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.

Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known.

July 18, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During the last month we have seen plenty of diplomatic activity around the world, most of which involved the president of the United States. First, president Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore; next, he met with several heads of state in Europe during the NATO meetings, and after his visit to the United Kingdom where he needed no interpreter, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Through current 24-hour news coverage around the world, these encounters and press conferences have put diplomatic interpreters on the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Diplomats and politicians have always known the role of the diplomatic interpreter in these events, but journalists, social media users, and TV viewers are just discovering the importance and complexity of this essential function needed in all diplomatic exchanges when the parties share no common language.

The interpreting profession is growing all over the world, but most of its expansion is coming from the legal, healthcare, and community service fields; therefore, diplomatic interpreting is also new to many interpreters who never had an opportunity to do it.

Many of our colleagues seized the opportunity to highlight the difference between translating and interpreting by constantly bombarding all social media with entries correcting the term used by journalists and lay people, and making it crystal clear that (at least in languages with different words to describe interpreting and translating) those accompanying the presidents were interpreters, not translators. Many of their social media comments showed they knew little about diplomatic interpreting. Look at these remarks found on social media and interpreter forums and chatrooms: “…the interpreters working the summit hopefully demanded team interpreting…Did they consider that North Korean is a different dialect when assigning Trump’s interpreter?…Did they tell interpreters that Kim Jong Un has a Swiss accent?…Kim Jong Un speaks English, but they needed an interpreter to clean up Trump’s remarks…interpreter better watch diplomacy if president does not…Who would want to interpret for Trump?…I bet these interpreters will write a book after the summit…; or this one: “…Why would a woman interpret for Putin and Trump?…

Diplomatic interpreting is a very specialized field. It requires the same skills needed to interpret in other fields, plus other technical, cultural, ethical and diplomatic knowledge and abilities, and self-confidence, courage, stress control, and refraining from showing personal emotions and opinions. It includes a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible at presidential level, ministries, international organizations, and international military organizations.

Besides all modes of interpretation used in all other settings, diplomatic interpreting requires impeccable consecutive interpreting that goes beyond memory, note taking and visualization; it also needs of the interpreter’s insights, observations, impressions and readings derived from discreet but careful eye contact with the source and target, which must incorporate body language, gestures, and intonations to convey the most accurate rendition, this while walking on eggshells  in a world where nuances are extremely important. Often working with no equipment, diplomatic interpreters must project their voice so they can be heard by the target.

Diplomatic interpreters must possess an excellent simultaneous delivery with the right decalage and comprehension of the issues discussed to provide the right meaning in those topics being addressed at the meeting or conference. They work in the booth like all conference interpreters, but they also constantly interpret simultaneously performing chuchotage escort interpreting for the head of state. This requires additional skills not always needed in the booth, such as extreme concentration to isolate the voice of the source during a state dinner while many others are speaking. Interpreters must master this discipline so their voice can be heard by their target with clarity, while taking care of their voice so they can continue to work as interpreters. “The ability to express ideas clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must…good voice projection and especially modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight… because whispered interpretation is commonly required…” (Maria Rosaria Buri. “Interpreting in diplomatic settings”. https://aiic.net/page/7349/interpreting-in-diplomatic-settings/lang/1)

Both, consecutive and escort diplomatic interpreting are rendered at an unprecedented level of stress and pressure.

Sometimes, the job goes to somebody not qualified to be a diplomatic interpreter and the consequences can be ugly. This was the case during Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s visit to the White House in 2010 when he addressed president Barack Obama about pending immigration policy and legislation in the United States. In Spanish, Calderon’s comments were straightforward and clear as he spoke to the common values and principles that united the United States and Mexico. A halting and grammatically incoherent English rendition by the Mexican interpreter followed. The interpretation was so difficult to understand that the American delegation ignored the rendition and used a written translation instead. The Mexican delegation blamed its own translation, and from that point on, president Calderón spoke in English until another interpreter joined his team in Ottawa where his trip continued after Washington, D.C. The Mexican government indicated that the interpreter had come with the presidential delegation, but apparently this individual did not regularly interpret for Calderón. (NBC News. Copyright 2010 Associated Press. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/t/calderon-visit-marred-poor-translation/)

Those who are chosen to work as diplomatic interpreters must have broad knowledge and keep up to date with world political, social, and economic affairs. Keeping abreast of international developments and the issues at stake is essential for interpreters working in any language mediation setting.  Diplomatic interpreters must be familiar with dress codes, etiquette, demeanor, the correct form to address dignitaries, tact, and savoir-faire, the principles of being discreet and of not censoring. However, sometimes they must use harsh language when the source does so. In December 1983 then vice president George H.W. Bush went on a secret mission to El Salvador in a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, when head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State was assigned to accompany him. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government’s death squads. Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting, but he refused. “Basically, he cursed them out” Van Reigersberg said. “…having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention”. After the meeting, she realized that she had been so concentrated on her work she had lost any sense of danger until Bush remarked: “…well, I almost got us both killed, didn’t I?”

Each country has its own internal policy and criteria to select and appoint diplomatic interpreters; for security reasons, most nations choose staff interpreters vetted and cleared as ethical, professional individuals worthy of their nation’s trust. Some others select independent contractors then subjected to rigorous background checks and assigned a security clearance level, with only those with the highest level being assigned for top diplomatic interpretations. Finally, many countries have a mixed system where staff interpreters are used for the most common and widely spoken languages, while independent contractors with top security clearance are retained to interpret in less common languages. In the United States, interpreting for White House and State Department officials is provided by the Office of Language Services (part of the U.S. Department of State). The Office’s “…diplomatic and conference interpreters (are on its) staff, and conference interpreters (are on its) contractor rosters…” (https://www.state.gov/m/a/ols/c57124.htm). Often, the diplomatic interpreter accompanying the head of state is the highest interpreter in their home country. Dr. Yun Hyang Lee, who interpreted for president Donald Trump during the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the current head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State (Time. Eli Meixler, Mahita Gajanan. June 13, 2018)

A diplomatic interpreter is not just selected from an interpreters’ association directory on line. They are trusted, vetted, and tested professionals recognized for their skill and field of expertise. Thoroughness is essential in this work, it is never a matter of finding an equivalent or substituting a word; the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and its underlying meaning to interpret. Interpreters must know the specialized jargon and background information. You cannot interpret what you cannot understand. It is crucial that interpreters have all needed knowledge for each assignment. Sometimes they are privy to the same briefing the president gets; often, because of the delicate matters to discuss, information is subject to secrecy and interpreters only get it at the right moment, but always with time to be prepared for the job. Words are so important in diplomatic interpreting that sometimes they can set the mood for a negotiation: During a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C. in December 1987, president Reagan welcomed his cold war rival Gorbachev to the White House to discuss peace. During the official welcoming ceremony, Reagan stated that: “…today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many…because it represents a coming together not of allies, but of adversaries…” The U.S. interpreter on that occasion was Dimitry Zarechnak, and the Soviet interpreter was the legendary Pavel Palazhchenko. When it came the time to interpret the speech, Zarechnak told National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 he was “…agonizing over the word adversaries” because the Russian word for “adversaries” protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means “disgusting”: protivniy. “…In English, you can have a noble adversary. In Russian it sounds terrible…” he added. Instead of repeating the word “adversaries”, Zarechnak used a Russian word for “competitors” which Gorbachev liked. This same word was used by president Trump this week when he was asked if president Putin was his enemy and he replied that “…I have always said he is (my) competitor…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Occasionally, interpreters are indirect recipients of a tense internal relationship within a government structure. This can affect their work and their preparation.  During the Nixon administration, president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and had a less than friendly relationship with secretary of state William Rogers, sometimes they kept the U.S. interpreters out of the meetings for fear they would brief Rogers. This meant that sometimes the interpreters would assist in meetings between the secretary of state and foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept the interpreters in the dark. (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154).

Some say that these interpreters participate in making history. This is both: a privilege because they get to be eyewitness to some events that will be in the history books of tomorrow; and a burden because it means more stress and pressure which translate in tremendous responsibility. Interpreters like the ones who accompanied president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta, or like Irene Bruno from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State who interpreted for president Barack Obama during his visit to Havana in March of 2016.

Diplomatic interpreters are constantly studying and fine tuning their craft. They have great flexibility. On October 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of State under president Bill Clinton, met former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright had the services of U.S. Department of State Senior Korean interpreter Tong Kim. Albright’s mission was to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim learned arms control jargon, reviewed top-secret briefs, and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs. Kim later stated that he “…kept…reading every article in newspapers and academic journals…” He says that when he began interpreting he “spoke like a South Korean, and they did not seem to appreciate it…” so he perfected a North Korean accent and dialect: “I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect…and that gives them some trust…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Due to the nature of the task, these interpreters often work alone and for many hours. Although team interpreting may be feasible for the conference work in the booth (usually a press conference where the second interpreter may not need to have the same level of security clearance, even though they usually do) long consecutive and chuchotage are generally performed by the same interpreter throughout the encounter. This requires that diplomatic interpreters have great stamina and good health. An important point because it takes many years of practice and study to reach this professional level, therefore many diplomatic interpreters are not very young.  Add the stress factor, generally present in these events because of the importance of the issues being negotiated, the bilinguals in the room who may think they have a better way to say something, and the constant feeling that if something goes wrong, interpreters could be blamed, even if the mishap was not entirely their fault.

Diplomatic interpreters develop an important working relationship with their source. This relationship takes many shapes and forms; sometimes the source is quite detached, and other times they rely on the interpreter for more than interpreting. We are their cultural advisors and sometimes their local history and geography consultants. For example, Harry Obst, who interpreted for seven U.S. presidents during his career, and was the head of the U.S. Department of State Office of Language Services, recalls how President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when president John Kennedy was killed, was eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom: “…Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? It is best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154). During the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki we could see the different relationship that each president has with his interpreter, while president Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State, sat on the chair already positioned for her a few feet to the right of the president, president Putin’s interpreter walked on stage, grabbed his chair and put it next to Putin, just a few inches away.

Sometimes diplomatic interpreters working under such pressure make a mistake; they are humans. During a discussion on an open skies proposal between the 41 president of the United states, George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Soviet interpreter Igor Korchilov said the word “verifying” in English, instead of the correct term “verified”. Everybody in the White House Cabinet Room looked at him, including Gorbachev who quickly said: “No, no. I never said that…” On an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, Korchilov remarked: “…To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed…” On his memoir, Korchilov wrote: “…At the moment I wished the earth could swallow me up…” He then addressed president Bush to apologize, and the American president replied: “…Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III…” He then apologized to Gorbachev who said something all interpreters need to remember: “…Oh, don’t worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes…” (Korchilov Igor, “Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter).

Igor Korchilov made a mistake, but he was a great interpreter who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter from 1987 to 1990.

Great interpreters make mistakes like everyone else, they just make them on a world stage and everybody finds out, as it happened in the well-publicized case of the joint press conference of U.S. president Barack Obama and king Felipe VI of Spain at the Oval Office in 2015. At the time, Spain was facing an independence vote in Catalonia that could end up in a political and economic crisis for the kingdom. On his remarks, president Obama stated that the United States wanted a relationship with a strong and united Spain (“una España fuerte y unificada”) but the interpreter’s rendition was: “a stronger and united relationship with Spain” (“una relación [cada vez] más fuerte y unida [con España]”) (“El Mundo”. Sept. 2015. http://www.elmundo.es./enredados/2015/09/16/55f9477022601da52a8b45a0.html ) The king, who studied in Georgetown University and speaks English, immediately looked at his delegation and made sure that the Spanish press got the correct presidential statement and not the mistake. Moreover, since interpreter renditions into the foreign language (in this case Spanish) are not shown on American media where they broadcast the president’s remarks in English, nobody noticed the mistake on the American media, but it was big news all over Spain. Once again, this interpreter had faced tougher situations many times.

I hope this gives you all a better idea of what diplomatic interpreters do, who they are, and how they work. I leave you with a quote from David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers”:

“They appear in the shadow of the mighty…the interpreters. They have been around forever or, at least, ever since different languages and cultures have met. The discretion that goes with their job makes interpreters very inconspicuous people. But behind the cloak of professional neutrality, one can discover a cast of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to their craft with the utmost passion” (David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers” http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-whisperers-2#uebersicht)

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.

Disrespecting the (immigration) interpreter

August 31, 2015 § 34 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

For several weeks I have been contacted by many of our interpreter friends and colleagues. They have talked to me in person, over the phone, by text, by email, and through social media. The message was the same: interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States are under siege.  They explained how the contractor who will provide interpreting services at all U.S. immigration courthouses had contacted them to offer unprecedented low fees and horrifying working conditions to those who wanted to continue to interpret in these settings. I know that many of you are not in the U.S. and most of you do not work as immigration court interpreters; however, what is happening there impacts us all as a profession, and could have an effect on the way you work in your respective fields or countries.

Basically, the contract to provide interpreting services at all immigration courts in the United States was awarded to a different company than the one that provided these services for the past two decades.  In the United States, these government contracts are awarded pursuant to a public bidding process, and after reviewing all bids, the government selects the bidder that better fits the criteria sought by the particular government agency. Although the required elements may differ here and there, the main factors to decide who wins usually include abatement of costs. In other words, the government looks for an entity that can deliver the required service at the minimum cost.  In this case, interpreting services at the immigration courts are contracted out to the best bidder by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)

American immigration courts are not part of the judicial branch of the federal government; they do not fall under the jurisdiction and hierarchy of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (USAOC) (Article 3 of the U.S. constitution) Instead, the immigration courts are administrative courts created by Congress. They are part of the executive branch of the federal government; in other words, they fall under the authority of the president of the United States through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and specifically under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) (Article 1 of the U.S. constitution)

For full disclosure purposes, I must say that I do not interpret at the immigration court because I thought that the fees and working conditions offered by LionBridge, the interpreting service provider that will no longer have a contract with DOJ-EOIR in the new fiscal year (October 1) were about the most draconian, one-sided conditions I have ever seen in my professional life.  I have to say that I did interpret for them in the past pursuant to an individually negotiated contract that paid me a fee higher than their average, but because of the fee I had to be paid, that in my opinion was still quite modest, I have not been asked to interpret in immigration court for years.

Going back to the “offer” extended to those colleagues who were working in immigration court under contract with LionBridge and, for what I have learned, to some interpreters whose names were found on certified interpreters’ lists elsewhere, it is clear that SOS International (SOSi) (the new contractor) has offered between $30 and $35 dollars per hour, in some cases with a two hour minimum, or $118.75 for a half-day assignment (must work 4 hours) and $188.91 for a full-day assignment (must work 8 hours) Notice that if you work 8 hours you will be making “more money” because you will be working more hours, but in reality, your hourly fee will drop to $23.61

According to those colleagues I have talked to, these fee structure has been presented to them as non-negotiable (for now).

There are many non-professional jobs that pay way better than these fees that frankly speaking, are offensive for a professional service such as that provided by the immigration court interpreters.

SOSi is currently compiling a list of interpreter names and resumes to be submitted to DOJ-EOIR for security background checks and to show that they have enough interpreters to meet the immigration courts needs. That is why so many of you have been contacted and asked to provide your information.  On July 22, 2015 it was announced that SOSi had been awarded a prime contract by DOJ-EOIR for language interpreter services for a base period and four option periods extending through August 2020, with a maximum amount of $80 million dollars. In exchange, SOSi is to provide all management and supervision, labor, and supplies necessary to perform these services in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all territories (including Puerto Rico) in 59 immigration courthouses. (SOSi press release 7/22/15 Reston, VA) In my opinion, before providing our information and resume in a hurry, we should first learn who is SOSi.

SOS Interpreting, LTD is a family owned, New York-based business contractor founded in 1989 that works mainly in the defense and intelligence sectors.  The total obligation amount of Sos International, LTD a 465 employee company incorporated in New York in 1992, from 2000 to the present is $217 million dollars, and its total federal contract contracts from 2000 to the present are 56 (not clear if this total includes the new DOJ-EOIR contract) mainly with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. According to USASpending.gov, just last year, they won 5 contracts worth $9.83 million dollars. (Source: www.InsideGov.com)

An audit of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) language services contract with SOS International, LTD (contract number DJDEA-05-C-0020 Dallas Field Division) in February 2012 states that: “…Therefore, we are questioning $934,144 for hours billed for linguists who worked without current language certification…” (https://oig.justice.gov/grants/2012/g6012004.pdf)

On August 2, 2015 The Daily Beast reported in their article entitled: “The Company Getting Rich Off The Isis War” that: “…SOS International, a family-owned business whose corporate headquarters are in New York City, is one of the biggest players on the ground in Iraq, employing the most Americans in the country after the U.S. Embassy. On the company’s board of advisors: former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (considered to be one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq) and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld…” It goes on to say that: “…the contracts (SOSi) has been awarded for work in Iraq in 2015 have a total value of more than $400 million (dollars)…”  (http://www,thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/02/the-company-getting-rich-off-the-isis-war.html)

My point is, dear friends and colleagues, that even though LionBridge paid miserably low fees and offered demeaning working conditions (such as checking and fighting for the last minute of services, not covering per diem when traveling, and others) many interpreters have provided their services at the immigration courts of the United States in the past.  The interpreting community at large has always considered that for the above-mentioned reasons, working as an immigration interpreter has been a second-tier occupation. It is also known that, with some exceptions all over the country, (because there are some very good interpreters working this assignments) there are many mediocre individuals attempting to provide interpreting services at the immigration courts of the United States because they met one of LionBridge’s fundamental requirements: They were willing to work for very little compensation.

It is sad that, compared to what immigration court interpreters face today, those were the “good old days”. I think that interpreters as professionals should always strive to improve their skills and service. To me, this is a unique opportunity that the market is giving to those who have been, for way too long, imprisoned in the world of complacency that working for the immigration courts has created around them. It is time to reflect and look for another horizons in the interpreting world. I can assure you that, if you provide a top service, you will find clients and assignments that you never dreamed of. You will finally make the kind of income that a professional interpreter should make, and you will never look back to the dark days.

For those who want to stay in the immigration field because of vocational reasons or because a better income is not necessarily a top priority, I would suggest that you unite and focus on the fee and working conditions issue. Do not get sidetracked with other consequences such as protecting the rights of the respondent. That is not your job, duty or battle. Let the immigration attorneys and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) (www.aila.org) fight that battle. That is their job and duty.

I invite you to communicate with each other and focus on how you are being treated. Concentrate your efforts on developing a common front and sharing what is happening with the attorneys, AILA, and those non-for-profit organizations that constantly fight for the rights of immigrants.  I know that many of you are already meeting at your state or local levels, that many of you are chatting on line and creating forums and discussion groups. I hope you continue and fight with the same spirit of our friends and colleagues in the United Kingdom who walked out of the courthouses after their government awarded the interpreting services contract to an incompetent agency that decided to cut their fees, just like they are trying to do to you. Several years have passed and they have not surrendered, they have not gone back to the courts; instead, they have raised awareness about this issue among all interested parties.

I do not know what the new immigration court contractor would do if they do not have enough names and resumes by October 1, 2015 when they are due to start providing interpreting services all over the United States, but I know that it will give you an option to try to get a decent fee for your services.   At this time there is much said about Donald Trump’s immigration policy and how concerning that is to many in the United States.  It is a very important issue, but we should also pay attention to what the current government is doing; after all it is the Obama administration that awarded the contract to SOSi promoting by its actions this terrible situation that all immigration court interpreters are enduring right now.  As for the rest of us, I believe that we should follow the developments on this issue, and help our friends and colleagues by making public everything that transpires. Do not lose sight of the fact that the contractor is getting a huge amount of money from our government, they are not poor.

Remember, this government contractor seems to be determined to take advantage of the immigration court interpreters, but in the process, they have disrespected all interpreters and our profession.  I now ask you to please share this article everywhere you can, and please tell us what you think about this very serious issue.

When a professional and business interpreting decision is not popular.

July 15, 2015 § 12 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Being a freelancer has many benefits but it also puts us in situations where we have to exercise our judgement and make decisions that will not always be easy. During my many years as a professional interpreter sometimes I have faced choices that required of an exhaustive analytical process in order to decide if I take an assignment or not. To get to the point where I am comfortable with my decision, I usually look at the prospective job from a professional perspective, a business point of view, and a moral (therefore subjective) position.

I try to determine if I am professionally able to provide the service I am expected to deliver: Do I have the knowledge and skill necessary to do a good job? Do I have time to research and prepare in the event the subject matter is unique or different from what I normally do?

If the answer is yes, I assess the business pros and cons of taking the assignment: Will it hurt my business or will it enhance it?

Finally, I go through a self-reflection to determine if I will feel comfortable with the subject matter that needs my interpreting services.

I had to go through this process when a few days ago I decided to provide my interpreting services for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant in the United States.

I understand that many of my colleagues would have turned the assignment down because of the controversy associated with one of the owners of the pageant and the statements he recently made regarding Hispanics, in particular Mexicans, who come across the border without legal documents to do so. After a long and thorough reflection, I decided to go ahead and provide the service because I concluded that it was not contrary to the standards that I described above.

From the professional perspective I concluded that, despite the opinions expressed by Donald Trump about Mexicans and others who enter the United States illegally, this should not impact my ability to do a good job.  I know that many of my colleagues in the United States would have turned the assignment down, and some of you expressed your opinion against my taking on the assignment.  I respect the opinions of others, but I disagree with their posture because it goes against what we do as interpreters. When questioned by some of you, my answer was that most of those objecting to the assignment systematically provide interpreting services to individuals who are not exactly the pillars of our society. On a daily basis, court interpreters bridge the language barrier between the courts and the defendants charged with horrible crimes such as murder, rape, and child molestation.  They provide the service without hesitation because they know and understand that despite the crime, and the criminal, interpreting services are required to deliver justice in our system. The higher value of the job has very little to do with the charge or the perpetrator.  As for those colleagues who do not work in court, I cannot help but picture those assignments where the interpreter works in a conference or a business meeting where the subject matter has to do with issues that are distasteful, controversial, or opposed by a significant segment of the population, such as gun control, military operations, or unpopular business practices.  These interpreters go into the booth and do their best because they recognize that this is the essence of our profession, not because they endorse the philosophy of those they are interpreting for. We all know that these are not our ideas; that we do not have to like the message nor the messenger. We have a job to do, and we do it to the best of our ability.

As a freelancer, it is extremely important to make the right business decision when you agree to do an assignment. To assess the situation, we have to separate the pure business aspect of the situation from all other factors that could cloud our view.  I understand why so many business entities decided to distance themselves from the pageant. For them it was the right choice: they deal directly with the groups that were offended by Trump’s statements.  They are their consumers. The fact that Univision, NBC, and even Chef José Andrés broke up with the Trump emporium makes business sense. They could not risk losing so many consumers, or having people protesting outside their site of business. I agree with what they did.  On the other hand, as an interpreter, I do not deal with Spanish-speaking people as my direct clients. They are the recipients of a service that I provide at the request of my direct client: the agency, event organizer, law office, court system, or international organization.  For a decision to impact my business, it has to hurt my client. In this case, taking the job benefited my business. I acted professionally and did not abandon a client when I was needed the most. This will, no doubt, benefit me for a long time. My clients know that it takes a lot for me to go back on a contractual obligation to perform a service.  I guess that if part of my business depended on working directly with the Spanish speaking community or with organizations that decided to oppose Trump, I would have probably decided differently, but in my situation this was not the case.

Before I decided what to do, I considered the moral aspects of my decision. To do this, I carefully separated two things that should never be grouped as one: What Donald Trump, the politician running for president of the United States said, and what the pageant is and represents to many who had worked for months and years for the success of the event.  Although I disagree with Trump’s statements, and I believe that he should have never generalized his opinions, I also understand that, to a degree, they were taken out of context. It is false that all those who come to the United States are rapists and drug dealers, but it is also undeniable, as my court interpreter colleagues perfectly know, that a good number of those undocumented individuals commit crimes every day. Donald Trump’s remarks made me angry, but the reaction by the corrupt governments of Mexico and other Latin American countries also made me mad. They should be ashamed of themselves, because it is them who push their citizens across the border. They have no right to be offended. They are destroying their people. On the other hand, interpreting for the TV broadcast of the Miss USA pageant does not mean interpreting for Donald Trump. Those of us who participated in the event interpreted for the presenters and contestants who had nothing to do with a statement by a politician who is only part-owner of the pageant and was quoted, at least partially, out of context. I could find no valid moral reason, for me, not to take the assignment and fulfill my contract.

I am only trying to point out that as interpreters, we provide our services to many people. Sometimes we are the “voice” of a revered and admired individual, on other occasions we give the sound of our voice to despicable vile characters.  Many times we interpret events that are in agreement with our way of thinking, many others we interpret topics that we dislike and even disagree with.

I am not saying that we should accept every single assignment that comes our way. All I am saying is that we should analyze the proposed event, and only reject it when professionally, from the business perspective, or morally (as a very personal thing) we conclude that it is the right thing to do.  I know that not all assignments are for all interpreters and I respect that. I know colleagues who will not interpret in court for child molesters; I have colleagues who will not interpret conferences that go against their political or religious beliefs (pro-choice, pro-life, gun control, free trade, etc.) There are gigs that I would surely turn down as well. I do not see myself interpreting for the Nation of Islam or for Nambla for example. However, I believe in assessing all aspects of an assignment before making a decision. We have to remember that this is part of our profession; that we are not the ones speaking and saying those awful things, and we cannot lose sight of the fact that this profession is also a business, and for that reason, we should decide like businesspeople.  I now invite you to share with the rest of us the elements that you consider before rejecting an assignment, and please, abstain from political comments and editorializing about Donald Trump. This post is not about what he said; we all agree that it was wrong. It is about what we have to do as professional businesspeople in the interpreting profession when faced with a controversial situation.

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