Interpreters advocating for equal access to healthcare and justice? I say: No.

June 26, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Lately, I have been traveling extensively both, domestically and abroad. This has exposed me to many problems and challenges our profession faces all over: An interpreters’ union as the answer to our problems; individuals in decision-making positions constantly advancing the interests of those who seek to eliminate interpreting and translating as professions and turn them into assembly lines at the service of a bizarre “industry”; government agencies charging for interpreting services in settings where it may be legal but it is an unfortunate decision; agencies unilaterally changing contractual terms and interpreters who “celebrate it”; hospitals bragging about their use of non-certified healthcare interpreters…

I will address them all in due time. I will also launch a weekly comment on my You Tube Channel: ”The Professional Interpreter’s Opinion”.  First. I would like to bring to your attention a situation I have encountered everywhere, particularly in the United States, that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Everywhere I go: professional conferences, interpreting assignments, interpreters’ social gatherings; and in everything I read: blog posts, newsletters, professional publications, internet forums and groups, and professional emails, a significant group of colleagues are actively advocating for equal access to healthcare services, state-sponsored assistance programs, and administration of justice, to all individuals who do not speak the local official or customary language. With the United States: English.

I have nothing against equal treatment for all people. I think it is needed and deserved. It actually makes me happy to encounter programs or systems designed and executed in a way inclusive of every individual, regardless of the language they speak or sign.  The thing is: I do not believe that we as interpreters or our professional associations as entities, should be advocating these changes or the delivery of the services. It is for government authorities and individuals involved in social activism to push for, and implement the policy and legislation that will protect us all and guarantee that equality.

Our role as interpreters should be to make sure those interpreting services that will guarantee equal access to all members of society are delivered correctly, by real professionals who meet all education, certification and licensing requirements, observing the highest professional and ethical standards. This must be our priority, to educate others about the profession, and to denounce those who take shortcuts either by allowing unprepared people to deliver the service, or by ignoring policy and legislation to save a buck.

Some of you may ask: Is this not the same as advocating for equal access for all?  The answer is not. Let me explain.

When the Obama administration decided to finally observe Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as it applies to those members of society who do not speak English and request a public service funded by federal money, individual states were told to provide, free of charge, language interpreters in all civil court cases where a non-English speaker requested access to a government program or service funded with money from the federal government. Until then, many state governments were furnishing court interpreters for criminal cases free of charge. Litigants in civil matters had to retain their own interpreters and pay them as all professionals get paid in society: according to the terms of a professional services contract between client and interpreter. Since these fees charged for these services were regulated by the free market, when compared to interpreters’ pay for criminal matters where the state would pay directly to the interpreter based on a preset fee schedule, interpreters would receive a better fee for services provided in state civil court. In a free market this meant that interpreting services were better in civil court. Better interpreters could compete for better pay while other interpreters had to settle for the state-set fee universally paid to all interpreters with no distinction based on their experience or quality of service.

Implementing Title VI ended the system described above as from that moment, state civil court interpreters would be provided at no cost to the litigant, and interpreters’ fees would be paid by the state at the same rate as criminal court cases’. This change killed the practice of many of the better certified court interpreters, in some states because they were banned from court unless working through the state, and in others, because once attorneys and litigants learned of the availability of free interpreters they seldom chose the most-expensive privately retained interpreter (even where they were better than those interpreters offered by the court).

To my dismay, many interpreters celebrated this change and even pushed for its implementation where it had not been adopted by the local courts. I was happy that interpreting services were provided to all, but I was confused on why those making a living as court interpreters would be happy about losing a good source of income.

It is very difficult to understand why so many interpreters actively defend the rights of those who do not speak the official language of a country, and constantly push for an increase on certified interpreters.  I believe that our profession would be better served if we, the professional interpreters, were to spend our time, money and efforts promoting renditions of a better quality, the use more capable interpreters, higher professional fees to attract better people to the profession.

Instead of demanding that a civil court furnish an interpreter, or a hospital provide an interpreter to a patient, we should be demanding an end to despicable practices such as allowing those who failed a certification exam to practice the profession as “accredited” “qualified” or whatever. Instead of advocating for more interpreters in a school district, we should be demanding that agencies who unilaterally change the terms of a professional services contract be expelled from the interpreting agencies’ roster.  Instead of worrying about how poorly doctors, nurses, attorneys, and judges treat non-English speakers, we should be worrying about state agencies refusing to pay travel expenses and Per Diem to interpreters who travel to provide a service.

I do not say that all those other things are not important. I am not saying those other things are fine. All I am saying is that it is not up to us to advocate for them. There are others whose job is to protect these individuals. Nobody else will protect interpreters but ourselves.

Some may say that part of a community interpreters’ duties include advocating for the client. My answer is that they are right. However, the advocating that community interpreters must do is none of the above. A medical interpreter must advocate for a patient when there is a defective communication due to a cultural barrier. A court interpreter must advocate for the client when the defendant, victim, or witness cannot be understood because of lack of cultural knowledge by the English-speaking parties. That is expected. Being an activist for the rights of the non-English speaking population is not one of the interpreters’ duties.

If interpreters want to participate in activism for these populations they should do it, but not as part of the profession.  Involvement in equal- access campaigns as professional interpreters, or as a profession, should be limited to those cases where by promoting the addition of interpreter services to a certain program or service will benefit us as a profession because it will be generating more work opportunities for certified, true professionals who will be making professional fees, while , closing the door to paraprofessionals, those who have failed a certification exam, and all agencies who unilaterally change contractual conditions in detriment of the interests of the interpreter.

This, my friends, is how we should channel our energy when we want to advocate for a cause that touches on the profession . I now ask you to please provide your comments on this issue.

The U.S. Armed Forces and Memorial Day.

May 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.  It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forced of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.

The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.

The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.

The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.

The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.

To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense.  Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.

I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.

It is the mediocre who disrespect the interpreter.

May 22, 2017 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

A few weeks ago I read a comment by a colleague who had just finished a very important high-profile interpreting assignment. He stated that when the event ended the main speaker thanked the interpreters for their job in the booth. Rightly so, my colleague was very happy and appreciative of the kind gesture.

His comment brought back many personal experiences of instances when speakers and organizers recognized the interpreter team by either praising a job well done, or by thanking us for our dedication and professionalism. At this moment it hit me: With some exceptions, the most important, famous, admired speakers are always kind and appreciative. It is common to be recognized at the end of a hard session. Many commend us for our rendition, others ask for a round of applause for the interpreters. I have been to some events where we have been asked to come out of the booth to be seen and recognized by the audience. It is all about respect, but it is also about education and awareness of the importance of a good interpretation.

These movers and shakers know that without proper interpretation their words would lose their thunder in a foreign language. They know that communication is essential, and our work is key to reach everyone in every culture and language.

For this reason high-profile conference interpreters are always welcome at the auditorium, conference room, and international organization where their services will be needed. From the moment we arrive we are treated with deference and respect, not because of who we are, but because of what we do. Everybody is on board, they all know that we provide a relevant professional service.

Speakers and organizers know and understand the complexity of what we do, so it is just natural we get a breakroom to relax every now and then, that they expect us to work in teams of two and three; that we get paid for travel days, and that we get a compensation appropriate to the service we provide.

As I was thinking of these circumstances, my mind drifted to the way healthcare and court interpreters are treated most of the time.  Despite being an essential component to the healthcare system, or a key element to an administration of justice equal for all, doctors, nurses, judges, attorneys and support staff often view interpreters as an inconvenience instead of an asset. They are perceived by many in these areas as outsiders instead of as part of the team. Many resent them and believe that we are overpaid, after all, all we do is talk.

Although some may be motivated by who knows what reason, I think that most of their attitude and policies come from ignorance. Unlike so many people we deal with in conference interpreting, many are not well traveled and lack a sense of international community. A medical diploma or law degree guarantee no worldly view of affairs. To put it simply, they just cannot understand why people do not speak their language, and they attribute their lack of native language skills to being intellectually inferior. They believe that everybody should learn their language and consider translation and interpreting services as a waste of resources and losing the national identity. It is for these reasons, and not necessarily because they dislike the interpreter, after all interpreters speak their language, that they consider our presence annoying and our service a threat to the status quo.

I do not like this, but I can understand why these individuals do not want to treat us with the dignity and respect we are treated at the conference level. The lack of respect and demeaning practices towards interpreters I cannot justify or understand, are those perpetrated by the people in the multinational language agencies who hire unqualified people, pay disgustingly low professional fees, and treat interpreters as laborers instead of professionals.

It is the way interpreters are treated by these entities that greatly contrasts with the dignified treatment we experience in a conference they were not involved.  It is these transnational entities, who are on a crusade to destroy our profession and turn it into an “industry” that wants to get us to work the booth, courtroom and hospital like an assembly line.

They know of the complexity and professional nature of our work, they understand how exhausting our craft is, they know of the fact that we sell our time. Yet, they want to pay the lowest fees, who want to take up to three months before they pay us, the ones who do not want to a second interpreter, refuse to pay for travel days, and rarely share the assignment relevant materials. These are the people who demand you call when you get to the assignment and let them know when you leave.

These are the “experts” who distrust us so much they double-check with their client to make sure we really worked for as long as we told them, and treat us like little children by telling us what to wear, where to sit, what to eat, and who to talk to. They know you, they have worked with you in the past, and at the least they researched you before they contacted you for a job. It is not about you, it is about their perception of the profession. To them, in their mythical theory of the “interpreting industry” we are laborers on an assembly line. This serves them better. Once they dehumanize us by turning us into their “industry’s” pawns, they can disrespect us, insult us, and abuse us as interpreters. This or course, only if we let them.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us your thoughts about this important issue.

Are you productive when working under demeaning circumstances?

May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Occasionally we all must work with difficult clients. These individuals make an already complex and delicate job more difficult because of their ignorance, rudeness, greed, and sometimes due to their tendency to micromanage everything.  If they only knew that all they are achieving is to diminish interpreters’ productivity by distracting them from their task, and creating an uncomfortable environment that interpreters want to leave when they can. I cannot believe that people do not realize that interpreters do a much better job when they feel respected and may flourish in a place where they like to be.

It is a job we are talking about, not a social club, but respect is a must in all human relations and it should never leave the building. It is more puzzling, infuriating, and insulting when this horrendous environment is created by our peers.

We all have received from some agency emails, letters, work orders, contracts, and other documents where they impose dozens of rules, describe dozens of procedures, and include dozens of warnings and threats. We dislike them. They wake up a negative feeling that instantly predisposes us against that client. This is only worse when an interpreter micromanages our assignments and delivers these litany of requirements, warnings, rules, and so on, every time they retain our services.

Recently I got to see one of these monuments to totalitarian control. An obsessive-compulsive communication of 736 words containing nothing about the assignment. They were all rules conceived by this strange mind. The email covered topics such as when to report to the assignment, times for arriving and leaving, even when there was no assignment left to interpret; it had some prohibitions such as telephonic interpreting from this entity’s office, even if the job you were hired to do had been completed and there was absolutely not a chance that your services would be used again. If this is not enough for you, the document repeated many issues already covered between the parties and therefore already enforceable, such as payments and reimbursement of expenses. The long email talked about running late, dress code, and get this: “standards of performance and professional responsibility”!

After reading this 2-page long “small print” to the email where the assignment information took only 2 lines, I was furious, offended, and saddened.  It was clear because of the client this was, that the email is sent to every interpreter they assign to a job. For the same reasons, it was also crystal clear that most interpreters getting this email every time they worked with this client, would receive the same despicable communication over and over again.

It is insulting and inexcusable that a client who knows you professionally, and knows the level of commitment and excellence of the interpreters they are hiring, may address us this way. After reading the email I felt more like a laborer and less like a professional. It was disheartening and very telling of the opinion this client has of the interpreters they hire (sometimes) daily.

I brought this up on the day I worked for the client. I got an apology from an individual different from the one who decided on the contents of the insulting email, and I was told that in the future all communications addressed to me would not include such demeaning rules. I was not told that the practice of micromanaging other interpreters and treating them as laborers who need the foreman looking over their shoulder would stop.

I understand there may be some new interpreters, or even some colleagues whose language combination does not allow them to be full time interpreters because of the lack of work. I know of the fact that some may need a refresher on the rules and policies. The problem is that, even in that case, the communication should be worded in a way it shows respect for the dignity of the interpreter as a professional and as a person. It should not include the repetitious recitation of the terms of the contract already signed and agreed to by the interpreter, and it should not be included in every single email. Whether an interpreter is a rookie or a veteran, regardless of how often they work for this client, they are not stupid, one communication reminding them of these matters should be enough.

It saddens me so many colleagues are too afraid to express their feelings about these communications, which are delivered by many clients every day all over the world. It frustrates me so many are so used to this mistreatment by the client, that they do not recognize the insult anymore.  I am also convinced that interpreters cannot do their best when they must work for a client who appreciates their work so little, and thinks of them so low.  Now that you know how I feel about this despicable practice, I would like to hear what you think and feel about these micromanaging personalities who run some organizations and institutions we often work with.

”Sorry. I do not interpret for free.”

May 8, 2017 § 32 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Recently many interpreters have been asked to provide their services for free. The current refugee situation in Europe, immigration policy of the United States, and other crisis around the world, including the awful repression of the people of Venezuela, have created a wave of foreign language speakers who seek help in countries where their native language is not spoken.

I have heard from colleagues asked to go to an airport to interpret for individuals denied admission into the United States. Others have been asked to provide their services during town hall meetings without pay. Several have received requests to work for free during asylum hearings or medical examinations at refugee camps or religious organizations-run facilities.

When asked to “interpret at no charge for these folks who have gone through so much”, many interpreters feel pressured to provide the service, even when this may represent a financial burden to them. Arguments such as “It will not take long, and it really is nothing to you since you speak the language… please help” are often used to corner professional interpreters into a place where it becomes very difficult to decline.

There are plenty of times when the only one asked to work for free is the interpreter. Many non-for-profit organizations have paid staff, and it is these social workers, physicians, attorneys and others who will assist the foreign language speaker. Everyone is making a living while helping these people in need, but the interpreter! Something is wrong with this picture.

Many of the people who work for these organizations do not see interpreters as professionals. They do not consider what we do as a professional service. They just see it as the acquired knowledge of a language that interpreters speak anyway, and they perceive it as something that should be shared for free. They believe that what doctors, lawyers and social workers do is a professional service and deserves pay. To them, we perform a non-professional, effortless task that should be volunteered.  Even if the interpreters questions this idea, and asks to be paid, the answers go from: “We are non-for-profit and we have no money” to “The entire budget will go to pay for doctors and lawyers, and you know they are expensive. There is no money left for you”. And then they go for the kill by closing the statement with: “but you understand; these are your people. They need your help”.

This is insulting. First, they see us, treat us, and address us as second-class paraprofessional service providers. Then, they claim there is no money when we all know that non-for-profits do not pay taxes because of the service they provide, but they have sources of income. Finally, they think we are not smart enough to see how they are trying to use us by playing the guilt card.

I systematically decline these requests because I consider them insulting and demeaning to the profession. Interpreters are professionals just like the other parties involved, their job is as important and essential as the rest of the professions participating in the program, and we must get paid just like the rest of the professionals.

There are instances when attorneys and other professionals provide the service without payment. The difference is that in some countries, lawyers and other professionals must perform some hours free of charge; sometimes several hours worked pro bono can be credited as part of the continuing education hours to keep a professional license current. Even court and healthcare interpreters receive this benefit sometimes. People see it as working for free, but it is far from it. The first scenario is a legal obligation to keep a professional license valid. The second one is a creative way to lure professionals into providing professional services at no charge for needed continuing education credits and an enhancement of their reputation in their community that will see them as willing participants helping in the middle of a crisis.

According to the American Bar Association, eleven states have implemented rules that permit attorneys who take pro bono cases to earn credit toward mandatory continuing legal education requirements (The states are: Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington State, and Wyoming).

I have no problem with interpreting for free if the interpreter must comply with a compulsory social service, or can benefit by receiving continuing education credit.  When the legislation (or the lack of it) is so interpreters get nothing from their service while the others benefit, then interpreters are treated as sub-professionals and I believe they should say no to all those asking them to work under these disadvantageous conditions.

If these non-for-profit organizations want interpreting services for free, they should lobby their legislative authorities or administrative officials to provide continuing education credits to all interpreters who provide some hours of work for free.

Another possible solution would be to allow interpreters to treat these free professional services as a donation to the non-for-profit organizations, making them tax deductible. This would create an incentive and level the field with all other professionals already getting a paycheck, or continuing education credits.   American legislation does not allow interpreters in the United States to deduct the value of their time or services (IRS Publication 526 for tax year 2016).  An amendment to this legislation would go a long way, and would benefit both, non-for-profit organizations and professional interpreters.

Some of you may disagree with me on this subject. I am asking you to detach your professional business decisions, which we should make with our brain, from your emotional decisions that come from your heart.  We all have causes we care about and we willfully, with no pressure, help in any way we can, including interpreting for free. This is something else, and you should do it when nobody else is making a profit or even an income to get by. It is called fairness. On the other hand, we should protect our profession, and the livelihood of our families by refusing all “volunteer” work where some of the others are getting paid or receiving a benefit we are not. Especially when they insult our intelligence by resorting to the “emotional appeal”.

I sometimes donate my services under the above circumstances,   as long as I may advertise who I am and my services. This way I donate my work, but I am investing in my business by enhancing my client base and professional network.  I now ask you to comment on this issue that seems very popular at this time. The only thing I ask from you is to please abstain from the comments and arguments for working for free that appeal to emotions instead of professional businesses.

Interpreter certification: A fight against the establishment.

May 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many of us have devoted years to the struggle to achieve recognition towards the professionalization of what we do. In most countries, interpreters need not have a college degree, the occupation is highly unregulated, and society lacks the knowledge to demand a high-quality professional service. An important number of countries have exercised to a degree some control over who can interpret in certain fields: legal and healthcare interpreting now requires of a certification in several countries. Whether it is called certification, patent, license, or anything else, this is an important step towards professionalization. It is a way to compensate the lack of formal education by giving individuals a chance to demonstrate that they have the minimum skills to practice as interpreters. It reminds me of the beginnings of other now well-established professions. Two centuries ago, people in the United States could become lawyers by passing the State Bar without having to attend Law School.

Although certification does not guarantee the quality of a rendition, it allows the user to decide if an individual is at least minimally qualified to provide the service. This quality-control becomes very valuable to society, but we must be very careful as it is not always what it should.

All professions certify, admit to practice, or something to that effect, their members in one of two legitimate ways: By an administrative act sanctioned by a government because of passing a knowledge and skills test, or, by an administrative act sanctioned by the individual’s peers through a professional association because of passing a knowledge and skills test.

In the United States, and other countries, court interpreters acquire their certification through the former system, while healthcare interpreters get their credential through the latter.

Both systems work fine because they meet the requirements that guarantee an unbiased decision solely based on merit, not self-serving reasons. Besides meeting certain moral and legal requirements, this is achieved by passing a scientifically developed exam rated by an impartial qualified jury. Certifications can only be universally accepted and recognized when they come from such a process. For this reason court and healthcare certifications have become the standard of the profession in many countries.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of legislation, the high demand for inexpensive interpreter services, lack of knowledge by the potential client, and the existence of paraprofessional interpreters willing to work for next to nothing for their quality-absent services, have created a perfect storm for worthless so-called “certifications” that currently inhabit the market in the darker corners of the ugly face of interpreting, feeding themselves on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of the pariahs of this profession.

Many language agencies advertise their interpreters as “certified” because they have been tested online or by phone and passed an unscientific exam not developed to learn if an applicant is prepared with the minimum professional skills to do the job. Instead, the motivation behind these “exams” has to do with marketing the service, and protecting the agency if a lawsuit occurs caused by the incompetence of their so-called “certified interpreters”. No data is available on the science behind their exams, and there is no information on the quality and impartiality of those rating the examinees.

It gets even worse: many community interpreting, telephonic interpreting, and supposedly healthcare and legal interpreting agencies advertise as “certified” interpreters individuals who attended a workshop, took a class online, read a manual, or went to a class without even taking an exam! The website of one agency brags about the “training” of their “certified” interpreters taught “national ethics and standards of practice for interpreters” in the United States. The problem is there is not such a thing. Each field has its own code of ethics. It also claims that their “certified” interpreters, who apparently work in legal situations, get “…basic skills pre-session preparation…” and they also get skills on “…closing the session…” These are no doubt important issues in healthcare interpreting, but not even the terminology exists in legal interpreting. I wonder how this knowledge, or learning “information on community systems (K-12 schools…)” will show that an interpreter is ready to work in a courtroom, detention center, or law office. Some brag about the number of training hours they offer to their interpreters, but they do not require that they pass an exam; much less a real scientific exam like the ones real certified interpreters must pass. Most of the training hours are devoted to practices to protect the agency from liability, to make the business plan more profitable. Whether they require an online test or just a bunch of classroom hours on a curriculum they created, they have as their main goal to create this impression that their interpreters are certified. They never disclose that their certifications are not officially recognized, that their exams were not scientifically developed, or that they have a vested interest: to offer the paraprofessional services of these “certified” interpreters at a lower cost so they can profit more.

This is not the only problem, dear friends and colleagues, official government policy can also be the main obstacle faced by interpreter certification. I was contacted some time ago by the government of a country outside the United States.  Mexico’s legal reforms took the country from a written court system to an adversarial oral system similar to the one in the U.S.

I was asked to participate in a training program for the new court interpreters for the oral proceedings. I was told this curriculum was necessary for these interpreters to get ready to pass a (certification) test and get what Mexico’s legislation calls a court interpreter patent (same as the certification in the United States, or the licensing in Texas). I was asked to provide may documents and information, even to develop a prospective curriculum and bibliography for my portion of the training (8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for three weeks). The full program was supposed to have a duration of three months at the same pace, and it was to be taught on the campus of the largest college in that Mexican State (Mexico is divided in States just like the United States of America).

After months of negotiations, where I made many concessions regarding the money I would be paid, and my expense account during the three weeks I would be living in that city, and after agreeing to cover my own airfare, to get these young prospective court interpreters what they needed to have a successful and meaningful career, the government officials continued to ask for more documents and concessions, until I gave them an ultimatum. At the end the answer was the one I feared all along: They would not retain me for the program because I was too expensive, but also, because I was a foreigner. They decided that only locals could teach the program. I have no problem with the local talent, and I know some of the other instructors and I vouch for their skill and expertise. The thing that puzzled me was that out of all the instructors, I was the only one who was both: interpreter and attorney, and I was the only one with experience working as an interpreter in court. The decision from above, taken by people who know little, or nothing, about court interpreters, left the certification program for that Mexican State with no court experienced instructors.

In the present world where a college education for interpreters is still years away in many countries, interpreter certification programs play a huge role in advancing the career and protecting the user of the interpreting services. Society must know of these malicious self-serving “certification programs” that are roaming out there with no supervision or regulation. It is imperative that more colleagues get certified as court and healthcare interpreters in the countries, and languages, that the credential is offered. On June 1, of this year, my colleague Javier Castillo Jr. and I have prepared a four-day workshop to prepare those who will be taking the oral portion of the court interpreter federal exam in the United States at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte this summer. The workshop will also help those taking court interpreter oral exams at the State-level, as we will dissect the test, explain what matters to get a passing score, and will practice with tailor-made exercises designed for these workshops you will find nowhere else, so that when the four-day program ends, those who took the course can get a personalized evaluation and know exactly what to do to pass the test. (You can get more information by going to www.fciceprep.com)

As you can see, the road to professionalization is full of obstacles, and some need to be eliminated to get the needed recognition to those legitimate certifications. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this issue.

Should interpreters work under those conditions?

April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.

We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.

In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.

For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out.  Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.

It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.

I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.

I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.

The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.

I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success.  Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.

That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions.  I am the last name on the list, and that is good.

Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap.  Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).

I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better.  I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.

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