Quality Interpreting is disappearing, and it is all the hiring entity’s fault.
October 5, 2022 § 8 Comments
Court interpreting in the United States, and probably elsewhere, is facing its biggest crisis since the courts worked with professional, certified and accredited interpreters half a century ago. Ignorance and lack of empathy in the court system has created a group of professional, highly specialized interpreters expected to work for subpar fees in both, State and Federal Courts.
Interpreters have been ignored and disrespected in several State systems where court interpreter pay is close to an unskilled worker’s, and has remained unchanged at such levels for years. Answers such as lack of resources, having to wait several budget cycles for the issue to be considered, have no credibility when wages of other officers of the court such as judges, State attorneys, and court reporters are raised and adjusted to inflation.
Spanish language federal court interpreters, arguably the most qualified group of court interpreters in the United States, have not seen a raise for many years, and have been ignored by the Judiciary when two letters signed by most interpreters were answered by the courts sending new contracts to these independent contractors at the same pay as every year for some time; not a word on a raise, or even an inflation cost of living adjustment. Many interpreters did not return the signed contract, others, changed the fees before signing it, and some signed and sent it back with the idea of not accepting any work as long as the fees issue remains unattended. We have learned that Washington, D.C., instead of contacting the various States, took the easy way, and it has been contacting several interpreters to discover what States pay for interpretation, instead of researching what the private sector pays.
This is important because for years, many of the most qualified, sought after, certified court interpreters have been ignoring the call of the courts, choosing instead the more profitable practice of interpreting for private attorneys, arbitrations, and depositions where they can make twice as much as what Federal Court pays. Sometimes even more.
The judiciary expects top-tier interpreters to work under abusive conditions, such as the federal cancelation policy. A few weeks ago, a federal judicial district issued a communication looking for federally certified court interpreters for a trial, the pay would be the same one interpreters are refusing to work for already. The communication stated the following as the court’s cancellation policy: “Because of the nature of the proceedings, in the federal courts, early terminations may occur. An interpreter is not entitled to a cancellation fee or additional compensation if the court gives the interpreter 24-hour notice that a trial will end early…” No compensation if notified 24 hours ahead of time! The court expects interpreters in high demand to set aside one or more weeks for a trial, and then leave them out in the cold if the parties settle, there is a plea agreement, the trial is continued, or the defendant pleads guilty. What individual in their right mind would agree to such terms? Only those who have to take the offer because they can get no work elsewhere. These will be rarely the best interpreters around.
This tendency is growing nationwide, and it is leaving the court system with a limited number of certified interpreters, some who stayed and work for little money because of the service they believe needs to be provided to a vulnerable population nobody in the system seems to care about, and those who cannot get work in the more competitive private sector because of their skill or lack of flexibility to travel or work long hours.
Many hearings, especially the short ones, and other interpreter services usually provided by certified interpreters, will continue to go to untrained, unskilled non-certified interpreters and paraprofessional bilinguals who will put non-English speakers at a disadvantage in their court proceedings. Sometimes, some courts, especially at the State level, may even use interpreters from another State, or those living in a foreign country who provide their services remotely, without a certification, and who gladly accept the low fees because their home country’s economy differs from the United States’.
Some certified court interpreters are even entering the conference interpreting field with no preparation, under the wrong assumption that certified court interpreters can interpret a conference. This complicates the landscape as interpretations in these conferences is deficient, and gives unscrupulous platforms and agencies some resemblance of legitimacy when they advertise the quality of their interpreters.
The constitutional mandate to have court interpreters may be at increasing risk every time judicial authorities remain inactive when interpreters, with justice and equity on their side, demand long overdue work conditions commensurate to the specialized service they provide, including fees that reflect this, and cost of living adjustments every year. Unless something is done to remedy this embarrassing issue, the administration of justice will be unequal, and the victims will all be humans: the litigants and others who appear in court, and the long ignored, and disrespected court interpreters.
A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.
December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments
We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.
I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.
In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.
My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.
A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.
The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.
This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.
That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.
The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.