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.
In tough times: Raise your fees!
May 14, 2018 § 6 Comments
Globalization has created a world market where we all compete, regardless of our location. Although this has raised professional fees for some colleagues in places with small economies, it has hurt most interpreters to a different degree, depending on whether they stuck to their local economy and clients, or they went to the international market and taking advantage of new technology acquired clients they would have never even considered before globalization. In a market like the United States, with very high speed internet, thousands of airports and flights to every corner of the planet, and a very reliable infrastructure, many of us felt no downturn in our business; in fact, we benefited from the change.
Unfortunately, and without getting into politics, some recent U.S. government decisions, and later changes to the way we did business and conducted our international relations, have created a state of uncertainty, and sometimes resentment, which have affected our profession.
Some of the conferences and international events we had interpreted for many years have been cancelled; others have been moved to other countries due to the uncertainty on the admission of visitors to the United States, as the organizers avoided the risk of investing on a project that a significant segment of attendees could not attend because of their country of origin. For the same reason, many international programs at universities, non-for-profit organizations, and government agencies have been considerably downsized or postponed. The situation for community interpreters is not any better, because less foreigners in the country means less litigation and less foreign investment, which impacts court and legal interpreters; and when foreigners visit the United States less frequently, they use hospital and medical services at a lower rate. This hurts healthcare interpreters.
Faced with this reality, it was time for me to decide how I was to continue to enjoy the same income level despite the new reality we are living; and turn this poison into medicine and even generate more income than before.
Many freelancers get scared when they find themselves in this position, and their first impulse is to lower their fees to keep the clients they have, and to advertise their services at a lower fee than before. They operate under the false idea that money is the main motivator in a client decision making process.
Fortunately, my professional experience has showed me that quality trumps price in everything a client values. That is why people spend more money on a better doctor, a safer airline, and a renowned university. All have cheaper alternatives, but with the things people value the most, there is always a thought that crosses their mind: “It is more expensive but, if not for this, what is money for?” At that point I decided to raise my professional fees.
With this in mind, I carefully studied my client portfolio and classified my clients according to their business value, considering the income they produce me, how frequently they require of my services, the affinity of the type of work I do for them to my personal interests, and the prestige a certain client brings to you in the professional world. I considered a separate category for difficult clients, but to my surprise these were very few, and I needed them for my plan to work.
I immediately realized there were clients on that list I wanted to keep no matter what, and there were others that I would lose regardless of my best efforts. They were in a category where my work was not one of those services that they value the most.
I approached my clients according to how badly I wanted to keep them. If I really wanted them, I would explain this change in person when possible, or by phone or Skype if they were abroad or if their schedule could not fit me within a reasonable period of time. Next, I decided to contact the rest by e-mail on a carefully worded communication that was clear, not too long, and that ended with an open invitation to discuss this raise in more depth in person or by phone if they wanted to do so.
It would be a conciliatory email. No ultimatums, or “take it, or leave it” type of notice. I was out to make friends, not to fight with my clients. I knew that I had two things working in my favor: They already knew my work, and I already knew how they like their interpreting.
For my strategy to succeed, I needed to present my proposal to somebody with the authority to decide. Talking to somebody down the totem pole would be a waste of my time. I decided that I would only talk or write to owners of small companies or agencies, and to senior management in larger corporations, organizations, and government agencies. (There is a video on this subject on my YouTube Channel).
I drafted a talking points memo to be used with my “A” list clients when I told them I was raising my fees. The points I would make to the client had nothing to do with globalization, current American politics, or the uncertain future interpreters were facing in the United States. I recapped the successes we had in the past, and I listed some of the professional things I do for them that are not always found in other interpreting services, but I was not heavy about it. I figured that if they had agreed to talk in person or by phone, it was because they already considered me an asset to their company. It was all about the quality of my professional service and the time and effort I would devote to the success of their conferences, projects, and other events.
I lost some clients, none from the “A” list, all those who stayed with me are now happily paying the new higher fees as they are now getting a more personalized service, and because of this new practice, I have acquired new clients, who were in part, referred by my old clients who stayed with me despite the raise. We now have a better working relationship because they know more about what I do, and their internal decision making process to continue working with me made them realize my true value for their organization.
The lesson learned, dear friends and colleagues, is to face adversity with a cool mind, refuse to give in to fears and peer pressure, and with confidence and self-assurance face the problem and win. It is always better to make more money when appreciated, and an added benefit is that instead of contributing to an even bigger depression of our market, you will do your part to pull it out of the shadows of uncertainty. I now invite you to share with the rest of us what you are doing to win as a professional interpreter in this new reality of globalization and political uncertainty.
Interpreting political debates: Before and during the rendition.
April 29, 2014 § 5 Comments
Every two years we have a primary election season in the United States where the two main political parties (Republicans and Democrats) pick their candidates for the general election in November. Two years after Americans elect a president, they vote again to renew the United States House of Representatives (425 members) and one-third of the United States Senate (33 or 34 Senate seats depending on the cycle because there are 100 Senators) Along with these national offices, many states elect governors, state legislators, and other local officials. Traditionally, before an election, all candidates running for a particular office in the United States publicly debate the issues. It happens within a political party during the primary elections and then again between the candidates from each party during the general election. Because the population of the United States is very diverse and complex, many voters do not speak English, or at least they do not understand it well enough to comprehend a candidate’s platform or position regarding specific issues. Add to this landscape the fact that many regions of the United States have very important concentrations of people from a particular nationality or ethnicity that may have issues that are relevant to their community even when they may not be as important for the general population. This happens with Hispanics and some other groups, and because of the number of people who are interested in a particular issue, there are debates specifically geared to these populations, often held in English because that is the language of the candidates, but organized and broadcasted by foreign language organizations and networks. This exercise in democracy means that we as interpreters are quite busy during political season.
Because of the number of elections and debates, primary elections tend to require more interpreters than a general election; also, due to the regional nature of a primary election, these debates are normally held in smaller towns and cities, increasing the practice of using the services of local interpreters.
This year has not been an exception. I have traveled to many cities and towns all over the country to interpret political debates in elections of all types: governors, senators, U.S. House members, local legislators, and mayors. Most debates have been live, in almost all of them I have interpreted for the T.V. broadcast, but there have been some recorded debates and some radio broadcasts as well. As always, when interpreting a debate I usually run into the same colleagues: the same local professionals, or the same national interpreters (meaning interpreters like me, who by decision of the organizers or the networks, are brought in from a different city) for the races that have a higher profile. Although I know that the pattern will repeat during the general election in the weeks and months before November, I also know that sometimes new interpreters are invited to participate in these events. This year I already worked with some interpreters new to the political debate scene, and I expect to encounter some others during the rest of the primary season and maybe even the general election. As I watched some of my new colleagues prepare for a debate and deliver their services, I reflected on the things that we need to do to be successful at this very important and difficult type of interpretation. These are some ideas on things that we should do and avoid when getting ready to interpret a political debate and when we are at the TV or radio station doing our rendition.
- Know the political system. One of the things that will help you as an interpreter is to know why you are there. It is crucial to understand why we have primary elections in the United States. We as interpreters will do a better job if we know who can run and who can vote in the election. This requires some research and study as every state is different. In some states voters must be registered with the political party to be able to vote in the primary, while other states hold open primaries where anybody, as long as they are American citizens, can vote. Some states have early voting, others have absentee ballots and there are states that even allow you to mail in your vote. It is crucial to study the election system of the place where the interpreter will work. Of course, the more states you work at, the more you have to research and study.
- Know basic local legislation and politics. When interpreting a state legislators’ debate it is essential to know how is the state government structured: Does it have a unicameral or bicameral system? Are legislators full or part-time? Can governors be reelected? Are there other political parties in that state? A well-prepared interpreter needs to know the answer to all of these and similar questions.
- Know the most relevant issues and people in that particular state, county, or city. Most questions during these political debates have to do with local matters, not national issues; for this reason, a professional interpreter must become acquainted with local affairs. Read local newspapers, watch and listen to local newscasts and political shows, and search the web. The shortest way to embarrassment is not to know a local topic or a local politician, government official or celebrity when they pop up during a debate. Know your local issues. It is a must to know if water shortage, a bad economy, a corruption scandal, a referendum, the names of local politicians (governor, lieutenant governor if the state has one, State House speaker, chief justice of the State Supreme Court, leader of the State Senate) or any other local matter is THE issue in that part of the country.
- Know basic history and geography of the state, and please know the main streets and landmarks of the region. There is nothing worse than interpreting a debate and all of a sudden struggle with the name of a county or a town because you did not do your homework. Have a map handy if you need to. Learn the names of rivers and mountains, memorize the names of the Native-American nations or pueblos in that state.
- Know your candidates. Study their bios, read about their ideology and platform; learn about their public and private lives. It is important to keep in mind that you need to know about all candidates in the debate, not just the candidate you will be interpreting.
- Know national and world current events and know your most important national and international issues in case they come up during the debate either as a question or as part of an answer. It is important to know if there is a war or an economic embargo, it is necessary to know the names of the national leaders and their party affiliation (president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader, cabinet members) and it is essential to know the names of the local neighboring leaders and world figures in the news (names of the governors of neighboring states, the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, the secretary general of the United Nations and the OAS, and at least the names of the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state of the main partners, allies, and adversaries of the United States).
- Know the rules of the debate. You need to know how long the debate will be, how much time a candidate has to answer a question and to refute another candidate, you need to know the order in which they will be questioned, who will be asking the questions and in what order. Try to find this information on line, and request it from the organizers or whoever hired you for the debate. Remember: it is a T.V. event so there is always a schedule and a program; you just need to get a copy.
- Get acquainted with your candidate’s speech patterns, accent, tempo, and learn his/her stump speech. All candidates have one, and they gravitate towards these talking points every time they have a chance and the moderator lets them do it. The best way to achieve this is by watching as many speeches as you can, especially previous debates, ideally on the same issues, as sometimes debates in the United States are limited to certain issues such as education, taxes, foreign policy, the economy, etc. Most candidates, unless they are brand new, have speeches and debates on You Tube or in the local T.V. stations and newspaper electronic archives; just access their websites and look for them. If possible, at least listen to a couple of speeches or debates of the other candidates in the debate. You will not be interpreting them, but you will be listening to them during their interaction with your candidate.
- When possible, participate on the distribution of assignments to the various interpreters. How good you perform may be related to the candidate you get. There are several criteria to pair an interpreter with a candidate. Obviously, T.V. and radio producers like to have a male interpreter for a male candidate and a female interpreter for a female candidate. After that, producers overlook some other important points that need to be considered when matching candidates and interpreters: It is important that the voice of your candidate is as similar to your own voice as possible, but it is more important that you understand the candidate; in other words, if you are a baritone, it would be great to have a baritone candidate, but if you are from the same national origin and culture than the tenor, then you should be the tenor’s interpreter because you will get all the cultural expressions, accent, and vocabulary better than anybody else. You should also have a meeting (at least a virtual one) with your fellow interpreters so you can discuss uniform terminology, determine who will cover who in case of a technical problem or a temporary physical inability to interpret like a coughing episode (remember, this is live radio or T.V.)
- Ask about the radio or T.V. studio where you will be working; in fact, if you are local, arrange for a visit so you become familiar with the place. Find out the type of equipment they will be using, see if you can take your own headphones if you prefer to use your “favorite” piece of equipment; find out if there is room for a computer or just for a tablet. Ask if you will be alone in the booth or if you will share it with other interpreters. Because small towns have small stations, it is likely that several interpreters will have to share the same booth; in that case, figure out with your colleagues who will be sitting where (consider for example if there are left-handed and right-handed interpreters when deciding who sits next to who) Talk to the station engineer or technician and agree on a set of signs so you can communicate even when you are on the air. This is usually done by the station staff because they are as interested as you in the success of the event.
- Finally, separate yourself from the candidate. Remember that you are a professional and you are there to perform a service. Leave your political convictions and opinions at home. You will surely have to interpret for people who have a different point of view, and you will interpret attacks against politicians you personally admire. This cannot affect you. If you cannot get over this hurdle then everything else will be a waste. This is one of the main reasons why they continue to hire some of us. Producers, organizers, and politicians know that we will be loyal to what they say and our opinions will not be noticed by anybody listening to the debate’s interpretation.
On the day of the debate, arrive early to the station or auditorium where the debate will take place, find your place and set up your gear; talk to the engineer and test everything until you are comfortable with the volume, microphone, monitor, and everything else. Get your water and make arrangements to get more water once you finish the bottles you brought inside the booth. Trust me; you will end up needing more. Talk to your fellow interpreters and make sure you are on the same page in case there is a technical glitch or an unplanned event during the debate. Once the debate starts, concentrate on what you are doing and pretty much ignore everything else. You will need all your senses because remember: there is no team interpreting, all other interpreters are assigned to another individual, it is live T.V. and if you count the live broadcast and the news clips that will be shown for weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching your work. If you enjoyed the experience and if you did a good job there will be more opportunities in the future and you will have enhanced your versatility within the profession.
I hope these tips will be useful to those of you in the United States and all other countries where there are political debates, and I invite you to share with the rest of us your comments and tips.