April 19, 2022 § Leave a comment
In our modern world international relations are crucial. Globalization, free trade, security issues, international cooperation are an important part of all nations’ life. When countries without a common language need to communicate, they use the services of highly qualified professional interpreters. Whether a nation calls them diplomatic, official, or conference, interpreters, these individuals facilitate the exchange of ideas and information between government official representatives and leaders. They interpret within international organizations, multilateral summits, and bilateral encounters where trust, skill, precision, professionalism, and ethical conduct are always needed.
In recent times we have all witnessed the magnificent work of these interpreters, sometimes in dangerous or emotional situations, working in war zones, at sites of natural disasters, and pleas for solidarity and help. We have also witnessed less fortunate situations where interpreters have been at the center of an unwanted controversy. I will criticize no interpreter in this post. Those who read me regularly know I defend our colleagues and the profession from unfair attacks from within and without. I will just talk about the practices followed by those who take this work seriously and strive to avoid mistakes and embarrassing situations.
International organizations know of the need for excellency and they all have very rigorous methods to select their interpreters.
Governments are aware of the importance of good, clear, and honest interpretation, and most take extraordinary measures to make sure these elements are always present.
Although not all governments follow the same system to select these interpreters, they all try, within their own resources, to find and use the services of the best interpreters in their respective countries.
Some countries, usually wealthy nations, follow what I consider the best practice to decide who will officially interpret their government officials: They have a dedicated agency or office within their ministry of foreign relations that provides all interpreters for official events. These interpreters are tested on their skills, their qualifications are reviewed, and they are vetted for trustworthiness. According to that country’s needs, these professionals are hired as staff interpreters, and are supplemented by contract interpreters who meet the same requirements as staff, but either work on less frequently used language combinations, or provide their services in language combinations in high demand when there are not enough staff interpreters to meet all needs. All government agencies go through this office to get interpreting services, leaving the assignment of interpreters to those who best know and understand the linguistic needs of an event, and for this reason, minimizing the risk of a poor interpretation. These interpreters provide the official foreign language version of a government position expressed by a government official. Besides members of the executive branch of that government, individuals of the legislative branch often go to this specialized agency to find the interpreters best equipped for this work.
Some countries cannot afford staff interpreters but follow the same system above with a roster of all-contractors. Others cannot afford to cover travel expenses for these interpreters, so they ask their embassies and consulates, and sometimes the dedicated language services office of the host country, for a list of experienced interpreters, within that country, who can do the work.
There are nations who resort to agencies to obtain the interpreters who will officially work an assignment. These are not your workers’ compensation neighborhood agency; they usually are well-known agencies with many years of experience in diplomatic work. Here, these interpreters are also vetted and tested before they are selected for a job. Unfortunately, this system carries risks the options above do not: To select an agency, almost everywhere, governments must follow a bidding process where agencies will try to outbid their competitors, and often this translates into less-experienced and less-qualified interpreters who will work for a lower fee. It could also open the door to favoritism in hiring a certain interpreter the agency is trying to promote. I can see a conflict of interest in this system that could never happen in a system where the language experts of the government hire and pay interpreters directly with no third party (who needs to make money) involved.
The worst situation only happens when government authorities neglect to cover interpreting needs with the professionalism and importance such a vital aspect of a nation’s foreign policy requires. Human errors are that: human, and when that is the interpreter’s mistake, no one is really at fault. Interpreting is a very demanding occupation performed by humans. When the problem is caused by a technical failure, that is somebody’s fault, but not the interpreters’. If interpreters interpret an event they are not capable to interpret, because of lack of experience, poor skills, lack of emotional strength, or any other circumstance that would jeopardize the rendition, like being a translator instead of an interpreter, that individual is guilty of accepting a job they should have rejected the moment they learned what it was about. It is an ethical and professional violation.
However, the real culprit of a failed official interpretation is the government system that permits that someone with no knowledge and little life experience, decide who will be interpreting. When a poorly qualified individual hires someone to interpret a speech by a foreign president, especially when a state of war significantly cripples that foreign president’s options as to finding and retaining an interpreter in a language combination that nation seldomly uses in official events, you will get a poor result. It is an amateur hiring an amateur, and the responsibility of the event is with the one who hires. These are the situations where an irresponsible person hires someone they saw on TV, a person who translates for living, and an individual willing to work solo. Only this level of incompetence will disclose the name of the interpreter who worked in the event when they should have protected this person’s identity and contact information so journalists do not ask for comments from the interpreter who obviously did not even consider abstaining from speaking with the press as all professional interpreters at that level do. Even when a country has in place a system to hire qualified interpreters for official acts, if it is not enforced, and anybody can decide who interprets in the nation’s legislative chamber, then there is no system. I hope the unfortunate reality of war we are living at this time will help us all to understand and value the magnificent job our interpreter colleagues do every day all over the world.
June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments
It has been almost a month since we first learned that our colleague Shin Hye-Yong, who interpreted for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Supreme Leader Kim Jung Un at the Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump was apparently detained at a political prison camp charged with undermining the Leader’s authority. This has been called “a critical interpreting mistake” by some in North Korea.
It has been widely reported by reputable press publications in Asia, Europe, and the United States, that the interpreter was blamed for president Trump’s walking away from the negotiating table when apparently the North Korean leader was “ready to continue the negotiations” and uttered in Korean: “Wait! Wait!” Or something similar that his interpreter did not convey in English before the American delegation exited the room. According to the media, Kim Jung Un ordered her detained and sent to a labor camp where she is currently undergoing reeducation and reflecting on her loyalty to the supreme leader of North Korea. Of course, we all know that in the civilized world, an error, if one really was really committed, has consequences that can go from a reprimand to a demotion, or firing, but never to hard labor or incarceration.
It was also reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun IIbo and others that Kim Hyon Chol, North Korea’s special envoy to the United States for nuclear negotiations was executed immediately after the summit. Although this turned out to be false, and Kim Hyon Chol is alive, he has been demoted from his pre-summit position, apparently he spends several hours a day writing essays and reflecting on his loyalty to the supreme leader. Nothing has been reported or leaked about the situation of our colleague Shin Hye-yong or their family.
It is not clear if Kim Jung Un really said these words, and if he did, it was loud enough for the interpreter to hear them, or he spoke under his breath. It is also possible that the interpreter rendered the words in English so low that Trump did not hear them, that she interpreted after the Americans had left the room, or that Trump heard her and ignored her.
I learned of this atrocity against a fellow-interpreter, and against our profession really, while at a conference attended by many colleagues, some of them diplomatic interpreters who have worked with heads of state from many countries. I immediately thought our governments would speak up against these horrible allegations but I also understood governments need to act calmly and wait until there is more information, even when dealing with a black hole of information like North Korea. I also expected our professional associations, those who represent thousands of interpreters and translators throughout the world to raise their voice in support for Shin Hye-yong and in protest for what was done to her and to the profession at large.
I expected those who represent us to react immediately, condemning the allegations and declaring them, if true, unacceptable. The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) proving once again it truly stands shoulder to shoulder with all interpreters and translators, issued a letter condemning the allegations right away. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) mentioned the incident on social media, and several colleagues, individually, have shared their total rejection to what happened in North Korea. Most associations, including the bigger, wealthier organizations with the most members have timidly remained silent. Some of them have reacted like news agencies and have called to corroboration before issuing any statement, even when practically all major publications in the world already talked about this. Others, have argued it is better to remain quiet for now out of fear that a communication condemning these actions against Shin Hye-yong could make her situation worse.
I guess these groups think a protest from a translators and interpreters association will motivate a ruthless dictator to punish an individual more harshly than everything already published by the likes of The Guardian, New York Times, Washington Post, Asahi Shinbun, Chicago Tribune, etc.; like Kim Jung Un keeps an eye on our opinions.
These professional associations completely missed the point: a letter from a professional association will not sway a dictator more than public opinion or world-reputable newspapers; the letters are for us. The purpose of issuing a formal protest by any of them is to show their members, and the profession at large, that in times of crisis, darkness, fear and despair, they are with us, they feel our pain, they have our back. It is for us, thousands of interpreters and translators to feel the associations are protecting the profession, to the point of not accepting anything that hurts what we do, even if they are just allegations. Kim Jung Un will never read these letters nor learn of their contents, but Shin Hye-yong, and her family, might. Perhaps she will hear about the letter from IAPTI in that horrible place where she is being held. Knowing her fellow interpreters throughout the world are aware of what happened to her, they are saddened and they are showing their disapproval will make her feel less alone, hopeless, and isolated where she is.
This was a hot topic for discussion and rage among all of us at the conference; opinions against the North Korean regime’s decision to incarcerate the interpreter, and concern for the recent and constant attacks on the diplomatic interpreting profession were voiced everywhere. There was a comment that stayed with me. I asked a top-level interpreter who works with presidents and other world leaders if she thought interpreter and translator professional associations should speak up and condemn the actions of the North Korean government against the interpreter, even if they had not been confirmed. Her answer was: “What would you want your peers to do if you were in her shoes?” I answered without hesitation: “I would want my colleagues and my professional associations to raise their voice in support of the profession and to defend me”. She told me she would want the same if this happened to her. Next, I asked the same question to as many colleagues as I could, and all of them told me the same. Nobody told me they wanted for the interpreting world to wait for a corroborating source. There was not a single interpreter who bought the argument that speaking up would make things worse for her.
Dear colleagues, our profession, especially diplomatic interpreting, is under attack in many places, from the United States Congress politically motivated posturing demanding interpreter’s notes and threatening a subpoena, to the president of Mexico using his secretary of foreign affairs as interpreter instead of a professional, to the disaster in North Korea.
This is not the first incident involving a North Korean interpreters: It is not clear why Kim Jung Un replaced the experienced interpreter who accompanied him to the first Trump meeting in Singapore with our now ill-fated colleague Sin Hye-yong; we saw the fear in an interpreter’s eyes when in front of the TV cameras Kim Jung Un dropped something and the interpreter took a professional athlete’s dive to catch it before it hit the ground; and we all saw the embarrassing incident with the Vietnamese interpreter who dashed from the helicopter down the red carpet to get to the dictator before he uttered a word to the Vietnamese officials welcoming him to Hanoi.
Professional associations do not need to wait for corroborating sources to protest such serious allegations. They can protest the allegation and condemn it if “it turns out to be true”. Professional associations need to speak up; it is not their job to keep dictators happy, their job is to protect their members and the profession. Last century, world leaders sat on their hands as Hitler invaded Poland, they did not want to upset him, and we all know what happened. Professional Associations are always bragging about “everything they offer” to their members. It is time they offer them solidarity and support. I now invite you to share your opinion on this extremely important issue.
April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment
The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.
Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents. I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.
Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session. The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.
Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.
Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence. According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer. In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”
And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.
Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.
Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.
So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?
Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice. The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.
I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it. It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it. I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.