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

September 13, 2016 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, it seems to me that there are requests everywhere for interpreters to work for less and even for free. Whether it is the Olympic Games, the political campaign events in the United States, or the community organizers’ voter registration actions.  Everybody seems to want a free ride.  At first impression, it looks like these are worthy causes and we as interpreters should be on board; unfortunately, when you take a second look at the request, you start wondering what is really going on. You see, Olympic Games’ organizers ask us to provide our professional services for free, they tell us it is a righteous idea, it will help to bring people together, and it will contribute to world peace. Then you realize that the physicians, paramedics, attorneys, dietitians, and many other professionals involved with the Olympic movement are not doing their jobs for free, they are getting paid for their professional services.  The same thing happens when you notice that the person asking you to volunteer your interpreting services to a political campaign or to a community organization’s event are paid staffers who do nothing for free. Something is not quite right.

Principled causes and ideas are great and we celebrate their existence, but professional services should always be remunerated, regardless of the virtuous cause they help advance. Otherwise, professionals should only get paid for awful, despicable activities. Under this criteria, healthcare workers should always work for free.

This reminds me of an occasion, many years ago, when a judge asked me to interpret a restraining order application form for free. When I refused stating that I would not do it unless I was paid for the professional service, the judge told me that it would be my fault if I refused and the victim was later harmed by the alleged perpetrator she was seeking protection from. He said that I was greedy.

Despite the fact that this judge was backed by an ignorant selfish interpreter coordinator at that courthouse, I immediately responded that my services were professional, just like the judge’s. I then asked him what kind of moral authority he had to scold me for not working for free while at the same time he was making a pretty fat check for presiding over the hearing. I did not interpret and I never knew what was of that alleged victim that a judge refused to help, because it was up to him to lend her a hand by just approving the payment of my professional interpreting services of the restraining order application.  You see, it is easy to be a Good Samaritan when it is on other people’s dime, it is more difficult when it affects you directly.

It is easy to ask for volunteer work when you are getting paid for asking others. I have nothing against volunteer, charitable work, but it has to be on my terms. I am a professional just like the physician, or the judge of my story, I run my own practice and I have to generate an income to cover expenses and to live the way I want to live; in my particular case, I work hard and provide an excellent professional service to be able to live my lifestyle.

As professionals, we must never lower a fee to give someone a break because they are poor, needy, or just need a break to get back on their feet.  You see, the day you agree to reduce your fee to a client, regardless of the motivation behind your decision, will be the last time you were able to charge your regular fee. From that point on, because everything gets to everybody’s ears in this world, all clients will always ask why you are charging them a full fee when you charged a lower amount to another client.  It is a dead end with no return.  It is a terrible business decision. I think you are starting to see why a lawyer or a doctor ask you to lower your fee for their “needy client or patient” while at the same time they charge them their regular fee.  When someone asks you to provide a professional service for free or at a reduced fee they are belittling the profession; they are automatically placing you in a separate category from the one where doctors, engineers and accountants are.  To lower your fee is a disgrace.

People, clients included should know that they will always be able to find someone else willing to work for a lower fee, but you are not that person. Your services are of the highest quality and that goes hand in hand with a robust fee.  On the other hand, because we should have a spirit of social empathy and solidarity, we must provide certain services pro bono.

Please pay close attention to what I am about to say:  As a professional, I am who decides when to volunteer my services, I decide the causes that are worthy of my time and effort. Professional interpreters should set aside a time for these free services, buy it should be at a time and place you decide; that way you can set the time aside when it does not interfere with your professional practice or your personal life.  You should designate, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month from 8 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon to assist anyone who needs your services for free, and you should do it at a church, community center, or similar venue. During that time, chosen by you, you will interpret legal, healthcare, school or any other community situations that those attending the facility during the previously set hours many need. Once the time is up, and at any other time, you will only see full-fee paying clients.  This is very different from living at the mercy of others who may want you to provide free or discounted professional services at times when you should be taking care of your professional obligations towards your paying clients.  This will immediately put you on the driver’s seat and will make it clear to everyone that you charge for your services, and sometimes, when the cause is righteous, and on your terms, you provide services free of charge. By doing so, you are not lowering the professional standards, you are not harming your own practice, and you are not insulting the profession.

Next time that you are asked to lower your fees or to work for free because the client deserves a break, stand firm on your regular fees, and if you decide that you want to provide a service for free, not discounted, then let that person know the terms of your pro bono services.  I ask you to please share your thoughts on this very delicate issue that is vital to us as individuals trying to make a living, and to the profession at large.

The interpreter and the political season.

August 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

We are officially in a political season that comes biannually to the United States, and especially every four years when the presidential election makes it more intense. In fact, the American presidential race impacts not just interpreters who live and work in the U.S., it also means work for many colleagues who provide interpreting services abroad and are retained by news agencies, broadcast companies, and government officials to simultaneously interpret stump speeches, political conventions, and presidential debates.

Many of us, in many languages and from all corners of the world, just finished the two political conventions, and with this, we ended the primary season as well.

It is after the political conventions that all candidates begin to seriously campaign for office at all levels of government. In a country as diverse as the United States, this means that platforms, brochures, event invitations, press bulletins, and other similar documents will be translated in order to reach the constituency of that particular politician. It also means that many interpreters will be contacted and asked to interpret stump speeches at political rallies, press conferences, interviews, and political debates.

Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November.  Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials.  Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues.

Because of our system of government, most political races take place at the local and state level. For this reason, many colleagues will have an opportunity to participate in the process as interpreters retained by local agencies and television networks. To some degree, those colleagues who live in the big cities will surely interpret House and Senatorial debates for regional broadcast and even national markets in languages such as Spanish.  Many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues.  Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks.  This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.

Interpreting political debates requires many skills that are not always necessary when we work doing other interpretation.  The candidates deal with questions on very different subjects, and their answers are somewhat spontaneous and sometimes unresponsive.  The interpreter needs to be ready for this type of work.  Reading about the issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform are needed parts of the interpreter’s preparation.  Besides political interpreting, a debate is also a media interpreting service.  As a media interpreter, you are required to work with technicians and radio or TV equipment, and you have to work with an awareness that many people are going to listen to your rendition, and that everything you say will be recorded and replayed over and over again.

I remember being at Mile-high Stadium in Denver, Colorado during the Democratic National Convention  interpreting President Obama’s acceptance speech live.  I remember the commotion, the crowd of “famous” politicians and broadcasters coming and going all over the broadcast center; and I remember the moment I stopped to think of what I was about to do: Interpret the nomination acceptance speech of the first African-American candidate from a major political party who had a very good chance of becoming President of the United States.    All of a sudden it hit me: There will be millions listening to my rendition, it will be broadcasted and replayed by Spanish language news organizations all over the world.  Wow!  Then, as I was getting a little uneasy about the historic significance of the task, I remembered something a dear colleague once told me about broadcast interpreting: Your rendition is to the microphone on the table in front of you. It is only you in that booth. I regained my confidence and composure and did the job.  The same experience took place just a few weeks ago in Philadelphia when I had the same opportunity during the nomination acceptance speech of the first woman candidate from a major political party.  I know that interpreting for a big crowd, or interpreting an important event, not only for a broadcast, but in the courtroom or a conference, can be very stressful and intimidating. Believe me, interpreting in Cleveland and Philadelphia was not a walk in the park.

Throughout my career I have traveled to different cities and towns to interpret primary and general election political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors.  Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city). I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events.

As I get ready for another official campaign cycle, I have thought of the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation.  These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.

  • Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work.  Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
  • Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
  • Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
  • Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
  • Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
  • Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
  • Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
  • Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them.  If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
  • When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
  • Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
  • Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.

On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else.  Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more.  Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate.  Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work.  If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.

I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries who will be interpreting this year’s political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.

The Electoral College in the United States.

October 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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

Because we are once again approaching the final days of the presidential campaign and election day is three weeks away, I decided to put my legal background and my passion for history to work (I have a Law Degree)

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

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

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

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

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

Going back to the Electoral College, the number of electoral votes each state has is the same as its number of Senators and Representatives. The total number of Senators and Representatives is 535 (425 Representatives and 100 Senators) Washington D.C. is not a state, therefore it has no Representatives or Senators, but it has 3 electoral votes to put it on equal footing with the smaller states for presidential elections. Therefore, the total number of electoral votes is 538.  Because of this totals, and because of the American principle of winner takes it all that applies to the candidate who wins the election in a state, to win a presidential election, a candidate must reach 270 electoral votes.  This is the reason why California, our most populated state, has 55 electoral votes (53 Representatives and 2 Senators) and all smaller states have 3 (remember, they have 2 Senators and at least one Representative in the House)

The next time you have to interpret something about the Electoral College in the United States remember how it is integrated, and think of our country as 50 separate countries who have an internal election first, and then vote as states, equal to all other states, on the second electoral round in December.  Because on November 6 of this year we will know who won each state, we will be celebrating the election or reelection of a new president, even though the Electoral College will not cast its votes for another month. It is like knowing how the movie ends before you see it.

Electoral votes by state Total: 538; majority needed to elect president and vice president: 270

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

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