September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments
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.
July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments
Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.
I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?
If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?
Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.
I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.
I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.
From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job. I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment. I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation. They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator. As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices. These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.
As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view. I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements. They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did. On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization. For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service. I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.
Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event. Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.
I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters. Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.
I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do. I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople. I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.
February 6, 2015 § 1 Comment
Most interpreters are (or were) freelancers in the past. Even many of my colleagues who work as staff interpreters for the government or the private sector do some freelancing on the side: After hours and weekend assignments come to mind.
Although most of us do freelance work, it is also common to run into a colleague who is terrified about the business aspect of the profession. There are so many times when I have listened to my interpreter friends describe themselves as “good interpreters, but bad businesspeople”. I know colleagues who have turned down an assignment because the negotiations with the client were too intense or because the paperwork was so demanding. I understand. I have been lucky and I enjoy the business aspect of the profession, but I recognize that sometimes even the most experienced professionals face scenarios where some specialized knowledge comes in handy. Fortunately, I am going to share some good news with all my interpreter friends and colleagues: Help has arrived!
Today I want to talk about Marta Stelmaszak’s new book: “The Business Guide for Translators”. Despite the title, this is a book that speaks directly to all interpreters, as it covers all of our problems, addresses all of our concerns, and lives up to our expectations.
As most of you know, Marta is a professional interpreter and translator, accomplished author, teacher, scholar, and an entrepreneur. She has been a superstar of the profession for quite some time, a popular blogger, and her online “Business School for Translators” is one of the most popular educational tools for interpreters and translators. I should also disclose that Marta is a friend, that I admire her immensely, and that I got the book as a present.
“The Business Guide for Translators” is a 158-page book that reads easily, it is well-written and throughout the book you get the feeling that Marta is having a conversation with you. It is remarkable how so many complex concepts are explained in plain language so that lay interpreters can relate to the issue, and to the proposed strategy to avoid or solve a problem.
Marta divided the book in four chapters: On the first one: Economics, she deals with the basic concepts that all businessperson should know and understand. After reading the chapter, even the most business-challenged individual will be able to grasp the essentials of capital, supply, demand, investment, inflation and competition. The second chapter is entitled: Strategy. Here, the author explains the ideas of core competence, competitive advantage, value curve and chain, as well as customer segmentation; next, she shows the reader how these principles act in the language industry world, and she presents some well-known strategies while at the same time she encourages the readers to take action in their own lives. The third chapter is called: Business Management. In this part of the book, Marta assumes that the reader has become acquainted with all the basic concepts and strategies, and she is ready to take the language professional by the hand from the beginning. The chapter addresses everything from market research and a business plan, to the delivery of a service that represents an outstanding value, and the growth of the business. The last chapter: Business Practice, is a practically-oriented chapter full of advice, suggestions, and examples on how to contact the new client, how to negotiate the terms of the professional relationship, and how to provide the service, including the follow-up phase.
This book applies to what we do. As an interpreter herself, Marta writes from the start that the book is addressed to all language professionals. You can order the book from http://www.wantwords.co.uk/school/business-checklist-book-translators/ I read the book in one day and I recommend it. I also invite you to order it, read it, and keep it handy for future reference. Marta has given to all interpreters and translators a “Rosetta Stone” for language-related business. I now invite all of you to share your interpreting business-related experiences and how you solved them, and I especially would like to hear from those of you who already read the book.
November 19, 2013 § 4 Comments
As interpreters and translators we have been gathering for decades in workshops, conferences, and professional associations. We are lucky to have so many places where we can improve our skills, enhance our knowledge, and do networking with others. We have the fortune to have excellent organizations that are international and very big like ATA and FIT; others that are regional and smaller, some that are specific to a particular field like NAJIT and IMIA, and we even have separate organizations exclusively for interpreters or translators. All these professional groups are very important and useful to our profession. They all serve different purposes, and we need them all. A few years ago we witnessed the birth of InterpretAmerica, another forum for all interpreters to talk to each other as professionals, and to directly address the other players in our industry: equipment providers, government contractors, the big language agencies, academic institutions, international organisms, and others.
We had all these resources to thrive in our profession but something was missing: We had no outlet to talk to each other as individual professional interpreters and translators; a place where we could talk about the business side of our work. A forum where we could address the recent changes brought to our work by the globalization movement; the disparity and often times ruthless competition that we face as freelancers in a world where new technology and gigantic language service providers are driving the professional fees down; and in some cases the quality of the service even lower.
We all know of the court interpreting crisis that has developed in the United Kingdom. Many of you know that, unlike the U.S. federal court system where you find the best court interpreters because it pays the highest fees, American immigration courts pay very little under less than ideal working conditions, and for the most part do not use the services of top tier interpreters. Of course, it is common knowledge that big language service providers are paying incredibly low fees to good translators based in developing countries, and it is no secret that every day more businesses turn to machine translation to solve their most common communication problems.
What most interpreters and translators do not know, is that there are other countries in the world who want to emulate the United Kingdom’s model; that there are government agencies who outsource the authority to “certify” or “qualify” individuals as interpreters or translators in order to comply with legal mandates and to meet the demand for these services, at least on paper.
A few weeks ago I attended in London the first congress of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) an event where hundreds of well-known veteran interpreters and translators from all over the world met with the most talented new generation of professional interpreters and translators I have ever seen in my life. The reason for this event: to discuss all these developments and issues that we currently face in our profession, in order to be better prepared and armed with skill and knowledge to embrace technology and face globalization as freelancers. The organization and the conference are for individual translators and interpreters. No corporate memberships. No big language service providers. It was refreshing to attend presentations that dealt with issues such as how to protect your market, defend the quality of your work, and honor the real value of your work so you never give in to those who want you to work for less than a fair fee. It was wonderful to see so many colleagues taking note of the business side of the profession so they can do better when competing for the good client in the real world. I salute the brains, heart and soul of this much needed type of professional association: Aurora Humarán and Lorena Andrea Vicente, President and Vice-president of IAPTI respectively.
Dear colleagues, in this new global economy, where we are all competing in the same world market, we need all the professional associations we have. They are all useful.
I invite all of my freelance interpreter and translator friends and colleagues who want to thrive in this new economy to acquire the necessary tools and resources to win. IAPTI is an essential resource. I encourage you all to submit a membership application and to attend next year’s conference. I can assure you that you will be inspired by the talent and energy of this new group of young interpreters and translators. As a member of IAPTI you will be in a better position to flourish in our industry. You will love the atmosphere of a IAPTI conference where everybody is like you: an individual translator or interpreter trying to deliver an excellent product in exchange for an excellent pay. I invite our friends and colleagues who are part of IAPTI, and those who were in London for the conference, to share their comments with the rest of us.
June 25, 2013 § 20 Comments
The “ten worst” series is back again. This time I will talk about those actions, omissions, and attitudes of other interpreters that not only annoy us, which they do, but that also affect our professional performance and the image we project to the client and the professional community. Obviously, and very sadly, a “ten worst” list is not enough to include all the things we see and hear out there when we are in the booth, the courtroom, the hospital, the battlefield, or anywhere else that interpreters are doing their job. As always, I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.
Here we go:
- “Well, that’s what I charged because that is all they wanted to pay and I didn’t want to lose the client.” Nothing really bothers me more than an interpreter that doesn’t know how to charge for his or her services. This is a business where we provide a professional service and those in the field who don’t understand it and don’t want to understand it are not only working towards a life of misery for themselves and their loved ones; they are hurting us all. The only reason why some of your clients are always trying to get you to work for less than you deserve is because of this group of interpreters who are willing to do anything for practically nothing. This practice influences your local market because there is a cheap alternative competing against you who is ready to take your client away even if they will make very little money. Let me be really clear, I am not saying that we should constantly overprice what we do, although there is nothing wrong with charging any amount a client is willing to pay: it is a contractual relationship, the meeting of the minds. A quick solution would be to sell your services better than those individuals who charge below the market so the client sees the added value you bring to the job. Long term solution: Educate your market. Make sure all potential clients know the difference between a good interpreter and a person who will charge little and deliver even less. These paraprofessionals will always exist; in most instances just ignore them. They are not in your league. I don’t know about you all, but I am in the business of working little and making a lot of money. I am not interested in working for peanuts every single day. I can think of many other things I can do with my time.
- To snatch the microphone away from you or not to let go of the microphone. It is very annoying and very distracting to work with somebody who is just watching the clock and the moment the big hand gets to half past or to the top of the hour they grab the microphone or turn off your output on the console. Some of them even stick their wrist between your eyes so you can see that it is time for them to interpret totally disregarding the rendition. They just cannot wait until the natural pause happens and the switch can be seamless. And then you have those in love with their voice and their rendition who never let go. They simply turn their head away or avoid your stare and continue talking. Of course I know that I will get paid regardless of who did most of the work, but I am also aware of the fatigue factor and I do not want the audience to suffer through a diminished rendition just because of the ego of my colleague in the booth. In these two scenarios a quick, but many times useless, solution would be to wait for the next break and talk it over with your partner, or in the event that you already know that this will happen because you have worked together in the past, politely and professionally set the “rules of the game” even before you start interpreting. The long term solution to these very disturbing working conditions would be to refuse to work with that colleague in the future and to explain to the client your reasons for the refusal.
- To leave the booth as soon as you take the microphone. To me it is very difficult to understand how some colleagues perceive team interpreting when they leave the booth or exit the courtroom as soon as they are not actively interpreting. I understand restroom brakes and important phone calls and e-mails; we are a team and I gladly stay alone when my partner needs to take care of one of these situations. Is it because they do not know that the supporting interpreter is as important as the one actively interpreting? I have a hard time buying this justification when they have been around for some time and have experienced first-hand the benefits of having a second interpreter sitting next to them. To me it is very simple: They erroneously understand team interpreting as “tag-team interpreting” which is what wrestlers do when they work in teams. I believe the short-term and long-term solutions I suggested for number 2 apply to this scenario as well. I have a word of caution for my new colleagues and friends who just started in this profession and may feel intimidated or uncomfortable when it is the veteran interpreter who abandons the station: Treat them as equals. You are doing the assignment because somebody thought you were good at this. Even the “big ones” have to do their job as part of the team.
- To cancel at the last minute. This is another one of those practices that hurt you as a professional who has been scheduled to work with this individual, and also hurts the image of the profession. Of course I am not talking about an emergency when a colleague has to cancel due to a health issue, a family crisis, or an accident. I am not referring either to the interpreters who cancel because after accepting the assignments they realized that it was way over their head, unless they cancel the day before instead of two months ahead of time. I am talking about those who were offered another job on the eve of your event, and those who are simply irresponsible and unreliable. This is a very serious problem that can be worse when you are also the organizer of the event or the interpreter coordinator. A quick solution could be to talk to the interpreter and see why he or she is quitting at the last minute. Sometimes the reasons can be addressed and corrected (a hotel they dislike, a flight at an inconvenient time, etc.) occasionally a good pep talk can fix it (a last-minute panic attack because of the importance of the event or the fame of the speaker at the conference) and sometimes the cancelling interpreter may agree to start the event while you get a replacement. A long term solution in this case is a no-brainer: Never work with this person again. Black-list this individual, and if necessary and if the contract allows it: sue him. It is not wrong to cancel an assignment because you got a better offer to do another job. What is wrong is to cancel at the very last minute.
- To refuse to help the new interpreters. Our job is a personal service. I am hired to interpret because the client wants me to do it; not just anybody to do it. They want me. I understand and value the fact that getting to the top takes a lot of work, many years of dedication, a devotion to what you do. I applaud those who got to the summit and use it as a marketing tool. I also love to work with them. It is a pleasure. Unfortunately, some of these great interpreters do not like to share their knowledge and experience with the new generation. I have seen, and heard, of instances where the masters of the profession ignore and mistreat the newcomers. They keep the secrets of their trade close to their chest as if afraid that once known, they could be turned against them. This very real situation creates a nightmare for those scheduling the interpreters for an event and could result on the loss of a client. As a short-term solution you can talk to the veterans and explain that you need them for the quality of the rendition, and for the same reason, you need them to teach the new interpreters how to work like a superstar, and you need them to help the often nervous newcomers to feel at home in the booth or the courtroom so they can also learn and perform. Because most veterans are wise and love the profession, the same strategy, at a larger scale, can be part of the long-term solution, together with a campaign to educate and empower the new interpreters so they feel that they also belong in the booth.
These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this part of our professional practice.
March 26, 2013 § 6 Comments
I know that many of you read and contributed to the first posting of this series that dealt with the bad things that judges do to court interpreters. Well, it is now time for the lawyers to be on the spotlight. Several years ago I was retained by an attorney (I had never met before) to interpret for a petitioner during the final hearing of a divorce proceeding (final orders, permanent orders, final decree hearing, depending on the place where you live) The attorney contacted me the day before and agreed to pay my urgent fee usually charged for events requested on short notice. “…It will be really quick…” he said, “…the respondent isn’t even in the country. We’ll be in and out…” So we appeared in court the following morning, the judge took the bench and the hearing began. After the attorney made his arguments to the bench, the judge asked the petitioner how long had he and his wife lived together in the United States. The petitioner answered in Spanish that his wife had never been to the United States. After a few more questions, and while the attorney was sweating bullets because of this “unexpected” development, the judge dismissed the case stating that he lacked jurisdiction over the parties as they had never lived as a married couple within his county limits. Of course, I interpreted everything to the petitioner but it was clear that he did not understand. During the judge’s oral decision that turned into a scolding to the lawyer, the attorney turned to his client and whispered in Spanish: “luego te explico” (I’ll explain later) Once the hearing ended and we were in the hallway inside the courthouse, the attorney approached me and asked for my invoice telling me: “…Give me your receipt so we can get the money from my client and you get paid. I don’t think that he will be willing to pay for anything once he understands what happened…” So the lawyer asked his client for my fee, I got paid cash right there inside the courthouse, and the attorney asked his client to go to this office with him so he could explain what had just happened and the reason why “this judge” had decided not to divorce him “yet.” Well, under any standards this is a horror story that we as interpreters sometimes have to live through; however, this is not a posting about the worst ten things that attorneys do to their clients. This is about the ten worst things they do to us interpreters, so horror stories like the one I mentioned will have to wait for their day on center stage.
Once again keep in mind that I will focus on the attorney, intentionally leaving the clerk’s worst 10, witness’ worst 10, and so forth for future articles. I am writing this with a therapeutic perspective, trying to add some possible solutions to these problems while at the same time creating empathy and inviting a good healthy laugh when relating to these horror stories. I also want to underline that most of the attorneys I work with are real professionals I have worked with for years. Those who fit this article are not on my list of regular clients. Unlike with the judges, we as interpreters get to chose the attorneys we work with, and that is a big difference. Because of the length of this posting, I have decided to publish it in two parts. This is part one. Part two will be posted next week.
Here we go:
- “You are going to charge me all that money just for talking?” Those lawyers who do not have the slightest idea of what we do and firmly believe that because we speak two (or more) languages we are pocketing easy money. A quick solution would be to stay firm and tell him that we are not just talking, that we are interpreting, and simply say that this is what you charge, that you provide a professional service, and that you will not bargain with them. Long term solution: Talk to the attorney and explain your services in depth. Make him see the advantages of having a real professional interpreter and run by him the potential problems and complications when the service is poorly provided. With certain clients you can even adjust your fee because of the work volume they represent. If all these efforts fail, just fire the client; do not accept any work from him. Remember, a cheap client will be a bad client in all other aspects of the professional relationship. Move on.
- “Here, take these papers and explain them to my client.” There are attorneys that think of us as their servants, paralegals, co-counselors, and many other things. They seem to think that it is a waste of time for them to be around when you are going to be doing “all the talking.” A good short term solution is to ask them with great emphasis if what they mean is that they want you to sight-translate the documents and to tell their client that they will answer any questions after you finish translating. Repeat the last part to the defendant before you start translating, and refuse to answer any questions. For a long term solution you can explain what your legal and ethical boundaries and obligations are, what is exactly a sight translation, and suggest that these documents be read in advance at the detention facility or the law office (depending on each case) If hired by the court, you should ask the coordinator/supervisor to talk to the attorneys in order to avoid these situations in the future.
- “Your Honor, that is not what my client said”. It is common for the Attorney to speak the native language of the defendant. This is usually one of the main reasons a non-English speaker goes to a certain attorney. You and I know that there are many lawyers who think they speak the foreign language even when their level is way below fluency .Any attorney will tell you that it is impossible to know what a client will tell the judge, and they often say something that will hurt them, especially those who come from a different culture. Because of the attorney’s knowledge of the foreign language, he will usually learn the disastrous answer given by his client before the words are interpreted to the judge, and many times they will try to blame the poor answer on the interpretation by saying that their client didn’t say what the interpreter said, or by arguing that the question was not interpreted correctly. One time a lawyer interrupted me in open court arguing that his client had not said what I interpreted, that she was Cuban and therefore I was not qualified to understand and interpret her answers. What I did next is a good short term solution: Simply state on the record that you stand by your interpretation or rendition, and if necessary state your credentials. A more durable solution would be to make sure judges and attorneys know and understand that we are the language experts in the courtroom, that when we make a mistake we admit it and promptly correct it, and that our preparation and credentials go beyond speaking two languages. We should always interpret what the client says, even when the attorney wanted them to say something else.
- “I know I had to pay you long ago, but I cannot pay you because my client hasn’t paid me yet.” It is common for the lawyer to think that “we are in this together” and assume that it is perfectly fine to delay our payment when their client hasn’t paid them. Unfortunately for those attorneys, we have no client-provider relationship with their client. Our legal relationship was established by a written (ideally) or an oral agreement to interpret during a certain specific event at a certain rate. This legally binding agreement is not conditioned to a foreign event such as the attorney being paid by his client who happens to be a third party in this interpretation contract. To solve the problem as expeditiously as possible when you have no written agreement, talk to the attorney (he knows that his payment has nothing to do with you) and negotiate payment; maybe if you give him two weeks to pay; you can also take partial payments if you trust the lawyer, but never wait until he gets paid. Many clients never pay their attorneys when they did not get everything they thought they would get from the case. If you have a written contract, stick to it. Send it to a collections agency or take the lawyer to court if necessary. Remember, this is how you make a living and you earned the money. The long-term solution for all services in the future, especially when you do not know the Law Firm very well, has to be a written contract detailing payment, default of payment, and collection costs. In my experience all attorneys sign it when asked to do so. We have to be smart and take advantage of the legal protections that exist.
- “Sorry Judge, but we are late because the Interpreter took forever reading the plea agreement.” Some attorneys want to save themselves a trip to a detention center by informing their clients about a potential plea agreement when they see their clients in court. I have had many lawyers ask me to read a plea agreement or a presentence investigation report just minutes before a scheduled hearing. I cannot count the times that I have read these documents in holding cells and jury boxes. Then, after reading the always long and exhausting documents, most attorneys answer their client’s questions. Of course, reading these documents really means sight translating them because they are written in English. As you know, this is a difficult task and it takes time to do it right; add to that the time the attorney has to spend answering questions from the defendant and sometimes convincing his client to take the offer because that is the best possible outcome of the case. When done properly, we are talking of hours of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the time it takes for the jail to bring the defendant to the holding cell. Of course it is true that while we are working our tail off doing this sight translation, most attorneys are just sitting there doing nothing. I am sure it is extremely boring and frustrating to see how the time goes by and the time for the hearing approaches, but it does not justify blaming the delay on the interpreter who has been working hard all this time. It is the attorney’s obligation and responsibility to defend and advise his client, they know how long it takes to go over those documents, and they know that it should be done on an earlier date. Such a situation can be avoided by talking to the lawyer as soon as he requests the sight translation and telling him that the process will take time and most likely will not be over by the time the judge calls the case. Now it is the attorney who has to decide what to do: request a continuance, be pushed to the end of the docket, change the hearing to the afternoon, etc., and if he ignores the suggestion, as an officer of the court you can always answer the attorney’s complaint by stating on the record what just happened. This will cover you in case of a formal complaint or investigation by the court. The better long-term solution would be to always agree with the private attorney to do these sight translations days before a hearing, and for the court appointed attorneys and public defenders you should talk to the courthouse’s chief interpreter or administrator and ask them to require these documents to be read to the defendant ahead of the hearing date.
These are my first five. Next week I will post the other five. In the meantime, I invite you to share your stories, anecdotes and opinions regarding this frustrating but essential part of a court interpreter’s professional practice.
October 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
This Friday I will be presenting during the ATA Annual Conference in San Diego. This is nothing new of course. Many of you have attended my presentations in the past; however, this time I will be covering ethics for interpreters.
That’s right, I will be delivering a presentation on that arid subject that most of us need in order to (at least) keep our licenses, certifications, or registrations current. The title of the presentation is: “The Client-Attorney Privilege and the Interpreter’s Duty to Maintain Confidentiality.” As you can see, it is a legal interpretation topic that up until now has been little explored by our colleagues, by the Judiciary and by the Bar. When I decided to tackle the “ethics presentation” one-ton gorilla in the room, I set some goals: First, the presentation had to be useful. I had to find a topic that interests interpreters, but more importantly, I had to look for something that would help them with their career; something that they could use time and again for the rest of their professional lives. Then, I decided to find a way to do it fun. Of course, we will not have stand-up comedy (Darn. I guess I thought of it too late to incorporate it) but we will have fun by making this session an interactive exchange where we all explore concrete situations that we face in our profession, and try to find a solution that is legal, ethical, and good for our practice (meaning: our business!) How many of us know when we are legally bound to do or abstain from doing something because of the person we are working for? How do we know when we are covered by the client-attorney privilege and when we are not? How do we stand up to a Judge when we are ordered to do something we are legally barred from doing? These are some of the everyday scenarios legal interpreters face all the time at courthouses, law offices, jails, board meetings, hospitals, and many other settings. The goal is that by the end of the session we will all understand the client-attorney privilege, when it affects the work of an interpreter, how it influences what we do, and what are the differences between this privilege and our ethical duty to uphold confidentiality. I believe that the practical cases I have selected will teach us how to correct some behaviors, how to detect a potential problem, and how to look for a solution. While we do this, I will also try to dissipate some myths about so-called privileges like the medical, religious, and others. My opinion is that this session represents a great way to get those ethics credits that you may still need, and at the same time you will learn something that will benefit your interpretation practice and business. The session will be presented in English. I invite you to join me this Friday, October 26 in the sapphire H room at 2:00 PM, and then, after the session is over, I invite you to join me and our good friend Freek Lankhof at the InTrans Book Service stand (6 & 7 of the Exhibition Hall) from 3:30-4:00 PM for a book signing of my new court interpreter manual: “The New Professional Court Interpreter.” I am sure you will like the book.
Please join me for a fun and useful interpreter ethics session in San Diego!
October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
Next week we will meet in San Diego during the American Translators Association annual conference. We will attend interesting presentations, establish new contacts, greet old friends, buy books, and we will have a lot of fun. However, we will also gather to do something else that is particularly important for all interpreters: we will vote for three directors to the ATA Board. These new officials will represent our interests before the Board for the next three years.
As a professional association, ATA has thirteen officials that make policy and decide issues that affect us all as an organization. We have a President, a President-elect, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and 9 directors. Being a board member is a hard job, it requires a lot of time and effort and the reward is usually the satisfaction of a job well-done. We are very fortunate to have very capable and dedicated people at the top of ATA.
The number of translators and interpreters in the organization’s membership are pretty similar, but only two of these thirteen officials are interpreters. They all do a magnificent job, but it is these interpreters that really voice our perspective in the boardroom. We are two professions united by the word, written and spoken. I am writing this piece because those two spaces where we as interpreters are represented in the boardroom are up for reelection. In other words, if we lose one of those two seats we will end up with nothing as it used to be in the past. In the pursuit of a more balanced organization we should strive to bring our representation up. To do that we cannot afford to lose these two seats. We just can’t.
Cristina D. Helmerichs is a veteran of our profession. She has a professional and administrative resume better than most. She has been an honest and measured voice for all ATA interpreters during the last three years. She was instrumental in the change of the organization’s tag that for the first time included us, the interpreters, as part of the association’s identity. She presently chairs the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, and a couple of years ago she played a significant role on an effort to understand and include many more of our colleagues who were frankly on the verge of leaving ATA and other professional organizations because they felt excluded and ignored. Cristina was Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors from 1996 to 2004. During her tenure NAJIT saw unprecedented growth in membership; she is also a founder of the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (TAJIT) and an active member of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association.
Cristina complements these impressive administrative credentials with her professional trajectory as an interpreter. She has worked in the federal court system nationwide, she has been a pillar to the court interpreter scene in the state of Texas for many years, and she has been a conference interpreter all over the country. Cristina is a regular interpreter trainer, a workshop instructor, and a rater of the federal court interpreter examination. I know all these things because I have been a member of these organizations when Cristina has been in charge; I have worked with her all over the country interpreting, teaching, and rating federal exams. I have traveled half way across the world with Cristina. I have pet her dogs at her home, and I have been her classmate when we studied diplomatic conference interpretation in Argentina together. Cristina has been a great friend and she is a spectacular human being. Anybody in Austin will agree with this statement. I invite you to vote for her next week because we need her at the table.
I also encourage you to reelect Odile J. Legeay, the other interpreter on the board. Odile is another great professional and very capable board member. During the last three years she has been instrumental in the development of tools that have come to aide all freelancers, such as the standard agreement she developed. Odile is also a great human being. I know all these things because just as in Cristina’s case, I have seen it first-hand. I have worked with her, attended conferences and activities with her, and I have been to her home in Houston where I have seen how well-liked and loved by her peers she is. Together with Cristina, Odile is a voice that we as interpreters must keep at the top of ATA’s decision-making structure. We need their representation. In fact we cannot afford to do without either one of them.
It is also relevant to mention that Cristina and Odile are two of only three Spanish linguists on the board. This is also important when we think that ATA is the most important professional association in the United States, and the U.S. is the number two country with the most Spanish speakers in the world just behind Mexico. Voting to reelect Cristina and Odile will continue to allow all ATA interpreters to have a voice on a Board of Directors where an overwhelming majority of the members are translators, and it will also help ATA to be more representative of its community (The United States of America) and its membership (Spanish interpreters and translators) by keeping two of the Spanish linguists as part of the Board. The other Spanish linguist, a translator, is not up for reelection this time.
Finally, because this election day we can vote for three directors, I would like to invite you to also vote for Corinne McKay. She is not an interpreter, she is a French<>English translator (and a very good one) who has been instrumental to our joint profession. I know Corinne as a person and she is a great human being, she is responsible and committed. I had a chance to observe her up-close when she was President of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA). At the time I was living in Colorado and I was Chair of the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters (CAPI). I have seen Corinne present at professional conferences, I saw the key role she played during the ATA annual conference in Denver two years ago, and I know that although not an interpreter, she has tried to bridge that gap in Colorado organizing events to bring the professions closer. I know this because a few years back she invited me to do a presentation on conference interpretation before CTA.
Dear friends and colleagues. I appreciate all of our colleagues that are running, I am sure they are all honorable and capable professionals and human beings, but this time I invite you to keep our voice at the table by reelecting Cristina Helmerichs and Odile Legeay, and I invite you to cast your third vote for a great translator who has proven to be capable as an administrator and will no doubt be a friend to the interpreter community. Please cast these three votes.
August 27, 2012 § 15 Comments
Yesterday I received a phone call from a client asking me to interpret a high-profile conference for their organization. Several months earlier this same client had discarded me as a potential interpreter stating that I wanted too much money to do my job.
This is how it all started: When this client, who I will refer to as “Client A”, first won a contract to provide interpretation services for a big company, they contacted those interpreters who had previously worked interpreting for the same big corporation under the agency who had the interpretation contract before “Client A” ousted them during the bidding process for a new contract. I still remember the first time “Client A” called me. After telling me how they had looked into my professional background and how happy they would be if I were to agree to work for them under this new contract, the person from the agency told me: “…but you are not one of those interpreters who want to charge $600 per day, right?…” Of course I immediately replied: “Of course not. I used to charge that, but it was many years ago when I was not well-known in the industry. Now I charge plenty more.”
Needless to say, after a few months of a little song and dance, I learned through another colleague that they had already retained the services of other interpreters, relatively new to the field, and definitely new to the company the interpretation services were to be provided for. That was it. I did not dwell on it, and I frankly forgot about the incident.
Now, back to the present, the client started the phone conversation telling me how sorry they were that they had not hired me for these assignments. He explained their reasons, all of them financial, and then briefed me on the events the less-expensive retained interpreters had done so far. I learned how the quality of the service was not at the level this big company was used to; I heard how the big company executives had complained about the interpreters, and how they had asked for me by name. Finally, the client told me that they really wanted me on board; he asked me to name my “price” (fee) and asked me to have lunch with them.
Of course, this was music to my ears! Yes I was happy to get the contract under favorable terms, but the thing that really made my day was to see the clients’ realization that as a general rule, quality costs money. I took advantage of this great opportunity to educate the client about our profession, and I was very pleased to see how this client had finally “seen the light”. I know this issue is a constant struggle for most of my colleagues. For this reason, it is important to hear your comments and stories about other clients who may have learned their lesson as well.