Who should interpreters target as their clients in a world where many want to pay lower fees? Part 1.

July 28, 2014 § 15 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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.

Is it medical interpreter, or healthcare interpreter?

June 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have struggled with the issue of how to refer to a growing number of our colleagues whose work mainly takes place in hospitals, clinics, or medical and dental offices. Their primary function is to enable communication between a person who does not speak the language of the land and a healthcare provider: physician, dentist, nurse, psychologist, paramedic, and other support staff. As you all know, this area of interpretation has been around for some time, but it has just become formally regulated in the recent past. Because of globalization and its migration consequences, now many countries experience the need to have somebody to bridge the gap of communication that has developed between native speakers and immigrant communities. These developments have augmented the need for court interpreters, legal translators, school interpreters and many others; the healthcare field has not been an exception; in fact, this is the area where we can appreciate the most dramatic changes to the old “business as usual” format. Unlike other interpreting specialties, like conference, military and court interpreting, which have been around for a long time, these new service providers just organized a few years ago. Great efforts and devotion on the part of some individuals have produced important results like the creation of professional associations, the adoption of ethical and professional responsibility canons, and the development of certification programs and examinations. This is truly admirable.

There are two organizations in the United States that have emerged as standard-bearers of this profession: The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) which endorses the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters exam, and the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Keeping in mind the services provided by these professionals (based on the organizations’ websites, several hospitals’ information, and conversations with many of my esteemed colleagues) I reviewed all information I could find on the two certification exams that test English, professional conduct and ethics. To a lesser degree they test some medical-related vocabulary that a true bilingual individual should know, without any medical or pharmacological terminology studies, and they include very short paragraphs, or vignettes as one of the test refers to them, where patient and healthcare provider communicate regarding the symptoms that the non-native speaker is experiencing. The dialogue is an everyday conversation at a moderate to low register. Finally, I also noticed that the main part of the score overwhelmingly goes to the consecutive interpretation, leaving simultaneous and sight translation at about 10 to 15 percent each.

I am convinced that the work these colleagues do is essential to the healthcare industry and well-being of those individuals who otherwise would see their chances of receiving appropriate services diminished by reason of the language they speak. Nobody is disputing this. I also applaud the conditions under which they constantly work in hospitals, emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities where people perform under great stress. The writing of this post was simply motivated by my need to find a term I can feel comfortable with when referring to my colleagues, but before I am ready to form an opinion I should also consider what the rest of the world is doing and saying on this issue.

In Europe the services performed by our medical interpreters are part of what is known as public service interpreting or community interpreting in some countries. This public service interpreting also covers legal interpreting but not court interpreting as I will explain in a moment.

Public service interpreting refers to those services provided by an interpreter to help two individuals who speak different languages so they can communicate regarding everyday affairs, personal issues, including important topics, in cases when individuals who speak the same language would usually speak for themselves, but in this particular situation, because of the language difference, and cultural considerations, an interpreter is needed.

My dear friends and colleagues, conference interpreters provide their services to make it possible for individuals who do not speak the same language to communicate, by interpreting almost exclusively on the simultaneous mode, complex information at a high register. Their audience is usually formally educated. Court interpreters provide their services in cases when one or more individuals do not speak the language employed in court, to make it possible for officers of the court, litigants, jurors, and others, to communicate on the simultaneous, consecutive, whispered, and sight translation modes, everyday information, complex legal concepts and terminology, and expert witness testimony, at a variety of register levels.

Now I ask you to contrast these job descriptions with the job that public service interpreters such as school interpreters, welfare services interpreters, church interpreters, and community organization interpreters do. These professionals (and sometimes paraprofessionals that may include a family member) provide their services so that individuals who do not share the same language can communicate about important everyday matters such as parent-teacher conferences, services provided by religious organizations, and dealings with government agencies at the customer service window or over the phone. This work is almost exclusively performed on the consecutive mode, unlike court interpreting, and there are no formal rules to keep the interpreter from asking questions and give explanations to facilitate the communication. The main objective is to bridge the language gap without any consideration for rules of evidence or procedure. These interpreters can interrupt the parties and ask them to speak slower or in shorter sentences. While conference and court interpreters work with complicated and sometimes rarely used words as part of their everyday job, public service interpreters work with common vocabulary; not simple words, but words that anyone with a certain level of formal education, regardless of any interpreting training, should know.

This explains why we occasionally see conference interpreters in the courtroom and court interpreters in the booth. It also explains why conference interpreters, and not medical interpreters, interpret medical and pharmaceutical conferences; and why court interpreters, not medical interpreters, interpret the expert testimony of a pathologist or other medical professional during a trial.

I mentioned earlier that there was a difference between court and legal interpreters in many countries, and why the latter are considered public sector interpreters: A court interpreter provides her services in a formal court setting and during out of court events that are related to a current or future court or legal proceeding. A legal interpreter assists an individual who needs help with his dealings with the authority, such as getting a driver’s license, applying for government benefits, or requesting government documents. These interpreters are clearly outside the scope of the very strict canons of ethics and professional responsibility that govern the activity of court interpreters. Just as we may encounter a conference interpreter in court or a court interpreter in the booth, we may find a school interpreter or a medical interpreter in a government agency assisting a foreign language speaker with some excruciating government administrative process. I hope the example clarifies the issue, but I also ask you to look at this very carefully, because there are some who would like to assimilate the services provided by a court interpreter outside a courtroom to those of a public service or community interpreter; they would argue that these services are “legal” and not court services. They are wrong.

They are wrong because the terminology of legal versus court interpreter that was valid in the past does not apply to our globalized world. When most countries had a written legal system there was very little work for a court interpreter. In those days legal translators did most of the court work because everything was done in writing. Legal interpreters were then relegated to in-office interviews and customer service windows. If you consider that migration was less popular than it is now, then you would have a very low demand for court or even legal interpreters. Lack of migration did not impact legal translators who had to translate official documents, contracts, deeds, and many other written statements that originated within the other country. At the time the legal interpreter was really a community or public service interpreter. That reality is so different from ours. Presently, an interpreter who works before an administrative law judge, such as an immigration court, workers’ compensation court, or social security court, is subject to the same ethical and professional rules as the court interpreter who appears before a traditional court. The fact that some jurisdictions allow for non-certified or licensed interpreters to provide their services in administrative law courts does not mean that community interpreters should do the job. These courts still abide by rules of evidence and procedure, the interpreter has to act as if working before the traditional judiciary, the job must be done at a higher register, with specialized complex legal terminology, and on a simultaneous interpreting mode that does not allow to stop the procedure so the interpreter can request the litigants to slow down, or a consecutive rendition where the interpreter cannot ask the parties to speak in shorter sentences. The same can be said for civil depositions, jailhouse visits, and the transcription of wiretaps. On the other hand, those individuals who are appearing before the motor vehicle office are better off employing the services of a community interpreter because this professional knows more about handling situations where the interpreter has the freedom to step outside the box to achieve communication between the parties.

After considering all of these concepts and possible scenarios, and after reviewing the materials I have mentioned before, I understand that there are arguments to be made for the term medical interpreter, but I just do not believe that in my book that would be accurate. I think that the appropriate and accurate way to describe this very important segment of our profession is the one adopted by the Certification Commission of Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). For this reason, I believe that we should call our colleagues Healthcare Interpreters instead of Medical Interpreters. Please let us all know your comments on this issue that to some may seem irrelevant, but is actually very important.

Questions of a court interpreting student. Part 2.

June 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

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 graduates from 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. Her questions were very good, so 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, she said yes, so 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. Part 1 was posted two weeks ago. I now invite you to read the rest of my answers to her questions.

  • What do you do as a court interpreter when a legal concept in the target language is similar, but not equivalent, to a legal concept in the source language or vice versa? Do you explain it? How do you get the knowledge to identify equivalences or similarities if you studied law?

There are many times when the interpreter faces a situation where there are similar legal concepts but the exact legal term or figure does not exist in the other language. This happens more often between languages from countries that have different legal systems: written Roman Law versus oral Common Law. The general rule for the interpreter is that she does not have to explain or define anything. It is the attorneys’ job and duty to explain the law not only to their client, but if needed, to the court interpreter so she can do her job. In a situation where a competent interpreter who has done her homework runs into a legal concept that she does not understand, she must research it and study it as part of her preparation for the case, and if there is no time for that, she has to inform it to the judge or attorney, depending on the interpreters function in the particular proceeding, so the legal term can be explained to her. Many times the explanation will allow the interpreter to find the correct term in the target language. Interpreters, who have studied Law as your question says, have the advantage of knowing and understanding legal figures and terms without any explanation. If this is the case, and the interpreter is ambitious, she can study the legal figure from the country where she did not study law and this way find a better solution to her problem. This is one of the reasons why most legal systems require interpreters to comply with continuing education requirements. Fortunately for you, with the new legal system being implemented nationwide, Mexican court interpreters will not find this situation very often anymore.

  • What happens when someone, the judge, prosecutor, or defense, realize that the interpretation is wrong or misleading? Is the interpreter penalized, and if so, what sanctions does he face?

Interpreters are human and they perform one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Court interpreting is so complex, that most court systems in the world are now requiring team interpreting for all hearings lasting over an hour. Any interpreter can unintentionally make a mistake and we all do at some point. It is what the interpreter does after the mistake that makes the situation irrelevant or serious. In most countries, mistakes due to bad acoustics, poor delivery by the speaker, interpreter fatigue, etc., can be easily corrected by an observation on the record amending the mistake. Other more serious mistakes due to a complex legal concept or a lack of context may be more relevant but they can also be cured by a correction as previously stated or by an admonition by the judge. Mistakes due to the interpreter’s ignorance can be corrected by the other member of the team who will discuss the discrepancy with the interpreter who made the mistake, and then together the team informs the court, outside the presence of the jury, that there was a mistake, the circumstances are explained, and if necessary, the judge will admonish the jury, and the attorneys will draft a special instruction for the jury that the judge will read at the end of the trial. On rare occasion the error could be so serious that there needs to be a mistrial. I can only recall one case but that particular case was really a judge’s error and not an interpreter’s. The interpreter who made the mistake can be sanctioned depending on the seriousness of the mistake and the applicable law. In general, sanctions could range from an informal reprimand to a temporary suspension followed by a probation period, to permanent revocation of the certification, patent or license. There is usually a formal procedure that includes notice and hearing, and the interpreter is allowed to retain the services of an attorney. Depending on the magnitude of the mistake there could be civil responsibility and the interpreter may be required to pay a fine and damages. This can only happen when ordered by a judge or jury after a civil lawsuit where the interpreter will be allowed to present witnesses and legal arguments through an attorney if he wishes to do so. Like all professionals, interpreters are encouraged to carry civil liability insurance (errors and omissions). If covered, the interpreter will be represented by the insurance attorneys and in most cases all he needs to do is to pay his deductible.

When the mistake is really an intentional act by the interpreter to defraud or mislead another individual, he could face criminal charges, and if convicted, he could go to prison.

  • Are there laws or regulations that state the requirements that need to be met to perform as a court interpreter, and are there any written duties and rights?

All countries that employ the services of court interpreters as part of their judicial process have legislation that sets the minimum requirements to qualify as a court interpreter and to maintain that status. There are also authorities that regulate the profession setting procedures, protocols, responsibilities and rights. There are also ethical canons, and professional responsibility norms that control the way the services are provided. Some countries, like Mexico, are currently in the process of developing these legislation and regulations where all of the interpreter’s duties, responsibilities, work conditions and rights will be included. In the United States there are two levels of legislation and regulatory agencies: the federal level with the United States Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Federal Court Interpreter Act as the legal basis, and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) as the implementing federal agency. All states either have or are in the process of developing court interpreter legislation, and they all have a state-level Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as their implementing agency. In Europe the legal foundation is twofold: it comes from the Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Rights to Interpretation and to Translation in Criminal Proceedings, and from the county-by-country legislation. Court interpreters in Europe have joined forces to ensure access to justice by the founding of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA). In Canada it is the provincial regulatory bodies that grant the certifications and the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council (CTTIC) applies uniform standards across Canada. Most regulations and rules set minimum fees for court interpreters and basic work conditions.

  • Some government court interpreting websites talk about working with certified and non-certified interpreters; why is that, and what advantages and disadvantages does that bring to the defense, prosecution/plaintiff, or judges?

The only acceptable option is that of a certified interpreter who has studied, tested, and proven to be able to provide the service. This however, is easier to do in smaller countries where there is not a wide variety of languages as there are in a country the size of the United States. In other words, the reason why you see non-certified interpreters even mentioned in these websites is because of the lack of interpreters. It is important to separate non-certified interpreters who work in languages where there is a certification program from those interpreters who work with languages with no certification program. For example, the United States has certification exams for three languages: Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo; at this time it only offers federal certification for Spanish interpreters, so it is understandable why a very good Russian interpreter is not federally certified. You cannot call them federally certified, but you cannot group them with the Spanish interpreters who failed the federal certification test and by that fact have demonstrated a lack of the minimum requirements to work in federal court in the United States. Depending on their own realities, some states offer certification in certain language combinations and other states do not. There are also administrative law courts in the United States, and remote courthouses in very little towns where there are no certified Spanish interpreters but there are many Spanish speaking litigants because it may be an agricultural center where many immigrants live. The dilemma appears when the system is confronted by a Constitutional mandate to provide interpreter services and a reality that says there aren’t any. It is for these cases that non-certified interpreters are used. In the United States this is happening less at the federal level in Spanish language cases because of new technology that allows a certified interpreter to provide her services remotely from a big city. Certified court interpreters are physically transported to the small towns if the case goes to trial or a long complex hearing is held. Speaking of Spanish court interpreters, the advantage this “compromise” brings to the parties, and in my opinion it is a very questionable one, is that they have an interpreter, they will at least have the best that was found, and the court can always stop the proceeding and demand a certified interpreter be provided either remotely or in person. The disadvantages are obvious: The court and parties will not have an interpreter that at least meets the basic requirements to work in federal court (a certification) The situation worsens when you see courts and attorneys hiring these marginal para-professionals when real certified court interpreters are available solely to save money as these individuals will usually (although not always) be cheaper than a certified court interpreter. There is also another problem in the United States and other countries that will hopefully be avoided in Mexico through legislation: Because the U.S. is a free society, there are plenty of language agencies, language “academies”, and “professional” associations who offer their own self-serving certification so that their lower-level “interpreters” can present themselves as “certified” or “licensed” and make the client believe that they are hiring somebody with professional credentials. There are those who justify this practice for what they call “lesser court cases” such as administrative court proceedings. I completely oppose this practice and I have written and spoken extensively against it.

  • There are some suggested self-study techniques to become a good court interpreter, such as expanding your vocabulary, developing your own glossaries, developing your own interpreter techniques, and others. Do you have any tips or advice on how to do it?

I already addressed part of this question in Part 1 of this post when I discussed some of the things that a student can do to become a better court interpreter. I would add that you can expand your vocabulary by picking ten new words from the dictionary every weekday. At the end of a week you will know fifty new words; you will probably remember 15 to 20 and that will be a net increase of 20 words per week. Not bad. I would do the same with legal terminology. Pick a topic and learn the terms. By week’s end you will remember about twenty percent of what you studied and you will have a much better understanding of that legal figure: a contract, court proceeding, corporate document, etc. You can also develop your thematic glossaries; I would do a different one every month and I would use an application for that. I personally use Interplex because I have been using it for many years so I am used to it; I also like the fact that it is compatible with your telephone and tablet so you can have the glossaries with you anywhere you go. Finally, I suggest that when you watch a real court proceeding or when you go to a courthouse to watch a trial in person, you practice your rendition (in court under your breath of course) and when you do so, pay attention to those things that work for you, and develop them; this could be the way you come up with your own personalized note-taking system. When doing this, many years ago, I realized that it was easier for me to remember numbers and figures if I could associate them to the numbers of the jerseys of professional athletes. I am a big sports fan and I have always naturally remembered the players’ numbers, so for me it is very easy to remember an address let’s say on 3272 Main Street, if all I have to do is to remember Franco Harris (32) Mickey Mantle (7) Derek Jeter (2) Main Street. I know this system only works for me, but it works very well, and I came up with it by developing my own personalized technique.

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 ten 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.

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.

Are the interpreters working conditions in danger?

April 21, 2014 § 7 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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:

“Article 6…

  • *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.

Many medical interpreters are missing out on a prestigious and profitable field.

March 16, 2014 § 21 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Last year I interpreted for several medical and pharmaceutical conferences.  Some were presentations of scientific papers before an audience of  peers, others were geared to non-physicians who work in the pharmaceutical field.  All of them were interesting and they all paid well.  They also had something else in common:  There were absolutely no medical interpreters or former medical interpreters in any of the booths.  As I sat in the Spanish booth during a conference on the 98th floor of the Hancock Building in Chicago, I examined all the booths for the other languages and realized that there were excellent, very dedicated professional conference interpreters everywhere.  I knew the interpretation was going to be top-notch, but I couldn’t help but notice that there were no medical doctors, registered nurses, or medical interpreters anywhere.

My friends, conference interpreters are second to none as far as quality and professionalism; they prepare for every assignment and show up to work equipped with the experience, knowledge, and skill needed to take care of just about any possible situation that may arise during the assignment.  A conference where real conference interpreters are hired to work could not be in better hands.  However, even though the same can be said of any other subject matter, in the United States, and other countries, you can find former attorneys and court interpreters in many events that deal with legal and business issues.  Medical interpreting attracts hundreds of interpreters in the United States alone.  Every day these professionals work in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, and medical offices, so the logical question is: Why this does not happen in the medical conferences?

I do not have a general answer, but based on my observations and years in the profession I can bring up the following factors:

There are several very capable medical interpreters who regularly work as conference interpreters.  I know this because some of them are my friends and I have shared the booth with many.  The problem is that there are not enough of them.  Please understand that here I am referring to what is generally recognized as conference interpreting, and purposely excluding community interpreting even though some colleagues, in my opinion erroneously, on occasion refer to this boothless informal interpretation as conference.

Compared to legal interpreters, medical interpreters have a tougher time “breaking away” from medical interpreting because there is a widely shared concept that medical interpreters are not good or professional.  This is a belief that many agencies, and even other interpreters, share.

Now, we have to recognize that this characterization of the medical interpreter profession has some truth to it.  At least in the United States until fairly recently there was no regulation or minimal standards in medical interpreting.  Many bilinguals who failed the court interpreter certification went to the medical field because there were no rules and often no quality control.  Because the conditions were so poor in this unchartered territory, many language agencies filled the void by taking over most of the things needed to provide a medical interpreting service.  They were setting policy and criteria as far as who could work, how they could work, and more importantly, how much these interpreters would be paid.  For years I heard this all over the United States: “Medical interpreting? No way! It pays nothing.”  Unfortunately my friends and colleagues, that was (and regrettably still is) the case.

So there you have it.  Most interpreters who had invested time and money studying and getting themselves ready to practice their profession did not want to work for very little pay.  This scared many good people away from the field.

There is much to be done at this time. Too many doctors and hospital administrators to educate, too many bad agencies to expel from the field, and too many mediocre interpreters to push to the side so there is room for those, new and experienced professionals, willing to play ball under the new rules of certification, ethics and uniformity.

It is certain that the profession will continue to grow and will eventually catch up with older interpreting fields such as conference, diplomatic, court, and military interpreting.  As this happens, medical interpreting will attract more capable professionals, competition will be brutal like in all profitable professional environments, and interpreting fees will dramatically increase.  In the meantime during the process, and in my opinion, to enhance our professional versatility and skills, good medical interpreters who want to elevate their profession, better themselves, and receive a fair decent compensation for their service will have to look at expanding their practice.  To achieve this goal you basically have two options:  The less complicated possibility of doing medical-related work that up until now, with some exceptions, has been handled by court interpreters:  interpreting for independent medical examinations and evaluations specifically done for litigation purposes in the area of worker’s compensation and civil law.  Medical interpreters should be able to learn and provide these services by taking advantage of their medical knowledge.  The sad part is that this field, like most of the medical interpretation field, is controlled by agencies that pay very little. In fact, they are many times the same agencies that hire interpreters for medical work.

The second option, and my motivation for writing this piece, is conference interpreting.  Undoubtedly a more difficult goal.  Medical conferences require of knowledge in the medical, biological, and pharmacological sciences.  Good medical interpreters should already have it, especially if they have a medical or nursing background.  It also requires familiarity with the “medical culture.”  Medical interpreters come in contact with it on a daily basis.

Conference interpreter also requires that the professional providing these services be able to do it simultaneously. It demands agility of mind and speedy thinking while handling very complex concepts and precise terminology.  It requires of booth etiquette and assignment preparation, and it must be performed as a team.  Most if not all of these characteristics are not part of an everyday medical interpreter repertoire.  It sounds hard and complicated because it is very difficult and extremely sophisticated work.

However, my dear friends and colleagues, the rewards are enormous: you get to develop as an interpreter by acquiring the master key that opens the door to all interpreting work: simultaneous rendition. Working as the interpreter for a medical conference you will earn amounts never seen in the medical interpreting field, and you will learn about the science and policy that is applied to hospitals, medical practitioners, and insurance companies every day.  As conference interpreters you will experience the satisfaction of doing a job that is understood by all those who are listening as part of your sophisticated audience.  Now, you may say that conference interpreting will not give you the satisfaction of helping to save a life, of being a part of preventing a disease; that you decided to become a medical interpreter for this reason.  That is not true. As a medical conference interpreter you will be right in the middle of saving lives as the interpreter who reveals a medical breakthrough for the first time in your language pair; you will be the voice of physicians who will ask questions about a new drug or procedure; and of course, keep in mind that you will not stop medical interpreting. You will diversify your practice and widen your clientele.  I look forward to the time when I regularly get to share the booth of a medical conference with a professional and highly capable interpreter with a medical interpreting background.   I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions about this very important professional aspect of our profession.

Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

The Language Services Agencies: Are they good for you?

July 29, 2013 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I wanted to write about language service providers for some time, but it wasn’t until this morning when a colleague shared his story with me that I finally decided to sit down and do it.  An interpreter was hired by an agency to provide his professional services for a 2-hour administrative court hearing.  Phone calls and e-mails were exchanged, a fee was agreed upon, and the interpreter received the necessary materials and information from the agency representative; there was even an automated confirmation telephone call three days prior to the event. Everything looked normal.  On the afternoon before the scheduled event, the interpreter received an automated e-mail informing him that the hearing had been cancelled.  Because the notice was received less than 24 hours before the scheduled start of the assignment, this interpreter prepared and sent an invoice to the agency for his 2-hour fee.  Of course, he had been offered another assignment that he turned down, because he was already booked, just the day before he received the cancellation notice. Sounds familiar right?  I think there may be an unwritten “universal law” that says that every time an interpreter gets a job he will get one or more offers for the same day afterwards. I know you all know what I am talking about.  Let’s get back to our story.  Of course, my colleague was not thrilled since he was only going to make the equivalent to a two-hour job and he couldn’t get any other assignment for that day, but that is the “price” of doing business. This is the risk we all take when we chose the freedom of working as a freelancer.   To his surprise, and mine when I heard the story, the agency representative contacted him right away to let him know that he was not going to be paid anything because the assignment had not taken place.  The “less than 24 hour notice” of cancellation didn’t mean anything to them.  Of course he will fight this battle and already started the process by going to a collections agency, but it made me remember another event that happened to me some months ago.

A colleague and I worked an event for an agency we had worked for before; they have had all of our information, including fee schedules, for years.  We did the event, our performance was great, the agency’s client was very satisfied, and everything went as expected by the agency.  I sent my invoice later on that same week, and life continued. About 2 or 3 weeks later I got an e-mail from a representative of the interpretation agency. I was a little surprised as I did not recognized her name, but the real surprise came when I read the text of the mail.  This is what she wrote:

“Dear Mr. Rosado: We received your invoice… for processing. Thank you.  After reviewing the invoice it came to our attention that you had made a mistake.  The total for your invoice is the equivalent to 16 hours of work. The event was 8 hours long (each day)… but you worked 4 hours each day and Mr. (my colleague’s name) worked the other 4.  …Therefore, I ask you to please file an amended invoice reflecting the hours you actually worked…”

After I recovered from an anger attack, I wrote her back, copying her boss, explaining her how we work and how we bill, and eventually I got an apology letter and a check for the right amount.  There had been no mistake in this case. She turned out to be a new employee and It was all due to her ignorance of the profession.

I have had these annoying experiences with agencies, but for the most I’ve had a good career as far as my dealings with interpretation and translation agencies.  Of course I know this is what many of you have experienced, so I will try to explain why these entities act this way, and I am going to share with you my solution to the “bad agency syndrome.”

(1)    First: Not all agencies are created equal.  There are agencies that you want to work for because they are good and professional. They are usually the ones with the best clients, the more relevant events. I am referring to the premier conference interpreting agencies that operate nationwide and worldwide. They offer the whole package to their client: the best equipment, the most comfortable booths, all-star technicians, and the best interpreters.  They work with you, pay on time, pay well, and treat you like a professional.

(2)    A different type of agency, also big (sometimes huge) and universal, is the one that provides telephonic services or in-person services at administrative federal courts.  They have a lot of work; some of them trade in the stock market, and offer an average to below-average interpretation service to their client.  They are popular and well liked by their clients because they provide the service at a moderate price, can offer the volume and variety of languages that nobody else can.  They usually have administrative support staff that deals with the interpreters, pay very little, and don’t pay as quickly as the industry’s average.  Their interpreters tend to be of a less-than average professional quality, very new to the profession, and in some cases they even work from outside the United States.

(3)    Then you have the mid-size agencies who work regional or local markets. These agencies handle many events, some of them are conferences, others are not but they still call them conferences.  These agencies also provide other services at the regional level such as medical interpreting, out-of-court legal interpreting, and in some markets even in-court interpreting services.  These agencies aren’t big corporations; they are often a small firm or even a family business. This is the group where you must be very careful because there are some excellent agencies that provide the same or almost the same services that the big ones offer, including equipment and the highest quality interpreters (because for many reasons, the good ones are not always busy working with the big corporate agencies) but you also have many mediocre agencies that are this size. The problem is that they offer poor equipment, no equipment, low-level technicians, no technicians, and, for the most part, interpreters that don’t belong in the “A” list.  They are usually staffed by poorly- paid employees with little experience, deal with clients that some times are not reliable, pay very low interpreter fees, don’t always pay on time, tend to ignore invoices for minimum guaranteed interpreter time or cancellation fees, and sometimes just don’t pay the interpreter.  They often work with interpreters with no academic or professional training, and are very defensive when asked about their practices.

(4)    Finally we have the small interpretation services provider. These are agencies that operate at the local level; many of them owned by an individual who sometimes is an interpreter, translator, or a relative of one of them. Many of them do business from their living rooms, have a mailing address at the UPS Store, and “train” their own interpreters because they cannot afford higher quality professionals due to the pay they offer or the type of assignments they hire their interpreters for.  Sometimes they offer equipment, usually portable, work “desk-top” community events they refer to as “conferences,”  contract with local medical facilities and administrative law attorneys, pay less than anybody else (with the exception of some of the telephonic agencies above) and treat their interpreters like journeymen instead of professionals.

I have heard many of my colleagues when they complain about these agencies.  My solution, not to eliminate all possible problems, because that can’t happen, but to prevent most of them and mitigate the nefarious effects is as follows:

Try to work for the first group I mentioned. There will be times when a mistake will occur, like in my story above, but they are few and can be promptly fixed.  Sometimes you may need to better yourself to get to those jobs; if that is the case, go do it!  This comparative essay should be your motivation to do it.  You should also work for the first ones I mentioned under number 3.  They are often as good as group one, only smaller. The main problem you will encounter in this group is that they will have less events and therefore you will have more competition among the top-quality interpreters who will try to get these assignments.  Stay away from the second group I mentioned under number 3. Do not let them sell you the “lemon car.” But…if for some reason you said “yes” to one of their assignments, put everything in writing, save all communications, and be ready to take them to the collections agency or before a judge if needed.

I would stay away from the agencies mentioned in number 2.  However, if you have to work for them, negotiate a better rate than the one they will offer, and I mean a BETTER rate, not another $20.00 per hour.  In all likelihood they will not hire you, but if for some reason they ever do, you will not be hurting yourself or the profession by accepting peanuts for professional work.

Avoid the ones in group 4 like the plague.  Conditions in this group of agencies will never get better and on top of giving away your work in exchange for almost nothing, you will be hurting your reputation every time you work for one of them.  Stop before your professional name is beyond repair.

Remember, there are excellent agencies out there but you need to do your homework and you need to learn how to say no. One of the most popular comments of many interpreters is: “They are too big, I hate them but I have to do what they want, even if I know it is little money, even if I know they don’t treat me right. I need the money. I can’t quit.” My answer to this dilemma is clear:  Don’t work for them. I don’t care how big and powerful they are.  You have a way to change what they pay you: stop returning their calls and emails. The moment you do this they are out of your life. No more suffering. No more humiliation. They are gone.  The best part: Now you will have no choice but to become a better interpreter or translator so you can be hired by better agencies, directly by your clients, or you will have the freedom to start your own business. Let your refusal to work for them be your motivation to improve.  You will face hard times for a short period of time, but it will not take you long to start making a better income because you will discover that when you are used to work for peanuts and you decide to stop, any decent interpretation job will provide you a better income.

The cure to the “bad agency syndrome” is very simple; it is like smoking: It is harmful, just quit!

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