When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

Airports: An interpreter’s other environment.

August 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

Unlike other professions where a person works in an office, a hospital, or a school, we as interpreters work wherever there are people in need to communicate.  Our “job description” includes work in many courtrooms and law offices for the court interpreter, services in many hospitals and doctor’s offices for medical interpreters, participation in many events that take place at schools, community centers, and churches for the community interpreter, and so on.

Sometimes court interpreters and interpretation instructors have to travel out of town to do their job, and most of the time conference interpreters work hundreds of miles from their home.

Last year I was on the road for work 240 days, and when you travel so much, it is a fact that you will spend countless hours at the airport.  Because we spend a significant part of our lives in these facilities, we have no choice but to learn how to “live a life” as comfortable and normal as possible in a place designed for a few hours’ stay.  My tips for a good experience at the airport are as follows:

(1)    Always check in on line. Get boarding passes, and if needed, pay for your luggage ahead of time. This will allow more time away from the airport as you can arrive later and get the job done.  In my case, I do this so I can spend more time with friends or enjoy a few more minutes of sleep in the hotel room before I head to the airport.

(2)    Become a member of a frequent flyer club, and always pay with a credit card that gives you miles.  If possible, get a credit card that gets you priority airport security lines and priority boarding, even when traveling economy.  I have discovered that to me, the biggest benefit of being a frequent flyer is the possibility to upgrade a seat when the client only paid for economy.

(3)    Get a membership to an airline club. This will let you relax at the airport and enjoy a drink at a less crowded bar, workout at the club’s gym, grab a bite to eat, and most importantly: You will have a place to shower and change after a long trip or before a long overnight flight after a long day of interpreting. Not all clubs offer this service so it would be a good idea to do your homework before booking a reservation.  What a difference it makes to shower in Honolulu after a flight from the Midwest before going straight from the airport to a booth at the convention center!  A shower at Tokyo Narita airport helps me to sleep better during the long flight to Chicago.

(4)    If there is no time to go to the airline club, or there is none, find a bar with a friendly bartender and an internet connection.  Sioux Falls South Dakota’s airport has no airline clubs, but has a friendly bar. La Guardia has a bar next to the Southwest Airlines gates that serves the best Bloody Mary. The Albuquerque New Mexico Sunport has excellent free Wi-Fi all over the airport.

(5)    When you take food on the plane, do not take chain restaurant food. Find the good local restaurant at the airport and take that meal with you.  To me it is essential to get Rick Bayless at O’Hare in Chicago, sushi to go when flying from San Francisco, or Texas BBQ at Houston Bush Intercontinental. Yum!

(6)    If you are a smoker (like I used to be) you will enjoy a long flight a lot more if you take nicotine gum with you. You will get your fix and your airplane neighbors will appreciate it.

(7)    If the client is willing to pay for it, or if you can upgrade with miles, always go for business class or at least extra leg room seats.  The best economy seats are window seats.  Nobody will ask you to move during the flight whether you are going to work or sleep.  If you are flying a regional jet, then get the “lonely” seat on the left row (unless your briefcase is too big as the space under the seat in front of you is smaller than across the hallway) If you have a tight connection (and I advise against it if possible) get your seat towards the front of the plane or near the gate on those big planes where you board at the middle.

(8)    When available, always pick the newer and larger plane as they are more comfortable. A Boeing 777 is always better than a Boeing 757 and many times they both serve the same route. Do your research.  Also, if possible, get the flight that goes to the airport closer to your event.  There are many cities with two or more airports, and a closer airport means less time on the airport shuttle or taxi and more time at the hotel.  Usually older airports are closer to the city. Many of them are serviced by low-budget air carriers only.

(9)    Unless your schedule is very tight, always do check in luggage.  Only take your computer and overnight essentials in a carry on bag.

(10)  Finally, read the airline magazine! Many times you will find a good referral to a restaurant or local attraction, and yes, they have some good sales every once in a while. I even “practice” my Spanish with the Spanish magazine on board of United or American.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. I encourage you to use them on your next interpretation assignment, and if your interpreter career does not take you out of town that often, try them on your next vacation.  Finally, as a constant traveler, I am always open to new suggestions. I would greatly appreciate your tips to make my travels more enjoyable and stress-free.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with boarding pass at The Professional Interpreter.