Are we protecting our profession? Part 1.

March 29, 2016 § 49 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every now and then something happens in our profession that makes me wonder if we are truly doing what is best for all of us: individually and collectively as interpreters and translators.  In fact, this happened recently when I learned, like many of you, that the American Translators Association had revisited the antitrust legislation issue and had reviewed its policy.  As expected, ATA followed its traditional pattern of protecting the “interests” of the association over the interests of its individual members or the profession, and adopted a policy that clearly observes antitrust legislation as is, without questioning it.   It is not clear to me how the association arrived to this resolution to endorse everything the government wants, and is included in the legislation and case law, without first seeking a legal opinion from attorneys who disagree with the current antitrust laws or their interpretation by the government.  As I understand it, the mission of a professional association is to advance and protect the interests of its members and the profession they practice.  This can only be accomplished by assessing the current legislation as to its impact on those who it is supposed to protect.  I am convinced that a well-publicized campaign to get public comments from the membership, and seeking a legal opinion as to how to interpret the current legislation in the light most favorable to the interests of the individual interpreters and translators, which could have included proposed amendments to the antitrust legislation would have been fruitful and very successful.  Of course, it would have rocked the status quo where big multinational businesses, sponsors or members of the association, benefit from the current interpretation of the law and the association’s corporate policy, that leaves the individual members on an uneven field where they cannot talk about the insulting and sometimes degrading fees, or rates as these huge corporations refer to them, that are offered for their interpreting and translation services.

We all want to comply with the law, and nobody is suggesting that we break any legislation. On the contrary, we should always observe the law of the land, as these rules and regulations exist to protect the weaker members of society from the actions of those who are in a position to take advantage of them.  This does not mean that we should not question a legal precept when we believe that it is not advancing justice or protecting the weak.

Antitrust legislation was born in the United States in the latter part of the 19th. century when the legislator, first at the state level, and later at the federal Congress, saw the need to protect consumers from big business that at the time was acting as big conglomerates with “excessive” economic power according to the opinion of a majority of the citizens of the United States. The goal of the legislation was to regulate the conduct of business corporations by promoting a fair competition for the benefit of the consumer. Legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 became the law of the land.  They were followed by more recent laws like the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950. Ohio Senator John Sherman clearly explained the rationale behind this policy when he said that: “…If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life…” (Speech delivered in the U.S. Senate on March 21, 1890) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this spirit of the legislation when it referred to the Sherman Act as a “charter of freedom, designed to protect free enterprise in America” (Appalachian Coals, Inc. v. United States, 288 U.S. ({{{5}}} 1933) 344 [359]) Antitrust legislation goes against the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is tailored under strict scrutiny to limit this right only as it protects the consumer from the voracious unscrupulous merchant. We have many examples of these businesses throughout the more than one hundred years of antitrust laws in the country: The mining industry, the automobile industry, and even the telephone industry are some of the examples that come to mind. In all of these cases we can clearly see the benefits of restricting commercial and industrial activities to avoid monopolies.  We do not dispute that, but the fact is that the world has changed and we now face a very different economic reality than the one faced by the antitrust legislator of the 19th. century.

Technological advances and the rapid growth of globalization have created a world with uneven realities and circumstances in many fields, including interpreting and translating. When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

But it does not need to be that way, a careful reading of the law shows us that discussing fees and work circumstances is legal, as long as there is no agreement to fix a fee.  The problem is that, to avoid any possible discomfort, some professional associations adopt internal rules and policies where all mention of fees has been proscribed.  It is clear that there is a need for litigation, it is the courts, not the executive branch, who should decide if these 19th. century rules designed to protect the little guy from big business should apply to individuals who make a living from the practice of a professional service, not an industrial or commercial activity (despite the efforts by many to convince us of this model) who are constantly oppressed and taken advantage of by the big business of multinational interpreting and translation corporations.

Who is the little guy who needs the protection of the law under these circumstances? Professional service providers should not fix their fees for services offered to their individual clients: the consumers in this scenario; but there is a big difference between offering services to a neighbor or a store down the street where I live, and having to accept rock bottom fees from publicly traded entities who have a presence in fifty countries.  The court system needs to decide these cases, and if the decision is adverse, the legislation has to be changed. Not all legislation is good or fair; in fact, there are plenty of examples where we can see how the law created or enabled an unjust situation. Let us remember that not long ago the United States had legislation that favor slavery, or deprived women from the right to vote.  This is where professional associations are expected to act to protect their individual members and above all: the profession.

Perpetuating the present situation will not advance the profession, it will mutate it into some kind of involuntary servitude where the big guys will call the shots.  I now ask you for your comments, in the understanding that nobody is calling for violating current legislation, just to change what we have right now, and to opine about the role that a professional association should play when the profession needs to be protected from exterior forces who are trying to hijack it from the interpreters and translators.   Next week we will discuss the same topic from a different perspective: The professional associations and the battle against the professionalization of the interpreter.

Professional values and interpreter identity affirmed at a dental office.

January 5, 2016 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I spend most of the year traveling for work. To me, travel is a priceless tool that lets me peek through a window and see the world as it is, unfiltered and first-hand. It was something that happened during my last trip of 2015 that made me think about who I am as an interpreter, what I need professionally, and in my opinion what the true professional interpreter and translator need so we can be better at what we do for living.

Last week, while in Mexico City, I lost a tooth filling and I had to go to a local dental office to take care of it.  Fortunately there was no pain, but this is one of those things that you have to take care of right away, so I made an appointment the following morning to see a local dentist.  For those of you who have received all of your dental care in the United States this would be a true cultural experience.  The first thing that surprised me was that as soon as I was sitting in the waiting room the dentist who was going to take care of my tooth came out to let me know that it would not be long before they call me to see him.

Even more shockingly, there was absolutely no paperwork to fill out. Being used to answering endless questionnaires and signing tons of forms and releases in the United States before seeing anybody from the medical profession, I have to admit that I was surprised. Then, almost instantly, it sank in: This was a professional dental practice managed by professional dentists who thought and acted like members of the dental profession. They saw me as a person who needed a professional service: I was a patient. It never crossed their minds that I was a customer, they never saw their job as an industry. There was no need for endless paperwork for the assembly line because I was dealing with real professionals in a field where there is no room for commodities. There were no forms, releases, or “cover your butt” documents to read and sign because the dentists were calling the shots, not the insurance companies, not the pharmaceutical conglomerates, not the professional associations that are in bed with all of these other members of the cast who are in the dentists’ environment, but hold different and many times opposing interests and points of view to those of the professional delivering the service that I was there for.  The service was delivered professionally and promptly and I left the dental office happy and satisfied with the way they treated me and the services I received.

Dear friends and colleagues, I saw in action what many of us have tried to do throughout our careers, and at the same time, I saw the ugly face of that “reality”, foreign to our profession, that so many are trying to sell us as the true state of affairs and the future of the “industry”.   Thanks to a dental problem in a foreign country I got to see what our profession really looks when the decisions are made by interpreters and translators instead of multinational agencies, incompetent project managers, and corrupt entities who want us to believe that we belong at the industrial park with the car manufacturer and the sweat shop, when in reality we are part of the professional services provider world with the physician, the lawyer, and the dentist among others who are downtown and very far away from the language maquiladoras where some want us to live.

I was a direct client, in this case a direct patient, who entered a professional services relationship with the professional to deliver the dental care.  I paid a professional fee for the service rendered, and I was treated like a valuable individual. The fact that I met the dentist from the get go, made me feel comfortable and safe, even in a place as scary as a dental office with all of its sounds and smells. I had peace of mind throughout the entire episode because I always felt, and knew, that I was dealing with the person who knew what needed to be done: the professional dentist.

My friends and colleagues, this is exactly what we need to do every day. We have to deal with the client directly, we need to get them to experience the abysmal difference between on one hand dealing with a professional interpreter or translator who knows the field, can solve problems, and can deliver a world-class service at a well-deserved and earned world-class professional fee, and on the other hand having to deal with ignorant front desk individuals, monolingual agency owners, and unscrupulous multinational entities who many times charge as much as a real top-notch professional interpreter or translator and pocket most of it while paying the timid, scared or mediocre individual who translated the documents or interpreted the event a fee that even a beggar would consider an insult; and on top of all that, they see them as customers in a made-up industry, instead of clients getting a professional service.

A visit to a dentist in Mexico City motivated me to reaffirm my commitment to the profession, and inspired me to continue to practice a professional service without falling for those self-serving sophisms spreading the idea that we are not professionals but part of an “industry”.  At this time of the year when most people make New Year’s determinations, I ask you to join me on this commitment to defend the profession and our livelihood from these outside forces who want to vanish the idea that a professional works and acts like that dentist who I met in Mexico City last week.  I now invite you to share your comments on the issue of how you are educating your clients about the big differences and huge risks of hiring a “maquiladora interpreter or translator” from the “industry” instead of a professional.

A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?

November 17, 2015 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I started a controversial debate among interpreters and translators that made me think of one of the bigger challenges that we will ever face on our quest for professionalization: To think, act, and react as individual professionals who are trying to advance recognition, remuneration, and understanding of what we do for living.

When a colleague who works for the government suggested that the American Translators’ Association (ATA) should start a “government division” for interpreter and translator members to have a place to communicate, and learn from government agencies what they want from us in order to get work, I immediately got this extremely uncomfortable feeling that we were about to sell ourselves cheap once again; that the hated premise that we are under the client (turned employer, turned master) was going to be the basis of a debate where individual colleagues would decide not if they were going to jump or not, but just how high.

As fast as I could, I went on social media to point out this enormous danger, and from all my concerns, the only thing that most people picked up was the matter of the name that the new division would get: Instead of debating (and rejecting) the notion of having a government division, our colleagues discussed a name for a division that apparently was instantaneously accepted as a reality.  Agreeing with my rationale, those participating in the discussion saw the absurdity of vanishing all interpreters and translators from the name-description of the group by naming this entity “government division” and seemed more inclined to go with a “more inclusive” name. (I learned later that ATA bylaws will not even allow for a vote against the creation of such a monstrosity: To reject the idea we would need to amend the bylaws).

Unfortunately, the fundamental principle that makes such a division an absurdity went undetected. Let me explain:

ATA, like all interpreter and translator associations, are professional groups for the benefit of individual members to protect, disseminate, and advance the profession and the individuals providing the service.  As such, a professional association must clearly define who is one of us (a member), and who is not (clients, third parties, government officials). Once this has been established, the organization can do its work looking after the quality of the professional service, promoting educational opportunities, and defending the interests of its members.

The process above puts the professional association, and its members, in an advantageous position to sit down, individually or collectively depending on each situation, to negotiate professional services’ conditions with the counterpart: clients, agencies, government officials, and others.  All of these actors are active participants in the process, but none of them share the same interests or perspective of the professional interpreter or translator.  This is the purpose of a professional association. This is the only way that interpreters and translators can be considered, viewed, and treated as professionals instead of laborers.  An association with an organizational model where interpreters and translators commingle with the people who sit across the table can be many things, but it will never be a professional association.

For years I have defended our services as the type that only professionals can provide. I have fought for recognition at the level of an attorney, a physician and an engineer.  All of these professions have professional associations that follow the model I described above. None of them would even dream of having a format which included their counterpart in their organization.  Medical doctors deal with pharmaceuticals, government officials, and insurance companies every day; yet, none of these entities are part of the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama.page?)  Attorneys work with court systems everywhere, they deal with government agencies and police departments, credit institutions, and many others. Nobody, unless that person is an attorney, can be part of the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org/about_the_aba.html) Our very own AIIC groups professional conference interpreters worldwide and it does not include agencies, government officials, or international organizations as members (http://aiic.net/page/6757/about-aiic/lang/1)  By the way, none of them allows “corporate memberships” either. A corporation cannot be a professional, it does not go to college or pass a certification exam. By definition, only human beings can be professionals. Other membership categories can be explained away by associations, but never justified. A professional association cannot become a place where young professionals go to be indoctrinated on the principles of being a good “language service provider to the industry”. We are a profession, not an industry. Professional organizations work to protect their members, profession, working conditions, ethics and quality of the service. They are never job fairs where people play a dating game with multinational agencies who want your services in exchange for rock-bottom fees and humiliating conditions far from the minimum standards acceptable for a profession.

The “government (or whatever the final name may be) division” is a serious blow to the professional recognition of interpreters and translators by clients and intermediaries because it perpetuates the idea that we are subservient to a specific entity; that we do not view the government as a client.  That we are willing, and eager, to fulfill all of their conditions so they can give us some work, regardless of the shameful terms and awful fees.  I fully reject this mindset. Dealing from weakness devaluates us as individuals and diminishes the profession. If we want to be government contractors, let’s have a special group of interpreters and translators where we can brainstorm and exchange experiences. This would be a place where professionals get stronger before going out there to negotiate with government officials. The time and place to deal with government agencies is across the table as counterparts, not within the organization as fellow members. We do not need them to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. We must let them know what are the minimum conditions we are willing to negotiate from, and let’s treat them as clients, respectfully but firmly. Always as equals.  Until we are ready to adopt this attitude, we will stay where we are, and we will quickly move to the place where the counterpart wants us to be: a hole full of blind obedience and compliance.  Some of us will never walk down that pathway, but many will. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this crucial subject that could impact the rest of your careers.

Sometimes interpreters hurt themselves in social media.

July 22, 2015 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

It is impossible to do business in our competitive environment without social media.  We all know the tremendous advantages interpreters have when they complement their service and advertisement with technology, and more specifically, with social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others.

Many colleagues have websites, write blogs, communicate on Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime; a good number of them gain access to list-serves, chat groups, and Facebook professional groups every day.  Most of us do it for the same reasons: To keep up with changes and developments in our profession, advertise our services, clarify a concept, term, or policy, and to develop our network. These are all valid and legitimate reasons to go on line on a daily basis. Unfortunately, in my opinion and that of many others, some interpreters, without even realizing it, are hurting themselves by doing what they are doing.  Let me explain:

The Facebook profile and cover photos.  Some colleagues use their personal Facebook page for their professional business. It has never been a good idea to mix both parts of a person’s life. It diminishes the credibility and reputation of the interpreter by: (1) giving access to potential and established clients to the interpreter’s personal life. This makes the interpreter look careless and provides personal information that a client rarely needs to know: It is difficult to think of a situation where a client benefits from knowing that the interpreter broke up with her significant other, or by being aware of the weekend party where the interpreter drank himself into oblivion. (2) The interpreter looks careless and uninterested in the profession. The client’s first impression is that the interpreter does not care enough about his work to have a dedicated professional Facebook page, or that he is such a bad interpreter that has never even considered the option.

I cannot think of a worse idea than using a sports team logo, a pet’s picture, or a picture of the interpreter with his significant other, or his children as a profile or cover photos for a professional Facebook page.  It projects lack of professionalism to the business. It sends a message that the interpreter is not very well organized, that he constantly mixes personal and professional affairs. Those pictures of your favorite team, beloved dog, or cute children have to go. You can have them in your personal page, provided that you separate it from your business activities. Chat groups, Facebook professional groups should be accessed from your professional page, the one without your team logo, cat or kid.

The advertiser without a website.  If you are going to do business as a professional interpreter, get a website! It is a fundamental element of your image as a professional. Go ahead and spend the money, hire a web designer and a web master. Your image will skyrocket after you go on line, and please… do not chose a “do-it-yourself” website. They look crappy and all those banners show disrespect for your client.

Once you have a professional website, you can go to professional groups and websites to advertise your services. It looks very careless and rests you credibility to advertise a workshop or a personal appearance by simply posting on the chatroom. The correct way to do it is to advertise in the professional group’s wall with a nice add with photos if you wish, but always linking the add to your website where all pertinent information will be available for those interested. By the way, please make sure that your email address for information (and in general for dealing with a client) is a professional address with your professional identity and your domain as part of it. Generic Yahoo, Gmail, and AOL email addresses look dated and unprofessional. Obviously, email addresses that made you laugh when you were in college should have never made it to your professional image. Lose the “partyanimal” “sexmachine” “shoptillyoudrop” email addresses immediately!

The assignment recruiter.  There are few things in life more annoying than a person trying to cover an assignment for her agency or organization by going into a professional discussion group and asking for availability. First of all, the people who register as members of a group of this kind, do it for professional and academic reasons; maybe even for some social purposes as well. These groups were never intended to be a substitute of other dedicated websites where people offer services and recruit individuals.

This practice also reflects very poorly on the person actively doing the recruiting. It projects an image of a somewhat lazy person who does not try the proper channels to cover an assignment, but simply takes the shortcut and dumps the question in the middle of the chat room annoying others, and also proving that the agency or organization she or he represents does not care for quality, all they want to do (as many of their pairs do) is to get “anybody” to send him to the client.  If you don’t want to savage your professional reputation, please stay away from the: “any French interpreter available tomorrow” so unprofessional postings.

The “what does it mean/how do you say” crowd.  All the above practices hurt your professional practice, but the one that inflicts the worst damage, and many times the least noticed by the person doing it, is the ever-growing habit of going online to any and all professional groups to ask basic questions about terminology, vocabulary, and interpreting.  I fully support those who enter the chat groups to ask about a questionable prospective client or about policy and business practices. I believe that this is one of the reasons we have these groups for; the ones that really do not belong, are the questions by many asking for the meaning of a word or term. In my opinion it shows laziness and ignorance.  It is very different to go on line and ask a group for their opinion on the interpretation or context of a term after the person asking the question explains the research process he or she followed, its results, and conclusions.  This is a very enriching exercise that we all can learn from. However, to have a person going to the group and ask: “How do you say such and such in Mexico, or in Peru” is demeaning of the group. That person is not only showing that he did not bother to study and research, he is also showing his professional level, especially when the questions about words are so basic that anybody with true command of the language should know. It also shows the lack of general knowledge that a person has. I have to tell you that these questions are extremely annoying, but they have helped me to compile a list of those who I will never contact for an assignment because of their total lack of knowledge, and more importantly, their absolute disregard for research and study.

Dear colleagues, social media is an invaluable tool for an interpreter when properly used, but it can also be the dagger of your professional seppuku when abused and misused in the fashion described above. I truly encourage you all to get rid of these practices that do nothing but hurt you personally, and damage the profession.  I am aware of the fact that to some of you these examples can look as an exaggeration and nonsense on my part. I assure you that many potential clients think like I do and they are watching everything you post on line. I now invite you to share other practices that go on in social media, and in your opinion, they hurt the interpreter professionally.

When the client does not understand the complexity of what you need to do.

May 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The title above would probably apply to most of what you are dealing with at this precise moment. It usually applies to much of what we do as interpreters, but sometimes it really goes overboard. I was recently part of a big project that involved the transcription, translation, and review of hundreds of hours of recordings needed for a trial in the United States. In the past I did a respectable amount of work in this field, although I must confess that I have never been a fan of transcription and translation. To me, it is too passive and it requires of more patience than I can possibly have.

My idea of having a good time does not include sitting down for endless hours listening to poor quality soundtracks, endlessly rewinding some recordings, and trying to understand mumblings.  I don’t do it often because it is not my cup of tea, but I fully understand how difficult it is to produce a professional transcription and translation that can be used and defended in court.  I know how hard it is to work as a transcriber/translator, I am aware of the little money that many of them make, and I have seen how underappreciated they are.

As professional interpreters, sometimes we have to bite the bullet and do some work that is not our favorite. A good client, an interesting project, and especially a high paying assignment will put us in a situation where we cannot say no. This is what happened to me when I was asked to be a part of a very qualified team that tackled this huge transcription/translation project.  In my everyday practice I am constantly asked to do transcriptions, and I usually refer them to an elite group of colleagues who do an excellent job, charge what professionals should charge for their services, and make me look good in the eyes of my client who requested the service. It was precisely because of the colleagues that were part of the assignment that I decided to join the team for the assignment in question. I have to tell you that the transcriber/translator team for this job may have been the “dream team”, but the client was definitely not.

The first thing that became evident was that the client had no idea of what a transcription/translation was.  A real transcriber must have the skills of an interpreter and a translator. He needs to “listen” to an oral statement, write it down, and translate that written text into the target language.  A transcriber has to make a written record that accurately includes word by word what was said in the source language, and then, he must apply all of the target language grammar rules just as a professional translator does. This process requires time, a very long time.

The concept of one hour of work for one minute of recording was foreign to this client, and I think that at the beginning they did not believe us.  The assignment was on a tight schedule because of some court deadlines that had to be met, so we were asked to produce the transcriptions/translations in three weeks! Of course this was impossible, so the agreement was to provide part of the work by said date.

It was going to be difficult, but the transcription team was very good, so we decided that this was achievable. Unfortunately, two of the three weeks went by as the transcribers had to wrestle their client to the ground in order to get the correct materials needed to start the transcriptions. Some files were missing, others were misplaced, the recordings were in very different formats, and so were the transcriptions by the investigative agency. Audio and video files had a different name and number from their corresponding written files. Some files were compressed and no password was provided to the transcribers, others were missing, and a single disc would contain audio and text files in very different formats that required different software as well. We requested a meeting with the client but the request was denied. At that point I thought about jumping ship, buy my professionalism and loyalty to my colleagues made me stay.

The entire process was like this. I don’t want to bore you with details about expected problems such as poor sound, unintelligible words, and impossible slang, that all comes with the territory, and many transcribers/translators do this type of work because they like to solve problems.

Many of the obstacles we faced during the assignment were unnecessary, they had little to do with the complexities of transcribing wiretaps and phone calls; they all came from a lack of understanding and an unwillingness to learn about these aspects of a judicial process that are frequently present in those cases involving non-English speakers.  At the end, we as team managed to get a meeting with a different person who was high in the client’s organizational chart. This individual listened to our concerns and understood the complexity of the task.  We received new materials and were granted access to all files and persons we needed.  As a result of this change, and because of an epic effort, our professional transcribers/translators fulfilled their professional duty and contractual obligation and the job got done.

Unfortunately, the “victory” came at an extremely high cost (time and money) because of the ignorance of the client.  It is clear that experiences like this one can be used in the future to help us educate other clients so they can avoid unnecessary expenses and we can produce top-quality transcription/translation work for a truly professional fee. I now ask you to please share with us some of your war stories as a transcriber/translator, especially the ones that had to do with a bad client. Tell us what you did to educate the client, and to simply get them to provide what you needed to do your job.

Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

April 19, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there are many positive changes: From the way we now research our assignments, to the social media we use to get more clients, to the places where we work, to the things we now take to the booth. All improvements to the way we used to work just a few years ago.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when you had to go to the library to research and study for an assignment, we now google the subject matter, the speaker, and the venue where we are going to render our services, and we do it from our office, our home, an airplane, and even the beach. Our research library went from the nearby branch of the local library system to all of the Ivy League libraries combined. We now keep up with all developments in the profession, and with current affairs in general, by using the web, and particularly social media. We find out about conferences, online courses, webinars, and business trends with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many others that we also use for getting new clients and keeping the good ones we already have.

Many interpreters who did not have access to important assignments in the past, because of the place where they live, can now interpret remotely using a virtual booth without having to go to the big city or travel half way across the world. This has helped them become better interpreters and broaden their perception of the profession.

I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we used to drag heavy suitcases full of dictionaries, glossaries, and textbooks to the booth. Now, if we have an I-Pad or a tablet in the booth, we have all the libraries in the world, everything the speaker ever said or wrote on a particular topic, and all the information on the subject matter of the presentation updated to the very last minute. Nobody wants to give this up.

You see my friends, interpreters want technology, and they want globalization, but we need to be very careful. I think that sometimes people get confused and mix two separate concepts: (1) Technology and those who create, develop, and improve it, and (2) The big language service providers who are in a race to get all possible benefits out of these developments and are ready to leave nothing behind for the human asset in this equation: the interpreter.

The creators, call them researchers, developers, scientists, or engineers who are constantly giving us new tools to make our lives and careers easier and more comfortable are not the enemy. They spend most of their time trying to find ways to deliver a quality product (or service) to those who are and could be our clients.  They are the ones who brought us all of the positive changes I mentioned above, and many more. This is a crowd we want to be with, we need to.

We must engage these entrepreneurs because they know the science and the engineering, not because they are acquainted with the interpreting profession. We are the experts in this field, the ones they need to hear from, the ones they must listen to, the ones who will tell them what is needed and how. We cannot afford to ignore them, attack them, or dismiss them; we have to sit down and talk to them.

We also have to come to terms with globalization, and I believe that most interpreters have done so. Everybody understands that globalization is here to stay, we cannot (and should not) wish it away. We know that globalization broadens the pool of interpreters that can have access to an assignment, it opens all world markets to the profession. This translates into more opportunities for the good quality interpreter to have more and better work, and it gives the client the possibility to get the most knowledgeable interpreters in a particular field or subject matter, regardless of where they might be physically located.  Obviously, a clear effect of globalization is the ever increasing need to communicate with others who will often speak a different language, thus emphasizing the need for interpreters and translators. The verdict is in: Globalization is great for interpreters because it gives the client access to more and better professionals, and it allows us to get more complex, interesting, and profitable assignments. My friends, we face no threat from new technology or from globalization. Let’s not buy into this argument. We need to stop wasting our time fighting against windmills.  We must concentrate our efforts somewhere else:

We already know what many interpreting agencies are doing under the banner of globalization and technology: They want us to spend our energy fighting against them, they want us to look obsolete and reluctant to change, that is the image they are selling to their clients.  Why would they do that? Because it helps them. By silencing the interpreters’ voice, they get the clients’ undivided attention, and once they have the client in their pocket, they can convince them to do as they recommend. Their goals are different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that, as they owe their loyalty to their shareholders, and we cannot lose sight of it.  The large (sometimes publicly traded) language service agencies’ goal is to generate a big profit by minimizing their expenses as much as possible. They will spend huge amounts of money acquiring this new technology in order to lower their cost of operation. Once the new system is in place, technology will allow them to control the market and offer interpreters a very sad choice: “take very little money for your services, or get out of the way”.  They are banking on their clients’ trust (remember, they have their undivided attention) and they rely on new technology that will let them work with mediocre interpreters as these new technologies will do much of the work that interpreters used to do.  The result will be a very low quality service, but because of this strategy, the clients will never know, or at least it will take them a while to discover the poor choices they made.   Now, the agencies I usually work for do not fall into this category. In this article I am not talking about some big companies who work big conferences and events; I am not including some small agencies who do a great job and pay interpreters very well either. They all understand the importance and value of a quality interpretation.  Here I am referring to those enormous agencies that control a big chunk of the market, and hire thousands of interpreters for laughable rock-bottom fees every day. These are the agencies many of you reading this post work with on a regular basis.

I also want to make it clear that I am not calling them evil. They do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well. The important point for us, as interpreters, is to understand that we do have opposing interests in the profession, and with this realization, we must deal with them not as criminals or monsters, but as antagonistic forces in our professional market, who, in my opinion, bring in less value than the interpreter, as the profession can exist without them, but it cannot without us.

This is what major multinational language agencies are doing at this time. We should not take the bait. Instead of arguing against globalization and technology, we must change the debate and take it to the human talent: The interpreter.

You see, we need to have a two-front approach:

(1) We have to talk directly to those developing the technology, and we need to do it now before the agencies take ownership of the whole issue. The scientists and engineers will talk to us: We are the equipment users. We have to create forums where we can discuss interpreting technology with those developing it; we have to talk costs, service, preferred platforms, software, and many other things. We need to do it as soon as possible, and we need to do it in an environment free of the interests of the major language agencies. In other words, this will never happen if we believe that results can be achieved within an environment controlled by these language service providers. We cannot bring these issues to the table and speak directly to the scientists and engineers in events sponsored by the agencies. There cannot be real progress in a discussion panel where the moderator is the CEO of one of these huge agencies who clearly, and logically, have goals that are different from ours.  Does this mean that we will not sit down and talk to the agencies? Absolutely not. It is just that before we do that, we have to be in a better position to be able to negotiate from strength. The last thing we need right now is to hear fantastic stories from some of these agencies trying to convince interpreters that the technology they now use is great for us because “instead of having to drive downtown to do your work, and instead of having to sit down and wait for a couple of hours before interpreting, you can now devote forty five minutes to the interpreting task from your own home, and then do something else with the rest of your life like mowing the lawn or playing with your kids”.  Of course, this means that instead of paying the interpreter for a full day of work, their intention is to pay for forty five minutes of work. On top of being insulting to the professional interpreter, nobody can make a living that way. They are offering a salary lower than a fast food restaurant and they are doing it with a big smile on their face.

(2) We need to educate the client by speaking directly to them.  Most clients rely on the agency’s knowledge and expertise as far as selecting the interpreters for an assignment. They never really stop to think what it is needed to properly interpret, and the agencies do not want them to spend much time doing that, as it would provoke uncomfortable questions about the quality, training, education, and experience of so many of the interpreters they presently offer to their clients, as these agencies make their decision to hire based on one issue alone: Who is willing to work for less money.

The client needs to know that a good interpreter has years of education and experience, and only after that, interpreters can deliver an impeccable, accurate, clear, and pleasant rendition; they need to be made aware of the fact that real professional interpreters do a comprehensive research of the subject matter, and do not take assignments two hours before the job when the agency representative calls them desperate because they cannot get anybody to cover the event. The client needs to hear how a really good interpreter goes beyond the rendition, works on problem prevention and solving during the event. Once the client understands that a good interpreter sells peace of mind, and especially after they realize that working with the interpreter directly, instead of through an agency, will be more cost-effective, as agencies pay rock bottom fees to the interpreter, while at the same time they charge their clients handsomely, they will become more knowledgeable and will demand good interpreters from the agencies. This is where you, my dear colleagues, need to hold your ground and demand top professional fees from these agencies. I suggest that as part of this education you target the legal department and insurance office of the client, and share with them some of the tragic results of hiring poor quality interpreters. We all know about these unfortunate incidents. I am convinced that these individuals will advise their clients to retain quality interpreters, as they will understand that good professionals are like an insurance policy: More expensive in the short run, but money savers at the end of the day.

Do not be shy about explaining to the client how it does not make sense to spend a lot of money hiring an expensive speaker for a keynote address, a top-notch caterer, and a beautiful venue, if at the end of the day the people who paid to listen to the speaker will not get much out of the presentation because they could not understand the foreign language speaking presenter due to poor quality interpreting.  Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.

Never forget that as the human talent in this operation, interpreters are indispensable to deliver the service, just like you cannot benefit from an MRI without a physician’s reading of the results, you cannot have quality interpreting without good interpreters. We can join forces with the technology provider and do a magnificent job. Agencies cannot do the same without good interpreters, unless we let them change the subject so that their client does not see the importance of our service. At this point we will have many options: we will be able to decide if we want to work with large agencies, smaller ones, directly with the client, and even as a professional group, association, or cooperative where we may be able to acquire the needed technology and offer our services bypassing the low-paying agencies.

At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies. They are doing a good job at what they are supposed to do; now it is our time to do the same.  Please share your thoughts on this extremely important issue, and when doing so, please abstain from mentioning all the things that agencies can do that we cannot, because we know the things they do, and we understand that although difficult, we could ultimately do them all.  I invite you to contribute to this discussion without defending the agencies. We all know there are already plenty of forums where they can defend themselves.

What are court interpreters afraid of?

April 10, 2015 § 18 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During my many years of practice I have seen and heard a lot of things. As a staff interpreter and as a freelancer, I have attended meetings where court interpreter policy had been discussed.  I have many friends and acquaintances who were, and still are, court employees.  A good number of them do a good job, others do not. From the staff interpreter’s perspective, these policy meetings are permeated by two very strong forces:

The sense of duty to the profession that these colleagues experience as they hear the sometimes absurd proposals by their bosses. This makes them reflect on the reason why they were hired in the first place: Their knowledge of the profession, so they end up putting themselves in the shoes of the practicing freelance interpreter who is about to be victimized by the judicial system. They have to go through these emotions. No doubt. It happened to me when I worked for the courts.

The second, very powerful force in the meeting room is called the sense of loyalty, the corporate spirit. They are constantly reminded, directly and indirectly, that they are now one of “us”, the court administration; that they are no longer one of “them”, the freelancers.  They perfectly understand that loyalty is expected. These two forces clash inside the staffer’s head and heart, and the collision can produce two results:

The clear realization by the staff interpreter that he was hired to present the professional interpreters’ perspective, to make sure that no decision would be made without first considering and evaluating the effects of such changes on the delivery of the service and the quality of the performance. When this happens, the interpreter opposes all nonsense that is about to become institutional policy, and voices his objections out loud, perhaps suggesting a meeting with the freelancers before any decisions are made.

Unfortunately, the second result is the one that prevails most of the time: Staff interpreters, afraid of losing their jobs, or at least the favor of their supervisors, remain silent, and sometimes may even suggest the steps need to implement the new policy despite the freelancers’ opposition.  Of course, it is easier to act and react out of fear.  Some of these interpreters are more concerned about their retirement than about the interpreting services provided in their jurisdiction.  Others are terrified of the idea of losing their job and having to go out there to fight for every single dollar they would have to earn as freelance interpreters.  Fear means inaction. It means that harmful decisions, sometimes adopted in good faith by the administration, will become the new rules, and staffers will do nothing to stop it.

This is how bad policy comes to be. How it becomes a reality is up to the freelance interpreters, because once the wrong policy is implemented, independent contractor interpreters have two clear options: They can refuse to work under those circumstances and look for other clients, or they can renegotiate with the courts (sometimes they should even take legal action when the administration has clearly breached the terms of the independent contract they may have with the freelance interpreter).

Unfortunately, many interpreters prefer to submissively accept the new rules and comply, even if it means less income, even when it is demeaning to the profession.  They are acting and reacting out of fear.  The thought of waking up tomorrow and realizing they do not have to go to court because they were not asked to interpret scares them to death. To them, court work, even in exchange for a rock bottom fee is peace of mind.  They firmly believe that as long as they keep working, even when underpaid, they are doing the best they can.

This is the biggest problem that court interpreting faces as a profession in the United States, because, unlike our colleagues in the U.K., too many court interpreters in America are willing to roll with the punches and work more for less and under worst conditions.  Many interpreters forget that courts are a client, not an employer. The court administrator and the interpreter supervisor are not their boss, they are a client, and they are not even your best client, as courts pay far less than private clients in the legal field.  Interpreters must remember that as providers of a professional service, they are bound by a contract, and so are the courts. Both parties are equal. Nobody is less. Contracts are meant to be negotiated, not blindly accepted; and just like with everything else in life, when the terms of the contract are not what you want, walk away without signing on the dotted line. There are other clients.

When court interpreters start thinking of the courts as their client, not their boss, the free market will kick in, and interpreters, just as attorneys, will be able to get a professional fee. Until then, I am afraid that court interpreting will continue to go backwards.  I now invite you to share your ideas and proposed solutions regarding this crucial issue to the future of court interpreting, and please, do not answer by saying that there is no other work outside the courts, because there is.

As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.

March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other?  I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change.  The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives.  Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.

What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income?  It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.

On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.

The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible.  This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter.  You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter.  At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.

We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.

That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.

It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.

It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event.  These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept.  Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked.  This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.

As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers.  This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.

Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage.  These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap.  We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice.  Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table.  I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.

A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.

I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.

In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.

My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.

A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.

The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.

This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.

That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.

The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.

The ten worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Part 2.

April 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last week I posted my first five worst things an attorney can do to a court interpreter. Next, I share the rest of my list in the understanding that there are plenty more examples of these “worst things,” and inviting you to review my top ten, share your “war stories” and share your comments and solutions with the rest of us.

Here we go:

  1. Six.  “Mr. interpreter let me introduce you to my daughter, she took Spanish in high school and spent a month in Costa Rica so I want her to start interpreting my easy cases. Just show her what you do. She’ll pick up in no time.”   I was asked once to help this lawyer’s daughter because she was “really good with languages.”  Fortunately for me, I have no problem establishing my ground rules when at work so I immediately declined.  Unfortunately, I have seen many of my colleagues playing this role of mentor/teacher/parent with the lawyer’s child who just wants to get her dad to send her to a foreign country during the summer and has no intention whatsoever to become an interpreter.  The only solution is to politely explain that you are doing a job and that the lawyers are paying you a lot of money to provide your services; that you are not a teacher (even if you are) and that the “future polyglot“ daughter would not get anything from following you around, so the only thing to be accomplished would be a heftier interpretation services invoice.  I would also bring up the client-attorney privilege rules, and remind the attorney that the daughter’s presence could be a waiver of the privilege, and as such, it is the defendant who has to decide after being advised of these potential complications. A more permanent solution could include a paragraph on the written contract stating that you will not train anybody unless you bring the trainee and the defendant agrees to her presence during the interpretation.
  2. Seven.  “You know what, you charge too much, so I want you to just interpret the main parts of the hearing so I don’t have to pay you that much.”  I have been told this… more than once! You have been hired to do your job: interpret a hearing because the person does not speak English and he has the right to an interpreter. The fact is that, just as the lawyer, you are a professional and you sell your time.  You are there at the courthouse and you cannot be anywhere else. You cannot make money somewhere else because you are committed to this particular client.  You are getting paid to be there and interpret everything that is said (ideally) or everything your client tells you to interpret; but you were hired to BE THERE. Because you charge by the hour, just like the attorney, you need to be paid for the time devoted to the case, whether you are interpreting, waiting for the case to be called by the judge, taking a bathroom or lunch break during a recess, or traveling back and forth between your office and the courthouse or law office.  Maybe you should remind the attorney of this circumstance when he tells you not to interpret and you will see how quickly he changes his mind and asks you to interpret everything.  Here again, the long-term solution to this situation is to educate the attorneys and to have a written contract that states your fee, services, and what you are being paid for.
  3. Eight.  “Do not interpret that!”   This usually happens when the client complains to the court about the lawyer.  I once had a case when the defendant was before a judge to be sentenced for the commission of a crime. After the prosecutor and defense attorney spoke, the judge asked the Spanish-speaking defendant if he had anything to say. As I interpreted this words to the defendant he looked at me, then he turned to the judge and said: “solo que mi abogado es un pendejo.” (just that my lawyer is an asshole) The attorney, who spoke Spanish, and had political ambitions, stopped me immediately and told me not to interpret what the defendant had said. He then told his client in Spanish that he should not tell those things to the judge.  The dialogue looked quite strange even for those who do not spoke Spanish and the prosecutor (who I believe knew all the bad words in Spanish like many Americans do) immediately said  to the court that he wanted to hear what the defendant had said. The defense attorney said that it was privileged information, but the judge ruled that it had been said in open court while addressing him directly so he ordered me to interpret the words, which I did with pleasure, to the endless laughter of everybody in the courtroom. The attorney was mad at me for many months as if I had been the one who said it.  In this case, the outcome was ideal (well not for the defense attorney) because I let the attorneys argue the point and then waited for the judge to decide. The solution to these situations when somebody raises client-attorney privilege is always to let the lawyers argue the law and then wait for the judge’s decision. It is a legal matter and as such, we should keep our opinions to ourselves.
  4. Nine.  I need you to tell the jury that my client did not understand because he speaks a different type of Spanish”  I have been approached, and sometimes retained as an expert witness to convince a jury that a person did not understand what he was told by another interpreter because she had used a “different kind of Spanish.” Of course I testify as an expert all the time, and when I do, it is because I was retained to assess what happened and give my expert opinion about the issue in question. I have never nor will ever take a case where they ask me to testify one way or another, regardless of what really happened.  The simple, and effective solution is to turn down the case; however, most lawyers are not really asking you to lie under oath; in reality they are just asking you to see if their theory is even possible. I usually meet with the attorneys, explain my role, and make sure they understand that most Spanish-speaking people understand Spanish in general, regardless of where they were born, but that there are real idiomatic expressions, cultural practices, and words that have a different meaning depending on the part of the Spanish-speaking world where they were said.  If I notice that the claim is frivolous because of the expressions or words involved, and due to the educational background of the individual, I explain to the attorneys that my testimony would only hurt their case; on the other hand, if I see merit on the allegations, I accept the assignment and go to work. I believe this is the best practice because it grants access to your services to those who really need them while at the same time you are avoiding being part of a useless unrealistic claim.
  5. Ten.  Please collect my fee from my client.”  Very few things can get me going the way this request can. Many lawyers have trouble understanding that we are hired to interpret what they tell their client, not to act as their representative or agent during a legal fee negotiation. Many years ago an attorney handed me an invoice from his law firm without saying anything. Of course, I immediately understood what he wanted. I handed it back and told him: “You gave me this document by mistake.”  I could see him getting mad, and later I learned that he complained to other interpreters that I was not willing to “work for my own pay.”  I never worked with that attorney again, and I have never bargained, collected, or prepared a payment plan for any of the clients of the attorneys I have worked for.  Sadly, I have seen how many of our colleagues play this game and spend hours on hallways and courthouse steps waiving invoices, collecting checks, and handing receipts to those who have never been their clients. It is important to set boundaries from the beginning. We all know that part of our job as interpreters for a private attorney includes interpreting fee negotiations between client and lawyer; that is perfectly fine as we are providing our interpretation services to facilitate the communication between the parties to that professional relationship.  There is an abyss between what I just described and what some attorneys ask the interpreter to do.  Negotiating on behalf of the lawyer is not interpreting and therefore it is not covered by my fee. It is not what I do for living. As I said at the beginning of this post, my clients are attorneys who know how to work with an interpreter and they would never ask me to act as their collections agent, but just in case, you should always be ready to tell the attorney that you are glad to interpret the negotiations, but that you cannot and will not negotiate for them.

As you know, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Please review these “ten worst” and if you are up to it, I would love to read your top ten, top five, or even top one.  This should be good…

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