What we learned as Interpreters in 2020.

January 12, 2021 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Now that 2020 ended and we are working towards a better and safer 2021, it is time to assess what we learned during the past 12 months. As interpreters we are constantly learning, and from talking to many of my colleagues, last year was like no other. 2020 was garbage. It was a terrible year for humanity, and for the profession, and it was even worse for the interpreters.

Stating the facts does not make me a negative individual. This post acknowledges reality because that is the only way we can move forward and leave this awful year in the trash can. To those who say the year was not so bad, because it made us realize what is truly important, I say this is a self-defense mechanism that keeps us from dealing with the horrendous truth; and to those claiming that 2020 was a good year for them, all I can do is ask them how can you celebrate a year when so many millions of people died, many more millions got sick with long-term consequences, lost their jobs, or their business went under with no fault of their own? The year was a dark moment in human history. We saw how many of our colleagues, some great interpreters, left the profession just to feed their families; we saw how the sound technicians, our professional partners, lost their source of income, and with that their homes, cars, health insurance. I was left wondering about the lives of airport, hotel, and airline workers who I used to see several times a week and were left with the sad option of collecting unemployment insurance and visiting food banks to feed their children. I often think of my colleagues enduring the hardship of not working remotely as they now have their children at home because schools were closed many months ago; I see how many colleagues, some top-tier interpreters, are struggling to learn technology, and install the infrastructure at home to enter the world of distance conference interpreting, and literarily suffer as they try to understand a technology that appeared too late in their lives, or cut essential expenses so they can pay for high speed internet, or noise-cancelling headphones. I feel so sad when I see my elderly colleagues getting COVID-19, and sometimes passing away. I had a hard time, like we all did, but fortunately, I was technologically ready to jump on the distance interpreting bandwagon, and even though I am working at home, missing all those things that make life worth living, such as traveling, and enjoying human contact, I was lucky enough to work, remotely, with magnificent interpreters and many of my dearest colleagues.

Our profession saw its conferences migrate to a virtual mode, allowing us to learn and practice, but depriving us from the opportunities to do networking and renew friendships with those colleagues we only see once a year. I congratulate those professional associations that cancelled, postponed, and moved their conferences online, and I shame those associations that put money ahead of their members’ health, and waited until the last moment to switch to virtual. That we will remember.

2020 was the year of fraud and misrepresentation of credentials where sadly, many great instructors and presenters shared cyberspace with unknown, self-proclaimed experts who made money by designing a nice website, attractive advertisement, and nothing else. We saw the growth of our profession in distance interpreting: Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI) video remote interpreting (VRI) and over the phone interpreting (OPI). Unfortunately, much of its growth was due to questionable advertisement by some platforms and agencies who scared clients and naïve interpreters by making them believe that in-person interpreting was forever gone, and selling them the false idea that distance interpreting was of the same quality as in-person traditional work. We learned the value of real interpreter-centric professional associations that defended our interests when platforms, agencies, and many clients tried (and continue to try) to lower our standards by retaining unqualified interpreters, violating the rules of professional domicile, and recruiting interpreters and para-professionals willing to work long hours, solo, and for little money. We saw how not even a pandemic can bring us a one hundred percent pariah-safe year.

One of the few good things that happened in 2020 was the defeat of ATA’s Board initiative to decouple membership from certification. I applaud the members who made it possible with their vote.

Finally, to end on a positive note, I say we proved to ourselves that interpreters are resilient, able to adapt to adversity to survive, and good humans. We saw more unity among our colleagues than ever before. This was a welcome development in the ferocious assault by the agencies demanding work for lower pay, and platforms demanding work under substandard conditions. I disagree, however, with the idea that we “learned” how to do this. We just remembered how to do it. It is Darwinian that humans adapt to changing circumstances. That is natural selection.

We now face a new year full of uncertainty, with a poor distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, new mutations of the virus, a world economy in shambles, a hospitality sector, vital to our profession, looking at a long term come back that has not even started, and the usual agencies and their associates looking for a way to make a quick buck at the expense of the interpreter. As you can see, dear friends and colleagues, there were terrible things in 2020, many of us lost family, friends and colleagues; our income was affected, and some of our clients closed. Fortunately, we remembered we are resilient, adaptable, and courageous; we discovered we can work together as interpreters regardless of our geographic location, and we saw there is technology to keep us going during the crisis. Much changed and sadly much stayed the same. I will focus on the good things to come while I guard against the bad ones. I wish you all a better and healthy 2021!

Democracy, or democracy ATA-style?

October 7, 2020 § 8 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are in a political environment in the United States at this time, in a few days we will vote for president of the United States, and this is also election time at the American Translators Association. I write this post because I deeply care for our association and the direction it follows for the benefit or detriment of our professions. This post is not an attack on anybody for who they are, but an expression of opinions and a means to disseminate information you may find useful before you vote. I also did some fact-checking and bring you the elements you will need to separate fact from fiction.

Election of candidates.

I am not familiar with some candidates and the ones I know are probably the same ones most of you recognize from the slate. I just want you to be aware of two important points all voting members should consider before voting. Please do your homework and vote for practicing interpreters or translators. Do not continue to stack the board with agency owners, even if they attempt to portray themselves as practicing colleagues. That may be half-truth, and remember their interests are not yours. They are not illegal, but they are not yours. The second point you must remember is that do not vote for the maximum number of candidates allowed. If there is only one board candidate you like, vote for that person and leave the others blank. When you do not know the candidate, or you have doubts, it is better to abstain. An abstention is powerful, because it increases the chances of your candidates to win as you do not gift a vote to someone you are not sure about. In my case I already voted, and I only voted for one candidate. The individual I chose has disagreements with me, and this candidate is not an interpreter, but he has my trust because I know this person is smart, honest, and not an agency.

I encourage you to think long and hard before you decide on your candidates, and do not feel bad if you just vote for one individual.

The decoupling question.

How can not decoupling be considered illegal? I understand the issue should be raised if a certification were needed to practice translation and ATA were the only certifying entity officially recognized, but neither is true. Certification may give you a competitive advantage and help you dissipate doubts about your professional level, but it is not a legal requirement to work as a translator. Although well-known as a serious credential, ATA has no official recognition as a certifying agency or office. ATA membership is voluntary and certification is one benefit of membership. Nobody can be forced to join ATA, just like no one can be forced to take the certification exam.

Regarding the ABA remarks, whether intentionally, or due to a lack of basic knowledge, it is puzzling that an allegedly practicing court interpreter in Pennsylvania can make the following statement: “Now, as a world class nonprofit association, certification legal experts have repeatedly advised us that it is unseemly and illegal to force individuals to become members just to take and maintain their certification…the ABA and the AMA have no such requirements for professional lawyers and doctors.” 

There is not such a thing as an “ABA Bar Exam.” I am sorry to hear an ATA Board member making such remarks. Perhaps the reason for this regrettable statement can be understood, nut justified, by visiting the Administrative Office of the State of Pennsylvania’s official website: The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania’s Court Interpreters classifies Spanish interpreters in three categories. From higher to lower skill level: Master, Certified, and Conditional. Are considered conditional interpreters those who score 50 percent on a simultaneous, consecutive, and bi-directional sight translation exam (a 49 percent score fails the test) testing the bare-bones minimum skills to interpret in court. Because conditional interpreters, like the person who made these comments, are separated from failing candidates by one percentage point, they may interpret during hearings of lesser complexity where freedom or substantial assets are not at risk. They cannot interpret trials unless they are before a lower court and involve small claims, traffic violations, etc.

Attorneys must pass a STATE BAR EXAM to be able to practice law. They must join that State Bar and remain members throughout their professional life in that State. It is the State Bar that grants and runs the continuing legal education program needed to keep a license valid, and the State Bar is the only body to monitor the rules of ethics are observed, and when they are not, only the Bar can sanction attorneys after notice and hearing. The only thing “illegal” is to practice law without a license (State Bar membership) carrying up to 364 days in jail in most states, and very harsh Civil sanctions, which could include compensatory and punitive damages depending on the harm done. Conditional-level court interpreters often work with pro-se individuals, and, have limited exposure to situations where the law license issue is mentioned. As for the American Medical Association’s part of the statement, since 1933, the certification function has been administered by a separate organization known as the American Board of Medical Specialties. No relation to the AMA, administratively or functionally. Interesting that a candidate who lost an election twice and got to the board by appointment both times gives such an eloquent opinion on something he lacks.

I encourage you to put your interests as a member above the associations economic priorities and reject this amendment. Vote No.

An election with multiple candidates.

I am very troubled by the arguments of those who oppose the amendment because they base their opinion on false assumptions, and because they represent the Institutional viewpoint. That two of the former presidents endorsing the opinion were beneficiaries of unopposed “elections” merits mentioning as it goes to the credibility of the opinion. 

An election is a decision between (at least) two options, anything else can be called a ratification, imposition, proclamation, appointment, or coronation, but not an election. 

Nations, corporations, and associations are governed by those who represent the will of the majority of its citizens, shareholders, or members. From its inception by the Greeks, many centuries ago, this has been called democracy. 

History has seen many totalitarian regimes in countries, corporations, and institutions disguised as “democracies.” Often, arguments to justify this aberration include a consensus by an elite in a position of power indicating they, as self-appointed protectors of the masses, are making the tough decisions; that it would be too dangerous to let citizens, shareholders or members decide because they are not “prepared” for it. 

The argument that an outsider who may be elected president-elect, treasurer, or director would jeopardize the institutional continuity of the people in power sends chills through my body. Elections are to change what a majority dislikes, not to guarantee everything will stay the same. Supporting ATA’s official viewpoint reminds me of those attempting to destroy our nation’s democracy at this time.

To say people not screened and blessed by the ones in power will not perform as needed, will not devote the necessary time to fulfill their responsibilities, or will quit their position shortly after the election, is plain insulting. People run for elected positions because they want to do the job. They want to do the job according to the interests of those who elected them, and sometimes these may not be the interests of those already in power. 

The bylaws are to an association what a constitution is to a nation. Their amendment is a serious matter and it should reflect the decision of that association’s membership based on real information, not a manipulated alternative reality. The only place where unopposed “elections” are welcome and considered a good thing is totalitarian structures populated by those too afraid to face the will of a majority without feeding them first manipulated information. That was tried before, caused many hardships and pain, and after many years it fell because it never represented the view of the majority. I don’t want another Soviet Union in my profession.

I encourage you to put democracy and membership above the current leadership’s appetite for control and support this amendment. Vote Yes.

Please vote. Most members never vote and that took us to where we are. Think of your career, the profession, and how a professional association should serve the interests of its human members, not corporations, or personal ambition.

This time your vote is crucial for the future of ATA. Please read.

September 30, 2019 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Another year went by and several fellow interpreters and translators are getting ready to go to Palm Springs, California, for the annual conference of the American Translators Association (do not let the name misguide you, it includes many interpreters even though for political reasons it was decided not to include us in the name of the organization). Besides the main reasons many attend the conference: seeing old friends and attending some presentations with the never-ending hope to learn something, the yearly gathering is also the opportunity active members have to vote on the future of the association by electing board members and passing or rejecting proposed amendments to the bylaws.

Many of you skip the general meeting because you find it boring, too long, and always the same. I know many more active members who will not go to Palm Springs and have decided not to vote by proxy because they are discouraged with performing board members. I understand your reasons and I have always respected your decision to abstain. Unfortunately, this time is different and I encourage you; actually, please, please vote.

I usually give the reasons I voted for or against a candidate or amendment, and I will do it right now.

Voting is very important because democracy is our legitimate way to have a saying on the direction a country, business or association is going at a particular time. Democracy and ATA are not usually two terms we put together, after all, until we change it, we continue to be an organization where all members pay the same membership, but many do not get to enjoy the same rights, including the right to vote. That must change before the 2020 conference.

There is something else we can change with our votes this year: it is time to let members from outside the board be elected. The way our current board operates resembles more the system of the Soviet Politburo than a Greek democracy. Board members go through a “promotion system” where they are groomed to take over the position, assuring the continuity of the same policies and protecting the special interests that pull the strings. Interpreters and translators are well-read, sophisticated individuals who know there has never been a true democracy in history without opposing points of view alternating in the highest decision-making positions. Let’s get back to the election:

To be worthy of my vote, a candidate has to acknowledge we are a group of professionals, not a gathering of agencies or merchants. I believe it is inexcusable to elect people who continuously advance the interests of agencies, multinational or small, over those of individual members; who refuse to observe basic ethics by voting where they have a personal or business conflict instead of recusing themselves; who support sharing a lobbyist with the Association of Language Companies; and I do not want to elect people who will destroy a professional translator certification by opening it to non-members.

Our road to professionalization must include adopting what other, well-established professions do. Let’s take attorneys: To practice law, an applicant must pass the professional (Bar) exam, AND be a member in good standing of the lawyers’ association in that jurisdiction. Practicing law is more that passing the bar exam; a fiduciary profession, like attorney, or translator, requires that the individual practicing observes ethical and professional rules. It is the State Bar that sanctions lawyers who acted unethically, it is the State Bar that makes sure and keeps track that attorneys comply with continuing legal education requirements to assure clients that a lawyer who passed the Bar thirty years ago is up-to-date on legislation and procedure.

By offering a certification program exclusively to qualified members, and requiring adherence to a code of ethics and continuing education credits, ATA is currently treating translators, and the public, as a professional association. Only true professions self-regulate their practice. Decoupling certification would be equivalent of giving up this status and opening the door to other overseers such as government agencies, creating that way a world of confusing national policies and regulations, as ATA certified translators work from every corner of the planet servicing clients all over the world. Some current Board members want us to believe they will control ethics and continuing education compliance after decoupling. It seems unlikely. They will have no link to the nonmember certified translators. Under those circumstances, unless members want to continue attending the overpriced annual conference, many could consider leaving ATA and just keeping the certification. As an interpreter, this is something I have always admired and keep on my wish list. Interpreters are certified and therefore regulated by a myriad of bodies all over the world.

Another important aspect is that of the cost of the exam. It is widely known that exams such as these ones are more expensive than the fee charged to the examinee. That is fine when done for members, this is one of their benefits. On the other hand, how many of you would be willing to subsidize the certification of non-members with your membership fees? If the answer is to charge more to non-members, then the obvious reaction is: Why not require membership first, and then be eligible to take the test? If the cost is similar, the only reason to choose certification without membership is the desire of the examinee to dodge continuing education requirements, or to ignore the cannons of ethics.

I can think of a scenario where decoupling would be good: Agencies can pay for their translators’ certification one time, and then, with no need for continuing education, sell them to their clients as “ATA certified” until the cows come home. Big profits for the agencies. Bad news for the profession. Once again, this is another example of special interests at work.

Who to vote for?

I will never vote to any board position an individual who is not even a certified translator or interpreter, unless their language combination includes a language without a certification available. Professional credibility comes from your credentials, and the bylaws’ exception for those who achieve professional status through membership review, should only be respected by the voters when the candidate works in a rare or “exotic” language of lesser diffusion. I think it is a shame for people to consider voting for individuals who got to the board by peer review, instead of certification, when your work languages are Spanish or Portuguese. We all know that as soon as a person becomes a translator or an interpreter, they start thinking of certification. We are all out there. We all know that credentials are essential in the real world.

The fact that an interpreter or translator is not certified (or with conference interpreters does not possess a legitimate credential such as AIIC membership, Conference-level by the U.S. Department of State, or membership in a renowned association or government agency in the country where they practice) denotes one of three things: The individual failed to certify because lack of skill, in reality this person does has not worked as a translator or interpreter, but rather as a business manager in an agency (in which case the individual should be running among their peers at the Association of Language Companies, not the American Translators Association) or the person just cares so little for the value of a certification and the professional aspect of our craft, that they disregard the need to study to pass a certification exam.

For president, I will write in Robert Sette, because on top of his experience as a board member, he is the only one running for this position defending the profession by opposing decoupling. I have talked to Robert about interpreters’ issues and our situation within ATA due to the current policy at the top. He has convinced me he will be a president elect who will fight for the professional interests of interpreters and translators. I found Robert an honest and dedicated colleague, an experienced ATA certified translator, with no other motivation than our advancement as a profession.

In ATA’s classic fashion, Secretary and Treasurer are running unopposed. I know them both and they are good professionals. I will vote for them unless they support decoupling. There, I will have nothing detrimental to say about them, They are both nice, decent people, but even if I feel bad about it, I will not give them my vote because of a difference of opinion on this important issue.

For the director position I will vote for Cristina Helmerichs because she is a professional of great moral character who has always protected the profession and her colleagues instead of taking the side of the corporate member agencies.

I will also write in Jill Sommer for the director position because she is an experienced professional, a certified translator who will work with Robert Sette, and because she opposes decoupling of the ATA certification.

For the third director vacancy, I will not vote for a non-certified interpreter or translator, I will never vote for someone who in the past has stated his opposition to recusal as a board member, even in case of a conflict of interest, and I will not vote for someone who supports decoupling of the certification, or continues to sit on the fence without making a commitment. That leaves four possibilities. If more than one opposes decoupling, I will study their platforms and how they answer the questions in Palm Springs, but I also have another choice: Just as I did last year: I can just vote for two directors instead of three. We should all consider that as an option. It is better not to vote for someone than to vote for an individual we believe is not right for the job.

You see, dear friends and colleagues, fellow ATA active members, this year is very important we all vote. If you are attending the conference, please go to the general meeting and vote. If you are not going to Palm Springs, even if you think your vote does not matter, if you believe nothing ever changes with the way ATA operates; even if you have noticed that the election system is less than democratic, please vote by proxy. Open your email and vote. Write down the names of the write in candidates, and contact ATA if you are a voting member and did not receive a ballot. Please repost this blog anywhere you feel appropriate, and contact your fellow voting members, interpreters and translators, and ask them to vote to protect the profession. This is the year when we can drive the change. I am posting this article in many professional groups and ATA social media. It will not be posted in any other professional association’s wall or chat group, unless I first get permission to do so.

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