Moving the profession backwards in these critical times.

February 8, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I am not breaking any news when I tell you that our profession is under attack from many more fronts than ever before. We have the tremendous struggle that many of our American immigration court interpreters are battling with SOSi; we have the constant reduction of fees, reimbursements, and work opportunities by the court systems in several European countries and all over the Americas; let us not forget some ambitious entities who for no reason other than their own benefit,  have decided to create a hybrid aberration of a community, court, and healthcare interpreter by patching up together pieces of all three in a way that would make doctor Frankenstein proud; and of course, the so-called “interpreting agencies” who cloud their real mediocre services with smoke and mirrors of technology, while offering the rendition of the cheapest, desperate, bottom-feeder “interpreter” they could find.  We now have a newcomer to the pantheon of the interpreter profession serial killers: the government agencies who want to pay less and burden the professional even more with nonsense bureaucratic paperwork that only finds a reasonable justification to exist when viewed through the distorted mentality of a government official.

These are some of the many calamities that we have to face every day worldwide to protect, preserve, and advance our profession and its perception by the real world, despite of the constant efforts by the above mentioned entities to convince the public that we are not professionals, but mere laborers in an “industry” where we should be treated and paid as skilled labor, never as professionals.

It is in the middle of this environment that some colleagues, giving up the professional interpreter banner, or at best misunderstanding the true nature of what we do for living, and enveloped in the blanket of resignation and submission, have opted for listening to these groups above, not for beneficial purposes such as learning what they really want, where they plan to take us to as service providers, and what their weaknesses and needs are, so we have a way to negotiate with them, but to seek compliance and adhesion to their unilaterally created and developed policies, rules, and requirements, in order to please them and keep them happy, or at least not upset, and this way continue to be retained to provide services in exchange for mediocre to offensive fees and working conditions.

Dear friends and colleagues, some of our peers have misunderstood our role in the language services profession, and out of fear, ignorance, misguided good intentions, and yes, in some cases due to ulterior motives, have decided to accept these unilaterally imposed conditions and provide their services in a way that pleases their “client” turned master by the terms sometimes imposed on the interpreter, without questioning, disagreeing, or rejecting these pre-industrial revolution work conditions.

Professional service providers have organized in professional associations for a long time, so they can defend, preserve, and advance their profession without interference of exterior forces who, by the nature of their legitimate mission and purpose, have opposing and conflicting interests to the ones of the professionals. This is honorable, widely respected, universally expected, and practiced by all professions. Professional associations such as the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and many others worldwide, were born for these reasons.  They all have one goal: the best interest of the individual who is a member of the profession.

We as interpreters and translators have some organizations and associations that operate and exist for the same goals than the rest of the professional associations, but every day we see more and more cross-contamination and distortion of the true mission of a professional association when we witness how some of these professional associations are molded after the needs and desires of these other entities that have opposing or conflicting interests with us, just for political and financial reasons.

As a result, instead of having organizations that foster dialogue among interpreters to discuss how to negotiate with, and defend from government and other entities, as all professional associations should, there is now a division in one of the professional associations where, in the opinion of many of us,  government officials, including their staff interpreters and translators (regardless of their personal integrity as they participate as someone else’s agent) now have a forum to indoctrinate interpreters and translators on what they need to do in order to “please the government agency” and fulfill all “requirements” regardless of how bizarre they are; (and they are always one-sided in favor of the government) so the interpreter and translator, like a good soldier, or serf, accepts all conditions, including rock bottom fees, horrendous cancellation and travel policies, and non-sense procedural paperwork requirements, in exchange of the opportunity to be exploited by these agencies.

Some colleagues think that it is great to have these people in the same division with the interpreters and translators, as if we were a job agency, instead of doing what professional associations do: provide a platform for interpreters and translators to debate an issue among themselves BEFORE sitting across the table from the government agency, who is the counterpart of the interpreter and translator, as they have opposing interests. It is the equivalent of having the pharmaceutical companies and health insurance organizations as members of the American Medical Association.

It is true that not all government agencies exploit and humiliate the interpreter; some, regretfully very few and far in between, offer good working conditions and a decent fee at the high end of the spectrum for a government (in the understanding that they will never be able to pay at the same level as the private sector), but even these “good guys” should not be allowed to create their own forums where to influence interpreters and translators from inside the organization; there is a clear conflict of interests, unless the goal is to please the government, language agencies, etc. instead of looking after the interests of the profession and its professionals: the individual interpreters and translators.

Many of us are of the opinion that if you want to have communication and exchanges among interpreter and translator members of an association who primarily provide their services to a government entity, you should be able to do it, but never creating or facilitating a situation where the government agency, through its agents and representatives (even when these individuals are interpreters or translators) has an opportunity to participate, opine, and vote along with individual members. Their role is important, but it comes later in the process, once the members of the association have debated, analyzed and discussed the government agency’s policies, and are ready to negotiate, together or individually.

There is no reason why the government agents need to be present when a member is informing his peers of something that happened to him, or when strategy is being discussed. I invite you to share your comments on this topic, and when participating, please keep in mind that these entities have opposing interests to yours and mine. They answer to a superior within their organizational chart and they are legally and contractually obligated to defend their official position.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 1.

May 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

Dear colleagues:

I received a message from one of my students of court interpreting in Mexico City. With the new oral trial system that is now being implemented in Mexico there will be many opportunities for interpreters to find assignments in court settings, so she is considering becoming a court interpreter when she finishes college.

She researched the matter, and as she was getting deeper into the world of court interpreting she decided to contact me with some of her doubts. Because her questions were very good, I thought about responding through the blog so that others, in Mexico and elsewhere, with the same or similar concerns could learn a little more about this area of the profession. I asked her if this was an acceptable way to answer her questions, and after she said yes, I wrote down my answers. As I was responding to the questions I realized that this would be a lengthy post so I decided to divide it in two parts. This is part 1; part 2 will be posted in two weeks. I now invite you to read the first half of my answers to her questions.

  •  How useful is it to have experience as a conference interpreter if you want to become a court interpreter? Isn’t it more advantageous to have a community interpreting background? Please mention the advantages and disadvantages or each.

All interpreting experience is useful to become a court interpreter, just like to become an interpreter in any other specialty; Specifically, having experience as conference interpreter helps you as a court interpreter because it teaches you how to get ready for an assignment: how to research, develop glossaries, study the subject matter, and organize your time. It also gives you the advantage of a broader vocabulary. Community interpreting helps the new court interpreter to get used to work under less-than-ideal conditions such as noise, bad acoustics and speakers who use a lower register. With that said, new court interpreters have to be careful as these other disciplines can also hurt the rendition if the interpreter is careless. Conference interpreters do not interpret the obvious or the repetitious; they also leave out utterances and noises by the speaker. They strive to deliver an understandable rendition at a pleasant pace and tone. Court interpreters must interpret everything, and in order to do this, it is often required to go at a considerably faster pace than a conference interpreter. Community interpreters tend to help the speaker in order to achieve better communication between the parties. Court interpreters cannot do this; they must limit their work to the interpretation of what has been said by the speaker without any help from the interpreter. Of course, these differences stem from the basic principle that unlike conference and community interpreting where the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between two parties who do not share a common language, court interpreting main goal is also to assess the credibility of the foreign language speaker in order to assign legal responsibility for a certain action or omission.

  •  Precision versus Style. Which criteria should we follow when working in court?

Court interpreting is a unique discipline because it requires that the rendition by the interpreter include everything accurately. This does not mean that the court interpreter has to interpret word by word. That would be nonsensical in another language. He requirement is that no concept, no element, no piece of information can be excluded from the rendition. Accuracy is essential to court interpreting. When an interpreter working in a non-legal environment omits some information this can be corrected in different ways: through an explanation by the interpreter himself during a “silent moment” as soon as the opportunity arises; by a reference to the event’s program, and even with a public announcement during or after the session. Because court interpretation is done for the benefit of those judging a case: judge and jury, the interpreter must give them all the elements, all the evidence, all the information presented during the hearing. Another recipient of the court interpreter’s rendition is the defendant who has the constitutional right to actively participate in his/her defense. For these reasons the rendition must be accurate and complete. Court interpreting separates itself from other genres of interpretation when it includes style as part of that precision. In court interpreting style is understood as the way a statement is delivered by the speaker; it includes register and emotions. Therefore, as part of this complete and accurate rendition, an interpreter must select and use a manner of speech, vocabulary, and delivery style that matches that of the foreign language speaker. On a given day, the same interpreter will interpret for a gang member, a scientist, and an attorney; all three will use different terminology and vocabulary, they will all have a different delivery, and they will speak a language correlated to their level of education and personal background. Without turning the rendition into a mockery of the orator, the interpreter must convey the entire message, not just the spoken words, but also the way they are spoken. As we can see then, precision and style are paramount in court interpreting, but they are both understood and observed under the professional duty to produce a complete and accurate rendition.

  •  What would you recommend to those of us who don’t live in the United States and want to acquire a wide range of language terms that may be presented in courts, from specialized legal and technical terminology to street slang?

The first thing a person who lives abroad needs to do is to determine where she wants to work as a court interpreter, if you plan to work within your own country’s legal system then the focus of your content should be inside your country. On the other hand, if you plan to work in your country and in the United States, or if you want to take the federal court interpreter certification exam in the U.S. even if you are going to live somewhere else, then you have to manage two parallel tracks: For the United States legal terminology and slang you need to study. Read legal and paralegal books; I do not mean law school text books (although I do not discourage you from doing it if you want) study basic law like the one students of pre-law or paralegal studies use in the United States, read legal novels because they use enough legal terms to make it worth. Watch a few TV legal dramas, and watch and listen to plenty of real life court proceedings in the United States. You can watch True TV (formerly known as Court TV) and HLN (Headline News Network) from just about any country in the world. They carry real court hearings during the day. There are also several radio stations and online stations that broadcast the sound of court proceedings during the day. Many judiciaries at the state-level in the United States have transcripts and recordings (audio and video) available on their websites, and even the official website of the U.S. Supreme Court offers audio recordings that you can listen to. Of course I would also get a good legal dictionary like Black’s.

Within your country I would do the same; for Mexico specifically, I would watch the “Canal Judicial” go to the website of the Suprema Corte, and physically attend some trials and motions hearings at the courthouses that already hold oral proceedings (The State of Mexico is a possibility near Mexico City) I would also get a hold of a good legal dictionary like the Diccionario Jurídico de la UNAM.

Finally, for technical, scientific, and other terms I suggest you start your own library and study these topics first at the basic entry level, and then at a deeper stage depending on the assignments you get. There are dictionaries for slang and regional expressions in both English and Spanish, and there are novels, movies, TV shows and even soaps (narconovelas) that can help you enhance your word bank.

  • As translation/interpretation students attending college outside the United States can we be considered as full-time students for joining organizations such as NAJIT and paying student fees?

All professional organizations have their own rules and criteria for admission. Most of them include as one of their goals the fostering of new professionals and to do so they offer special status or benefits to those who at the time are not able to generate an income because of their studies. Specifically, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) has five membership categories: active, associate, organizational, corporate, and student. Their website indicates that a student member shall be any person engaged in full-time studies as defined by the Membership Committee. I do not know what the Committee’s definition is, but it seems to me that a full-time student of interpretation is the same anywhere in the world and therefore, perhaps on a case-by-case basis, the organization should be able to confirm what I just said. After all, the rationale behind having lower membership fees for the students is that they cannot afford the higher fee because they are studying all the time and therefore they are not making any money, and if like I mentioned, one of the objectives of a professional organization is the advancement of the newcomers to the profession, it should always include the fostering of new interpreters and translators. I suggest you contact the organization directly and express these factors that I brought up in this paragraph.

  •  In my opinion, being a court interpreter may be somehow dangerous because you could have access to confidential information and you deal with people convicted or at least charged with a crime. Are there any protection programs, like the witness protection program, available for interpreters?

It is true that court interpreters are privy to confidential information. It is true that they are subject to ethical and professional rules of confidentiality, and it is also true that when working for an attorney, they are covered by the client-attorney privilege. This means that while there is a lot of pressure for a court interpreter to divulge confidential or even privileged information, there are plenty of legal protections that make it easier for the interpreter to refuse to share this data. It is also true that most court interpreters could end up interpreting for a convicted felon: murderers, rapists, drug traffickers, gang members, and child molesters are some of the court interpreter clients, and there is a certain risk that goes with the profession; even civil cases and in particular family court cases can be dangerous; however, there are plenty of protections such as the security at the courthouses and detention centers, the marshals and deputies in the courtrooms, and the interpreter’s own common sense. The court interpreter is trained to deal with these individuals; they are taught not to socialize with the defendants, they are instructed to follow all directions by the detention center guards, and many other patterns of conduct. I personally make sure I remove any type of ID before interacting with a criminal defendant or their family members so they never know my full name, where I work or live, and any other personal information that badges or identification cards contain. It is dangerous but at least in the United States it does not get to the point of requiring a protection program. In the case of Mexico, the final legislation that will address court interpreting in detail is still pending, and some of the issues that are presently being considered are precisely those related to the identity and safety of the interpreters and translators.

I hope these answers helped you on your quest to become a court interpreter, and I hope they helped others in Mexico and elsewhere, including the United States, who are considering this profession. I also invite all of you to share with the rest of us any other suggestions or input you may have on any of the first five questions. I would love to hear from students, new interpreters, veterans of the profession; anybody who may be interested in helping the next generation to get there. Finally, I remind you that the rest of my student questions will be answered on part 2 of this posting two weeks from today.

Airports: An interpreter’s other environment.

August 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

Unlike other professions where a person works in an office, a hospital, or a school, we as interpreters work wherever there are people in need to communicate.  Our “job description” includes work in many courtrooms and law offices for the court interpreter, services in many hospitals and doctor’s offices for medical interpreters, participation in many events that take place at schools, community centers, and churches for the community interpreter, and so on.

Sometimes court interpreters and interpretation instructors have to travel out of town to do their job, and most of the time conference interpreters work hundreds of miles from their home.

Last year I was on the road for work 240 days, and when you travel so much, it is a fact that you will spend countless hours at the airport.  Because we spend a significant part of our lives in these facilities, we have no choice but to learn how to “live a life” as comfortable and normal as possible in a place designed for a few hours’ stay.  My tips for a good experience at the airport are as follows:

(1)    Always check in on line. Get boarding passes, and if needed, pay for your luggage ahead of time. This will allow more time away from the airport as you can arrive later and get the job done.  In my case, I do this so I can spend more time with friends or enjoy a few more minutes of sleep in the hotel room before I head to the airport.

(2)    Become a member of a frequent flyer club, and always pay with a credit card that gives you miles.  If possible, get a credit card that gets you priority airport security lines and priority boarding, even when traveling economy.  I have discovered that to me, the biggest benefit of being a frequent flyer is the possibility to upgrade a seat when the client only paid for economy.

(3)    Get a membership to an airline club. This will let you relax at the airport and enjoy a drink at a less crowded bar, workout at the club’s gym, grab a bite to eat, and most importantly: You will have a place to shower and change after a long trip or before a long overnight flight after a long day of interpreting. Not all clubs offer this service so it would be a good idea to do your homework before booking a reservation.  What a difference it makes to shower in Honolulu after a flight from the Midwest before going straight from the airport to a booth at the convention center!  A shower at Tokyo Narita airport helps me to sleep better during the long flight to Chicago.

(4)    If there is no time to go to the airline club, or there is none, find a bar with a friendly bartender and an internet connection.  Sioux Falls South Dakota’s airport has no airline clubs, but has a friendly bar. La Guardia has a bar next to the Southwest Airlines gates that serves the best Bloody Mary. The Albuquerque New Mexico Sunport has excellent free Wi-Fi all over the airport.

(5)    When you take food on the plane, do not take chain restaurant food. Find the good local restaurant at the airport and take that meal with you.  To me it is essential to get Rick Bayless at O’Hare in Chicago, sushi to go when flying from San Francisco, or Texas BBQ at Houston Bush Intercontinental. Yum!

(6)    If you are a smoker (like I used to be) you will enjoy a long flight a lot more if you take nicotine gum with you. You will get your fix and your airplane neighbors will appreciate it.

(7)    If the client is willing to pay for it, or if you can upgrade with miles, always go for business class or at least extra leg room seats.  The best economy seats are window seats.  Nobody will ask you to move during the flight whether you are going to work or sleep.  If you are flying a regional jet, then get the “lonely” seat on the left row (unless your briefcase is too big as the space under the seat in front of you is smaller than across the hallway) If you have a tight connection (and I advise against it if possible) get your seat towards the front of the plane or near the gate on those big planes where you board at the middle.

(8)    When available, always pick the newer and larger plane as they are more comfortable. A Boeing 777 is always better than a Boeing 757 and many times they both serve the same route. Do your research.  Also, if possible, get the flight that goes to the airport closer to your event.  There are many cities with two or more airports, and a closer airport means less time on the airport shuttle or taxi and more time at the hotel.  Usually older airports are closer to the city. Many of them are serviced by low-budget air carriers only.

(9)    Unless your schedule is very tight, always do check in luggage.  Only take your computer and overnight essentials in a carry on bag.

(10)  Finally, read the airline magazine! Many times you will find a good referral to a restaurant or local attraction, and yes, they have some good sales every once in a while. I even “practice” my Spanish with the Spanish magazine on board of United or American.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. I encourage you to use them on your next interpretation assignment, and if your interpreter career does not take you out of town that often, try them on your next vacation.  Finally, as a constant traveler, I am always open to new suggestions. I would greatly appreciate your tips to make my travels more enjoyable and stress-free.

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