Please do not confuse court interpreters with conference interpreters.

September 23, 2019 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

Today I will not write about a new topic. My post deals with something we have heard for years, and has been brought up to me in various ways recently. During the last few months I have seen interpreting agency websites that claim they only use certified court interpreters to interpret during their conferences. I heard a colleague proudly say in a professional conference for interpreters and translators he always “recommends federally certified court interpreters (in the U.S.)” when hired to interpret in the booth; and I recently had dinner with some colleagues who looked surprised when I told them that retaining certified court interpreters to work in a conference was a bad idea.

This article is not an attack on court interpreting. It is not written against conference interpreters either. I know both disciplines. During my career I have practiced them both. They are complex, demanding professional services that require preparation, skill, and talent. It is difficult to be a court or a conference interpreter, but they are two very different disciplines which require of a competent practitioner, and most of the time, that individual is not the same person. Let me explain:

Conference interpreting is conveying a message spoken in a language into another. It is practiced at international summits, professional seminars, congresses and meetings, bilateral or multilateral meetings of corporate executives, heads of state and government, and meetings between chief executives and labor union representatives (aiic.net April 23, 2012)

Conference interpreters must have a good mind, a complete mastery of their working languages, including an excellent command of their native language. They need an immediate grasp of their passive languages, and a well-developed capacity to express themselves in their own language.  To achieve this, they need a good level of general education, a lively and flexible intellect, analytic capacity, the ability to put themselves in the minds of those for whom they are interpreting, and they need to concentrate, have good memory, a pleasant voice and good diction, physically and mentally robust, and able to interpret for a massive audience. (https://aiic.net/page/4003/conference-interpreting-is-the-interpretation-of-a-conference/lang/1)

Court interpreting, on the other hand, is the oral transmission of information by lawyers, judges, litigants, and witnesses from a source language into a target language for a legal proceeding inside and outside a court setting. Court interpreters must be fluent in more than one language, and they need to know of legal terminology and procedure.

A court interpreter interprets in a court proceeding such as arraignments, motions, preliminary hearings, pre-trial conferences, depositions, trials, and sentencing hearings. They also interpret outside the court at attorneys’ offices, detention centers, and prisons. They must completely and accurately interpret for individuals with a high level of education and for persons with very limited language skills without changing register, altering, omitting, or adding anything to what is stated, and without explanation. They need interpersonal skills as they work next to their clients, a good level of public speaking, endurance, concentration, and acute sense of hearing, and the ability to remain neutral, and control and hide their personal emotions regardless of the controversy and the facts of the case. (https://courts.michigan.gov/Administration/SCAO/OfficesPrograms/Documents/access/FAQs.pdf)

Court interpreting has very special characteristics that set it apart not just from conference interpreting, but from all other types of community interpreting such as healthcare, public assistance, school, etc.

Court interpreters must interpret everything said in a hearing, the rendition must be complete; summarizing, omitting speech defects such as false starts, stuttering, and utterances is not allowed. They must maintain the speakers register, which fluctuates from formal and legal when interpreting what attorneys and judges say, to scientific and technical, when interpreting expert testimony, to crude, vulgar speech, idiomatic expressions, and criminal lingo such as gang or drug dealer talk. Generally, they work under adverse conditions without a booth, in crowded and noisy settings, and without a partner. Unless they interpret for a trial, most of their assignments are less than two hours, but they work several assignments in a day with no consideration for the vocal cords. These interpreters’ goal is to interpret everything for the record in case there is an appeal later on, and to provide judges, jurors, and attorneys, all linguistic elements needed to assess the credibility of a witness or a party to the controversy so they can reach a verdict or decision.

Court interpreters cannot explain what they are interpreting. When working for the courts, they must be neutral at all times, and leave all explaining to the legal professionals. Because they are responsible for a complete and accurate rendition, they must correct any errors or mistakes as soon as they realize they incurred on them. Their loyalty is to the record of the proceedings.

Finally, because of the unique nature of their field, court interpreters are officers of the court, they must be certified, they work under oath, and they are covered by the client-attorney privilege which is a higher level of protected confidentiality than any ethical or professional duty conference interpreters abide by.

Conference interpreters serve a different purpose. They interpret so the parties can communicate when they do not have a common language, and because their main objective is that the parties understand each other, their rendition must be coherent, clear, pleasant, rendered at a good pace. They must convey the message which they must understand first, and then transform, reorganize, and render so it is proper of the target language with the right syntax and equivalent expressions. To transmit the main message, conference interpreters need not interpret everything a speaker says, only the relevant portions of the speech. If needed, conference interpreters can summarize, avoid the obvious and redundant, put what is being said in context so it can be better understood by the audience, even if this means the interpreter has to add a reference or short explanation in the target language. Unlike, court interpreters, conference interpreters correct mistakes at the first opportunity it is reasonable to do so, even if several minutes go by, and they can use their rendition to correct mistakes and clarify concepts. Conference interpreters work in teams of 2 or 3, they rarely meet their audience face to face as they perform their services from a booth usually, and their work takes place under a controlled environment with clear sound and few distractions. Conference interpreters work multi-day assignments and must travel often during the year. Unless they are placed under oath due to the nature of the event to be interpreted or for security reasons, they need not work under oath all the time.

There are differences on the way the services are performed:

Conference interpreters work from a soundproof booth most of the time; they hear the speaker through a headset, and their work is mostly rendered in the simultaneous mode. Because the goal is that the foreign speaking audience understand the message, interpreters practice decalage (the length of time between the start of the speech and the beginning of the interpretation) A longer decalage allows for higher accuracy because the interpreter gets more context before interpreting. It also allows for a better paced, clear, pleasant rendition the audience will enjoy and understand.

Court interpreters need to interpret at a speed higher than conference interpreters because they must interpret everything, as it all must go on the record. There is little to no decalage in court interpreting as the simultaneous rendition usually involves more than one speaker. To avoid foreign language speakers get lost, interpreters have to stay as close to the speaker as possible, so the audience sees who is the person being interpreted at that specific time. For example, for the foreign language speakers to understand the rendition during an objection by one attorney, the interpreter has to finish the first speakers’ speech almost with the speaker, and then immediately interpret the objection by the other party. The jurors also should see the reactions of foreign language speakers to what is being said in court. Interpreters need to stay very close to the speaker they are interpreting. Obviously, sometimes this gives interpreters no time to process and put in context what was said, and it is usually very difficult to understand even a good rendition because of the speed of the interpretation. Completeness for the record and not a pleasant paced rendition is what interpreters are looking for.

There is little consecutive interpreting in conference settings. It is usually reserved for official dinners, press conferences, or tours of infrastructure such as industrial plants, military facilities, and others; When there is consecutive interpretation it is long consecutive. Speakers talk for several minutes nonstop, sometimes for up to 20-30 minutes; interpreters concentrate, apply their memory skills, visualization, and take notes. Once the speaker stops, interpreters take a moment to organize their ideas, go to the beginning of their notes, and start their rendition observing the appropriate grammar and syntax of the target language. Once the interpreter finishes the interpretation, the speaker continues his talk, and so it goes until the end of the event. This consecutive interpretation requires of great skill, practice, concentration, and the interpreters’ attitude to be on the spot.

Court interpreters use consecutive interpreting every day, but they practice short consecutive. This mode of court interpreting is used for all dialogues between individuals who do not share a common language. They renditions into the target language have to be on the record. Short consecutive is used when interpreting witnesses’ testimony and questions to the foreign language speaker by the court.  Consecutive interpretation in court is often complicated by the difference between the educated speech of attorneys and judges, and the popular, uneducated speech used by many parties and lay witnesses. Interpreters rely mostly on their memory for this rendition, they can ask for repetitions and clarifications from attorneys and parties, and they must start their rendition almost immediately after the question was asked, because their interpretation of the answer by a witness or defendant has to be contemporaneous to the witnesses body language, facial expressions, and other reactions so jurors can take them in as one and better assess the credibility of the person testifying from the witness stand. Unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters start their consecutive rendition while they are still looking for the beginning of their notes (usually one or two pages at the most). Court interpreters’ consecutive interpretation faces another problem: unlike conference interpreters, who interpret for an individual eager to convey his message at the press conference, court interpreters have to interpret consecutively evasive answers, half-truths, utterances, and false starts, often unresponsive. In these settings, many witnesses are testifying against their will, and they try to hide their involvement, or they try to exaggerate or downplay the facts so it is more beneficial to their personal interests.

Sight translation happens in a conference setting rarely; it is usually in a written speech interpreters get ahead of time. Many colleagues do a simultaneous rendition while following along if the speaker deviates, as it frequently happens, from the written statement.

Court interpreters practice sight translation more often. It usually involves documents interpreters never see before the hearing, generally police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, and plea agreements. It is common to see interpreters requesting a recess to look at more complex documents they were just handed in open court without prior notice.

As you can see, these are two very different disciplines, both require of specialists who can do the job, but that court interpreters are certified to work in court means they have passed a rigorous exam that tested their skills as described above, not their knowledge and skills as conference interpreters.

Court interpreters are not lesser interpreters by any means, but their skill is not appropriate for a conference setting. Many colleagues and clients complain of events interpreted by certified court interpreters who spoke very fast, interpreted every single noise that came from the speaker’s mouth, and constantly interrupted a speaker during a consecutive rendition because they are used to a 2 to 3-minute segment before consecutively interpreting it.

There are many interpreters who successfully transitioned from court to conference, and even some who practice both disciplines. The difference is they understood the difference between the booth and the courtroom and acquired the needed knowledge and skills.

Just as it would be disastrous to assign a conference interpreter to do a trial, it is appalling that agencies and court interpreter colleagues accept conference assignments because they believe they are ready for them. Unfortunately, agencies seek these court interpreters because they earn less than their conference counterparts, agree to work alone, do not demand preparation materials, and gladly work from a table top or sitting behind a table using portable equipment.

I invite all my conference interpreter colleagues, in places like the United States where we see this situation all the time, to sit down with their clients and explain these differences between court and conference work, and I ask all my court interpreter friends to please understand these are two disciplines. Those who want to cross over to conference work need to do it right, commit to study and practice until they can honestly call themselves conference interpreters. I now invite you to share with us your thoughts on this subject.

Quality interpreting will be tougher and less profitable.

September 3, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Government officials are entrusted with taxpayer’s money and they should be good stewards when allocating said resources. Good governments are charged with guaranteeing equality and quality services to those who elected them, and they must wisely decide where to invest and where to cut expenses. Sometimes well-intentioned authorities get it wrong, and unless they rectify, consequences can be ugly.

There are two instances where the United States federal government has adopted policies, and is considering even more steps, that will negatively affect our profession: One of such actions, already in place, impacts those interpreters practicing before the immigration courts; the other one will make accurate interpreting extremely difficult in the healthcare sector.

Even though we have read and heard many voices protesting these government decisions, and that is very good, they all argue the negative effects from the perspective of the beneficiary of the professional service: the millions of individuals living in the United States who do not speak English, but nobody has argued why these changes must be opposed from the interpreters’ perspective. My following comments result from conversations I had with fellow interpreters, immigration attorneys, and my own experience and observations as an interpreter, and from my days when I saw the immigration court system up close as part of an immigration law firm. This should complement what others have said.

Interpreting immigration proceedings.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) which runs the immigration courts, a branch of the Executive Branch of the federal government, not part of an independent judiciary, and run by officials appointed by the current administration, to lower its operational costs, replaced in-person interpreting services during an individual’s first court appearance with “pre-recorded, subtitled orientation videos, or telephone calls…”

These initial appearance hearings, called “Master Calendar Hearings” are the procedural moment when a person sees the immigration judge for the first time, after receiving a “Notice to Appear” (NTA) in court because of a removal proceeding the U.S. government, through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has instituted against him or her. The notice informs the individual of the charges, gives the time and place of the hearing, and it informs immigrants of their right to have an attorney to represent them at no cost to the government (remember, immigration court is Civil Law. Only criminal cases are covered by the constitutional right to have a defense attorney free of charge).

Master Calendar Hearings are very important. During this appearance, a person, technically called the “respondent,” who apparently is not an American citizen, learns of the charges against him, the facts of his case, is informed of his legal rights, and is given the chance to retain an attorney at his own expense or appear without legal representation (pro-se) during the proceedings. The person could request bond or ask for a bond redetermination hearing before the immigration court.

Respondents are told of their rights as a group. In some courts between 80 to 100 people at a time. During the hearing, the judge briefly addresses each individually, asking them their name, date of birth, address, and whether or not they plan to retain an attorney. Judges also ask them if they have questions, if they understand English, and when needed, an interpreter is appointed at no charge. This is very important because respondents need to know that failure to appear to any subsequent hearings will be held without them been there (in absentia) and the result will be a final order of removal and a 10-year bar to any future immigration benefits in the United States. Occasionally, people ask for voluntary departure or concede removability at this hearing.

Before the pre-recorded policy was implemented, judges listened to respondents’ answers to their questions, and conveyed information through an interpreter in close to 90 percent of the cases, this is immigration court where English speakers are the exception. If respondent’s language rarely was spoken in the area, and there were no staff or contract interpreters readily available, judges would use a telephone interpreting service, and for those cases where interpreters were not found, immigration courts would continue the hearing to a future date when an interpreter would be available.

I cannot imagine, and it shows a lack of knowledge on the way immigration courts work, how could a judge ask questions, provide information, and communicate with a non-English speaker. I can even see how a judge can even know that the individual understood the recordings. Some will not understand the spoken language in the video; others cannot read the subtitles in their own language because they may be functionally illiterate. Some may not pay attention to the video. I know how important is to know what to do if an emergency occurs when on an airplane, but I rarely pay attention to the video airlines show teaching me how to buckle my seatbelt. The most logical outcome will be: The judge continues the Master Calendar Hearing until there is an interpreter for the respondent. The consequence of this outcome: a second Master Calendar Hearing, easily avoidable when interpreters are available the first time. Taxpayers’ savings: gone.

Unfortunately, many respondents will be embarrassed to admit they did not understand the video, others may choose a hearing they do not understand instead of sitting in detention for a few weeks waiting a rescheduled hearing with an interpreter; others may concede removability when they had relief because nobody told them so.

Under this new policy, interpreters will encounter the respondent at the hearing on the merits, called “individual hearing”, for the first time. From the interpreter’s perspective, these hearings are similar to a traditional trial, there are legal arguments by the parties, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, references to caselaw, and quotations of official documents on the situation of countries, regions, and other relevant information. When an interpreter is involved from the Master Calendar Hearing, she has time to prepare for the assignment, research country conditions reports, get acquainted with the relief the client is seeking, and develop a glossary of terms relevant to the case and to the respondent’s speech.

Accurate interpreting during individual hearings is difficult because of the wide variety of issues that can be discussed. This is complicated even more due to the cultural differences and level of education of many respondents.  Interpreting during an individual hearing when a pro-se respondent went through a Master Calendar Hearing with a pre-recorded video will be a very difficult task. It is almost impossible to interpret without context, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review expects accurate quality interpreting services under these deplorable circumstances.

In an environment where the federal government wants to slash down all language resources needed in immigration proceedings, therefore compromising the quality of the interpreting services in immigration court, it is very telling that SOSi, the sole agency providing interpreting services in immigration courts nationwide, under a public contract reviewable every year until 2021, has remain silent on this issue. They already showed how willing they were to win that contract a few years ago when their lowest bid ousted long-time provider LionBridge. We all remember how the first thing SOSi did was to reduce interpreter fees from $60 to $35 dollars per hour (they later lost to the interpreters before the National Labor Relations Board NLRB). We must not forget SOSi is a well-established, powerful contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) with a vested interest and a priority to keep its client: The United States federal government happy.

Dear colleagues, all immigration interpreters: staff or contractors, will face a terrible environment where they must do more, much more, with a high probability of a less than perfect rendition, because of the erroneous, and in the long-run more expensive policy enacted by the EOIR. Independent contractors will also have a less profitable immigration practice because all Master Calendar Hearings will be gone. How do you like this: tougher work, less income, providing interpreting services for an agency focused on keeping a federal contract, that cares nothing about interpreters or quality service, all to comply with an absurd government policy that brings nothing favorable to the interpreter to the table?

Healthcare interpreting.

In compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, including language proficiency, and President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 (2000) during President Barack Obama’s administration the U.S. Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare” in 2010.  Section 1557 of the Act prohibits discrimination in federally-funded or administered healthcare programs on basis of national origin, including language proficiency.

Once the law came to full force, healthcare providers had to provide “qualified” interpreters to those who are not English proficient. Since then, we have come a long way; there are now healthcare interpreter certification programs in several languages, criteria to resort to other qualified individuals in those languages lacking certification programs, and explicitly banning interpreting services by children and relatives of the patient. Interpreting services for languages of lesser diffusion, and for remote areas of the country where in-person certified interpreters were not physically available, a video remote interpreting (VRI) option was developed. I want to make it clear: I dislike VRI for many reasons, but I understand that it was better than the alternative: having a child doing the rendition or no interpreter.

On May of this year, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued a proposed change to Section 1557 which affects many segments of the population, including the elimination of written translated notices informing non-English speakers of their right to have an interpreter, and the option to get interpreting services by video in regions where no interpreters were physically available. Citing savings of $3.2 billion dollars over a 5-year period, the 204-page amendment proposes telephone interpreting instead of the more expensive video remote interpreting.

The patient-physician relationship is very private, often it happens during difficult times, and it could include communicating the worse possible news. Medicine is an imperfect science and it depends on accurate diagnosis, precise instruction, and strict compliance by the patient. Unless a patient is English proficient, none are possible without an interpreter.

VRI is a horrible solution, interpreters who provide this service are at the mercy of the weather, the speed of the internet service, the reliability of the electric company, and the quality of sound, among other things that have nothing to do with interpreting. Telephonic interpreting, maybe good for a 9-11 emergency call, or to make an appointment to the hairdresser, when used for healthcare interpreting is borderline criminal.

Those who think interpreting is all about hearing what a person says and translating it into a different language show their ignorance. Interpreting is much more than that. Communication includes facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and many other factors that need to be picked by the interpreter to do a good job. Interpreting for a medical examination, laboratory work, therapy session, need this visual component more than many other human interactions.

How can an interpreter be satisfied and confident of a telephonic interpretation where the doctor asks the patient: “Is the pain sharper here… or here?”  How can a physician diagnose correctly if the patient reveals his injury by pointing to a body part and nothing else?

Many of the non-English proficient patients come from cultures when it is difficult to take about the human body, even to mention human parts by their name. They solve this uncomfortable situation by pointing to their intimate body parts instead. Hated VRI at least allows the distance interpreter to see what the patient is doing and render an accurate interpretation. Same is true for those patients, many farmers and construction workers from Spanish-speaking countries, wrongly name a body part, or refer to their own body by the name generally applied to animal parts. Hearing “my foot hurts” when they hold their thigh, or “my gizzard is swollen” can be accurately interpreted when the interpreter sees on the screen how the patient holds his thigh or points at his stomach. With telephonic interpreting this would take a lot of time and many questions to the patient. Sometimes it is impossible.

Medical insurance paperwork without a translated notice informing non-English speakers they can request an interpreter for their medical appointment, and long, often uncomfortable telephonically interpreted doctor visits will cause many discouraged patients, who are not proficient in English, staying home, skipping medical appointments, and waiting until it is too late, and more expensive, to provide medical treatments. To say that healthcare services, arguably the most profitable activity in the United States, needs to cut expenses by amending Section 1557 is difficult to buy. This is the business that charges you $75 for the plastic pitcher of water you used during your hospital stay.

To the interpreter, it will mean a more difficult task, a professional practice that goes beyond interpreting and into the world of having to divine what a patient said. More difficult work, same pay, and a diminished rentability. When patients stop going to the doctor because of telephonic interpreting, when people stay away from hospitals because nobody ever told them they could have an interpreter during the medical examination, the need for interpreters will plummet. If implemented, on top of the thousands of deaths it will cause, HHS decision to eliminate right to an interpreter translated written notices, and to replace VRI with a telephone line will be remembered as the decision that killed healthcare interpreting as a profitable practice.

If you are a practicing immigration court or healthcare interpreter, and you want to continue in your filed, working in a fulfilling profession that makes you a nice profit, join the activists working on behalf of immigrants, patients, immigration attorneys associations, the immigration judges union, and healthcare rights activists, and share with them your perspective, make them understand that the quality of your service will suffer because of reasons with nothing to do with the way you practice your craft; explain to them that less profitability will be the easiest way to show the door to the best interpreters practicing immigration and healthcare, leaving only (with a few exceptions) those of a lesser quality and professionalism. Share stories like the ones I have included here. I now ask you to tell us what are you doing as a contingency strategy if profitability leaves immigration court and healthcare interpreting.

Interpreters need this from a city more than anything else.

August 20, 2019 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

My job takes me to many places all over the world, this means constant traveling by air, and sometimes by land. Transportation is very important and it is key to my performance as a professional interpreter. Recently, some of my travels have taken me to three continents where I have attended professional conferences where I saw many of my friends and favorite colleagues. As always, the conversation took us to a common topic: traveling. We shared how we got to these conferences, and then I realized that most interpreters I know live in a market at least two-flights away from conferences, business meetings, and international events. They all had to travel longer and spent more hours at airports waiting for connecting flights. I immediately thought of how difficult it must be for them to get to an assignment. This is something I rarely considered before; they took twice as long to get to that interpreting booth they were now sharing with me.

I have lived in big and small markets. The difference is huge. We always think of small markets as unattractive for a professional career as an interpreter because of lack of opportunities: no assignments, no venues, no events; sometimes we also discard them due to the shortage of interpreters in less frequently used languages.  These are all valid reasons not to live in such markets when your expectations are to find work where you live, but these markets are less than ideal for those willing to travel.

Living in a small market means you have to catch a plane to an airport that is hub to the airline you will fly, switch planes, wait for hours at the airport until it is time for your connection, and then you finally arrive. Some interpreters would even have it more difficult as they have to take three planes, or drive to the first airport from a smaller town where they live. Sometimes this means an additional travel day than those who will get to the assignment from a big city. These colleagues will likely travel on the first airline available because their market does not give them any options, therefore, they will be less likely to achieve airline status.

The biggest disadvantage for these interpreters is their availability. They cannot take as many assignments because it takes too long to get to the venue; and even when they arrive, they will be more tired than their colleagues who took a direct flight and slept on the plane, avoided the stress associated with catching connecting flights, and will have a much better chance to find their luggage at their destination than those whose bags had to be transferred from plane to plane. This is also very important for interpreters who work business negotiations and often need to be somewhere far away on short notice.

For all the professional reasons above, and mainly, because of its airports and geographical location, I chose Chicago as my operations center. The city has two of the largest, busiest airports in the world, and especially O’Hare International Airport offers me options no other airport can offer me in the United States. Chicago is the only city in the United States, and one of only five in the world (London, Johannesburg, Doha, and Dubai) with direct flights to all continents except Antarctica (https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/chicago-international-flights). It is hub to the two biggest airlines in the world: #1 American Airlines, and #2 United Airlines; it is hub to the biggest discount airline in North America: Southwest Airlines, and it is a focus city for Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines, and; O’Hare International Airport is considered America’s best-connected airport.

These are the top ten airports with the most connectivity:

  • London Heathrow Airport
  • Frankfurt Airport
  • Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • Toronto Pearson International Airport
  • Singapore Changi Airport
  • Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Kuala Lumpur International Airport
  • Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

As professional interpreters, we need to get to the place of the assignment stress-free, and as soon as possible. Traveling wears out your body, it tires your brain. We need to be at the site of the assignment rested and mentally sharp. Direct flights help us do that. Even with the growth of Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) big cities will continue to have a competitive advantage over smaller population centers. Shortage of interpreters in many languages other than Spanish and other Western European languages; and lack of facilities where (RSI) interpreters can go to a virtual booth and work side by side with a colleague and a technician, will limit the options of these interpreters in outline areas. I personally do RSI, but I will not do it at home, without a boothmate and on-site technical support, left to my own technical skills to troubleshoot a problem, and hoping for the best as far as internet speed, connectivity, background noises, etc.

The way to get to the next professional level must include living in a big city, and to succeed in the private sector, you need the competitive advantage of having an airport that puts you one flight away from practically everywhere in the world. I now invite you to please share your comments on this important issue.

When the government at its highest level does not understand the role of the interpreter.

July 23, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Several weeks ago, the president of Mexico held one of his daily press conferences in Mexico City; on this occasion, Jerry Rizzieri, General Director of Mizuho Securities spoke of a credit his bank and others granted to Mexican state-owned oil company PEMEX as an attempt to rescue it from the enormous debt it faces. The event was important for the Mexican government and its president who has vowed to make the oil industry a key component of the Mexican economy. Rizzieri briefly spoke in English, and his prepared speech was sight-translated as a consecutive rendition not by one of the magnificent interpreters that regularly work with the Mexican president, but by Mexico’s Foreign Affairs secretary Marcelo Ebrard. From the moment Jerry Rizzieri stood up and walked towards the podium, Secretary Ebrard followed as if this had been planned ahead of time. The speech was a simple thank you written speech similar to the ones by those who win an Oscar or Emmy, apparently Ebrard speaks English, so there were no incidents except for the awkwardness of having the Secretary of Foreign Affairs sight translating a speech, and his obvious hesitation and confusion about the microphones.

Much was said in Mexico about the unfortunate episode, there was speculation as to whether the left-wing Mexican president, famous for cutting down on public expenses and reducing the budget, had used the services of the Foreign Affairs Secretary instead of retaining professional diplomatic interpreters. Some criticized the incident, others celebrated the episode; even interpreters wrote about it, both: for and against what happened. Opinions are always legitimate, journalists, interpreters, and the people may opine about the issue; but after watching the video, it is clear there were inaccuracies: First, Secretary Ebrard did not do a simultaneous interpretation; he did not do a consecutive rendition either. It is clear from the video that Rizzieri read from a written speech on the podium, and Ebrard did the same. The short speech could have been interpreted simultaneously or consecutively, but apparently government officers decided against it. It is false that you could not do at least a partial simultaneous rendition unless you had interpreting equipment. A diplomatic interpreter could have simultaneously interpreted the speech into president López-Obrador’s ear using chuchotage. Journalists and public would have not understood the speech, but it was a possibility at least for the president. (see minute 0:43 of the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLcxFj-sX_s)

The biggest problem was the lack of professional interpretation, not just for Rizzieri’s speech, but for the event. The president spoke Spanish, and from the video you could conclude that not a word was simultaneously interpreted from the booth, leaving Mr. Rizzieri and his entourage without understanding what was said during the event.

You cannot defend what happened just saying it was a great move that saved taxpayers money by not hiring interpreters for this event. You cannot excuse it by arguing this was an informal event that, due to its brevity, did not justify retaining interpreter services because Secretary Ebrard speaks English.

Far from it, this was an insult to the foreign bankers who traveled to Mexico City to bail out PEMEX. C-Suite executives of international corporations, such as these banks, are used to meeting foreign dignitaries, attend official ceremonies, and speak to their counterparts aided by interpreters. It is likely (at least we hope) that meetings and negotiations took place in the presence of interpreters who make communication possible between the parties. Not having interpreters for the negotiations, or having them, but dismissing them before the press conference was a sign of incompetence, and a show of disrespect to the foreign visitors and those watching the press conference without a professional interpreter. No, this was not cute, this put the office of the president of Mexico in a very uncomfortable situation. Unfortunately, it also confirmed rumors and stereotypes circulating outside Mexico. Professional diplomatic interpreters exist for a reason, they are qualified to bridge the communication gap between two or more parties, respecting the other party’s culture, and this way contributing to the harmonious relations among nations and individuals.

No, this was not a job for the secretary of International Affairs, and no, this cannot be addressed by having a pool of interpreters who volunteer their professional job to interpret for the richest level of the government they pay taxes to. These events require professional, experienced interpreters retained by the Mexican federal government, who are paid like the professionals they are. Anything short of that sets the profession back to the dark ages, in this case interpreting in Mexico. I now invite you to share your comments on this issue or similar experiences you have seen in other parts of the world.

Be vocal! Professional Associations: Stand up against injustice.

June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.

It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.

It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.

It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.

I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.

I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.

I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.

These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.

This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.

Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.

This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.

Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.

We must protect the interpreter, not the middleman.

June 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Think of a colleague, anywhere in the United States, who is battling a devastating illness and cannot get the treatment she needs because she has no health insurance, and medical expenses are so high she cannot cover them. I am sure you know an interpreter who has tried to get a job because he is worried about retirement years from now, but cannot get one because nobody is hiring. Language service providers want independent contractors because they have no legal obligation to provide employment benefits: health insurance, retirement plan, paid holidays and vacation, maternity leave, worker’s compensation insurance. If you prefer, look very carefully at your interpreter colleagues who have a sick parent, a disabled child, or another powerful reason to stay where they now live, and for that reason, they have to interpret for the agencies in town (local and multinational) and they do it in silence because they are afraid of losing these assignments, even when they are poorly paid, and they have to endure terrible, and sometimes humiliating working conditions.

Of course, you can always look at your own practice; I invite you to do so and honestly answer these questions: Do you enjoy having to check in and out with the agency every time you do an assignment? do you feel comfortable asking the person you just interpreted for to write down the hours you interpreted and to sign the form so you get paid by the agency? Do you find amusing having to spend hours on the phone and writing emails so you can get paid for a last-minute canceled assignment the agency does not want to pay? Maybe some of you like staying at the venue after interpreting is over because the agency makes you stay for the full time they retained you, even though all your work is done. Perhaps your definition of professional services includes cleaning up files or making photocopies until your time is up. Do you like it when the agency prints you business cards under their name and forces you to give them to the client? Do you like dodging all clients’ interpreting services questions by referring them to the agency every time? How about micromanaging your time on the assignment?

I doubt you enjoy any of these things, but even if you do, please understand that these intermediaries are taking advantage of you. They are forcing you to perform as an employee without paying you any benefits. Agencies distract you by telling you what a wonderful lifestyle you have, how flexible your schedule is, and everything thanks to them, your benefactors who find you work while you do not even lift a finger.

This is what the California State Legislature is trying to stop by forcing those employers who treat their “independent contractors” as employees to provide all benefits and protections people who do what these interpreters do for the agencies are legally entitled to. Think like an interpreter, stand up for your colleagues and the profession. Do not buy the arguments agencies are propagating. They do not see this legislation from the interpreters’ perspective. They see it from their business perspective.

For a long time, agencies have enjoyed this cozy business model that lets them charge their client for your service, pay you a part of it, and get you to do anything they want without incurring in any human resource expenses. It is a win-win situation for them. It is an abusive scheme for the interpreter.

Big multinational agencies are campaigning hard to defeat these legal protections not because they will “destroy the industry” as they put it, but because they will lose their golden egg goose. There will be no more freebies. They come at you with their lobbyists and make you believe they are on your side, they portray themselves as your savior and use scare tactics to make you think there will be no work for you if they are forced to lower their profits by living up to their legal and moral obligations to the interpreters.

Freelancing is not going to end after the bill becomes the law of the land in California or anywhere else. I am a freelance interpreter and I am not afraid. I do not work with these agencies, big or small, who now claim they are on a quest to save us all. New legislation or status quo will not impact my practice, and it will not impact that of most colleagues I work on a daily basis; however, leaving things as they are, giving back these agencies a position of power over the interpreters who work for them, will keep our less fortunate colleagues in the same deplorable conditions they have been working for all these years. This is a decisive moment. Multinational agencies and their lobby know it. They will fight the State of California with everything they have because they know the Golden State is a place where they can be unmasked and lose their privileges. Interpreters have organized labor backing their efforts because there are unions and guilds in California. Other States do not have them. The middleman knows that California is a decisive battlefield and they are spending money and sending their PR people to “convince” interpreters that defeating this legislation is best.

They argue they will not be able to hire interpreters because it would be too expensive. That many agencies will not survive and interpreters will lose a source of work. That is the point. The bill will only be successful when this serf-owner business model is erased. Will interpreters be more expensive because of the labor benefits? Yes. Interpreters deserve these protections. Agencies will either close or adjust their business models to comply with the legislation. Will agencies hire less interpreters? Of course, but the need for interpreters will not go away. There will be many more interpreters hired directly by clients. Is this going to hurt small agencies? It should. Small agencies should not exist in this business model because the essential condition for their survival is the denial of workers’ rights under the law.

Complaints that the legislation has exempted other professions like physicians and attorneys, but not interpreters are nonsense. Doctors and lawyers are well-established professions. Nobody would ever think of calling a “medical agency” and ask for a brain surgeon for tomorrow at 8:00am. If we want to be treated like these professions, we need to look like them. First step: get rid of the middleman. I know, some will say: “but…hairdressers are excluded and they are not a profession like doctors and lawyers” That is true and it is wrong. They should be covered by the legislation. The difference is: They got a better lobbyist and got their sorry exception in detriment of the people providing beauty services.

What about the argument that smaller agencies will not be able to stay in business because they will not afford it? In my opinion, these so-called agencies are not really agencies; most of them are a solo operation where somebody with connections acts as a referral service. I find this dangerous because these “agencies” just want a warm body with the right language combination for the assignment. I do not get the impression that messages on social media that read: “need French interpreter tomorrow at 2 pm” project exemplary quality control. Moreover, these people are not an agency, they should think and act like professionals and do what I do, and many of my colleagues do (all doctors and layers do the same thing): When your client asks for interpreters in a language combination different from mine, I just suggest a list of trusted experienced professional friends I am willing to vouch for, and let my client decide who he will retain and for what fee. I do not get involved, I do not get referral fees.

Finally, to the argument the ABC test is impossible to overcome: This is false. It can easily be overcome by a real independent contractor relationship. That is the point. If any agency could disguise a de-facto employee as an independent contractor the law would be pointless.

I understand what multinational agencies, their lobbyists, small agencies, and those solo practitioners who call themselves an agency without actually being one are doing. They are defending their very lucrative status quo. They have a right to fight for it and save their “industry”. As always, my concern are the interpreters and the profession, and from this perspective, I see the new California legislation as a step forward to our professionalization because, on top of protecting our colleagues in need, it will weaken the agency model, a necessary condition to become a true profession worthy of a place in the pantheon of professions. This is the time to listen to our colleagues and defend our profession, not the middleman interests.

All T&I conferences should have a dedicated interpreter track

May 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession that needs constant preparation. Changes in the world, discoveries in science, evolution of language, and development of technologies make continuing education an indispensable part of our work. Because most interpreters are freelancers, they have to look for ways to learn all the time. This is one of the main reasons professional associations are essential to our development as interpreters.

Most of the time, interpreters and translators join forces to create professional associations that organize continuing education events: seminars, workshops, webinars, and annual or bi-annual professional conferences. Here our colleagues look for the latest, get feedback on ethical issues, learn best practices in business, and network with their peers. I attend many of these events every year. Some are excellent and have proven useful to translators, and to a degree, to interpreters.

The value and need for these events are undeniable, but too often, interpreters are turned off by conference programs that cater to translators, leaving interpreters with little presentations to choose from, and sometimes, the few presentations addressing interpreting issues are scheduled simultaneously. There are excellent all-interpreter associations holding conferences for interpreters exclusively, but they are few and far between. The solution is simple: adjust professional translators and interpreters’ conferences so there is always a track exclusively dedicated to interpreter issues. Some associations have done it and it has been a resounding success.

The American Translators Association (ATA) may have refused to change its name to make its thousands of interpreter members feel included, but through its Interpreter Division it always has a dedicated track as part of its annual conference. This year will be no different and many of us are anxiously waiting for the time to attend this year’s event, and Interpreter Division presentations in Palm Springs, California.

Two other very relevant professional associations recently tried the dedicated interpreter track: For the first time, the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) which includes its interpreter members in the associations’ name, put together an incredible program, and exclusively devoted a room to interpreter-related presentations. The interpreters attending the conference learned from their peers, voiced their concerns about the future of the profession, and reinforced ethical norms interpreters face constantly in their professional practice. I was honored to participate and share with my colleagues, and I was very fortunate to attend wonderful presentations by world-renowned interpreters such as Paolo Cappelli, Heidi-Cazes-Sevilla, Valeria Aliperta, Trinidad Clares, Elvana Moore, Sergio Viaggio, Jakub Hiterski, Javier Castillo Jr., Beatriz Abril, and Sarah Cuminetti. IAPTI will never be the same. Interpreters know there is a place for them to learn from their peers.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be a part of history in the making. I attended the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference in Sheffield, UK. The event was spectacular: record-braking attendance, a magnificent venue in Cutlers’ Hall, top-quality presentations, and rooms full of motivated, happy interpreters and translators. There is really nothing to complain about. It was a great event, but what made it historical for many of us, was the decision by the ITI Board and the Conference Committee to try an experiment: After holding an interpreting stream in Cardiff two years earlier, it was decided to have an interpreter dedicated track, planned and organized by interpreters and for interpreters, prominently showcased during the conference. Interpreters were on equal footing with their translator colleagues, and we loved it.

The result could not be better, interpreters from all over the United Kingdom, Europe, and America came to Sheffield to be a part of this. Kirsty Heimerl-Moggan put together an ambitious program that included a wide variety of topics, all interesting, and all of them relevant to all interpreters. Our colleague Robert Lee did an excellent job at presenting “Role-Space: Understanding the interpreter’s place in interactions”; John Green addressed a crucial issue for all interpreters: “Presenting with Confidence”; Elena Davitti and Annalisa Sandrelli educated me on interlingual respeaking to where I am now reading and learning as much as I can on this new fascinating subject; Jonathan Downie made us think about our profession and where we go next as professionals, when he presented: “Can interpreters survive in an MT world?”; Sophie Llewellyn-Smith shared valuable tips and exercises we can all use to reduce our professional stress; Jan Rausch gave a crystal clear presentation on Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) from the perspective of an interpreter. This was so refreshing, useful, and definitively needed in all conference where only platform developers or sales people talk about this technology, always emphasizing technical aspects and agency advantages, not ours. Maria Cecilia Lipovsek presented a compelling case to finally accept that diplomatic interpreting is a different field, or at least sub-field. She explained diplomatic interpreting in the UK, opened the floor for an interesting discussion, and clarified that diplomatic and conference interpreting are different.  Finally, I shared my thoughts on interpreting as a profession and a quality business, showing those in attendance a way to educate your good direct clients, get rid of the agencies in your professional practice, and charge professional fees. I also talked about the court interpreter situation in the United States, underlining all achievements, and sharing the failures, including the recent federal court interpreter certification exam, hoping those in attendance will take advantage of what has been accomplished in the U.S. while avoiding all the mistakes we made.

Dear colleagues, I have been told this excellent track, dedicated to interpretation, is a permanent part of the ITI conference program. Let’s help ITI to continue to move forward with interpreters and translators working together, always having an interpreter dedicated track that advances our profession in every one of its conferences. I also encourage all of my colleagues in Europe to support this effort. Please cross the Channel and attend the next ITI conference, learn, do networking, and make the dedicated interpreter track of the ITI conference a tradition we all look forward to.

I ask all interpreters everywhere to do the same, tell your professional association that interpreters need continuing education, that many more would attend a conference where issues relevant to their careers were debated. I can think of big, relevant associations with world-class conferences that need to adopt this practice. Asetrad in Spain, OMT in Mexico immediately come to mind.

A successful professional conference must meet the needs of all its members: translators and interpreters. There will always be translation-issues presentations; both, interpreters and translators can benefit from some ethics and professional development presentations that can be attended by both groups of professionals; and the ever-growing number of interpreters joining professional associations worldwide need to find something that speaks directly to them. They need, we need, an interpreter dedicated track in all conferences that include interpreters in their membership.

I now invite you to share your experiences and comments with all of us on this essential issue: continuing education for professional interpreters.

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