November 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
Once again, despite the pandemic and warnings from the Health Authorities, unfortunately, on Thanksgiving Day millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays. It is difficult to comprehend how so many of our fellow citizens will put self-interest above society’s public health, but that is not the topic of this post. Just as we know indoor gatherings are not cool this year, we know many think of Thanksgiving as a symbol of the oppression and abuse Native Americans endured when Europeans arrived in the continent. Both perspectives are valid, but this blog is about interpreting, and like every year, I chose this week to reflect on the contributions the first interpreters made to the birth of our nation. This time, we will remember the interpreters that made possible America’s expansion to the west.
Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson organized a scientific and diplomatic mission to the newly acquired lands with the goals of mapping the territories, explore the flora and fauna, find a passage to the Pacific, and to establish diplomatic and commercial ties with local inhabitants of these lands, now part of the United States. The expedition was entrusted to renowned explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Lewis and Clark organized a group of 45 members named the Corps of Discovery, which included officers, 29 military personal, civilians and servants. They left Camp Dubois (in present Illinois) on May 14, 1804. From the beginning, Lewis and Clark knew diplomacy in the new territories would require of the services of interpreters, as most people they were about to encounter would speak French, Spanish, or one of the many indigenous languages. A top priority, they initiated a campaign to recruit interpreters who spoke French, Spanish, and the known indigenous languages, knowing well they would need to incorporate additional interpreters along the way to communicate in other languages they would be discovering along the trip.
The native inhabitants of the Great Plains spoke many languages and dialects. Even those from the same language group were not mutually intelligible all the time. Besides oral communication, Native Americans on the plains communicated through an elaborated system of hand signs to communicate with other nations when they did not know the others’ language. This way they were able to negotiate peace, create military alliances, and trade with one another.
French, Spanish, British, and American trappers and traders living along the Missouri River had interacted with the natives for years, some had married local women, and their children, a product of both cultures, often spoke the language of both parents. George Drouillard, the son of a French father and Shawnee mother was one of them. Captain Lewis recruited him, and Francois Labiche and Pierre Cruzatte. These two spoke French, English, and Omaha.
Although he could speak no Native American language, Private John Baptiste Lapage spoke, and had interpreted between French and English, a valuable resource when communicating with French traders and trappers who lived in the region. Drouillard and Cruzatte were conversant in the Sign Language of the plains, and later, Private George Gibson was also recruited for his knowledge of this Sign Language. Anticipating contact with the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, or Great Sioux Nation, Lewis and Clark realized Cruzatte’s knowledge of Sign Language was limited. Luckily, they ran into a Frenchman named Pierre Dorion, who was married to a Sioux woman, had lived among the Yankton for decades, and was fluent in their language. Captain Lewis hired him immediately. His services proved valuable since Lewis engaged his services to communicate President Jefferson’s peaceful intentions to the local leaders.
By late July 1804, the Captains were eager to hold their first meeting with the representatives from the Oto, Missouri, Omaha, and Ponca, or Pawnee nations. They retained the services of a Frenchman known as La Liberteé, or Barter, who spoke the Oto language. This interpreter deserted before he could provide any services, but another Frenchmen, Fairfong, who lived among the Oto and Missouri, and spoke their language, accompanied the Captains to a summit later known as the “Council Bluff.”
At the summit, Fairfong interpreted consecutively from Oto into French, then Droullard and Cruzatte took relay from French, and interpreted consecutively into English for Lewis and Clark. Because of the interpretation, all parties could communicate and negotiate, and the Council was deemed a diplomatic success.
In September 1804, the Captains held a Council with the Teton Sioux without competent interpreters. This proved to be very difficult, as Clark recorded in his journal: “…we feel much at a loss for the want of an interpreter… the one we have can Speek (sic) but little…” (after a meal) “…Cap. Lewis proceeded to deliver a Speech which we (were) oblige(d) to Curtail for want of a good interpreter.” (Lewis, Meriwether and Clark William. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Bergon, ed. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1989. P. 52) The lack of quality interpreting nearly ended in tragedy when after the meeting, one of the Chiefs became “…Verry (sic) insolent in words and justures (sic), pretended Drunkenness & staggered up against (Clark)” (Ibid p. 52, 53).
On October 1804 Captain Lewis visited an Arikara village, and Captain Clark stayed behind to talk to some Frenchmen who arrived by pirogue. Among these men there were two traders named Joseph Gravelines (who Clark always called “Gavellin”) and Antoine Tabeau. Later, Lewis described Gravelines as “…a man well-versed in the language of this nation…” (Ibid p. 61). These new interpreters explained that the Arikara spoke different languages because of a merger of different tribes: They “…do not understand all the words of the others…” (Ibid p. 67). Without the interpreting services of Gravelines and Tabeau, Lewis and Clark could have never held a successful and productive summit with the Arikara. In late October, helped by these two interpreters, they had another successful meeting with the Mandans. At this village the Captains met another Frenchman: René Jessaume, who lived with his Native American wife in the village and offer his interpreting services for as long as they stayed among the Mandan and Hidasta. Jessaume turned into a most valuable assistant as he provided information on the leaders’ personalities, local politics. and local culture. This information helped Lewis and Clark in their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between neighboring tribes. These actions made Jessaume the first interpreter and cultural broker of the expedition. (Ibid p. 69-72).
At this village the Captains considered the possibility that the northwest passage did not exist. There, they would need to continue by foot, and they would need horses. Learning the Shoshone possessed quality horses, Lewis and Clark decided to meet them and negotiate the acquisition of some. To accomplish this objective, they knew a competent Shoshone interpreter would be essential not just to get the horses, but to communicate their peaceful intentions and fulfill the diplomatic mission ordered by President Jefferson.
On November 4, a Frenchman named Toussaint Charbonneau visited the expedition at the place that would become Fort Mandan and offered his services as an interpreter. He did not speak Shoshone, but one of his two wives, Sacagawea, who had been captured by the Shoshone as a child did. He offered his wife as an interpreter from Shoshone into Hidatsa, and his services from the latter into French, leaving open the need for a French-English interpreter. For this task, the Captains hired Private Francois Labiche who spoke both, English and French. Charbonneau was hired “as an interpreter through his wife.” (Ibid. p. 77, 78). At this time, the Arikara Chief and his men, along with interpreters Gravelines and Tabeau wished farewell to Lewis and Clark and their now 33-member “permanent party” as they sailed up the Missouri River.
In August 1805, while looking to buy horses, crossing the Continental Divide, Captain Lewis and Drouillard encountered some Shoshone. The interpreter communicated through Sign Language as recorded on the journals: “…The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer (Drouillard) who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation (sic) or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen. It is true that this language is imperfect and liable of error but is much less so than would be expected. The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken…” (Ibid. p.98). After the rest of the party joined Lewis, it was discovered that the Shoshone leader, Cameahwait, was Sacagawea’s brother who she had not seen for five years. These circumstances made the purchase of the horses easier, but negotiations had to be carried on through relay interpreting: Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English, Labiche interpreted the message into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau interpreted into Hidatsa for Sacagawea; and she interpreted into Shoshone for her brother. When Cameahwait spoke, the process was reversed. (Ibid. p. 275). This was the regular interpreting system followed during the expedition. The extensive, consecutive relay interpretation must have taken a long time.
Perhaps the most complicated interpreting session took place in April 1806 during the return trip near the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers when the expedition found members of the Walla Walla Nation. The Captains had no Walla Walla interpreter, so they relied on Drouillard’s Sign Language, but the communication was not going as desired. Fortunately, at this time, Sacagawea found a Shoshone woman among the Walla Wallas. This woman had been taken as a child by the Walla Walla and spoke their language. They could now negotiate with the Walla Wallas. Lewis and Clark spoke to Labiche in English; he interpreted into French for Charbonneau; Charbonneau then relayed to Sacagawea in Hidatsa; she interpreted into Shoshone for the captive woman, who in turn interpreted into Walla Walla for the Head of the tribe.
Most people think of Sacagawea as the interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Her contributions were key to the success of the expedition and the survival of the corps; but communication was only possible thanks to the services of all other interpreters of Lewis and Clark: Toussaint Charbonneau, Francois Labiche, Pierre Cruzatte, George Gibson, George Drouillard, Pierre Dorion, Fairfong, Reneé Jessaume, Josepg Gravelines, and Antoine Tabeau. The Lewis and Clark expedition, and the transformation of the American nation, may have failed for “want of a good interpreter.” Fortunately, they had plenty of capable individuals who bridged the communication gap, and made science and diplomacy possible, by interpreting consecutively, offering cultural advice, working relay into several languages at a time, and using sign language.
On this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember and celebrate the work of these often-forgotten pioneers who did their best for two bosses who knew from the beginning that having good, reliable interpretation was essential for the success of the most famous expedition in American history.
April 24, 2017 § 6 Comments
Freelance interpreting is a beautiful career but it has its complications. Besides the general complexities of being an interpreter, independent professionals must worry about getting and keeping clients, the administrative aspects of the business, and the market conditions, including competitors, unscrupulous agencies, and ignorant individuals who, knowing little of the profession, try to set the rules we all play by.
We all have our own personal motivations to work as interpreters. All legitimate and many honorable. I am an interpreter for two main reasons: Because I like working in the booth, and because of the freedom, flexibility and income.
In my experience, I have rarely encountered a colleague who hates the profession (although I have met some). Freedom and flexibility are appealing to many; but with the actual decision to take or reject assignments based on content and other factors, or the relentless pursuit of professional good work conditions and a professional fee, many interpreters bulk at confronting the market and demand what they deserve.
For many years I worked as court and conference interpreter simultaneously. I liked the work in court, the cases, the challenges, the drama, and sometimes the outcome of a legal controversy, but it was wearing me out. Many times working in court was depressing, not because of the truculent cases or the human misery you get to see in the courtroom, but because of the conversations among many of my colleagues.
It wasn’t unusual to hear interpreters talk about how they could barely make ends meet, or complain of how little work they were getting from the court. Common topics would include choices between paying the rent or a child’s medical bills. The interpreters who dared to talk about a nice dinner in town or an overseas vacation were met with resentment. It was almost like those with a good income had to keep it secret. It was very uncomfortable.
I do not like to see people suffer, and no doubt these colleagues were in pain. The problem is that it was self-inflicted. Being an interpreter who makes little money is a curable disease. It requires that the interpreter practice and study to improve their rendition, grow their vocabulary, and increase their general knowledge. It also needs a good dosage of courage and determination to go out there and look for good clients. Sitting in the courthouse interpreters’ room complaining of how they are not given more assignments, and settling for the fees (low in my opinion) that the judiciary pays interpreters will never get you ahead of the curve. I never liked it when other interpreters would describe themselves as “we work for the courts”. Unless you are a staff interpreter, the courts are your clients, not your boss. Talking to many colleagues all over the world I can say the same for those who work in healthcare: You will never make a lot of money interpreting in a hospital or clinic. The cure for the disease is one paragraph above.
I respect others’ opinion, and we all know what we want to do with our career and our life, but to me getting to know the market (or markets in many cases) where you work does not mean “learning the limits to what you can request or charge”. To some, interpreters who adapt to their market are doing something good. To me, they are just giving up and convincing themselves this is the best they might do. An interpreter who does not accept irrational work conditions or insultingly low fees is on the right track. Those who demand team interpreting for any assignment that will go over 30 minutes to one hour maximum, or ask for a booth with decent interpreting equipment, or want to get the materials ahead of time so they can study, are doing what professionals do. Interpreters who refuse to work under substandard conditions or don’t dare to charge a high fee for fear that the client will go with somebody else are digging their own graves and hurting the profession.
The interpreter who rejects an assignment because the agency wants him to work alone, or the interpreter who walks away from an offer to do a conference for a miserable fee are doing what should be done. Accepting work without materials because “nobody in my market provides materials ahead of time for this type of assignment” and working solo or without a booth because “If I don’t do it I will go out of business” may be adapting to the market, and to some this may be praiseworthy. To me they just are excuses; a pretext to avoid the constructive and educational confrontation with the agency or direct client. This interpreters do not “adapt” to the market, they shape it, and that is good.
I started this entry by emphasizing that to get what we want we must practice and study. Only good professionals may demand (and enjoy) everything we have discussed here. We must be professionals at the time of our rendition in the booth, courthouse, hospital, or TV network. We must earn the trust and appreciation of our client by becoming reliable problem-solvers who will do anything needed from us as professionals to make the assignment a success. Be flexible as an interpreter. Once, the console failed in the middle of a conference, and instead of suspending the rendition until the tech staff could fix the problem, I jumped right on stage and continued interpreting consecutively until the system was working again. This is what we do. This is the right flexibility the client should expect from us. One time an agency asked me if I could be the driver of some of the foreign visitors I was to interpret for. I immediately refused. Driving is not part of what an interpreter is expected to do as a professional, and neither is to do photocopies, or set up the chairs and tables for the conference.
That we have to get a lot of clients to generate a good income is false. I consider myself a successful interpreter and I probably have fewer clients than many. I am never the first interpreter the agencies most of you are familiar with call, and I don’t want to be. If you are the first name on the list it means you could be undercharging or too willing to accept the agency’s work conditions. I am the last name on the list, and that is good.
Whether it is because the agency could find nobody else, and they are now willing to pay my fee, or because it is a difficult, or high-profile assignment and they need one of the best, even though they know that my services don’t come cheap. Well-run agencies make a great deal of money; hospitals charge more than any other service provider in society; attorneys keep one-third of the money awarded in a case (and interpreter fees do not even come from that slice, they are deducted from the part the plaintiff is to receive).
I know we all have our reasons to do what we do with our careers. I respect everybody’s decisions. All I ask you to do is that the next time you evaluate taking an assignment under less than ideal work conditions, or for a lower fee, before saying yes to the agency or direct client ask yourself if adapting to the market is a good thing, or shaping the market to satisfy your needs is better. I invite you to share your opinions with the rest of us.
June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments
This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam. The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings. In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.
This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult. Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.
My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now. I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.
Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.
The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter. This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths: At least you need to know where you rank in:
- Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
- Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
- Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
- Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
- Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
- Legal terminology and procedure; and
- General vocabulary in both languages.
You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above. Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:
Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight. In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about. In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:
- Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
- Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
- Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
- Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
- General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)
Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example. From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly. It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.
Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.
To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well. For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc. Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test. Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.
To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries. Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing. Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.
To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation. Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam. This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes. For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.
For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary. Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.
To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world. Just remember: You are getting together to study.
Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days. You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.
Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation. Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam. You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.
During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.
Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam. In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.
May 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last week, millions of people throughout the world watched on television the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Boxing is controversial in some quarters, and the fight itself gave both, fans and detractors alike, much to talk about. I was one of those individuals watching the pay-per-view event, but unlike most of the audience, in between rounds my undivided attention was on the boxers’ corners where seconds and coaches were giving encouragement and instructions to both fighters. My reasons for paying close attention to these breaks are very simple: the networks broadcast these conversations in the ring, and many times, because many price fighters do not speak English, this is done through an interpreter. By the same token, the sports channels that broadcast in Spanish in the United States, need interpreters to do the same thing when English is spoken at the fighters’ corners, and when the winner is interviewed from the center of the ring after the official result of the bout is announced.
Sports interpreting is a very difficult field. It requires deep knowledge of the specific sport’s theory, rules, history, statistics, and current events. Many of these interpreters are individually assigned to an athlete by the team, the league, or the sport’s federation. Some of them also function as escort interpreters and cultural brokers to the athlete. Their job requires constant traveling and total dedication. If you like sports, the field is very rewarding, but it is not for everybody.
On top of all the requirements needed to be a sports interpreter, a sports media interpreter must meet an additional set of skills. These interpreters must perform in front of the TV cameras, sometimes for millions of viewers. They need to know the ropes in the world of broadcasting; they have to deliver their rendition with emotion, yet with serenity, in a pleasant voice, and with clear pronunciation. They have to transmit the message within the constraints and limitations of a radio or television broadcast, and they have to do it live, with no second takes.
I have been very fortunate, because throughout my career as an interpreter, I have always been involved with sports media interpreting. I have interpreted many boxing matches, and more recently, I have been working during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches for the major sports networks and for the ones that broadcast in Spanish in the United States. You see, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes need interpreters when the fighters do not speak English.
Not long ago, I was hired to interpret for both, the English and the Spanish broadcast of a UFC world championship match that took place outside the United States. There were the four basic assignments that all sports media interpreters who specialize in boxing or UFC have to cover: (1) Pre-fight interviews, (2) the weigh-in ceremony, (3) the conversations taking place at the two corners during the match itself, and (4) the interviews and press conference after the event. All four tasks are complex and unique.
When the main event is a title match or involves high profile combatants, the pre-fight interviews can be time consuming and exhausting. Most likely, the interpreter will accompany the fighters to personal appearances for radio and TV shows, to some visits to hospitals or charity organizations, and to some social and even political events such as dinners, personal appearances, and similar activities. Many times there will be a booth for the interpreter to do his job during an interview, but there will be many instances when the interpreter will need to work consecutively as there will be no place to set a booth and no time to lose.
Since full contact sports divide athletes by their weight, boxing and UFC championship have weigh in ceremonies. This is done in the presence of the opponent, and with the accredited media as witness. This is a safeguard in case that a bigger man starts thinking about fighting an individual who is smaller and therefore, perhaps easier to defeat. Weigh in ceremonies have evolved from a simple man-step on the scale routine, to very elaborated and spectacular shows full of music, dry ice, lights, and roaring crowds at the venue. These ceremonies will often be interpreted from a booth in an environment comfortable for the interpreters.
To give viewers a better idea of what is happening in the ring (boxing) and cage (ultimate fighting), for years the TV networks have been showing the action in the fighters’ corners in between rounds. All strategy, encouragement, and information that a fighter gets during the combat are delivered during these conversations. Because many of the contenders hold these corner conferences in their native language, the use of interpreters for the corner conversations has been a fixture for many years. Interpreters have a very difficult task during this minute-long breaks. They need to listen to all that is being said by the trainers and seconds as it is captured by an environment mike and a boom, and it is delivered into their earphones while everything else is going on at the arena. It is common to have code-switching during these conversations because many trainers are Americans and during the instructions, many times they go back to English without realizing it.
Here the interpreter has to be as sharp as ever: sports terminology, strategy, profanity, religious talk, all can (and will) emerge during these in-between rounds sessions. Once the break is over, the corner conversation ends, but the interpreters’ work does not. They have to remain alert and be on the lookout for any potential comments, remarks, or instructions that the corner may shout at the fighter during the round. If this happens, the interpreter has to inform it to the broadcasters so they can decide if they need to pass it on to the audience or not. It is hard for me to convey the full picture of what is going on at this time, but if you can imagine the noisiest assignment you ever had and then multiply it one hundred times, then you will begin to understand what sports media interpreters go through every time. Everybody who has been to a basketball or hockey game knows the noise level at the venue when the music is playing. These interpreters have to do their job, especially in UFC matches, while the noise is as loud as it can be. Picture yourself interpreting specialized terminology, bad words, idiomatic expressions, and similar conversations, all uttered at a volume intended for the individual who is next to you (not the general public) as it is being picked up by a boom a few feet away from the conversation, and you are doing it for millions of viewers from your seat at ring side, through a headset, while the arena’s P.A. system is playing “we will, we will rock you” full blast, your microphone and everything else is vibrating with the noise, and the sports announcers, and also the producer, are talking to you through the same headset at the same time.
I recently worked a fight where we were all crowded around the ring. We, the Spanish interpreters, were sitting to the right of the Portuguese interpreters and to the left of the Japanese interpreters. The English language announcers for Fox were next to the Portuguese colleagues, about ten feet away from us, and the other announcers we were working with: the ones broadcasting in Spanish, were at about the same distance from us as their English counterparts but in the other direction, to the right of the Japanese interpreters. It is the most difficult environment and the ultimate multitasking, all done simultaneously. Add to the job description the fact that the interpreter needs to get up, walk through a very tight space, making sure that he does not step on one of the myriad of television cables that cover the entire floor like a carpet, and climb up to the ring, or into the cage, to consecutively interpret the television interviews with winners and losers after each combat. Not an easy job!
Finally, after it is all over in the ring (or cage) and there is a winner, both fighters and their teams are expected to talk to the media a few minutes after the program is over. This takes place at a (sometimes improvised) press conference room in the arena, and it happens very late at night, or during the early hours of the morning: when the interpreter is already exhausted. This post-fight press conferences are usually attended by many journalists from domestic and foreign radio, television and print. They often block the view of the interpreters literally making it impossible to see the stage from the booth. It is total chaos with journalists, producers, and cameras all over the place; and to complicate things even more, many journalists ask their questions without using a microphone. I remind you, this all takes place after a long and busy day of interpreting.
Generally, interpreting services in the English<>Spanish combination are provided by three sports media interpreters: Two who work the fight and post-fight interviews in the ring or cage, and one who stays behind to do in-between fights interviews with other boxers and celebrities from an improvised studio under the seats of the arena. The two interpreters who work at ringside alternate between the English and the Spanish broadcast, depending on the language spoken by the contenders. These are the same two interpreters that will work the press conference once the event is over and the arena is empty, later that night.
The job is exciting, challenging, and to those of us who love sports it is a lot of fun, the pay is good, and the opportunity to meet the rich and famous is constant; however, we should never lose sight of the fact that this type of interpreting requires a lot of traveling, many hours of preparing for the assignment, very long hours, and the ability to work under very adverse circumstances, especially the noise level and the tight quarters. These interpreters work live, and deliver their rendition to those attending the match in the arena, and to the millions who watch the fight around the world; there is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. It requires of a very unique woman or man willing to work as I have described.
I tip my hat to those of you who do this kind of work, and for the rest of my colleagues, I wish that you found this post informative; you now know of another specialty in our profession, and I hope that the next time you watch a boxing or ultimate fighting match, and even if you just happen to walk by a TV set while one of these colleagues is doing his work; you stop for a moment and see them in action. I am sure you will come to appreciate your own working conditions more after you really see how difficult it is to interpret during one of these events. I invite you to share your thoughts about this topic, and any other type of interpreting that you may have done under extremely difficult circumstances, and please focus on interpreting and leave out your personal opinion about boxing or mixed martial arts.
April 21, 2014 § 7 Comments
A few days ago a colleague contacted me to ask if I had seen the updated United States Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary. Although I do not exactly know how long ago this version came to be, my answer was that I had not. She asked me to take a look and then tell her my opinion. I read the publication from beginning to end. The first thing I noticed was that some extremely qualified colleagues had been involved in this updating process. Then I read the publication. Most of the manual seemed to be well written and it looked like it covered most of the relevant points and situations that happen in federal cases. That is, until I got to Chapter 3(VII)(C) For your benefit as readers, I transcribe the applicable portion of the manual next:
“Federal Court Interpreter Orientation Manual and Glossary.
Chapter 3: Overview of Court Interpreting.
VII Interpreters in the Courtroom…
C. Number of Interpreters per Proceeding: Team/Tandem Interpreting.
The number of interpreters may vary according to the type of proceeding and the number of defendants that require interpreter services. To mitigate the effects of interpreter fatigue, proceedings estimated to exceed four hours are often covered by two interpreters through team, or tandem interpreting. The passive interpreter should remain seated in close proximity to the active interpreter and refrain from leaving the courtroom for any significant length of time without good reason…”
Yes dear colleagues, it reads four hours.
For the past eighteen months or so, I have devoted a good part of my time to help and assist in the development of interpreting rules and policy for interpreters in different parts of the world. I have held talks, workshops, presentations and one-on-ones with many interested parties that are developing or restructuring interpreter working conditions and rules of professional performance; and I have done it driven by two priorities: (1) To provide an excellent service and (2) To protect interpreters so they are able to fulfill priority number one.
I have sat in meetings and presentations where I heard of countries where government offices and private agencies require interpreters to work alone when interpreting consecutively regardless of the duration of the assignment; I have heard how individuals in decision-making positions question the need for team interpreting in small conferences or in legal settings. I heard it all and I heard it over and over again. You must know then, that one of the things that kept me going, and gave me the moral authority to dispute the rules or policy with real scientific arguments and data, was the knowledge that in the United States all reputable conferences, the federal judicial system, and many state-level courthouses, were honoring and following the principles of team interpreting and interpreters switching roles from active to support (passive) every 30 minutes or so. Now you can imagine my reaction when I read Chapter 3(VII)(C) above.
Dear friends and colleagues, as many of you know, scientific studies have demonstrated that mental fatigue sets in after approximately 30 minutes of interpreting. These studies show how the quality of the rendition is compromised when an interpreter, regardless of his capacity and skill, continues to interpret beyond this 30 minute marker. Even when the interpreter who has been working for a long period of time thinks that his rendition is accurate, it is not, according to a study by the University of Geneva’s Translation and Interpretation School (“Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” Moser-Mercer, B. Kunzli, B. & Korac, M. University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Volume 3(1) p. 47-63. John Benjamins Publishing Co.) Jesús Baigorri Jalón tells us that “…an average of 30 minutes of consecutive work was the maximum time during which a satisfactory (interpretation) could be done; after this time, one runs the risk of deteriorating results due to fatigue…” (“La Interpretación de conferencias: el nacimiento de una profesión. De París a Nuremberg”. Editorial Comares, Granada. P.188)
Recognizing this well-documented issue, and as part of its tradition of excellence and professionalism, the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) clearly indicates in article six of its Professional Standards:
- *An interpreter shall not, as a general rule, work alone in a simultaneous interpretation booth, without the availability of a colleague to relieve her or him should the need arise.
- **One of whom must be able to relieve each of the other two. In certain circumstances this number may be reduced to two (particularly for short meetings or meetings of a general nature, provided that each of the two interpreters can work into both languages)…”
This is also contemplated within the Sign Language interpreter community. The ASL Team Interpreting Guidelines state the following:
“…Interpreting assignments one hour or longer in length with continuous interpreting, will require the use of a team of two interpreters. The teaming allows the interpreters to switch roles every 15-20 minutes. Teaming will reduce physical strain, prevent repetitive strain injury, and prevent mental fatigue which can cause the quality of the interpreting to deteriorate…”
The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) issued a position paper on this particular issue, and their study concludes that:
“…Due process rights are best preserved with faithful simultaneous interpretation of legal proceedings… In a controlled study it was shown that interpreters’ work quality decreases after 30 minutes. In the challenging courtroom environment, team interpreting ensures that the comprehension effort required to provide accurate interpretation is not compromised. To deliver unassailably accurate language service, court interpreters work in teams…” (NAJIT Position Paper. Team Interpreting in the Courtroom. March 1, 2007)
Even Wikipedia is aware of the complexities of interpreting and the need for team interpreting when it says:
“…Because of the intense concentration needed by interpreters to hear every word spoken and provide an accurate rendition in the target language, professional interpreters work in pairs or in teams of three, so that after interpreting for twenty minutes, the interpreters switch…” (Wikipedia)
As we can clearly see, the fact that team interpreting is required to do this job, and that those in the team need to switch roles every 30 minutes or so is undisputed. This is why several countries that due to globalization are just starting to use interpreting services more often than before, are adopting the team interpreting principle; most of them agreeing to a 20-30 minute policy for interpreters to switch roles. It cannot be possible that the United States federal judiciary got it wrong. There is no way that these updated rules are telling the professional community (interpreters, judges and attorneys) and society at large (litigants, victims, experts, etc.) that the policy will take us backwards. I just do not believe that is what our government wanted to do.
This all leaves us with two possibilities then: Either the rules are poorly written, and that is why we got this confusion, of the rules committee made a mistake. If it was a mistake, it should be corrected immediately. If the rule refers to something else, it should be re-written to make it clear. As part of my research for this article, I heard that the rules were updated because of the arrival of telephonic interpreting. If that is the case, the language must be amended to show that this rule is meant to apply to telephonic hearings. Then, after they do that, we will have to argue that telephonic hearing also needs team interpreting, but that would be another battle for another day.
Dear colleagues, I know that each judicial district sets its own rules, in fact, I am privileged to work in districts where the team interpreter rule is honored and enforced. I am aware of the fact that these rules will probably not change the way most districts operate; however, they are there, and someone can use them in the future to damage the service and hurt the profession. The rule needs to be amended immediately. Many of us will never work alone. Many of us will demand a team, but there could be new colleagues, greedy ignorant language service agencies, and inept court administrators who may be tempted to use them as an excuse to try to change policy. They would fail. They would lose. They would disappear, but I ask you: Why do we have to fight that battle (again) when all that needs to be done is to amend the manual. Please share your thoughts on this issue with the rest of us.
April 23, 2013 § 18 Comments
I constantly read about all the changes that modernity is bringing to our profession. I read of the new technological developments and I hear the voices of anger and fear from many in our profession. I must tell you that I fully accept and embrace these changes because they make our work easier and better: Who wants to go back to the days before computers and on-line resources when we had to drag along a library to the job? Is there an individual who longs for the days of endless consecutive interpretation before simultaneous interpretation equipment was introduced and developed for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations? We need to keep in mind that as interpreters we work with languages, and as all linguists know, a language doesn’t stand still. Language constantly evolves; it reflects our ever-changing human society. It is not like we didn’t know that languages change when we first decided to enter this career. I think that those who complain that there is too much new technology in the world of interpretation, and the interpreters who get angry when a new scientific term is created or the legal terminology of a country changes, should pause and think that it is not only their professional world that is being altered; they should think of all the engineers who gladly embrace new technology for our collective benefit, all the physicians who hurry to learn about the new discoveries published on the most recent science publication, all the attorneys who hit the books to learn the newly enacted legal reforms. I am glad that medical doctors don’t get mad when a new vaccine is announced. I am thankful that they embrace change and learn for the benefit of society. Dear colleagues, our profession is no different, we should face technological changes with the same attitude all other professionals do. And by the way, it is also the right business decision as modernization will not stop, it will not slow down, but it will surely leave us behind if we don’t adjust and embrace it.
Just like many of you, I have been doing more remote interpreting than ever before. At the beginning of my career I had my share of telephonic interpretation for the big agencies as many others did. After I developed my own clientele and as I became better-known I didn’t do much of this work for many years. There were a few exceptions and now and then I did the occasional business negotiation with a foreign counterpart that was done over a speaker phone, the court arraignments by video that some State Courts in the U.S. have been doing for about a decade, and the depositions by video with an attorney asking questions from a different location. Then we get the economic crisis and the need to rethink procedures to save money during difficult times. This is when a few years ago the immigration courts began to hold master hearings by video from the detention centers, and the federal court system decided to implement the Telephone Interpreting Program (TIP) now widely used to cover most of the outline areas of the United States.
Of course, I have done all of the above assignments and I am familiar with the technology employed, but we were still talking about events where the job was to interpret for one person, usually for a short period of time, generally in regard to a single topic well-known by the interpreter, and with the parties sitting down around a speaker phone or in front of a PC-type video camera. It was when I started to get requests to do conference interpreting from a facility different from the site of the event that I understood that the trend was irreversible. If I wanted to stay relevant I had to adapt.
I went down career memory lane to my previous assignments and selected those elements that I had learned doing all the jobs mentioned above. As I was doing it, I began to remember other experiences that would be helpful: Broadcast interpretation of live TV events that I did in the past such as award ceremonies, presidential debates, and political conventions came to mind. These were assignments that I had worked aided by a TV monitor and oftentimes from a different studio and even a different location after all.
Remote conference interpreting has been around for some time and it continues to grow. I have been able to solve some of my concerns as I have worked more of these assignments. It is obvious that a good sound system and a great technician are key to a successful remote interpretation. I have also learned that the broadcast quality is as important as the sound equipment. Sometimes the equipment is fine, but if the broadcast is poor you will suffer in the booth (or studio) and sometimes it is up to the events going on in the Solar System. Once I had a hard time on an assignment in the United States where the presenter was appearing by video from Scotland. Due to some solar flares affecting earth the transatlantic broadcast was choppy and the image and sound were very poor.
It is important to mention that remote conference interpreting is very appealing for our clients because it will always be more cost-effective than flying a bunch of interpreters to an event, paying for their hotel, ground transportation, meals, and travel time. It also benefits the interpreter as it allows us to do more work without so many travel days, and it puts us on a global market since the interpreter’s physical location will matter less. You can go from one job to another and still sleep at home. You can even do two half-day events on the same day.
At the beginning one of my biggest reservations about remote conference interpreting was that I would not be able to see the speaker or the power point on the screen whenever I wanted, or even worse, that I would never see those asking questions from the audience. Like many interpreters, sometimes I relay on facial expressions to determine meaning and to understand difficult accents. I have learned that the solution to all of these concerns can be found on the camera director. This is the person who sits in the video truck or the video room and switches from one camera to another. A good conversation with the director and his camera operators on the day before the conference starts can be extremely helpful. I have explained to them the importance of seeing the power point on the screen when the speaker changes slides, the advantage of seeing the speaker as he addresses the audience, and the absolute need of having on screen the person asking a question while he is speaking. This has made my life so much easier!
Of course, not all directors are the same, some are better than others (as I recently learned during an event on the west coast when the director did not work one weekday and the interpreters noticed it immediately, even before we were told that we had a different director for one day) and there are certain things that we miss with remote interpreting (like a world-class chefs’ cooking event I did last year where there were constant references to the smell of food that we could not experience from a different location) but I am confident that as technology advances, we as interpreters prepare better for this new challenges, and the market leaves us no other work alternative, the wrinkles will be ironed and we will be praising remote conference interpreting just as we now do with simultaneous over consecutive. I would love to read your opinions and experiences regarding this very important professional issue.
August 13, 2012 § 12 Comments
As interpreters and translators we know that every job we do is very important and some of it will even transcend. Today I want to focus on the pioneer of our profession in the Americas. 491 years ago, on a day like today: August 13, 1521 the Spaniards finally defeated the Aztec Empire and conquered Tenochtitlan where they founded what we know now as Mexico City. At first glance, it seems that this incredible feat was accomplished by a handful of conquistadors and a fearful Aztec emperor who considered them gods.
Modern research has discarded that version of history as we now know that it was a more complex succession of events that led to the fall of the most powerful nation west of the Atlantic Ocean. A big part of the outcome, if not the most important part, was brought about by a native woman of a lower-noble family from the Aztec Empire frontier, now the Mexican State of Veracruz. Her birth name was Malinalli, the name of one of the 20 days of the Aztec month, but as she grew up, she became known as Malinalli Tenépal. The Náhuatl word Tenépal means “a person who speaks a lot with enthusiasm and fluency.” Sounds familiar?
When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in what is now Tabasco México and defeated the Chontal Mayans, she was among the slave women he received as a present. The Spaniards noticed right away that Malinalli, or Marina as the conquistadors named her, spoke the local Chontal Maya language and her birth tongue: Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. It became very clear that this girl, probably around 19 years of age, was very sharp, very pretty by all accounts, and had a gift for learning foreign languages. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter.
Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, or Malintzin, as the natives called her (“Malin” being a Náhuatl mispronunciation of “Marina” and “-tzin” a reverential suffix for “Doña”) interpreted for Cortés in at least three combinations: Spanish, Náhuatl, and Chontal Maya, and there is reason to believe that she also spoke, or later learned other Mayan dialects as she served as interpreter for Cortés in what is now Honduras. Testimonial and written accounts describe her interpreting consecutively and also doing whisper-interpreting for Cortés during many of the most important meetings with the native lords, including Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. In fact Malinalli’s role went beyond mere interpreting; she was a cultural broker who helped Cortés to successfully establish alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs like the Tlaxcalans. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation.
It is clear that the fall of the Aztec Empire would have taken longer, and the outcome of the conquest would have been different if there had not been a Doña Marina. Rodríguez de Ocaña, a conquistador that served during the conquest relates Cortés’ assertion that “…after God, Marina was the main reason for (his) success…” In the “True Story of the Conquest of New Spain,” the widely acclaimed eye-witness account of the conquest, Bernal Díaz del Castillo repeatedly refers to her as a “great lady” always using the honorific title: “Doña.”
Very few interpreters have had the opportunity to be the “first” to do anything, and despite the fact that many Mexicans consider her a “traitor” for helping the Spaniards, on this anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, as interpreters we should remember this pioneer of our profession, salute all the things that she did instinctively right without knowing formal interpretation, and recognize her for her key role in the fusion of two worlds until then apart. She was truly a bridge between two cultures that knew nothing of each other. I would like to hear your comments about Doña Marina and her role in the history of interpretation.