Do many interpreters experience vicarious trauma?

May 7, 2019 § 26 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I ask this question because I have been an interpreter for over 30 years and I have experienced no symptoms of vicarious trauma. When I started my career, nobody ever talked about vicarious trauma whether by its name or by any other name; however, in the last few years I have read many articles and attended many interpreter conferences where some of my colleagues dealt with this issue. I did my homework before writing this post. I read about the symptoms and activities that, as interpreters, put us at a higher risk because of the exposure to people or situations involving suffering, injustice, and many terrible things.  I read about empathy, compassion, internalizing your feelings, emptiness, denial, coping with big world tragedies through psychic numbing, and even sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder) and discover that none apply.

I consider myself “normal”. My friends see me as a regular guy. I am kind and considerate to those around me; I am a happy guy, and I have been told that I am a good friend, relative, and colleague. I will never be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I have a full life doing what I like with those I care for.

After much consideration, I concluded that my attitude towards my profession has kept me from vicarious trauma. My background is in Law. I was an attorney before I was an interpreter. During the years I practiced my former profession, I was exposed to many bad things. I got to see the dark side of human nature. Then, my interpreting career began in the courtroom. I now work as a conference interpreter, and I have never worked as a healthcare interpreter, but I spent my days in courthouses and jails for many years. Both occupations put me in the middle of murders, rapes, drug crimes, child molestation, ugly divorces, loss of parental rights, domestic violence, wrongful dead, bankruptcies, deportations, and similar situations. For years I interacted with people: defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims, providing my professional services on what had to be the worst day of their lives. People do not get up in the morning and say: “I think I would love to be arrested today”; or “today is a good day to terminate my parent-child relationship forever”. Unless they go to get married or to adopt a child, regular humans do not go to courthouses just because.

I have worked side by side with many interpreters during trials involving vicious criminals and people found not guilty by a jury. I have interpreted testimony of children graphically describing sexual crimes committed against them, and have interpreted when a mother described to the jury how the bad guys killed her son in front of her.

I have sat next to individuals charged with murder and facing the dead penalty, and with parents of young children who know they will be deported on that day. During those hundreds of cases throughout several decades, I never heard a fellow interpreter say they were feeling the symptoms of vicarious trauma. I now wonder if they, like I, experienced none of them, they did not recognize them, or they were just hiding them.

I think that I have never suffered the effects of this trauma because, even though I cry at the movies, I have always focused on the task and delivered the service, always knowing these were cases, not my personal life. I have always treated the client with respect, addressing them by their name and accommodating their professional interpreting needs regardless of the charges they were facing. To me, a murder trial is never about the gross details of the killing. It is about the theory of the defense, the prosecutorial strategy, the skill needed to get certain evidence admitted to trial. It is never about the small kid telling the judge who he rather be with: his father or mother; it is about delivering the rendition with the proper register, hearing everything that child is mumbling from the stand, staying out of the judge’s field of vision so she can better evaluate the witness’ testimony. I have never injected myself into a case or the personal life of the parties. Unlike most of my colleagues, after a rendition, I remember the legal arguments in a motions hearing much better than the testimony of an eyewitness. When I do legal interpreting without ever thinking about it, I have always seen myself as a person looking through a window, a spectator, a professional doing his job. I never identify my life or feelings with those of the parties in a case. I act professionally around those I interpret for, but I have never held a conversation with them; not even small talk beyond inquiring their place of origin so I can hear their accent and know what to expect. I never asked them if they want a glass of water. I never ask them if they have questions. Those are things for their lawyer or the Marshall to ask. When they occasionally ask me to convey a message to a relative in the courtroom, I simply tell them I cannot. It is not part of my job. Except for the names of those who I first interpreted for many years ago, unless my client was a celebrity for the right or for the wrong reasons, I never even remember their names or faces.

I never planned it; this is how it always was. This is how it always will be. Therefore, when I leave the courtroom after the convicted felon has been sentenced to life, after I interpret the deportation order, or when I hear the still doors closing behind me as I leave a prison, I go home, meet friends for happy hour, or catch a baseball game at Wrigley Field without ever thinking about the things that took place at work. I close the drapes of that window.

The question at the beginning of this post is real: Have you experienced vicarious trauma? I am sure some of you have, but I would like to know if I am in the minority or not. Please share your experience; I would love to hear from you. It is fine if you just want to tell us yes or no. The last thing I want is for you to bring back your bad memories again.

Lack of understanding, common sense = constitutional conflict in court?

November 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I recently learned that some federal district courts got involved in the way federal prosecutors pick their interpreters for hearings. I have practiced in federal court for many years, and the decision on who will interpret for the office of the United States Attorney has always been left to the prosecutors who know the case better than anybody else. This means they, and their prosecutorial team of paralegals, investigators, detectives, and law enforcement agents, know the language complexities of a particular case, and therefore, better equipped to decide who they need for that interpreting assignment.

I do not dispute that some districts, because of a lack of federally certified court interpreters, or out of plain ignorance, have never tried a case where the assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSA) have their own interpreters for a trial. Some districts are so small, the AUSA office does not even have a staff interpreter. Some districts are so remote, that even the court tries cases with unqualified court interpreters (usually certified or accredited at the state level) because it is next to impossible to get somebody to the courthouse. Evidentiary hearings and trials require that an interpreter be physically present at the hearing. Remote interpreting is not a viable option for these proceedings.

That some have always followed this practice does not make it right, and courts in districts in urban centers where federally certified court interpreters are available have no reason to inject themselves in what should be an internal process of the Department of Justice. Let me elaborate:

The American legal system, and all legitimate legal systems in the world, are based on an independent judiciary free to decide with no pressures or fear of retaliation. The United States Constitution recognizes and enshrines this principle through the separation of powers. The Executive Branch of the federal government originates from Article 2. The Judicial Branch stems from Article 3.

With administration of justice in a criminal case, all individuals in the United States have the rights and protections established by the Constitution and secondary legislation; mainly, the right to a public and fair trial by their peers, starting with a presumption of innocence, charging the Executive Branch of government, through the United States Department of Justice, with the burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, in an orderly regulated process, presided by and controlled by the Judicial Branch of government. To put it simply: Because the government cannot be judge and party, it is an agency from outside the Judicial Branch, in this case the Justice Department, who prosecutes the case on behalf of the U.S. government, including the citizens that the government must protect from the bad guys.

We can see that having the burden of proof is no small task. Federal prosecutors must investigate de facts, test and evaluate the evidence found, and prepare a case that will persuade the jury and judge of an individuals’ guilt beyond reasonable doubt. If successful, the Justice Department will meet its duty to protect society. This is no easy task; it also means that individuals will lose their assets, their freedom, and even their life.  A prosecutorial team must have the best team available to fulfill its function, and that is extremely difficult.

Federal prosecutors must call witnesses to testify in the trial. When these witnesses do not speak English, their testimony must be interpreted into English to benefit the defendant, the defense attorneys, the judge, and the jury. It is only then, after the rendition of the interpretation, that the defendant will have exercised his constitutional right to confront the witness or accuser. It only after the rendition that a judge or jury can assess the credibility of the witness. It is this time they will decide if they believe all, part, or nothing of the witness’ statement.

But most of the work is done before the witness steps in the courtroom and takes the stand. Prosecutors and their teams test, evaluate, and prepare their witnesses before a trial. Questions are asked many times, in many ways; adjustments are made. Not to influence testimony, but to present the truth clearly to the trier of fact (judge or jury). Usually the testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution is very complex, specialized, scientific. Dense concepts and sophisticated terminology must be interpreted into English during the trial; cultural concepts must be clarified before the final rendition (many expert witnesses come from abroad just for the trial); legal systems compared so the accurate term in the target language is rendered by the interpreter. Leaving loose ends is not an option: The prosecution must prove, and the standard could not be any higher: beyond reasonable doubt. Prosecutors and their teams, assisted by the interpreters, go over the testimony with every witness as many times as needed. These interpreters must research, study, practice, develop a common glossary for each testimony. The witness gets used to that team of interpreters and the interpreters get used to the witness.

The interpreters for the prosecution know the case, they are familiar with names, dates, places, and other key information that must be interpreted with accuracy. From gang slang, to amounts of drugs, to family relationships. It all needs to be well-understood so the interpretation heard in trial is accurate, pristine, and truthful.

Confidentiality is essential to our justice system. It lets the parties tell the truth to their attorneys so they can represent, in a criminal case, a defendant or society with full knowledge of the facts. Confidentiality is also very important when it comes to the lawyers’ strategy. Prosecutors and defense attorneys develop a strategy to win a case. The interpreters for the prosecution know the strategy and facts, and they are covered by the veil of secrecy. Using a court appointed interpreter to interpret for the prosecution generates a conflict of interest. You cannot be judge and party simultaneously. Even the most professional, trustworthy interpreters should never be placed in such situation. The sole appearance of conflict is enough to cast a shadow on the proceedings. Client-attorney privilege only exists when there is an expectation of privacy. How could this be argued when the same interpreter hears all confidential details?

The independence of the prosecutorial interpreters is so important, that even their payment differs from that court appointed, public defender, and Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorney interpreters receive.  I am not referring to staff interpreters, I am talking about independent contractors retained to work in a case. While interpreters for the court, public defender, and CJA attorneys are paid through the judicial system (Judicial Branch of government) interpreters for the prosecution are paid by the United States Department of Justice (Executive Branch). The funds come from different budgets to assure independence, absence of conflict of interests, and separation of powers. The Office of the United States Attorney pays better that the courts, and unlike the latter, fees are negotiable between the parties (interpreters and AUSAs). This can also be relevant if you think that most more experienced, better trained interpreters would rather work for the prosecution, leaving a smaller pool of top-level interpreters to work for the courts, and increasing the risk of an inaccurate rendition of a prosecutorial witness’ complex testimony during the trial.

The widely, and constitutionally backed, practice of having a separate interpreter team for the prosecution in federal cases must continue as long as we have separation of powers, and a system where one party has the burden of proof. There is no rational justification for this practice by the executive branch of government, to be changed by court staff, from a different branch. Such decisions are being made in courthouses where none of the issues above were given any thought, where prosecutors did not reflect on the implications of such changes, and a decision was unilaterally made, perhaps due to a lack of understanding that lead to this policy deprived of common sense. If the decision at these district courts was made unilaterally, we have a separation of powers issue; if it was decided for monetary reasons, remember that interpreter fees are paid from two budgets (executive and judiciary); if it was decided to avoid comparisons between experienced prosecutorial interpreters, and perhaps less qualified court appointed ones, it was motivated by unethical reasons and it shows a disappointing level of professionalism; and if this was a joint decision by the courts and AUSAs in some districts, they must address the conflict of interest and at the least the appearance of conflict.

Our legal system has been around for 250 years. It has organically adjusted its parts to observe the fundamental democratic principles, starting with an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, and the rights and protections to the individual and society. In today’s world where many things that were, are no longer, let’s hope this is not changed by the capricious decision of a few. I invite you to share your thoughts on this issue.

Be professional at work, or don’t do it!

April 30, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession with so many complexities we often overlook a very important factor: Professionalism no matter what. Let me explain.

Interpreting takes us to wonderful places both physically and figuratively, but sometimes it can take us to the very dark corners of the universe. As interpreters we let people borrow our voice and knowledge of a foreign culture and language to convey a message. Sometimes the venue is not the place we would spend our vacation at; the borrower is not somebody we would invite to dinner, or the message is not something we would cherish. These are the times when we must be professionals.

Fortunately for all of us, there are two ways to be professional as an interpreter: The first one is to evaluate the assignment, do a self-examination of our impartiality, level of tolerance, and physical endurance, and either take the job or turn it down if the auto-evaluation tells us that is the best way to go. Interpreters are human and humans have different reactions to specific situations. Some colleagues may feel that a venue, speaker or subject matter will keep them from doing a good job; others may feel uncomfortable, but will render a top-quality service regardless of the place where they work, the people they interpret for, or the issues discussed in the speech. The important thing is to be honest with ourselves and make the right decision.

For example, I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for a pedophile, a murderer or a rapist; some of my peers will not enter the booth in a venue where they will advocate for or against something they believe in, like gun rights, globalization, pro-life actions, pro-choice groups, and so on. Finally, some people, like myself, will professionally interpret for all of the above, but would never interpret in a hospital with all that smell of Clorox and other disinfectants. The key is to reject those assignments we cannot do without feeling incompetent or unprofessional.

The real problem is when interpreters take the assignment and then perform unprofessionally. The world is a complicated place and we live in it. Sometimes external circumstances physically put us in a place where there are now more things we disagree with than before. It is under these circumstances that we must be honest and turn down what we cannot do at the top of our game, or make the determination to do an assignment we do not like as if we loved it. We will be uncomfortable, but we must perform just like the emergency room physician who saves the like of a mass murderer, or the lawyer who defends the most despicable war criminal. That is professionalism.

For this reason I am disturbed when I hear how some colleagues step out of their interpreter role and do things we are not supposed to do. I am talking about those in the booth who change the register of what the speaker said to either favor or harm the message because they disagree with what was said from the podium; I am also talking about the unfortunate cases when court interpreters in immigration and federal court tone down legal terminology or try to assist the defendant or respondent just because they sympathize with his situation or disagree with the government’s policy or legislation.

Those appearing in immigration court or before a federal judge under an immigration charge have allegedly violated the law of the land. This should never impact our court interpreter’s work. If they were arrested (in federal court) or detained (in immigration court) it was under a legal precept violation or a lawfully issued order. It is irrelevant that we like it or not. Refusing to interpret once you already took the assignment, giving information to the respondent, telling them not to go to court, warning them of the presence of immigration agents, and even refusing to use the legal term “alien”[INA Section 101(3) The term “alien” means any person not a citizen or national of the United States…] choosing the more accepted, but legally incorrect term “immigrant”, are unprofessional acts. We should not take these assignments if we believe we cannot act professionally. As officers of the court, we must act as expected by the law even if we feel uncomfortable doing it.

As a court interpreter I have interpreted for murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and drug lords; as a conference interpreter I have interpreted for conservative and liberal groups; as a media interpreter I have interpreted both: Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Obviously, I do not agree with everything I interpret and I do not like everybody I have interpreted for, but I have always been professional conveying the message as intended by the speaker and with total loyalty to legal terminology and procedure when working in court. I know my limitations, I understand the circumstances that would keep me from being professional all the time, and you will never see me interpreting in a hospital setting. I now invite you to share your thoughts about those events we should turn down when we question our professionalism.

U.S. Immigration Court interpreters’ other enemy.

October 18, 2016 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

About two months ago the California immigration court interpreters started a movement to force the hand of SOSi and the EOIR with the goal of achieving better work conditions, a professional pay for the services rendered, and to keep the authorities from hiring new interpreters and interpretation students for a lower fee.  This entry will not deal with the merits or the outcome of such movement. We will talk about the elephant in the room: the big obstacle to the professionalization of the interpreting services in American immigration courts that can be changed by the interpreters themselves.

I know that this blog entry will make some uncomfortable, and I do not like to do that. Unfortunately, my life-long effort to fight for the professionalization of interpreting does not allow me to keep silent. To me, that would be equivalent to betraying my own professional standards. I write this piece with respect and with no desire to offend, knowing that by the time some of you finish reading this article, you will feel offended. I only ask you to reflect on what bothered you, and honestly acknowledge, at least to yourself, that you are not really up to save the profession (as a true profession, not as a laborer’s occupation) in the immigration court arena.

For several years now, there has been a tendency to credentialize interpreters who provide services to the public, who perform a fiduciary function.  Because of the wide variety of languages regularly spoken in the United States, and due to the millions of people who do not speak English at all, or at least good enough to go through a legal or medical process, most efforts have been applied to the certification of Spanish interpreters, by far the most popular foreign language nationwide, and finding other solutions for the other languages.

Court interpreters had an early start and developed the federal Spanish court interpreter certification exam. Many States followed and the States’ Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification was born, later taking us to the current Language Access Advisory Committee (LAAC) and Council of Language Access Coordinators (CLAC).

Healthcare interpreters followed suit and developed two different interpreter certification programs (the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters: CCHI, and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters’ CMI program) both of them widely spread and recognized throughout the United States. Granted, the term “medical interpreter” to describe the functions of these professionals is less accurate that “healthcare interpreter”, and compared to the court interpreter certification federal and state-level exams, both healthcare certifications are way behind in content and degree of difficulty; but unlike court interpreter certification programs, healthcare interpreters have achieved something extremely valuable that court interpreters can only dream of: an examination administered by an independent entity, just like lawyers and physicians, instead of the uncomfortable government-run court interpreter programs that always raise the issue of the real conflict of interests when the entity certifying interpreters is the same one who hires them.

At any rate, healthcare interpreters in the United States now have a way to prove that they are minimally qualified to do their job, that they adhere to a code of ethics, and that they comply with continuing education requirements that will keep them current in language, interpreting, terminology, and medical issues. In other words, healthcare interpreters sitting at the table with court interpreters can now bring up their credential and feel at the same professional level than their legal colleagues, instead of having to give a speech about how certifications do not mean a thing, that it is working in the trenches that makes you a good interpreter, and that your field is so unique that no existing certification exam could test what is needed to work in that field.

Well, dear friends and colleagues, this takes me straight to a very real, and somewhat uncomfortable problem, faced everyday by immigration court interpreters in the United Stets: They have no certification program requirement to work in court, and for that reason, there is no way to prove a certain minimum level, thus allowing bad interpreters to work in the immigration court system for years.

Court interpreting is a highly skilled occupation that requires of a professional provider. By its nature, it is also a fiduciary function where a judge, attorneys, respondents and witnesses must trust the knowledge and skill of the interpreter who will speak throughout the proceedings while at least half of those present will not understand a word of what was said. It is an awesome responsibility that cannot be left to the paraprofessional or the untested.

Presently, all Article Three courts in the United States, at all levels (federal and state) have a Spanish language court interpreter certification program that includes minimum requirements to take the exam, passing a comprehensive and difficult test (at least at the federal level), observing a code of ethics, and (with the exception of the federal program) complying with continuing education in the legal, interpreting, and language fields to be able to keep the certification. These courts are part of the Judiciary Branch of government.

Immigration Courts are not a part of the Judiciary. They are in the Executive Branch of government and are referred to as Article One courts because of their legal basis in the U.S. Constitution. The thing is, my colleagues, these courts deal with societal, family, and personal values and interests as important as those heard by Article Three judges. They are courts of law that abide by a set of substantive and adjective laws.  For practical reasons, they operate just like any judicial court: there is a judge, there are parties (one of them will be the government just like in criminal law), there are witnesses, and there are attorneys.  Although the controversies are different, immigration proceedings also include a first appearance, motions hearings, a court trial, and a verdict. There is a burden of proof, rules of evidence and procedure, and the possibility of an appeal to a higher court (Board of Immigration Appeals). The fact that the terminology calls these hearings “master calendar”, “bond redetermination”, “credible fear”, or “individual hearing” does not make much difference.   The cases are as different from those interpreted in an Article Three courtroom, as a criminal case differs from a civil or a family law proceeding.

The skills required to interpret are the same as in any other type of court proceeding: There is a need for simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, as well as sight translation. Interpreters use equipment just the same (in fact, in many cases even the same brand), and the expected ethical and professional conduct of the interpreter is the same.

It is a fact that immigration court interpreters are disrespected by their client: the EOIR on a daily basis. There is no denial that they make little money, work long hours, and they do it solo, regardless of the complexity or duration of a hearing. It is also well-known that they are treated in humiliating fashion by being forced to jump through many administrative hoops that no other court interpreter will ever face, in part because they are subcontracted by a multinational agency that tries to keep control over the interpreters without physically being at the courthouse, but also in part because interpreters are not considered professionals, they are not acknowledged as officers of the court.

I firmly believe that the only way to earn the credibility they need so much, Spanish language (for now, and ideally all widely used language combinations later) immigration court interpreters in the United States must demand a court interpreter certification requirement to be able to work.  They need it for their credibility among their peers and with the public opinion.  Once they have a credential, together with a code of ethics and continuing education requirements, they will be in a much better position to negotiate with anybody.

Because immigration court is a federal matter, and the services provided by the interpreter are the same as the ones in all federal courts, I think that the certification they need to have is the already existing FCICE. It would be very simple, all they need to do is convince the EOIR of this need. The exam already exists, all these interpreters would need to do is register and take the test. Then, if both, EOIR and the immigration interpreter community think it is appropriate, there could be a short immigration terminology exam (although I don’t think it necessary just like current certified court interpreters do not need to test every time they interpret a different kind of hearing. Part of an interpreter’s duty is to get ready for an assignment and that professional obligation should be enough).  This would be the best way to demonstrate that their simultaneous, consecutive, and sight skills are at a minimum level to deserve that trust we discussed above. In fact, by getting EOIR to agree, immigration interpreters would have until the Summer of 2018 to take and pass the written portion of the federal exam, and then until the Summer of 2019 to take and pass the oral test. In the meantime, it could be agreed that those currently working would continue to do so until the Summer of 2018.

This solution would immediate put immigration court interpreters at the same negotiating level as their Article Three federal counterparts; In fact, it would benefit everyone: Currently federally certified Spanish court interpreters would consider working in immigration court as the pay would be the same (or almost), and newly federally certified immigration court interpreters would have the opportunity to broaden their professional horizons and work in federal courts.

Of course, this means that two things must happen: First, the certification exam cannot be a “Mickey Mouse test” like the ones offered to immigration court interpreters by multinational agency contractors; they have no scientific value and a very poor reputation. And second, immigration court interpreters need to understand that those who do not pass the exam must go, regardless of the time they have been a fixture at the immigration courthouse. Any other “solution” would defeat the purpose and discredit the credential. This, my friends, is the “other” enemy of the U.S. immigration interpreter: the bad interpreter who has never been able to pass a court certification exam, knows that they never will, and spend all their time and energy trying to convince others that certifications are worthless, exams are rigged, and that the only way to learn the profession in in the courtroom.  These people have to go away. They are like a cancer that is slowing down the progress of the rest of their colleagues.

To argue “unity” to protect and keep these individuals is misleading. Professional unity can only happen among professionals, and the individuals I just described above may be paraprofessionals but they are definitely not professional material. Imagine for one moment going to the hospital for emergency surgery and being told that the person who will operate on you has never taken or passed the Board, but has a lot of experience. Would you let this non-doctor cut you open?

I understand it is very hard to set aside our emotions and empathy for these individuals, but it is time to think of yourselves, your families and your peers. Unless you want to continue to struggle as an immigration court interpreter, you have to get certified. A decision to dodge the certification issue, or to settle for a lower standard of certification, because someone who cannot pass the test convinced you to support other options, will be a vote for the status quo, sacrificing the good ones to protect those who do not deserve to be there.

Understanding the Electoral College in the United States.

October 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my career I have noticed that every four years during the Presidential election season in the United States many interpreters are faced with the Electoral College topic even when their assignments are non-political.  Because of its American uniqueness, this topic presents a challenge to many colleagues who usually work outside the United States and to others who live in the country but grew up somewhere else.  In fact, the Electoral College is one of those issues that many Americans do not fully understand, even if they vote every four years.  Interpreters cannot interpret what they do not understand, and in a professional world ruled by the market, where the Clinton and Trump campaigns are dominating broadcasts and headlines, this topic will continue to appear on the radar screen. Therefore, a basic knowledge of this legal-political process should come in handy every four years.

Because we are in a very “different” campaign and Election Day will be here before we know it, I decided to put my legal background and my passion for history to work:

Every four years when an American citizen goes to the polls on a Tuesday in November to elect the new president of the United States, that individual does not vote for any of the presidential candidates. We Americans vote for a preference (Republican, Democratic and occasionally other) and for electors who will go to Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in the month of December to cast all electoral votes from that state, in favor of the candidate who represents the preference of the majority of the state voters as expressed on that Tuesday in November.  In other words, we vote for the people who will go to Washington D.C., to vote on our behalf for the presidential candidate who received the most direct votes from the citizens of that state during the general election.  After the November election, those electors are pledged to the candidate who received the most votes in that state.  The result: We have direct vote elections in each state, and then we have the final election in December when the states vote as instructed by the majority of its citizens. It is like a United Nations vote. Think of it like this: Each state elects its presidential favorite; that person has won the presidential election in that state. Now, after the November election is over, the states get together in December as an Electoral College and each of them votes. This is the way we determine a winner. Each state will vote as instructed, honoring the will of its citizenry.  We do not have proportional representation in the United States.

Historically and culturally this country was built on the entrepreneurial spirit: Those who risk everything want everything, and when they succeed, all benefits should go their way. We are an “all or nothing” society. That is even reflected on our sports. All popular sports invented and played in the United States have a winner and a loser by the end of the game: We do not like ties because we associate a tie with mediocrity. A baseball game can go on forever until a team wins.  We do the same in politics. Once the citizens have voted, the winner gets all the benefits, in this case all the electoral votes; it does not matter if he or she won by a million votes or by a handful. You may remember how President George W. Bush was elected to his first term; he won the state of Florida by a very small margin, but winner takes it all, therefore all of Florida’s electoral votes went to him and he became the 43rd. President of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams got to the White House with a smaller margin than George W. Bush.

I mentioned earlier that we like the principle of winner takes it all. Although that is true, we are a country of fairness and justice with such diversity that the only way to achieve this goal is through a balance of the rights of the people on one side, and those of the states on the other. (For those who have a difficult time understanding why the states have rights separate from the people, please imagine the United States as a mini-world where each state is an independent country. Then think of your own country and answer this question: Would you like a bigger or more populated foreign country to impose its will over your country, or would you like for all countries to be treated as equals?) In December when the electors or delegates from each state meet as an electoral college in Washington D.C. to cast their state’s electoral votes, all states have a voice, they are all treated as equal.  This is the only way that smaller states are not overlooked; their vote counts.

We find the final step to achieve this electoral justice to the states of the United States of America (all fifty states and territories that make this country) and to the citizens of the country in the number of electoral votes that a state has; in other words, how many electors can a state send to Washington D.C. in November.  The answer is as follows:  The constitution of the United States establishes that there will be a House of Representatives (to represent the people of the United States) integrated by 435 members elected by the people of the district where they live. These districts change with the shifts in population but additional seats are never added to the House.  When the population changes, the new total population are divided by 435 and that gives you the new congressional district. The only limitations: An electoral district cannot cross state lines (state borders) therefore, occasionally we will have a district slightly larger or slightly smaller, and every state must have at least one electoral district (one house member) regardless of its population.    The American constitution establishes that there will be a Senate (to represent the 50 states) integrated by 2 representatives or members from each state for a total of 100 senators elected by all the citizens of that particular state. When new states have been admitted to the Union (the last time was 1959 when Alaska and Hawaii became states number 49 and 50 respectively) the senate grows by two new members.

As you can see, all states have the same representation in the Senate (2 senators each) regardless of the state’s size or population. The House of Representatives on the other hand, has more members from the states with larger population, but all states have at least one representative in the house. This way the American system makes sure that the will of the majority of the people is heard in Congress (House of Representatives) and it assures the 50 states that all of them, even the smaller ones, will be heard as equals in the Senate. You need both houses of Congress to legislate.

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (435 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state, therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of this totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason why California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 separate countries who have an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on November 8 of this year we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.

 

Electoral votes by state Total: 538;

majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

State number of votes State number of votes State number of votes
Alabama 9 Kentucky 8 North Dakota 3
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 20
Arizona 10 Maine 4 Oklahoma 7
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 55 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 21
Colorado 9 Michigan 17 Rhode Island 4
Connecticut 7 Minnesota 10 South Carolina 8
Delaware 3 Mississippi 6 South Dakota 3
District of Columbia 3 Missouri 11 Tennessee 11
Florida 27 Montana 3 Texas 34
Georgia 15 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 5 Vermont 3
Idaho 4 New Hampshire 4 Virginia 13
Illinois 21 New Jersey 15 Washington 11
Indiana 11 New Mexico 5 West Virginia 5
Iowa 7 New York 31 Wisconsin 10
Kansas 6 North Carolina 15 Wyoming 3

How baseball terminology impacts the interpreter’s work.

October 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is baseball postseason time in the United States once again, and with the playoffs and World Series excitement, American speakers resort to baseball analogies and terms more frequently. Some of you may be very knowledgeable on the American national pastime as baseball is widely known, but many others may not know enough or maybe do not even like the game. For this reason, I have decided to tackle one of the most American and complex subjects to interpret: the terminology of baseball.

The first thing we should settle is the name of America’s Major League Baseball championship series: “The World Series”.  To those of us who grew up with this wonderful sport, and after hearing the championship referred to as the “World Series” during our entire lives, the small detail that this “worldly” event only involves teams from the United States (and one from Canada since 1969) tends to be overlooked; however, to the rest of the world, this seems a little odd to say the least. Well, for my fellow interpreters who now live in the States, and for those of you who are abroad and have never understood the reason for such as international title, the most widely accepted explanation is as follows:

In 1904 the sports publication “Reach Guide” reported on the first official “World Championship Series”, played in 1903, using a name coined by the “Spalding Baseball Guide” in 1886 when referring to the championship game between the champions of the two existing professional baseball leagues: Chicago and St. Louis. “Spalding” wrote that since both teams were already “Champions of the United States” in their respective leagues, the winner of this post-season championship series would be the “World Champion”, therefore, the event should be called the “World Championship Series”.  Eventually the title for the championship series was shortened, and when the “Reach” and “Spalding” Guides were replaced by “The Sporting News Guide” (that I remember from my childhood) the name became the “World Series”. This has been the official name of the championship since 1964. So you see, there is nothing mysterious behind the peculiar name. In case you are wondering, the only non-American team ever to win the “World Series” are the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993.

We should now turn our attention to the most common American idiomatic expressions that come from baseball terminology. I will quote each one of them, and then I will give the baseball meaning and its application to our everyday life in the United States.

  • “To get to base”. In baseball, a team “scores” one point, called “a run” when a player is able to get to a plate called “home” after running through all three bases (respectively named: first, second and third base) in a diamond-shaped court called the “infield”.  Getting to first base is somewhat easier than going to second, and second comes before third base. When a player cannot hit the ball for three consecutive good pitches, he “strikes out” and cannot get to any base, not even first.

After World War II when many young Americans came back to their country, they arrived in a prude society where talking about sex was taboo. For this reason, these youngsters created a metaphor to describe their “sexual adventures” without disturbing the ways of the older generation. Because there were different levels to physical intimacy with a partner, Americans came up with the following “code words” that continue to be used today:

“Getting to first base” meant that the couple got to kiss, especially French kissing (mouth to mouth).

“Getting to second base” means that there was skin-to-skin contact, oftentimes it means that there was touching and kissing of the breasts.

“Getting to third base” meant that there was some touching below the waist, and even oral sex.

“To score” meant that there was intercourse; and

“To strike out” is used to describe that there was no foreplay or any other sexual activity.

  • “Switch hitter”. All baseball players get a chance to get to base by facing the other team and hitting the baseball with a bat. The ball is thrown by the main defensive player of the other team called the “pitcher”. Pitchers can be left-handed or right-handed and so can the batters.  There are a few players who can bat as a righty and as a lefty, but in baseball, instead of calling them ambidextrous, they are called “switch-hitters”.

In American society, the term “switch-hitter” is also used to refer to a bisexual individual. A homosexual person is also referred to as “playing for the other team”.

  • “Homerun”. “Hitting it out of the ballpark”. There are times when the batter hits the ball so hard that it leaves the playing field and ends up behind the fence. When that happens, the player can simply run around the infield, step on each base, and continue all the way home to score. This play, very exciting and powerful, can change the game in a second, and it is called a “homerun”, and because the baseball physically leaves the baseball field, and sometimes even the stadium, it is very common to describe this play as “hitting it out of the ballpark”.  By the way, baseball stadiums are not called stadiums, but “ballparks”,

Outside baseball, this metaphor is often used to describe a situation when an individual does something very good and spectacular, pleasantly surprising everybody, and leaving critics and opponents speechless. “Johnny had a wonderful presentation at the meeting today. He hit it out of the ballpark”.

  • “Grand Slam”. When a player hits a “homerun”, and all three bases were taken by his teammates,   they all score; therefore, instead of getting ahead by one run, their team goes up by four runs (one for each player on first, second, and third base, plus the batter who hit the ball out of the ballpark earning the right to go around the bases and score). This is the highest number of runs that a team can score from a single play. The play to describe the four runs scored due to a homerun is called a “grand slam” and to many fans, it is the most exciting play in baseball, as it can turn the score around in the blink of an eye.

In American society, when a person does something very important very quickly, and turns around public opinion, a business transaction, a college exam’s outcome, or anything g else in life, that person has hit a “grand slam”.

  • “Swinging for the fences”. “Homeruns” are difficult, but some baseball players seem to want to hit one every time they face the other team. For this reason, every single time a baseball is thrown by the pitcher, instead of settling for making contact and getting to first base, they swing as hard as they can as if attempting to hit the baseball over the fence and score a run. This very aggressive, but not necessarily smart, action by a player is referred to as “swinging for the fences”.

In the United States when somebody is trying to get something on a very ambitious manner, and sometimes out of desperation or with a “win at all cost” attitude, it is said that this person came out “swinging for the fences”.

  • “On Deck”. When baseball players are not on the field, instead of sitting on a bench by the sidelines like they do in football or basketball, they wait in a trench-like space below field-level assigned to each team. This place is called the “dugout”. When a team is at bat, its players must follow a pre-established order to face the other team called the “line-up”. For this reason, the players that are not batting at the moment wait inside the “dugout”, with the exception of the player who will bat next. This player is allowed to emerge from his trench to the field level to warm up.  Because this resembles the lifestyle of old sailors who used to live below the ship’s main deck, it is said that the player who is warming up before batting is “on deck”.

When someone in America is next for anything: giving a speech, taking an exam, getting a promotion, and so on, it is said that the person is “on deck”.

  • “Out Of Left Field”. Besides the players in the “infield” where the three bases and home plate are.  There is a larger section of the baseball field that is farther away from the place where the batter stands and the pitcher throws. This section is called the “outfield” and it is guarded by three “outfielders” who are distributed one to the right, one to the left, and one to the center. They are the last line of defense against the batter, they see less action than the “infielders”, and they are hard to see because of their distance from home plate.  There are two baseball parks still in use today that are over 100 years old. One of them is Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs.  When the park was built over a century ago, there was an insane asylum in left field, so when something crazy or unforeseen happened, it was described as “out of left field”.

Nowadays, it is very common to hear Americans refer to a sudden, surprising, or unexpected event as coming “out of left field”.  “Mary asked for a raise. Just like that, she came out of left field”.

  • The “Bullpen”. As I mentioned before, the pitcher is the most important player in baseball. He is involved in every single play. For this reason, most pitchers do not play a full game, there are substitutions by other pitchers who are called “relief pitchers”. Because a pitcher must participate in every play, relief pitchers must be ready to perform as soon as they enter the game.  To be able to do this, they first warm up in a special section of the ballpark outside the baseball field. Presently, many baseball parks have located these warming up sections by the side of the field, but in the past, old ballparks used to have an enclosed location for each team where relief pitchers would warm up. This way, the opposing team would not know who was about to enter the game as a relief pitcher, and they would not know whether to get ready for a right-handed or a left-handed pitcher.  The area where pitchers used to warm up evoked images of a corral where animals would be kept contained before coming out to the fields; it especially reminded us of a pen where bulls are kept before a bullfight, and when released, they run into the ring. Relief pitchers do the same, once they get word that they are entering the game, they come out to the field like bulls. This is the reason why the pitchers’ warming up area is called the “bullpen”.

Today in the United States, an office workspace populated with desks without any separating walls or cubicles, resembling a corral where everybody is piled up, are called “bullpens”. “Roy was demoted at work and he now works in the bullpen”.

  • “Extra Innings”. A very important characteristic of the sports played in the United States is the finality of the outcome. Americans want to see a team win every time they play or watch a sport. A tie is considered rewarding mediocrity and it is not popular with U.S. sports’ fans (thus one of the main reasons why Americans are not crazy about “soccer” like the rest of the world seems to be). A baseball game is divided in 9 innings, and the team who scored more runs by the end of the ninth inning wins the game; however, when the score is tied after nine innings, the players must continue to play until there is a winner. Some baseball games have lasted over 20 innings before a team scores and wins. The innings played after the original 9 are completed are called “extra innings”.

These days, any continuation beyond the expected or scheduled time is referred to as “extra innings”“Those negotiations were tough. The parties went into extra innings before an agreement was reached late last night.”

  • “Home-field Advantage”. In baseball the two teams have the same opportunities to score by taking turns to bat. The visiting team goes first in what is called the “top of the inning”, and the home club follows during the “bottom of the inning”. Because baseball is played in 9 innings, the home team will always have an opportunity to score last. This gives them an advantage over the visitor, besides the obvious benefits of playing on the field they are familiar with and before their own fans.

On everyday life, Americans say they have “home-field advantage” when an event takes place in familiar surroundings, before a friendly crowd, or when their participation is the last one on the schedule.  “The meeting will take place in California, and that gives us home-field advantage”.

  • “To Throw a Curve (Ball)”. The pitcher has to face all players from the opposing team and his job is to get them out of the field before they hit the ball and reach first base. To do it, pitchers have an arsenal of different throws that they use to keep batters guessing what they will face next. There are fastballs, sliders, changeups, knuckleballs, cutters, splitters, and curveballs.  If a pitcher has been throwing several fastballs to the batter, he may surprise him by throwing him a curveball next. Curveballs are difficult to hit because as the name indicates, the ball moves around.

When Americans face a particularly difficult issue, problem or obstacle because of someone else, they often say that someone “threw them a curve” or a “curveball”“The teacher really threw me a curveball (or a curve) with that surprise quiz he gave us last week”.

  • “To Walk”. In baseball, a pitcher needs to defend his team by getting rid of the opposing team’s batters. To end an inning, a pitcher has to get three opponents out. Every batter that faces the pitcher will have to hit the baseball and reach first base before he gets three good throws and misses them all either by swinging the bat without hitting the ball, or by letting a good throw go by him without hitting the baseball. These pitches are called “strikes”. On the other hand, the pitcher has to get the batter to hit the ball to one of his teammates so he can be out before reaching base, or he has to throw three strikes before he throws four bad pitches outside of the strike zone which are called “balls”. When the pitcher throws four bad “balls” before he gets the batter out, the batter can take first base. This is called a “walk”.

Outside baseball, when somebody gets a benefit not by own merits, but by the mistakes of others, it is said that she or he “walked”.

  • “Balk”. In baseball, when a pitcher has an opposing team’s runner on base, he can attempt to sack him by throwing the ball to a teammate who has to touch the runner before he returns to the base. For a throw to a base to be legal, the pitcher has to throw the baseball in a single, continuous movement. He cannot hesitate, because if he does, the runner will be awarded an extra base. This hesitation is called a “balk”.

In everyday life, it is said that a person “balks” when she or he is hesitant to accept an idea or proposal.  “The CEO balked at the idea of merging with the competitor”.

No doubt that there must be several other idiomatic expressions that were taken from America’s national pastime and are used by regular folks to describe an action, an attitude, or a person they encounter in their daily lives, but I hope that this article at least gave you an idea of both, the beautiful game of baseball and what all those metaphors mean, so the next time you are in the booth and you hear one of them, you will know exactly where the expression came from, and what it presently means. I now ask you to please share with the rest of us any other baseball terms that you know and I probably missed.

The expenses all interpreters must charge to the client.

September 27, 2016 § 10 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

One of the questions I get the most from students and new colleagues has to do with interpreter fees and expenses. We have covered professional fees from several perspectives in prior posts, but so far we have never really discussed the expenses interpreters should pass on to the client.

I write this entry with my conference interpreter colleagues in mind.  Other interpreters can certainly benefit from this post, but they should always keep in mind that expense reimbursement in their professional practice might be governed or constrained by other considerations such as contractual limitations, government or institutional policies, and legislation.

If you work full time as a conference interpreter, or if you mainly do other type of interpreting, but you accept conference work on weekends, after hours, or during the summer vacation; mainly if you are new to the field, but also if you are a veteran who simply never figured out what expenses to charge to the client, this entry will put you on the right track.

Keep in mind that we will not deal with our professional fees here. That is a separate issue. You should have a set fee that you charge per day and per half-a-day of interpreting.  In the past we have discussed how to arrive to the right fee and what to consider when calculating it.  Some of you have attended my seminars on that precise topic. Remember, you must charge the professional fee for the service you render, and you should never have more than one fee for all clients (except for government or corporate professional service contracts where you agreed to a lower fee in exchange for consistency, volume, prestige, or many other considerations). For now, let’s set the fees aside, and concentrate on those expenses necessary to provide the service that the agency, government office, corporate entity, or end client must reimburse you after the service has been provided.

Notice that I am talking of reimbursement and not advance. I do this because that is the standard business practice and you should be prepared to work that way. Oftentimes, interpreters can lose a good client, or close an important door, simply because they asked for an expenses advance. We should always be prepared to cover these costs upfront. A good conference interpreter who is also good in business should always have money set aside for a plane ticket across the ocean, a hotel reservation, and transportation and food. Naturally, when dealing with new clients whose reputation is unknown to you (after a diligent inquiry on your part) it is always advisable to ask for an advance not just for expenses, but also for part of our fee.

As I said, in an overwhelming majority of assignments, you will be expected to pay first, and be reimbursed later, generally at the same time that your professional fees are paid; sometimes because of the accounting practice of the corporate or governmental client, reimbursement may take quite longer than the payment of your professional fee. You need to be prepared for this. Having an amount available to cover these costs while being reimbursed should be considered as a business investment on your part.

The question is: What expenses should I be reimbursed for?

First, if the assignment requires you to travel away from home, and your trip will be on the day before and the day after the event, you should charge one half a day of your interpreting fee for each of those two days. In other words, if you interpreted a conference that lasted three days, you should charge fees equivalent to four days of work:

½ day fee for travel day to assignment + 3 days of interpreting + ½ day fee for travel day back from the assignment = 4 days of interpreting fees

Next, you must be reimbursed for the airfare, train fare, or bus fare you paid to get to the out of town conference and back. Usually, the client expects you to ask for an economy ticket reimbursement, but in extremely long trips, you should ask for business class reimbursement, especially if you are going to work right after you land from crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific. As I have suggested in past posts, you should have a preferred airline where you are a frequent flyer so you can get upgrades to business or first class with your miles while the client is reimbursing you for the economy ticket. Please make sure to include here all other flight-related charges such as luggage fees, airport fees and taxes, visa fees when applicable, that you disbursed in order to get to the out of town venue.

You should also request a reimbursement of all hotel expenses that have to do with lodging: room fare, reservation processing fee, internet service in the room, and so on. Things like room service or pay-per-view movies in the hotel room cannot and should not be included in the reimbursement request. You should pick a business hotel, not a luxury hotel (unless the assignment requires it).

To have an idea of the price range you can charge to the client, in the United States, use the table of the GSA – Internal Revenue Service. It clearly states the maximum rate per room allowed for business travel by city and state.  http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/104877

Ground transportation should also be a part of your reimbursement, taxis from airports to hotels and back, and taxi rides from hotels to the event and back should always be reimbursed. In some cases, the client will even pay for ground transportation from your home to your town’s airport and back. It is possible, but you should negotiate it before you include these taxi payments in your reimbursement requests. Sometimes the client may want you to ride a passenger shuttle from the airport, and others could even suggest that you take the subway or another urban public transportation. I do not like that, but you should negotiate it with the client.

You must request a daily allowance for meals (Per Diem) for every day that you are away from home (travel and interpreting days). To eliminate the hassle of collecting receipts for every meal you have, in the United Stets, refer to the table of the GSA – Internal Revenue Service. It clearly states the Per Diem allowed by city and state.  http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/104877

If you are based in the United States and are traveling to a foreign country to provide the interpreting service, instead of following the table above, you will need to base your hotel and Per Diem expenses on the list that the United States Department of State publishes every year. It also contains the appropriate amounts by country and city. https://aoprals.state.gov/web920/per_diem.asp

Although I do not exactly know what requirements are needed to follow the same practice for those of you based in a European Union country, At least you can refer to the E.U. Per Diem list by country.

https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/sites/devco/files/perdiem-rate-20150318.pdf

The following list can be used by those of you who live in Mexico: http://www.cualtos.udg.mx/sites/default/files/adjuntos/tarifas_viaticos_nacionales.pdf

Finally, you should be reimbursed for all other work-related expenses needed to provide the professional service such as parking fees, car rentals and gasoline, highway, tunnel and bridge tolls, photocopies, etc.

You should save all receipts or all other reimbursable expenses: airfare, taxis, hotels, etc. Even if the client does not ask for them, and you should always try to get reimbursed by the mere presentation of your professional fees and expenses invoice detailing reimbursable costs by category, it is a good practice to keep them in case they are needed, and for tax purposes as well.

It is possible that the client may offer to purchase the plane tickets, pay for the hotel directly, they may take you out to eat all meals, and so on. That practice is also acceptable, and in such cases you should only ask to be reimbursed for those costs that you paid for.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I sincerely expect you to pass all of these expenses to the client. That is how professionals work. I now invite you to post your comments regarding this very important part of our professional practice.

What interpreters should do when asked to charge less for their services.

September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Much to learn from Mexican interpreter program.

August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

U.S. immigration interpreters under siege again.

August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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