Be vocal! Professional Associations: Stand up against injustice.

June 25, 2019 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

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.

Some interpreters’ unprofessional conduct on social media.

January 10, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Social media interaction can be a good thing for our professional practice. It helps us to be up to date in current events that affect our work; learn about interpreting, languages, and many other topics relevant to what we do; and it comes in handy to ask for help when stuck on a word or term. Unfortunately, social media can be a two-edged sword when used irresponsibly. It can hurt us individually or as a profession, especially when we, as interpreters, attack or criticize a colleague without actual knowledge of the subject and circumstances that surrounded the event or rendition we are ready to criticize.

I am saddened by colleagues who have never interpreted for a live event on TV broadcasted to millions, and yet they post on line uneducated remarks criticizing the interpreter for not “interpreting everything”, showing the world they have no idea of how broadcast interpreting works as far as screen timing and the expectations of the target audience. They do not stop to think that doing the rendition the way they suggest would take the interpreter into a different, unrelated image on the screen or even a commercial.

Frankly, I am tired of social media posts in chatrooms where ignorant interpreters attack a conference interpreter for not interpreting everything; a court interpreter for interpreting everything, (even the obvious and redundant), and doing it very fast; healthcare and community interpreters for doing the necessary advocacy so their client understands the message, and even the military interpreter for not being neutral and impartial.

At the end of November of last year, we lived through one massive attack and “opinions” by some colleagues who, despite not being well-versed on diplomatic interpreting, filled the digital channels with bizarre remarks.

The incident that triggered such social media activity were the November 30, 2018 remarks by president Trump of the United States, (who had traveled to Argentina to attend the G-20 Summit) and President Macri of Argentina in Buenos Aires. They both appeared before journalists from their respective countries and elsewhere. President Macri spoke first and welcomed Trump. Next, president Trump spoke, but at the beginning of his remarks, while holding a receiver in his hand, he looked at president Macri and said: “…I think I understood you better in your language than I did on this. But that’s okay…” Next, president Trump dropped the receiver he had been given for the interpretation of Macri’s remarks. President Trump’s comment was in English, but its interpretation into Spanish was heard by those present in the hall, and by everyone watching TV in Spanish in Argentina and the United States.

Right after this joint appearance by the presidents, interpreter forums, chatrooms, and tweeter accounts, filled up with strange comments such as: “…I wonder who interpreted for Trump. The rendition was so bad he said he understood better without it…” “…Trump was so mad at the interpreter he tossed the equipment…” “…the interpreter was so brave, she even interpreted the part when Trump said he didn’t understand her…” “…it wasn’t the interpretation, he said that because (Trump) hates Hispanics…” “…Trump did not like that the interpreter had an Argentinian accent, that is why he did it…” Also, the comments we see all the time: “…I wonder who picked those interpreters…” “…I bet you the interpreter isn’t certified…” “…Macri is so incompetent that he hired bad interpreters for his meeting with Trump…”

I watched the joint appearance on TV and I saw something very different from what these colleagues saw: It was obvious from the beginning that president Trump was handed a receiver at the last moment. They were already on stage and president Macri had started his welcoming speech. Trump got the receiver with no explanation as to how it works. He seemed unfamiliar with the receiver. On TV it looked different from the 2-part earpiece-receiver we use most of the time. This one looked like a one-piece receiver you use like a telephone receiver. At one point, it looked like president Trump was trying to adjust something on the receiver: maybe the volume, perhaps the channel. The video shows a lady giving him the receiver in a hurry. It does not show if somebody tested it before handing it to Trump. Maybe he was just adjusting the volume and he accidentally changed the channel on the receiver, or maybe the channel was wrong from the moment the receiver was handed to him. There is no way to tell for sure, but from the first time I saw it live, I realized there was something wrong with the equipment, not the rendition. I immediately answered all emails, tweets, and messages I got from many colleagues all over, sharing what I just said above. I know the two interpreters who worked the event, and they are the best of the best. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) came to the same conclusion. On December 3, 2018 they issued a statement in both, English and Spanish:

                                                                       AIIC statement in Spanish

 

AIIC statement in English

Unfortunate that people who did not even watch the live broadcast or the full video were criticizing the interpreters when this was a case of a technical problem. It was disheartening to read on public professional forums how people criticized Trump because he did not like Hispanics, or the Argentinian accent of the interpreter. Before attacking and criticizing, these colleagues should learn the basics of diplomatic interpreting: President Trump was listening in English the rendition by president Macri’s magnificent interpreter, who is a male and speaks with a British (not Argentinean) accent. President Trump’s fabulous interpreter, a female who speaks Spanish with an Argentinean accent, interprets into Spanish for President Macri. Your interpreter interprets what you say, not what the others say. That is the protocol in diplomatic interpreting. The words in Spanish these misinformed interpreters heard during the broadcast when Trump states he understood Macri better in “his language” were by Trump’s interpreter interpreting Trumps remarks about the equipment during president Macri’s words interpreted into English for Trump by Macri’s male interpreter. As for who hired these interpreters; all experienced interpreters, diplomatic or not, know that presidential (and diplomatic interpreters in general) are not retained as an interpreter is hired to do a court hearing or a parent-teacher conference. These interpreters have ample experience in conference and diplomatic interpreting, they have met academic and skill requirements, passed tests and evaluations, and have been granted security clearance. Usually they are full-time staff interpreters working for their government, or very experienced, trusted independent contractors with a long history of assignments and missions working for their government. Court certification is irrelevant for this work, so the comments about that issue merit no further elaboration. Finally, just like presidents have little to do with the direct supervision of a state dinner, they have even less involvement on the interpreting equipment used for a particular event. These are the links to the English and Spanish versions of the video that clearly depict what I just described: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=YouTube.be&v=9qN2Cf0FnP8

https://YouTube.be/PWPom4j8H8Y This is the link to the White House transcript of the full remarks by both presidents: https://whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-macri-argentine-republic-bilateral-meeting/

Dear friends and colleagues, these attacks, criticism, comments, etcetera, hurt our profession. Few things are more damaging to a profession than its own members’ attacks out in the open for all to see. This happens when some interpreters use social media either to criticize just because they enjoy doing so, or to advance their own career and reputation by pointing out things they would never do. These unfortunate remarks are always harmful, but when uttered with no knowledge or foundation, as it was in this case and many others, it is even worse. The interpreters who follow this practice and post all kinds of irresponsible comments put in evidence their lack of professionalism and build and invisible wall around them, isolating them from any top-tier interpreters and their clients.

The final point I wanted to make concerns mixing our own personal lives and political opinions with our professional image as interpreters. Few people in the world are as polarizing as Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri. Some people love them, others cannot stand them. I have no problem with that. The thing that concerns me is that many interpreters in Argentina and the United States made this a political issue. It always worries me when an interpreter pours his or her political opinions in a professional forum, chatroom, or tweet. As professionals we should separate them both. Please make all political statements and give all political opinions you want, but do it in your personal Tweeter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts; Do not post it in your professional social media or in any group forums or chatrooms you belong to, more so if they are open to the public. We do not know what our clients’ political opinions are, as we do not need to; even if our clients’ opinions match ours, we do not know how they feel about hiring an interpreter so opinionated in social media.

Because we do not know how an agency, or even other interpreters feel about our opinions, or about voicing them in professional forums, we should keep them private, in our personal social media. I occasionally post some funny stuff about topics and issues I disagree with, but I do it in my personal social media. I have never issued a political opinion for or against anything in my professional social media as I consider it unprofessional. I have these tools to educate, inform, promote, and influence issues related to the profession. That is why I limit myself to criticize and expose government entities, multinational agencies, bad practices, and legislation that hurts or could hurt the profession and my fellow interpreter and translator colleagues. That is valid in a professional forum. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this important issue.

How safe are we as interpreters?

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

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.

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