Atlanta hosts the largest gathering of U.S. court interpreters this weekend.
May 16, 2015 § 2 Comments
This weekend many of the top-notch court interpreters in the United States will meet in Atlanta for the annual conference of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). For this reason, when I was asked by the Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT) to write a piece for the special conference issue of their publication “Bridges”, I agreed to first publish it there, and post it here later on the day.
Professional conferences are vital to any activity and we are no exception. As you all know, these are the places where we solidify and improve our knowledge, advance our skills, and refresh our ethics. That in itself makes them invaluable, but NAJIT’s annual conference is much more than that.
Those attending the conference will be pleasantly surprised to learn that many of the living legends of court interpreting will be there, and that they will be joined by some local and brand new talent in our industry. You see, the conference will welcome more than court interpreters and legal translators. Conference, medical, community, military, and other types of professional interpreters will be in Atlanta adding value to the event, sharing their knowledge and experience, and developing professional networks across disciplines and places of residence.
I invite you to approach old and new colleagues and have a dialogue with them. I believe that these conferences give us an opportunity to do all the academic things I mentioned above; but they also provide a forum for interpreters to discuss those issues that are threatening our profession. Atlanta is giving us a unique opportunity to talk about strategy on issues as important as the development of technologies and the efforts by some of the big agencies to keep these new resources to themselves and use them to take the market to lows that are totally unacceptable to professionals. We can openly talk about strategy to defend our fees, working conditions, and professionalism, while at the same time initiating a direct dialogue with the technology companies who are developing all the new software and hardware that will soon become the standard in our profession.
Finally, the conference will also help you to get more exposure to other interpreters, and will provide situations where we will have a great time and create long-lasting memories and new friendships across the country and beyond. I now ask you to share with the rest of us your motivation to attend this and other professional conferences. I hope to see you this weekend!
Good interpreters must know many things, and the best interpreters even more.
April 3, 2015 § 29 Comments
Interpreting is a difficult profession built on the principle that the interpreter is well equipped to handle anything in a conversation, negotiation, presentation, litigation, and many other situations. Interpreters are expected to possess the language skills, professional resources, knowledge, and understanding of the topic being addressed. That is the reality we live in.
Of course we all know that an interpreter cannot know everything about all topics under the sun, but we understand that we need to have the basic knowledge to figure out the subject matter and the sources to deepen our understanding of the topic at hand. What is not always clear among interpreters is the realization that we must know enough about many subjects to take us over that bridge that leads to the source materials, and to have the general knowledge necessary to save the day when a topic just appears out of the blue, without notice.
Ours is a very demanding profession because it asks us to be fluent in at least two languages, to know all necessary interpreting techniques needed to provide a professional service, to keep pace with ever-changing technology, and to have a vast general knowledge that encompasses many topics: from the trivial to the transcendental, from the artistic to the scientific, from the widely accepted to the controversial. My friends, a good interpreter needs to know enough about a subject to be able to understand what the speaker is saying, to know where to start a research project, and to continue with the rendition while his partner digs up more information on the topic right there in the booth.
I must admit that I am often puzzled at some of my colleagues’ answers when I ask them about a topic they are about to interpret, and they simply tell me that they do not know the subject. The first thing that comes to mind is: what were you thinking when you agreed to do the assignment then? How did you decide that you were right for the interpretation? The fact is that many colleagues do not think of this as essential to their performance. I have had a long career and I have seen and heard many things throughout the years, but some of them stuck because of the absurdity, at least to me, of the answer given to one of my questions, or the actions taken by the interpreter faced with the situation. I will never forget when I asked a staff managing interpreter how many judges they had in their court and she told me that she did not know, dismissed the question, and moved on to another “more important” topic. To this day I recall a time when I was interpreting a conference on airplanes, and all of a sudden an individual asked a question about airplane carriers. My colleague in the booth, who was interpreting at the time, did not know basic concepts about a ship. She did not even know her port from her starboard or her bow from her stern. It was clear that this was not the subject matter we were supposed to prepare for, but these things happen all the time, and we must possess enough general knowledge to save the day. A little knowledge is even necessary to decide where to start your research of an issue. On the other hand, good interpreters apply their general knowledge to the situation and get the job done.
Several years ago I was retained to interpret for a conference on Pre-Hispanic archaeological sites. This was a large event and there were going to be many Spanish booths working in different rooms at the same time. I was retained to interpret the plenary, and also in one of these rooms. The organizers told me who my partner for the plenary was and I was thrilled. This was an excellent colleague with a lot of experience, and we had worked together many times in the past. When I agreed to do the assignment I was asked to recommend another interpreter to work in the booth with me. The event was quite large and it took place during the busy conference season, so it would be difficult to find a suitable experienced colleague.
I gave it some thought and I decided to invite a newcomer to the conference interpreting scene. She was not a rookie. I had worked with this interpreter in court many times, she was quite good at court interpreting, and I assumed that she would do a good job at the conference as well. She agreed to do the job and I provided all study and research materials for the conference. She studied them with dedication. I know because I saw her do it. Finally, on the day of the conference, we got ready in the booth, I gave her some pep talk and told her that everything was going to be fine. We decided that I would go first, so I started my rendition. My first shift went fine, and so did hers. It was during her second time around that the speaker switched gears and instead of talking about archaeological sites, he spoke about Pre-Hispanic religion and mythology in Mesoamerica. All of a sudden my colleague froze and did not utter a sound! I looked at her and I saw the face of despair and panic. She just could not interpret the topic. After a few seconds, that felt like an eternity, I took over the rendition and finished her shift. During the mid-morning break she seemed quite angry, I guess because of her realization that she was not prepared to do the interpretation, and she told me that she was not going back to the booth, that she had studied many hours and she knew the topic of the assignment, but she knew nothing about native Mesoamerican religion and mythology. I talked to her, convinced her to go back to the booth to observe, and I did the second leg of the morning all by myself.
After the assignment was over, she indicated that she was very impressed that I had been able to save the event, and she said that she could not do this type of work because you were expected to know about everything. Her last comment was right on target. Interpreters, in general, are expected to know about everything related to their line of work. Court interpreters should know about the law, procedure, ethics, and some of the fields that closely and often intersect with their work, such as forensics, criminology, chemistry, etc. Healthcare interpreters, even if they always interpret for patients with very little knowledge of medicine, should always be ready to interpret concepts of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, search and rescue, police protocol and practices, etc.
Interpreters who work in conference need to have a very broad base of knowledge and they need to be up to speed on current affairs. To me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of the profession, we are always studying, we are constantly learning. We need to be the person who always knows the answers to the questions they ask on the TV game shows, we need to be the individual who knows the latest news around the world; we have to be prepared to interpret at a moment’s notice, we need to have that desire to study, that curiosity to research, that need to know. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue that in my opinion is so important, that it separates the good interpreters from the best interpreters.
Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.
July 28, 2014 § 15 Comments
I consider myself very lucky because my job takes me all over the world; this allows me to see many of my friends and colleagues as I visit their towns and countries, and also gives me the opportunity to keep up with the local interpreting and translation issues that are impacting that particular area. It gives me great joy to hear about the personal and professional accomplishments of so many talented friends; and unfortunately, I also get to see the sadness, anger and frustration of so many who are working under conditions that no professional should suffer or tolerate. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to these horror stories where the main characters are permeated by mediocrity, ignorance and lack of ambition. It was after one of these episodes, not long ago, that I decided to write about this topic in order to identify the problems and propose some solutions that have worked for me and for other colleagues in the past. This topic is broad and will require of several posts. I will address separately on three different posts the situation of court interpreters, community interpreters, including health care interpreters, and conference interpreters.
First I will talk about the court interpreters because they are a large part of the interpreting community in the United States (only second to military interpreters) and they are a growing segment of the profession in many countries around the world. When I think of many of the freelance court interpreters I know, one thing that puzzles me is: how can they be happy and fulfilled working under such conditions? In certain administrative courts they are paid very little money, sometimes they do not get Per Diem when traveling to another location, and on top of that, they are not treated like professionals. They are required to get paperwork stamped and signed by others, sending the message that because they are not trustworthy, somebody else needs to watch what they do; And by the way, if they want to get paid on time they have to be willing to accept a smaller paycheck (there is a pay cut policy in exchange for faster pay). Of course this is an extreme case, and I would have called it the worst if this article had been written before the United Kingdom court interpreter fiasco that insulted capable professional interpreters in their professionalism and in their pockets. Of course you all know what happened over there and we are all familiar with the ever-bigger problems in the British justice system. Enough for now, but I will return to the United Kingdom court interpreter saga later on this post.
If you think that things get better for those interpreters who freelance in the state-level court system of the United States because these are not administrative courts, you have not worked there for at least a decade. At this level, in most states, interpreters make a little more money than those working the immigration court system, but they are still getting a laughable fee for their professional services. This low pay does not feel any better when you combine it with rules and policies designed for laborers and not for a professional service provider. I am talking about agency-controlled state court markets, incomprehensible policies that are keeping good interpreters from making a decent income in civil cases, the “annual payment limit” contained in some states’ independent interpreter contracts, the “even distribution” of work policy of other states where good and mediocre interpreters basically get the same amount of work from the state as long as they are state-certified, or the backwards legislation that gives certification and oversight of court interpreters to the state judiciary in a state where this was not the case, and now will pull interpreters down to the same level of the other states where the same party that hires certifies. A move unheard in other professions like lawyers and physicians, but even celebrated by many interpreters in this state. Add to this landscape all the endless and ever-changing micro-management requirements by local courthouses, many other rules that I will just skip for the sake of brevity; and finally, throw in there the agencies that are run by people with no formal education, experience, or practical knowledge of interpreting (as the ones who procure interpreting services for most administrative courts) and pay their interpreters even less money, and you will have the big picture; the same picture I see every time I hear a new story, learn of a new travesty, or witness a horrendous performance.
Dear friends and colleagues, I cannot help it, but it is at about this time that I always wonder why my friend or colleague is still working as a court interpreter under those circumstances! The answer is simple and complex at the same time. Simple because as a freelancer all it takes is a moment of courage when the interpreter decides: Enough! No more. Complex because not everybody is willing or capable of making this decision. Different people, different priorities, different ideas, different set of values, and different goals in life. Although I have belonged to the former group all my life, I understand those who belong in the latter. The thing I cannot understand is why they do not take action and change things for themselves, and maybe for their profession at the local level.
It is possible that many people living under the circumstances described above will not be able, for different reasons, to move on to another type of interpreting assignments, but they can always pick their clients wisely. Let me explain:
One thing I have never understood is why on earth so many of my freelancer colleagues see themselves as court employees. I have heard hundreds of times how they introduce themselves as interpreters for the courts; I have heard them refer to court administrators, court clerks, judges, and staff interpreters as their “boss”! Obviously this immediately tells me that if they see the court, the interpreting agency, or the state judiciary as their employer, they cannot see them for what they really are: their client.
Once the interpreter comes to terms with this issue, and understands that she does not work for anyone but herself, she can focus on picking her clients. She will soon realize that mediocre interpreting agencies, state judiciaries, and even the federal court system are nothing but clients, and clients that pay very little (some of them rarely on time) in exchange for what they expect from the interpreter. They pay low fees for the interpreting service, but many of them want you to do so many other things for the same token fee: these interpreters must prepare endless paperwork, learn (sometimes absurd) court or agency policies that are only applicable to that particular courthouse, translate documents in between hearings, attend (often self-serving) unpaid meetings scheduled by the agency or court administration; and many times they demand, without saying it, exclusivity and they “punish” an interpreter who cancels the assignment for a better paying professional opportunity. Once the interpreter sees them as another client, she will realize that, because of their practices and philosophy, they are not at the top of her client wish list, and she will understand the need to find better clients.
Now the question is: If all interpreting agencies that control the administrative courts, and all state-level court systems are not to be considered as top clients, what else is there? The answer is: The good clients!
All interpreters who want to make a decent living in the legal field need to provide their services to the private bar. It is true that in the United States the states are now observing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and in many cases the states are keeping independent interpreters from working any civil cases unless paid through the courts; but even under these circumstances, there is plenty to do. First, those of you who live in states where independent freelancers coexist with state contractors, and are allowed to provide their services in civil court to those who turn down the court-appointed interpreter and prefer to hire their own, you should enter this field full-blast. The federal system does not provide court appointed interpreters in civil cases, and for those who are federally certified this is another option, in fact, it is a much better option than working criminal cases for the federal court system because the pay is much better.
The main option available to all of those who have a valid certification at some level (state or federal. Private language agency certifications are not considered valid) is to become a legal or “out-of-court” interpreter instead of a court interpreter. Legal interpreters provide their professional services to Law Firms and attorneys for depositions, office interviews, witness preparation, jail visits, expert opinions, expert testimony, transcription and translation services, and even in court at the plaintiff’s or defense’s table. Interpreters negotiate their fee with these attorneys; there are no pre-set limits, no endless meetings, and for the most part, the cases are interesting: there is more variety in civil court; and the cases that you should go after involve enormous amounts of money in damages. These are the type of clients I try to have, and I spoil them, pamper them, and protect them with the best service you can find anywhere. The point is, my court interpreter friends and colleagues, if you don’t want to move to a bigger city, if you don’t want to travel, or to learn a new field, the next time you get angry because of an absurd new rule, because you are not getting paid on time, or because you got tired of being treated like a laborer instead of a professional, stop working for the system, get out there and look for the big clients: the large law firms, the corporate legal departments, and talk to them; sell them your services, and start enjoying your career once again. Who knows? If enough good interpreters leave the system, the system will have to hire mediocre individuals, and sooner or later the government will have to sit down with you and talk fees and other work conditions. This is what is happening in the United Kingdom where a group of courageous, determined, and brave interpreters walked out and never went back. They made history, inspired us all, and showed us that although difficult at the beginning, there is life after the courthouse. I invite you to share with us your opinions and comments, and I ask you to avoid name-calling, specific cases, and arguments defending agencies or the court interpreter wages.
InterpretAmerica: One Profession. One Real Profession.
June 9, 2013 § 4 Comments
It seems to me that a week never goes by without running into a colleague who is angry, frustrated, or confused about the new technology that is coming into our profession, an interpreter who is thrilled and excited about all these very same changes, and a colleague telling me that he or she was misunderstood, humiliated, obstructed, or underpaid while doing his or her job. Some of them react with anger, others with frustration, a few seem resigned, but a growing number of our fellow interpreters have been reacting to these real-life situations by taking action, doing something about it. Finally, interpreters finding a solution to this “never-ending” situation.
As those of you who know me personally (and many others have figured out by reading this blog) know, I have always considered myself a professional at the same level as all those who we provide our services to: scientists, politicians, attorneys, diplomats, physicians, military officers, school principals; and I try to act that way when I provide my interpretation services. I feel that we should all consider ourselves a real profession, perhaps even a profession above many others as we are also a little bit of an art. For this reason, when I first heard of InterpretAmerica about three years ago, I immediately fell in love with this idea of Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen.
I attended InterpretAmerica the last time it was held on the east coast two years. It was like a dream. The medical interpreters were there sitting next to the court interpreters, the military interpreters were having a conversation with the agencies; the equipment companies were there having a chat with the educational institutions, and the conference interpreters were sharing experiences, and learning, from the community interpreters. All interpretation fields under one roof! The colleagues from the east coast were there, so were those from the west coast, the European Parliament, the professional organizations, I saw board members and influential colleagues from ATA, AIIC, NAJIT, IMIA, and many more.
This week, InterpretAmerica will hold its Fourth Summit in the Washington, DC area. Looking at the schedule and list of speakers, it looks like this will be a very useful and interesting event. Unfortunately, this year I will not be able to attend the summit due to professional obligations, but I will be checking in regularly with many of my friends who will be there, and for the first time, I can follow the webcast of the second day if I chose to. As you know, I have devoted this blog to everything important and useful to our profession. This is one of the most important efforts in the history of interpretation in the United States. I encourage you to attend the summit, to exchange ideas, to take those ideas back home where you should share them with your colleagues. And to those of you who cannot attend this year’s summit, I invite you to get the webcast and to set aside the dates of next year’s gathering and go. I invite all my colleagues who are attending the summit, or have attended one in the past, to share their experiences for the benefit of all. I wish all the best to Katharine and Barry.