August 26, 2013 § 12 Comments
Modernization is part of human nature, it’s always been around. From the cavemen who used the first tools, to the invention of writing, to the discovery of new territories, and to the technological advances of the 21st. century, humankind has always strived to be more comfortable, more competitive, and more modern. Sadly, as modernization is in our DNA, so is the desire to resist change. How many wars, social unrests, and atrocities have been committed on the name of “tradition” and to protect the status quo. Fear is a bad advisor; it never stops progress but it slows it down. Historically people have opposed change arguing that it will bring upon us calamity and disaster. This has never happened. No doubt the primitive hunter feared agriculture as its results took longer than it took to hunt a prey. Veteran sailors feared navigation far from shore because they could fall into the void. Artisans feared the industrial revolution because there would be no more jobs. All those fears proved to be unfounded. You see, humans are adaptable by nature. We adapt to the circumstances that surround us and make the most of it; that is how progress happens. That is how we measure it. The interpreters of the League of Nations panicked with the arrival of simultaneous interpretation during the Nuremberg trials and they fought against it when the newly-created United Nations decided to adopt the new technology to have more efficient real time communication during sessions and negotiations. I think we are going through a similar period right now.
Those from my generation remember the old TV sets that broadcasted in black and white for a few hours every day, the transatlantic flights on airplanes that had to stop somewhere to refuel between America and Europe. Oh, and we were witnesses and users of then state-of-the-art technology like record players, 8-track players, cassette players, walkmans, and CDs. We watched movies at the theater, on Betamax and VHS cassettes, and we went to Blockbuster making sure we had rewinded the tape after watching it. What about computers, calculators, contact lenses, microwave ovens, and many other things. They all came and went. They all fulfilled their purpose and we are now better off without them.
The digital era has brought tremendous changes to the way interpreters do business and work nowadays. We now fill up our work agendas, get paid, and prepare for a job at a speed and with efficiency never imagined. I am enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, some colleagues are not.
Not long ago I was interpreting for a conference that required many languages so there were many booths. The equipment was state-of-the-art. We had consoles that rewind the presenter’s speech, and we had a TV monitor in the booth that received images from cameras in the room that we could operate with a joy stick to see the faces of those asking questions even though they were facing towards the stage and all we could see from the booth was their backs. Before the start of the first session of the first day of the conference, I heard the two colleagues from a different booth asking the tech person to “please remove that thing from the booth.” They argued that “it (took) too much room and (they) really didn’t need all those videogames to do a good job.” I have known these colleagues for a long time and their work is excellent. They are some of the best in their language pair. Unfortunately, after overhearing the comments above, and after going by their booth and seeing that they did not have any computers or tablets, I couldn’t help to compare them to other colleagues with the same language combination that I had recently worked with and were taking advantage of all the technology. I felt frustrated by their decision to get rid of the technology, but I also felt sad because I knew then that unless they change, pretty soon they will not be working. Others with similar skills and better technology will take their place.
For some time I have noticed how the gap is widening between those of us who are embracing technology and those wonderful interpreters who resist and fight the change. I still run into colleagues who give you dirty looks when you arrive to the booth and plug in your I-pad. Just this year I have worked with people who are bringing paper dictionaries to work. Not long ago an interpreter complained to me that the agency was trying to send us all materials to a dropbox instead of emailing them (never mind we were talking of huge files) Another one remarked that it was “distracting” to see me “playing” with the I-pad in the booth and taking notes on the pad instead of “using paper and pencil.” I tried to explain that I was online researching a term to help her with her rendition but she didn’t give me a chance to explain.
Unfortunately these are not isolated cases, and many of these colleagues are really good. They don’t understand that comments like: “please call me. I hate to do this by email” hurt them with the client. They do not see that the person from the agency is 20 years old and expects you to use Viber, WhatsApp, and Wikipedia. I am concerned because we may be on the verge of losing very good professionals because of their stubbornness. And it is not just the interpreters. It is some of our professional organizations as well. I work all over, so I am a member of professional organizations all-over the world. Some of them have embraced technology quite well, but others are resisting the change. We still have professional organizations, and some agencies for that matter, which refuse to take electronic signatures, that want to see a FAXED copy of your ID, or that refuse scanned documents. Organizations that “need” to approve your comments in a professional chat-room; “need” a signature to change your address on the directory, or demand copies of your certificates and diplomas. We have organizations led by the same people who resist change that are becoming irrelevant before our eyes and don’t see it.
My friends, I worry that good capable people may become obsolete because of their resistance to modernization. I can just imagine how good they would be if they “dared” to use technology. The great Charles F. Kittering once said: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.” He was right. I would love to hear your thoughts on this very delicate but essential issue.
July 14, 2013 § 3 Comments
Today I want to share with you my formula to work assignments all over the world while only carrying what I really need. There is nothing more annoying than having to cough up excessive weight fees at the airport counter or arriving sweaty and tired from dragging heavy luggage from terminal to terminal to hotel and back to your home. I know that many of you travel as much as I do and I am sure you have a system that works for you. My first rule is: When you already have a method that yields a light bag without being deprived of the basics, don’t change anything; but if you struggle every time you pack before a trip, or if you cannot figure out why your stuff doesn’t fit in the bag when you pack at the hotel, even if you were able to put it all in there at the beginning of the trip and you haven’t bought anything else, then this posting may be for you. Second rule: My system works perfectly for men, but women would have to make some adjustments as you have to pack items that we do not. While the little shampoo and conditioner bottles at the hotel bathroom may solve a man’s problem, many women will need to carry (or purchase at the point of destination) bigger bottles of shampoo and conditioner. Men can travel for a month with a pair of shoes; women cannot. But even if you have long hair and need to pack high heels and booths, these tips can help you with the rest of the items you throw in the suitcase and never even use during the trip.
I have been traveling all my life, and when I say traveling, I mean it. Last year I was on the road for 320 days, and rarely stayed home in Chicago for more than a week at a time. This means that I have learned how to live with less without being deprived of life essentials.
If you are going to be away for a week or less, you need a suitcase, ideally a garment bag so that your clothes are protected. My favorite is the 46” Zurich wheeled garment bag from Swiss Gear. It is affordable and of good quality, plus you can get it at places like Office Max and Target. You can always bring a collapsible bag inside the garment bag in case you need more extra room on your way back. You will also need your favorite briefcase. This will be your carry-on and it is where you will keep your electronics. If the trip is longer, or if you need to take more shoes, shampoos, or other items, take a second suitcase. I prefer the 20” Swiss Gear Zurich upright spinner because I like to take it on the plane with me, but if you prefer the 24” one, that is fine, just document it together with the garment bag. I like these collection because it looks good, it is durable, and the price is right. I learned many years ago that there is no need to buy expensive luggage if it will last you, at the most, one year (Have you seen how they handle your bags at the airport?) I suggest you fly an airline where you have a frequent flyer plan. This way in most cases you can take two pieces of luggage in the plane’s underbelly at no extra charge. You will also board before most passengers, even when flying coach, so you will have plenty of overhead compartment room for your carry-on luggage. Get your electronic boarding pass sent to your iPhone, store it in Passbook (the application is free) go to the airport, document your bags, and relax at the airline club. Domestically I prefer Admiral’s Club over United, Delta and other smaller carriers, but we all have different tastes. The important thing is that you want to find a place where you can charge your gadgets and enjoy a drink before the trip.
What to pack? Men need to pack three wrinkle-free blazers that match the season at the place of the event. Remember, you may live in the northern hemisphere where it is winter, but if your assignment is down south you will need summer clothes. Take three of the classics: navy blue, black, grey, dark brown, light brown, etcetera. Take 6 pants. Same rules apply. You will need 5 wrinkle-free pants and one set of jeans. Remember that you are wearing your sixth wrinkle-free pants during the flight. These items, plus six wrinkle-free long sleeve dress shirts in assorted colors will give you all the combinations you need for a month-long trip. I would also take 9 ties, a two-way belt (the kind you turn around to go from black to brown) and enough underwear for a week. Hotels have laundry and dry cleaning services that are often cheaper than the same services in a big urban area. My laundry and cleaners are always more affordable at a hotel in Virginia than at home in Chicago. After that, all you need are three polo shirts, one T-shirt, shorts for the gym, a baseball hat, and a pair of snickers. You are already wearing your dress shoes. Take comfortable good moccasin-style shoes. No shoelaces when going through security at the airport; for the ladies: No boots when dealing with TSA. Remember, you are already wearing the extra jacket or winter coat during the flight.
It is essential to pack your toiletries in the garment bag as well. Less items to show at the airport security point. Always take travel size items like deodorants, shaving gels, hair products, after shaves, toothpaste, and others. Do not forget your toothbrush. Men: Don’t bother with shampoos, conditioners, mouthwash, or body lotion. Hotels provide them. They also furnish other toiletries when you request them at the front desk. My experience has taught me that you should also take a small pair of scissors, nail-clippers, a sewing kit, shoe-shine cloth, and yes: a corkscrew. The worst thing after a long day in the booth is a bottle of wine in the room and no corkscrew. Finally, a small collapsible umbrella and your vitamins and prescription medications need to go in the big bag. Save some for the carry-on if you will need them during the flight, plus an extra set in case of an emergency. The rest can travel with the checked in luggage.
In your carry-on, ideally the same briefcase you will take to the event, take all your work tools: i-Phone, i-Pod, i-Pad, computer, all necessary chargers and cables, a portable electronic dictionary (in case there is no internet) your headphones (the best ones for music and the best ones for work) a few of your favorite pens, all your hotel, airline, car rental loyalty program cards, plenty of business cards, your passport (if traveling abroad) some cash and foreign currency if applicable, your official identification card, an ATM card, and a couple of good solid credit cards (from a travel plan so you get credit) That’s it. All other documents should be scanned and taken electronically, your reading materials, for work and for fun, should be on the i-Pad. Finally, lock your home when you leave and put your home keys away for the duration of the trip. Most briefcases have a place where you can hang clip them. Do this so that you can easily find them when you get back after a long trip.
I know we all have different habits and needs, so this posting may not
completely solve your problems; however, I hope it gives you some suggestions
that you can incorporate to your travel routine the next time you are hired to
interpret an event away from home. Please share your comments and suggestions on this issue that is crucial to so many of our friends and colleagues.
May 7, 2013 § 5 Comments
Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients. This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed in this career. Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.
Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in out litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.
There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:
When our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by a counterpart in a legal setting. We all have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job. It sounds simple and straight to the point: Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error. Unfortunately this is not how it happens in the real world. Out there we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their non-English speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say, so the first thing they do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter; there are those cases when the non-English speaker passionately defends his “translation” of a term even though we know for sure that he is mistaken. Sometimes the problem may be the judge who does not speak the foreign language, but out of fear of offending the non-English speaker decides to question the interpreter and sometimes even to adopt this person’s rendition of a word or term that you know is clearly wrong.
The second situation I want to mention to you is when a case does not end the way that one of the parties wanted it to conclude and the blame is totally or partly placed on the interpretation. The court decision is appealed on grounds of inadequate interpretation, or even worse, the interpreter is sued for damages by this losing party. How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and the case goes on appeal? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation. There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.
These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: “How to Defend Your Interpretation and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter in and out of Court” during the NAJIT annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri on May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm. I invite you to go to the conference and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios and we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, as well as the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law. I hope to see you in St. Louis.
April 23, 2013 § 18 Comments
I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations? We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career. I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms. I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society. Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do. And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.
Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before. At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location. Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.
Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera. It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.
I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above. As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful: Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.
Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.
It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.
At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience. Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents. I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another. A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking. This has made my life so much easier!
Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.
April 2, 2013 § 4 Comments
Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.
Here we go:
- Six. “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.” I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.” Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined. Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter. The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice. I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
- Seven. “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.” I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time. You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client. You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office. Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything. Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
- Eight. “Do not interpret that!” This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer. I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge. The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it. In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
- Nine. “I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish” I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened. The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said. If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
- Ten. “Please collect my fee from my client.” Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.” I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.” I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for. Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship. There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do. Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.
As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one. This should be good…