When your new client used to have a bad interpreter.

May 12, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Throughout the years I have written about educating the client, I have shared with all of you my ideas as to how we can make an assignment a total success and leave the client with the unshakable idea that interpreter fees are not an expense but an investment.

Not long ago, a colleague suggested that I write about those relatively common occasions when you work for a client for the first time, he has worked with other interpreters before, and the interpreter who was in that booth before you, the only other interpreter that your client ever met, was the pits.

Obviously, we all know how the story ends if everything goes as planned: The client will love our work and will never go back to mediocrity.  Unfortunately, in many cases this requires of an extraordinary effort and a lot of patience on our part.

The first thing we need to determine is whether or not the former interpreter was really bad, or it is just one of those cases where the client did not get along with our colleague.

I would begin by asking many questions about the interpreter’s performance.  I would find the right questions for the specific client so that, without getting him to feel uncomfortable, the following question marks get an answer: Was he professional? Was he honest? Did he know how to interpret? Was he good at problem solving and communication?  Then, I would ask around. Talk to the client’s staff; seek their opinion. Ideally, if the equipment company is the same one they had in the past, ask the technicians. They always know what is going on.

If you do all of this, and your conclusion is that the interpreter was not a bad professional, and that the only problem was a conflict of personalities with the client, then you will have to do very little as far as educating the client on how to furnish materials, finding the right location for the booth, discussing speaker’s etiquette, and so on. In this situation your challenge will be to either adjust to the particular tastes and demands of the client (to me this is not the best scenario) or, if possible, find common ground with the client, get him to trust you, and develop a professional relationship based on honesty and mutual respect.

On the other hand, if you conclude that the last interpreter was incompetent, the first thing you will need to figure out is why he was bad.  It is only then that you can start the client’s education.

Interpreters are bad or mediocre for many reasons, but some of the most common ones are: (1) They work for an agency that despises quality and is only concerned with profitability; (2) They lack talent or knowledge about the profession; (3) They worked under bad conditions, such as poor quality equipment or alone in the booth; and (4) They were afraid.

If the prior interpreter worked for one of those agencies we all know, and you are now working with the client through another agency, the education must emphasize the fact that not all agencies provide a mediocre service, which usually includes mid-level to low-level interpreters. That you, and all top-notch professionals would never work for such a business, because you only keep professional relationships with reputable interpreting agencies who take pride on the service they provide, including very well-paid top interpreters with significant experience.  If you happen to be working with a direct client, then take advantage of this opportunity to sing the praises of eliminating the middleman. Go into detail on the way you prepare for an assignment, how you choose your team of interpreters, and make sure that the client knows where every cent of the money he is paying you goes. Only then you will be able to prove him what we all know: interpreters make a higher fee when working directly with the client, and the client spends less because the intermediary’s commission is eliminated.

If you determine that the interpreter who was there before you, was an individual who did not have enough experience, preparation, or frankly, he did not have what it takes to be a real professional interpreter, explain this to your client and take this opportunity to educate him on the qualities that are needed to work in the booth. Show him all the years of experience and preparation that have allowed you to work at your present level, share with him the complexities of the interpreting task; convince him of how an ignorant individual could never do the job correctly; and finally, tell him that interpreting is like singing or dancing: It is an aptitude a person is born with and it needs to be developed and improved. Try to convey the fact that there is something else, difficult to put into words, that interpreters are born with.

When you conclude that the previous interpreters had to work under bad conditions, you must explain to the client the importance of having the appropriate environment for an impeccable rendition. Explain how the interpreter cannot do his job if, due to the poor quality of the interpreting equipment, he cannot hear what the speaker said. Convince him of placing the booth where the interpreters can see and hear everything that will be going on. Make sure that the client understands that there are many ways to save money during a conference: a different caterer or at least a menu less ostentatious; a different ground transportation service; a less expensive band for the dance; but never a lesser quality interpreting and sound equipment; never a lesser quality, cheaper interpreter team, because this is the only expense that will make or break a conference.  A conference with the best food, at the most magnificent venue, with a sound and interpreting equipment that does not work, will be a failure. The audience will not be able to hear or understand the speaker they paid for and came to see. They will come back to a second conference when the food was prepared by the second best chef in town, or the event took place in the second nicest convention center, but they will never be back to a second conference when they could not understand what the main speaker said during the first one because the equipment did not work, or the interpreter was exhausted from working alone in the booth.  The client needs to hear this to be able to understand the importance of your working conditions.

Finally, when your conclusion is that the interpreter did a mediocre job because he was afraid, then you have to explain this to the client, and educate him on the benefits of having experienced interpreters in the booth: Professionals who have been through it all, and know how to prevent an incident or solve a problem. Tell the client how these interpreters exude confidence and will never have a panic attack on the job. Make it clear to your client that interpreting for a famous individual or on a difficult subject is intimidating, and only self-confident professionals can assure the success of an event of such magnitude.

In many ways, getting to the assignment after the client has gone through a bad experience will help your cause. You will find a more receptive individual, and you will have a point of reference; something to quote as an example of the things that should not happen. I now invite you to share your comments and suggestions about other ways to take advantage of this type of situation when you come to the job as a second choice because the first one did not work out.

Dealing with certain kind of difficult interpreters on a professional level.

October 23, 2014 § 9 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This time I am going to refer to a problem that many of us have encountered during our careers: The individual who is also an interpreter and he or she is difficult to deal with at the professional level, not when we go out and socialize, but when we are doing our job. I am not talking about the lazy interpreter, the self-centered know-it-all interpreter, the bad interpreter, or even the vulgar disrespectful interpreter. My colleagues, this time I want to discuss a situation where a colleague gets an assignment, job, or promotion and has a personality change.

We all know colleagues who have made career changes or have received a promotion; that is great if that is what they wanted to accomplish and I think we would all agree that this makes us happy for that person. In fact, many of these changes have benefited the profession at large because these colleagues are now using their new position or status to improve the quality of the service and the working conditions for all of us. They recognize that one of the reasons for their hiring or promotion was the fact that they have been interpreters in the past: they have walked the walk. These changes have contributed significantly to the advance of our profession. Unfortunately, not everybody reacts the same way.

Some time ago I was in an interpreter social gathering with many old and new friends. As it often happens, some colleagues began to talk shop and it was not long before quite a few of them were talking about an interpreter who had recently been hired or promoted (I did not get all the details) to a position that now rendered this individual as the one with the power to hire interpreters for assignments; This person was now in charge of assigning interpreters, negotiating pay and other labor conditions, and setting protocol and procedure for those who wanted to work with that organization. Apparently, this person had been another freelancer until recently and had been a good colleague, maybe not the best interpreter, but certainly a very reliable one. The person was well-liked by the professional community, so the hiring (or promotion) was received warmly by the other interpreters. It all seemed to indicate that this was going to be an excellent choice for everybody; one of those changes that I was referring to at the beginning of this piece. Unfortunately, it did not happen that way.

Apparently, the freelance interpreters saw many changes once this person was hired and became part of the company’s staff. They all received innumerable emails with memos that were setting rules and policies for everything imaginable: How to report the status of an assignment (right in the middle of the event!) how to get paid, how to invoice, how to write a cover letter, how to dress for work, and many others. These interpreters were not happy. Remember: They were no rookies; most of them were practicing their profession way before this newly hired individual decided to become an interpreter, and they were doing a good job; there were no complaints.

When some of them questioned the newly hired “supervisor” on these changes, the person responded by saying that these changes to the system would help the company’s clerical staff as they would make it easier for them to understand what the interpreters were doing. He never even addressed the fact that this would require of more of the freelancers’ time because they were being asked to do part of the employees’ work for the same fee. Everyone knows that to a freelancer time is equal to money.

According to this policy, they now had to do extra work for the same pay. In other words, by implementing all these bureaucratic rules and policies, the first thing this person did in the new job was to give the interpreters a pay cut. This reminded me of the time when, for a brief period of time, I was part of the system and the first thing I was told was that from that moment on I was a corporate entity and all my decisions and actions should be geared to protect the employer, regardless of what happened to the interpreters. I was told that it was us against them. Needless to say, under that philosophy, I barely lasted a blink of an eye at that job.

After listening to this heartbreaking story, I told the interpreters at the social gathering to diversify even more, to try to work for that individual as little as possible, to reject the bureaucratic memos, to continue to provide a quality professional service, and to keep in mind that although time is money for the freelancer, the rule does not apply to those like this person who will make the same paycheck regardless of how they spend their time. I mentioned that even though this person may be socially friendly and nice to them, they must remember that somewhere deep inside, these individuals are always aware of their professional limitations, and consider that promotions, like the one the individual got in this case, are the zenith of their career; I reminded them that even when we don’t see their job that way, they do, and they will defend their newly acquired status with everything they have. I told them that this strategy of versatility and widening our scope of practice is exactly what I have been doing throughout my career. Eventually, we should always use these nonsensical circumstances as motivation to grow as professionals and look for newer and better professional opportunities. I now ask you to share your personal experience with individuals in similar circumstances to the ones described in this post, and to tell us what you did to either adjust and cope with the circumstances, or to get out of this situation.

The ten worst things an interpreter can do to another interpreter. Part 2

July 8, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an interpreter can do to another 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, tell us your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. To be a bad interpreter.  The individuals who have worked as “interpreters” for many years and even decades, don’t know anything about the profession, don’t care to know anything about it, and are revered by some as “interpreting gurus.”  We all know who they are, where they are, and how they work. They represent a cancer to the profession because they go around providing a deplorable service, often charging good money, and damaging our collective image.  Most of the time they work in a parallel universe and we rarely encounter them, but when we do, our job can be a disaster as we are faced with a situation where we have no partner to consult, no colleague to collaborate with, and no professional to back us up.  A quick remedy when faced with this situation in the booth or the courthouse is to set the rules straight and ask this person to support by doing certain chores that you will assign. When possible, it would be best to postpone the event, even for a short while, in order to find a replacement for the bad interpreter.  There is no solution to the bad interpreter problem described in this paragraph. It is terminal.
  2. To take advantage of your partner.  The interpreters who do not pull their own weight during an assignment and interpret less than the time previously agreed to; do not return to the booth or courtroom on time for the switch, and those who do not help with the preparations: research, development of glossaries, or assignment of tasks.  These are the people nobody wants to work with because there is never a feeling of team interpreting during the event.   A quick on-the-run solution may be next to impossible, but you can at least talk to them before or during the assignment and voice what you expect them to do.  As a long term strategy it is best to avoid them in the future, always declining a job offer by explaining the reasons why you would love to interpret the conference or trial, but with a different partner.
  3. To try to be the “center of attention.”  This is a very real and unfortunate situation that happens more often than you think.  Some colleagues believe that all events: conferences, court proceedings, surgeries, military interrogations, business negotiations, and diplomatic debates, revolve around the interpreter.  They truly believe this to be the case and refuse to understand that we are an important, even essential part to the process, but we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the “main event.”  Here I am referring to those embarrassing moments when your partner stops everything that is happening and hyperventilating informs those present that the event cannot go forward at this time because one of the three hundred people in the auditorium has a receiver that is malfunctioning, and after the batteries are replaced and everything is “fine” once again, he or she asks the dignitary who is speaking, and on a very tight schedule, to “repeat the last thing you said so that the person with the receiver with the dead batteries doesn’t miss a word” and then goes on explaining what his or her duties are as an interpreter.   I congratulate you if you have never gone through one of this, but surely you have worked with somebody who complains all the time and interrupts the speaker over and over again:   “Excuse me…the interpreter could not hear the statement because the speaker is speaking away from the microphone…”  “…excuse me, the interpreter requests that the speaker move over to the right so it is easier to hear what she is saying…” “…excuse me… the interpreter requests that the speaker slows down so that everything can be interpreted…” A nightmare!  As an instant solution to this problem you should talk to this interpreter and explain that the participants are very important busy people who have very little time to do this; that as interpreters we should try to adapt to the circumstances, and that we are important, but by no means the most important part of the process.  A long term solution depends on the individual interpreter. Your colleagues often mature and grow out of this “self-centered syndrome.”  They will be fine. For those who never change and adapt, the solution will have to be up to you. It depends on how patient you are, how much you value the participation of this particular interpreter, and how well you know your client.  No easy solution, no “one size fits all.”
  4. To publicly correct and criticize other interpreters.  Those know-it-all interpreters with very little social skills and less discretion who vociferously utter vocabulary and terminology from one end of the room to correct what they think was a bad rendition, and sometimes not happy with this, are happy to show even more disrespect to a colleague by loudly stating the reasons why they are right and you are wrong.  It is very difficult to find anything more unprofessional than these actions.  It is true that team interpreting exists so that colleagues can work as a team and cover each other’s back; it is also a fact that we all make mistakes and that sometimes we do not notice them.  A benefit of having a partner in the booth or courtroom is that we can improve our rendition, and in court interpreting even correct the record, by stating our error or omission. However, decency and professionalism, together with a touch of common sense, tell us that there are better ways to correct a colleague or to offer an opinion that have nothing to do with screaming and yelling.  A simple note, sometimes a stare is enough to get your partner’s attention. When faced with this situation the thing to do short-term is to stay quiet, keep your cool. Let it be forgotten by those who witnessed your partner’s crude behavior. Then, at the earliest possible time, always as a professional well-mannered individual, confront him; let him know that this is unacceptable, and that you expect this will never happen again. Do not let him get away with it. A long-term solution would be to avoid this “colleague” like the plague.
  5. To interpret in a way that hurts your partner’s rendition. First we have the colleague who is too loud. So loud that you cannot concentrate. I am talking the kind that makes the booth vibrate when he speaks; the one you can hear better than your booth partner even though he is interpreting two booths away, and second, we have the interpreter who is very slow during relay interpreting to the point that all the booths waiting for the relay start thinking about doing a direct interpretation even if the source language is not their strength.  Short term you need the loud interpreter to concentrate in his volume and long term you need to help him or her find out the reason for this loud rendition. Many times people who speak loud cannot hear very well.  Maybe the long-term solution will be a hearing aid or a special set of headphones. The solution in the relay interpreting case can only be to endure for the day or until adequate replacement can be found. In the future this interpreter should not be used for relay interpreting situations. There are many excellent interpreters who cannot adapt to the pace of relay interpreting. There is plenty of work that does not involve relay interpreting where a good interpreter is needed.

 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…

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

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