexico and Mexico City. Mexicans wanted to know the extent of the damage, the neighborhoods affected, and the buildings that collapsed. Unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, this crucial information was left out or reported wrongly. A CNN anchor woman repeated a thousand times that “children were trapped inside the Enrique Rebsamen School”. This may sound irrelevant to a non-Mexican or to somebody not familiar with the city, but all Mexicans, particularly those from Mexico City know who Enrique Rébsamen (did you notice the accent?) was and have always pronounced the name correctly. This diminishes the credibility of the reporter and creates a lack of trust by the viewer. If you add to this lack of knowledge the accent from Spanish-speaking countries other than Mexico, it becomes very difficult to understand the names of places and individuals. Viewers interested in Mexico who rarely watch American Spanish TV had to deal with unknown regional expressions, an ocean of false cognates, and some very scary Spanglish. Things regular viewers understand because they are used to this deterioration of the language, but incomprehensible for a casual viewer who may forgive the horrendous expression during a soccer match or a telenovela, but not when trying to find out what happened during an earthquake. In just a few hours I heard enough “colapsado” (word that exists in Spanish, rarely used in Mexico, but a favorite of this TV crowd because it is so similar to “collapsed”) to last me a lifetime. I constantly wondered what ever happened to “desplomado” o “derrumbado” more commonly used outside of the United States, but missing in action from the American Spanish language TV networks’ dictionaries. I have nothing against diversity of Spanish accents or good journalists covering a country different from the one they come from, but for a critical situation like this one, Mexicans abroad needed a reporter and an anchor they could understand and could explain where the damages happened, giving the name of the streets, avenues and neighborhoods.

Because my hunger for accurate information was not yet satisfied, I made it home where I can access live Mexican TV. This time I watched Milenio, Azteca and Televisa.

Throughout the entire wall to wall coverage (September 19-20) Milenio had the most objective coverage. Azteca started fine, but then they brought in Patty Chapoy who may be very important in the network, but has nothing to do during a tragedy of this proportions, so I had to leave Azteca to never come back again for fear to run into this nefarious “Ventaneando goddess”.

The worst coverage was that of Televisa. On a moment of national tragedy, they brought back one of the most hated and corrupt “journalists” in Mexican history: Joaquín López Dóriga, who made sure that the official agenda was covered to the last detail. Instead of covering the human drama and giving the facts to the viewer, he spent the entire day praising the government of President Peña Nieto and minimizing the damages and the mistakes of the government. Another “jewel” of Televisa: Paola Rojas, harassed an earthquake victim and obstructed the search and rescue operation so she could quench her thirst for fame and glory. Unfortunately, this was not the worst part of Televisa’s or Azteca’s coverage: They ignored the needs of the deaf community by actively discriminating against thousands of Mexican citizens by not including a Sign Language interpreter during their coverage; in Televisa, arguing that having a square on the screen with a Sign Language interpreter would be “too distracting”, and in TV Azteca because there were already “too many squares on the screen”.

Finally, I could find nothing in any indigenous language, not even government or college TV channels. The only highlight: the Intercultural Indigenous Languages Interpreters Organization (OTIGLI) offered interpreting services to the members of the Indigenous community in hospitals and shelters. I believe that in a crisis like this one, those deciding and developing protocols to save lives and assets must understand the importance of communication. If they do, then they will try to provide the best and most accessible information to everybody, regardless of the language they speak or sign. There are very capable interpreters and translators in Mexico; there are also honest people in the government. I know this because I have met many in the last two years and I am convinced of their commitment and dedication to a more accessible, inclusive Mexican society.  The solutions are not outrageously complex nor they require an obscene amount of resources, but they are not cheap either, they need of honest capable people and a generous amount of resources. Remember that there is not such a thing as the “government’s money”, it is the people’s money. It came from the millions of taxpayers. When viewed this way, suddenly, it is not such an irrational request to ask that more lives be saved by making everything accessible to all. If there was ever a justified expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, this is it. A society cannot be safe, and a government cannot be compassionate or civilized unless it takes care of all of its people. Inclusive, accurate, accessible communication is a good start.

I wish the best to all our fellow humans affected by these earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters anywhere in the world, and I invite you to leave your comments and ideas to improve how a society deals with all languages in a time of crisis.

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise to the Iraqi interpreters.

January 31, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

September 11, 2001 changed the lives of everybody in the United States and in many ways it also changed the way so many live around the world. After the despicable attack on the American people, the U.S. embarked on two armed conflicts in a land thousands of miles away from America, and in so many ways different from the west.

Many young Americans were sent to the Middle East to fight these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were brave service men and women unfamiliar with the geography, culture, traditions, and languages spoken over there.  It became apparent that communicating in the local languages would be essential to the success of the military operations and to the safety of all Americans, military and civilian, in harm’s way. It was then that the United States armed forces recruited native speakers from the local population who spoke English, and were familiar with the culture and social structure of local tribes and governments, friend or foe.

Soon, these brave volunteers from Afghanistan and Iraq learned basic military skills and protocol, acquired the necessary knowledge to serve as a communication conduit between the Americans and the local dwellers, captured prisoners, and members of the official armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan; they became the conflict zone interpreters of the United States Armed Forces. Many of them were motivated by their resentment towards the local governments and the corruption of their local officials, others did it out of hope for a new regime without religious persecution; some participated because of their sincere admiration for the United States and its values.  All made the commitment to serve as interpreters for the Americans despite the fact that they well knew that they were risking their own lives and those of their family members.

In exchange for these invaluable and much needed services, the American government promised these interpreters that at the end of the conflict, those who were alive, and their families, would be taken to the United States to start a new life away from any potential risk they may encounter in their home countries as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. during the war. This was an essential part of the agreement. These conflict zone interpreters knew that their heads would have a price once they started working for the Americans. They understood that they were not just risking their lives during the fire exchanges or door-to-door raids; they knew that if left behind by the United States, they would be subjected to unspeakable harm by those who considered them traitors. These interpreters and their families would be killed without a doubt.

When it was time to honor their end of the bargain, these brave interpreters fulfilled their promise by acting as communication liaisons and cultural advisors, to the Americans they were embedded with. They interpreted under the most extreme conditions: in the middle of a fire exchange, during unpleasant interrogatories, when helicopters were flying over their heads making it next to impossible to hear what a soldier or an enemy were saying, and while they were running for cover.

Once the U.S. decided to withdraw from the region, the surviving conflict zone interpreters expected the United States government to fulfill its end of the bargain and take them and their families to the United States. They had risked it all honoring their commitment to interpret from Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Hazaragi, Uzbek, Balochi, Pashayi, and others languages, into English and vice versa.  Now they waited for Washington to live up to its promises and protect them from the animosity and rancor that permeated their towns and villages.

The U.S. government slowly responded and started the immigration process for these born-abroad American heroes. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the conflict zone interpreters, the men and women in the military they had helped and protected during the wars, and the international interpreter community, the process came ever so slowly. The entry visas were granted at a piecemeal pace. In fact, to this day, many of these interpreters and their families remain abroad, waiting for their entry visas, and worrying about the violence that constantly surrounds them back home.

Despite the efforts of many professional interpreter organizations and other non-governmental entities demanding that immigration authorities speed up the process, many of these conflict zone interpreters and their relatives have lost their lives during this wait.  It is important to mention that the United States government is not the only one delaying the issuance of these entry visas; regretfully, most western governments are doing exactly the same.

I have been fortunate to meet several conflict zone interpreters, and I am honored that some of them call me their friend. They are regular people. They have interpreting stories they like to share just like you, and they have tales of horror that leave you speechless after you hear them. Tales of fathers killed right before their eyes, older brothers recruited for the army against their will in the middle of the night, mothers and sisters raped in their presence, friends and relatives they never saw again. They went through so much, and yet they are kind, friendly people full of gratitude to the United States for bringing them to a safe place.

It is in the middle of this environment that President Trump’s executive order requiring “extreme vetting” before allowing entry to citizens of several countries becomes enforceable on January 28, 2017. Immigration officers inspecting foreigners arriving at all ports of entry to the United States are ordered to deny entry to all people from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The ban includes those individuals who present a visa to the immigration authority, and even those who have been adjudicated status as lawful permanent residents of the United States.  Tragically, the executive order includes all Iraqis without any distinction; among them: all Iraqi conflict zone interpreters who were entering or reentering the country (certain individuals were excluded from this order for national interest reasons, but that is irrelevant to this post). To add insult to injury, the first Iraqi denied entry to the country at JFK International Airport in New York City was a conflict zone interpreter: Hameed Jhalid Darweesh!

What happened to the promised made to our Iraqi colleagues a decade and a half ago? They fulfilled their commitment to the United States, are we not?

Dear friends and colleagues, President Trump’s executive order covers many issues and has many consequences in the real world. As expected, it was challenged in federal court, and like all lawyers knew, the court granted a stay pending a hearing on the merits in February. I understand that many of you oppose the executive order in its entirety; I am also aware that many of you support it. This is not the place to attack or defend these different points of view. As a lawyer, I believe that some of its content will be overturned and some will be upheld by the courts. Those of you in favor or against the order will no doubt pursue different means to make your voice heard. What I ask you on this entry is non-partisan:  We must protect our profession, we have to support our conflict zone interpreter colleagues.

Please understand that the stay ordered on Saturday by Judge Ann Donnelly is temporary. Do not believe news reports, like Yahoo News, that immediately informed that the president had lost. That is false. What the judge did this time happens very often in cases when the potential damage caused by a government act could be serious and irreparable.  The court has to hear the case on its merits and then decide. This will happen next month, and at that time, she may decide that the government is right, that the government was wrong, or most likely, that part of the executive order is constitutional and part of it is not. Even in the event that the judge rules the order unconstitutional, the Administration will appeal the decision. I have no doubt that this case will end up before the United States Supreme Court.

This is too much of a risk. We have to defend our profession. We have to make sure that the promises to our Iraqi conflict zone interpreter colleagues are kept; that the agreement they entered over ten years ago is honored by our government. We have an opportunity to set precedent in our legal system so that it is clear that in the future, those foreign colleagues who cooperate with the United States in other conflict zones, regardless of geographical location, are protected and treated honorably once it is time to come back home.

Regardless of anything else you may do for or against this executive order, I invite you to contact the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and tell them to support an immediate exception to the executive order excluding from the ban all conflict zone interpreters and their families. Explain to them that they risked their lives for the sake of our country, and that the United States promised to protect them and bring them to America. Ask them to keep our promise the same way they kept theirs.  If you live in a State of district where your senators or representatives are Republican, please call both: their local and Washington office to let them know that these colleagues are heroes who fought for the United States and saved the lives of many of their constituents’ sons and daughters by putting their own lives on the line.  We have to do this. We cannot wait for the outcome of a court case that could take a long time and could grant admission to some of this interpreters and exclude others, particularly those who have never entered the U.S.

We have to make sure that the exception to the executive order, and any future legislation, will cover three types of conflict zone interpreters and their families, regardless of their country of origin: (1) Those already admitted to the United States who may reenter the country after a visit abroad; (2) Those already granted a visa to come in who have yet to enter the U.S., and (3) Those colleagues whose application for admission is still pending adjudication or pending a final decision after an appeal or reconsideration of an original denial. They all assisted the members of our armed forces. All of them have to be protected.

I know that some professional associations like AIIC, FIT and IAPTI,  nonprofit organizations like Red T, which  advocates for interpreters in high risk settings, and some interpreter programs like InterpretAmerica will make their voice heard on this issue. That is great; however, nothing gets the attention of a legislator like the voice of their own constituents; this is why you must call, email, or physically go to their local office. Let them know what interpreters do and how crucial is our work. Many of you have spent a lifetime educating attorneys, judges, physicians, nurses, agency managers, event organizers, sound technicians, and many others, so this should come naturally to you.

To conclude, I thank you for supporting our Iraqi colleagues, for defending our profession, and for setting aside your personal political agendas for the cause that we all have in common: The interpreting profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experiences with conflict zone interpreter colleagues, from Iraq or elsewhere, you have met here in the U.S. or abroad if you were serving in the military with any of them. I ask you to please do so without any politically charged arguments for or against the administration, and I ask you to limit your comments to conflict zone interpreters or their family members.

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