Be professional at work, or don’t do it!

April 30, 2018 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a profession with so many complexities we often overlook a very important factor: Professionalism no matter what. Let me explain.

Interpreting takes us to wonderful places both physically and figuratively, but sometimes it can take us to the very dark corners of the universe. As interpreters we let people borrow our voice and knowledge of a foreign culture and language to convey a message. Sometimes the venue is not the place we would spend our vacation at; the borrower is not somebody we would invite to dinner, or the message is not something we would cherish. These are the times when we must be professionals.

Fortunately for all of us, there are two ways to be professional as an interpreter: The first one is to evaluate the assignment, do a self-examination of our impartiality, level of tolerance, and physical endurance, and either take the job or turn it down if the auto-evaluation tells us that is the best way to go. Interpreters are human and humans have different reactions to specific situations. Some colleagues may feel that a venue, speaker or subject matter will keep them from doing a good job; others may feel uncomfortable, but will render a top-quality service regardless of the place where they work, the people they interpret for, or the issues discussed in the speech. The important thing is to be honest with ourselves and make the right decision.

For example, I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for a pedophile, a murderer or a rapist; some of my peers will not enter the booth in a venue where they will advocate for or against something they believe in, like gun rights, globalization, pro-life actions, pro-choice groups, and so on. Finally, some people, like myself, will professionally interpret for all of the above, but would never interpret in a hospital with all that smell of Clorox and other disinfectants. The key is to reject those assignments we cannot do without feeling incompetent or unprofessional.

The real problem is when interpreters take the assignment and then perform unprofessionally. The world is a complicated place and we live in it. Sometimes external circumstances physically put us in a place where there are now more things we disagree with than before. It is under these circumstances that we must be honest and turn down what we cannot do at the top of our game, or make the determination to do an assignment we do not like as if we loved it. We will be uncomfortable, but we must perform just like the emergency room physician who saves the like of a mass murderer, or the lawyer who defends the most despicable war criminal. That is professionalism.

For this reason I am disturbed when I hear how some colleagues step out of their interpreter role and do things we are not supposed to do. I am talking about those in the booth who change the register of what the speaker said to either favor or harm the message because they disagree with what was said from the podium; I am also talking about the unfortunate cases when court interpreters in immigration and federal court tone down legal terminology or try to assist the defendant or respondent just because they sympathize with his situation or disagree with the government’s policy or legislation.

Those appearing in immigration court or before a federal judge under an immigration charge have allegedly violated the law of the land. This should never impact our court interpreter’s work. If they were arrested (in federal court) or detained (in immigration court) it was under a legal precept violation or a lawfully issued order. It is irrelevant that we like it or not. Refusing to interpret once you already took the assignment, giving information to the respondent, telling them not to go to court, warning them of the presence of immigration agents, and even refusing to use the legal term “alien”[INA Section 101(3) The term “alien” means any person not a citizen or national of the United States…] choosing the more accepted, but legally incorrect term “immigrant”, are unprofessional acts. We should not take these assignments if we believe we cannot act professionally. As officers of the court, we must act as expected by the law even if we feel uncomfortable doing it.

As a court interpreter I have interpreted for murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and drug lords; as a conference interpreter I have interpreted for conservative and liberal groups; as a media interpreter I have interpreted both: Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Obviously, I do not agree with everything I interpret and I do not like everybody I have interpreted for, but I have always been professional conveying the message as intended by the speaker and with total loyalty to legal terminology and procedure when working in court. I know my limitations, I understand the circumstances that would keep me from being professional all the time, and you will never see me interpreting in a hospital setting. I now invite you to share your thoughts about those events we should turn down when we question our professionalism.

My last word on interpreting for this political season.

November 7, 2016 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Tuesday is Election Day in the United States, and people going to the polls means the political season is over for politicians, campaign staffers, beat reporters, and yes: interpreters.  Unlike any other presidential campaign during my professional life, the last eleven months were full of surprises and unusual challenges for the interpreter.  First, we had sui-generis primary elections; on the republican side we interpreted stump speeches and presidential debates full of disqualifications, insults, rudeness and unparalleled vulgarity, and we learned to interpret for non-politicians like Trump, Carson, and Fiorina. On the democratic side we interpreted stump speeches at campaign rallies where the candidate who motivated and inspired the crowd the most did not get the nomination, and we worked presidential political debates that, compared to what was going on at the republican party, seemed low-key and frankly boring. Even some of the victory and concession speeches after the primaries were bizarre at times. And then came the general election campaign.

Although it may seem that from the interpreter’s professional perspective both campaigns were about the same, and they are both ending with speeches where nobody talks about their platform, but about how awful the other candidate is, it was not like that at the beginning. Starting with the democratic convention, Clinton run a very conventional campaign; the speeches were of the kind the interpreter expects to hear during a presidential race. On the other hand, the republican campaign started with a very different convention full of insults and disqualifications among the supporters of the different candidates. There was also a very strange “endorsement” speech that really was a non-endorsement address by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (followed by one of the strangest press conferences I have interpreted in my life) And of course, the constant chants of “lock her up” from the floor of the convention that we as interpreters decided not to interpret since the chants did not come from the podium, and we were there to interpret the speeches, not the crowd’s reactions, the same way a sports interpreter is there to interpret what journalists and athletes have to say, not the screams coming from the bleachers. And then, we had the three debates.

Even though I only interpreted the second and third debates, I watched them all, and for the first time in my life, partly out of curiosity, and partly motivated by many blog posts by other colleagues, I also watched the interpretation rendered by friends and colleagues from other countries.

Because of the unusual candidates and the tone of the presidential campaign, many foreign radio and TV stations carried the debates, and in many cases the interpreters were not from the United States and they were physically abroad working from a studio in their hometowns. First, I congratulate my colleagues for the great job they all did; despite the fact that I could not understand the rendition into some of the languages I watched, I observed the professionalism and delivery of the interpreters working the debates and I salute them all. I also want to take a moment to address all of my colleagues who have ferociously criticized the work of some of these colleagues, and ask them to please consider the difficulty of doing this work with technicians, radio or TV equipment, and the awareness that many people are listening to your rendition live, and later on to the recorded version that will be replayed over and over again. Next, I ask the same critics to recall the times when they have interpreted a live unscripted event before millions of people and assess their performance. I suspect that most of those screaming the loudest against these interpreters have never done this kind of work. I did not listen to all of my colleagues, and I suspect that there were probably some bad renditions, especially if the interpreter selection was left to an agency more interested in finding cheap interpreters and less inclined to pay for high quality, but the overwhelming majority of those who interpreted the debates did a magnificent job.

For me, it was interesting to see how some of these foreign interpreters had difficulties with things we don’t even think about because we live in the American culture and system. Basic political concepts, idiomatic expressions, and references to U.S. geography and history were cause for pause and struggle. The mechanics of the debates presented an unfamiliar situation to some colleagues who grew up and live in countries where there are no political debates, and if there is such a thing, it is often a staged show with soft questions by a friendly panel, that look more like a press conference where the candidates take turns answering questions and ignoring the other opponents also at the podium.  Because of our socio-political reality in the United States, we do not interpret foreign leader debates for the American audience, and for this reason I do not really know what it feels like to interpret a foreign debate such as the ones between Clinton and Trump, but as an interpreter who lives in one State and often interprets gubernatorial, congressional, and local government debates somewhere else, I have to prepare to deliver a professional rendition.

Some of the things I do to get ready to interpret for a political debate include:  reading about local and campaign issues, learning about the candidates’ background, views, and platform. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work, learn the structure of the State government, read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, search the web, know basic history and geography of the place where you will interpret the debate, know national and world current events in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer; and finally: know the rules of the debate.

Finally, there is another issue that merits comment: From their own comments, it was clear that for many colleagues interpreting Donald Trump was nearly impossible. I disagree.

It is true that Trump often leaves sentences unfinished, that he does not follow a logical pattern when he talks, and he often interrupts others. Interpreting somebody who behaves this way may be hard, but it is not uncommon. My years of court interpreting took me to many individuals whose speech is much more difficult to interpret, yet I did, and so do hundreds of colleagues who work at the federal and state-level courthouses of the United States every day. If an interpreter spends an entire professional career interpreting in the booth, working with highly educated people, or just with those whose main objective is to convey their message to an audience, interpreting for a person of Trump’s characteristics will be extremely tough; however, those interpreters who had a broader formation, including some work with criminals and witnesses who will do anything to say as little as possible in a court of law, and to mislead a judge and jury every time they have a chance, will find themselves in familiar territory when they listen to Donald Trump.

We have a few days to go: Election Day and the aftermath when we will deal with the results. There are a few more things to interpret in this political season, but we are at the very end of what will forever be a unique presidential campaign cycle for everybody, including the interpreter community that had to deal with situations we never encountered in the past, and for the first time, turned into an international affair for interpreters everywhere. I now ask you to share with us your experiences, thoughts, and comments, from an interpreter’s perspective, about this political campaign, the conventions, the presidential debates, and interpreting for Donald Trump.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with democratic at The Professional Interpreter.