Technology, modernity, and globalization are great for interpreters, it’s just that…

April 19, 2015 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We are very fortunate to live at a time when there are so many developments that make our lives more comfortable; this includes our profession. Most interpreters realize that there are many positive changes: From the way we now research our assignments, to the social media we use to get more clients, to the places where we work, to the things we now take to the booth. All improvements to the way we used to work just a few years ago.

Nobody wants to go back to the days when you had to go to the library to research and study for an assignment, we now google the subject matter, the speaker, and the venue where we are going to render our services, and we do it from our office, our home, an airplane, and even the beach. Our research library went from the nearby branch of the local library system to all of the Ivy League libraries combined. We now keep up with all developments in the profession, and with current affairs in general, by using the web, and particularly social media. We find out about conferences, online courses, webinars, and business trends with Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, and many others that we also use for getting new clients and keeping the good ones we already have.

Many interpreters who did not have access to important assignments in the past, because of the place where they live, can now interpret remotely using a virtual booth without having to go to the big city or travel half way across the world. This has helped them become better interpreters and broaden their perception of the profession.

I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we used to drag heavy suitcases full of dictionaries, glossaries, and textbooks to the booth. Now, if we have an I-Pad or a tablet in the booth, we have all the libraries in the world, everything the speaker ever said or wrote on a particular topic, and all the information on the subject matter of the presentation updated to the very last minute. Nobody wants to give this up.

You see my friends, interpreters want technology, and they want globalization, but we need to be very careful. I think that sometimes people get confused and mix two separate concepts: (1) Technology and those who create, develop, and improve it, and (2) The big language service providers who are in a race to get all possible benefits out of these developments and are ready to leave nothing behind for the human asset in this equation: the interpreter.

The creators, call them researchers, developers, scientists, or engineers who are constantly giving us new tools to make our lives and careers easier and more comfortable are not the enemy. They spend most of their time trying to find ways to deliver a quality product (or service) to those who are and could be our clients.  They are the ones who brought us all of the positive changes I mentioned above, and many more. This is a crowd we want to be with, we need to.

We must engage these entrepreneurs because they know the science and the engineering, not because they are acquainted with the interpreting profession. We are the experts in this field, the ones they need to hear from, the ones they must listen to, the ones who will tell them what is needed and how. We cannot afford to ignore them, attack them, or dismiss them; we have to sit down and talk to them.

We also have to come to terms with globalization, and I believe that most interpreters have done so. Everybody understands that globalization is here to stay, we cannot (and should not) wish it away. We know that globalization broadens the pool of interpreters that can have access to an assignment, it opens all world markets to the profession. This translates into more opportunities for the good quality interpreter to have more and better work, and it gives the client the possibility to get the most knowledgeable interpreters in a particular field or subject matter, regardless of where they might be physically located.  Obviously, a clear effect of globalization is the ever increasing need to communicate with others who will often speak a different language, thus emphasizing the need for interpreters and translators. The verdict is in: Globalization is great for interpreters because it gives the client access to more and better professionals, and it allows us to get more complex, interesting, and profitable assignments. My friends, we face no threat from new technology or from globalization. Let’s not buy into this argument. We need to stop wasting our time fighting against windmills.  We must concentrate our efforts somewhere else:

We already know what many interpreting agencies are doing under the banner of globalization and technology: They want us to spend our energy fighting against them, they want us to look obsolete and reluctant to change, that is the image they are selling to their clients.  Why would they do that? Because it helps them. By silencing the interpreters’ voice, they get the clients’ undivided attention, and once they have the client in their pocket, they can convince them to do as they recommend. Their goals are different from ours. There is nothing wrong with that, as they owe their loyalty to their shareholders, and we cannot lose sight of it.  The large (sometimes publicly traded) language service agencies’ goal is to generate a big profit by minimizing their expenses as much as possible. They will spend huge amounts of money acquiring this new technology in order to lower their cost of operation. Once the new system is in place, technology will allow them to control the market and offer interpreters a very sad choice: “take very little money for your services, or get out of the way”.  They are banking on their clients’ trust (remember, they have their undivided attention) and they rely on new technology that will let them work with mediocre interpreters as these new technologies will do much of the work that interpreters used to do.  The result will be a very low quality service, but because of this strategy, the clients will never know, or at least it will take them a while to discover the poor choices they made.   Now, the agencies I usually work for do not fall into this category. In this article I am not talking about some big companies who work big conferences and events; I am not including some small agencies who do a great job and pay interpreters very well either. They all understand the importance and value of a quality interpretation.  Here I am referring to those enormous agencies that control a big chunk of the market, and hire thousands of interpreters for laughable rock-bottom fees every day. These are the agencies many of you reading this post work with on a regular basis.

I also want to make it clear that I am not calling them evil. They do what they are supposed to do, and do it very well. The important point for us, as interpreters, is to understand that we do have opposing interests in the profession, and with this realization, we must deal with them not as criminals or monsters, but as antagonistic forces in our professional market, who, in my opinion, bring in less value than the interpreter, as the profession can exist without them, but it cannot without us.

This is what major multinational language agencies are doing at this time. We should not take the bait. Instead of arguing against globalization and technology, we must change the debate and take it to the human talent: The interpreter.

You see, we need to have a two-front approach:

(1) We have to talk directly to those developing the technology, and we need to do it now before the agencies take ownership of the whole issue. The scientists and engineers will talk to us: We are the equipment users. We have to create forums where we can discuss interpreting technology with those developing it; we have to talk costs, service, preferred platforms, software, and many other things. We need to do it as soon as possible, and we need to do it in an environment free of the interests of the major language agencies. In other words, this will never happen if we believe that results can be achieved within an environment controlled by these language service providers. We cannot bring these issues to the table and speak directly to the scientists and engineers in events sponsored by the agencies. There cannot be real progress in a discussion panel where the moderator is the CEO of one of these huge agencies who clearly, and logically, have goals that are different from ours.  Does this mean that we will not sit down and talk to the agencies? Absolutely not. It is just that before we do that, we have to be in a better position to be able to negotiate from strength. The last thing we need right now is to hear fantastic stories from some of these agencies trying to convince interpreters that the technology they now use is great for us because “instead of having to drive downtown to do your work, and instead of having to sit down and wait for a couple of hours before interpreting, you can now devote forty five minutes to the interpreting task from your own home, and then do something else with the rest of your life like mowing the lawn or playing with your kids”.  Of course, this means that instead of paying the interpreter for a full day of work, their intention is to pay for forty five minutes of work. On top of being insulting to the professional interpreter, nobody can make a living that way. They are offering a salary lower than a fast food restaurant and they are doing it with a big smile on their face.

(2) We need to educate the client by speaking directly to them.  Most clients rely on the agency’s knowledge and expertise as far as selecting the interpreters for an assignment. They never really stop to think what it is needed to properly interpret, and the agencies do not want them to spend much time doing that, as it would provoke uncomfortable questions about the quality, training, education, and experience of so many of the interpreters they presently offer to their clients, as these agencies make their decision to hire based on one issue alone: Who is willing to work for less money.

The client needs to know that a good interpreter has years of education and experience, and only after that, interpreters can deliver an impeccable, accurate, clear, and pleasant rendition; they need to be made aware of the fact that real professional interpreters do a comprehensive research of the subject matter, and do not take assignments two hours before the job when the agency representative calls them desperate because they cannot get anybody to cover the event. The client needs to hear how a really good interpreter goes beyond the rendition, works on problem prevention and solving during the event. Once the client understands that a good interpreter sells peace of mind, and especially after they realize that working with the interpreter directly, instead of through an agency, will be more cost-effective, as agencies pay rock bottom fees to the interpreter, while at the same time they charge their clients handsomely, they will become more knowledgeable and will demand good interpreters from the agencies. This is where you, my dear colleagues, need to hold your ground and demand top professional fees from these agencies. I suggest that as part of this education you target the legal department and insurance office of the client, and share with them some of the tragic results of hiring poor quality interpreters. We all know about these unfortunate incidents. I am convinced that these individuals will advise their clients to retain quality interpreters, as they will understand that good professionals are like an insurance policy: More expensive in the short run, but money savers at the end of the day.

Do not be shy about explaining to the client how it does not make sense to spend a lot of money hiring an expensive speaker for a keynote address, a top-notch caterer, and a beautiful venue, if at the end of the day the people who paid to listen to the speaker will not get much out of the presentation because they could not understand the foreign language speaking presenter due to poor quality interpreting.  Your job is to convince them that an expensive interpreter is not an expense, it is an investment.

Never forget that as the human talent in this operation, interpreters are indispensable to deliver the service, just like you cannot benefit from an MRI without a physician’s reading of the results, you cannot have quality interpreting without good interpreters. We can join forces with the technology provider and do a magnificent job. Agencies cannot do the same without good interpreters, unless we let them change the subject so that their client does not see the importance of our service. At this point we will have many options: we will be able to decide if we want to work with large agencies, smaller ones, directly with the client, and even as a professional group, association, or cooperative where we may be able to acquire the needed technology and offer our services bypassing the low-paying agencies.

At this time we will be ready to sit down and negotiate as equals with these gigantic agencies. They are doing a good job at what they are supposed to do; now it is our time to do the same.  Please share your thoughts on this extremely important issue, and when doing so, please abstain from mentioning all the things that agencies can do that we cannot, because we know the things they do, and we understand that although difficult, we could ultimately do them all.  I invite you to contribute to this discussion without defending the agencies. We all know there are already plenty of forums where they can defend themselves.

As interpreters we want new technology, but we need to be very careful.

March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other?  I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change.  The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives.  Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.

What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income?  It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.

On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.

The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible.  This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter.  You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter.  At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.

We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.

That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.

It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.

It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event.  These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept.  Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked.  This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.

As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers.  This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.

Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage.  These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap.  We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice.  Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table.  I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.

When the client does not know how to use the interpreter as an expert witness.

August 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

I just heard the story of an interpreter who was hired to render her services as an expert witness in a trial that took place in a small town of the American Midwest.  This colleague, who I know has years of experience as an interpreter, translator, transcriber, and expert witness, was retained to examine a transcription and translation job by a transcriber/translator whose work accuracy was in question.  Following some fee negotiation, and after the interpreter’s client recovered from learning what a real expert witness charges for her services,   this colleague examined the transcription, reviewed the translation, and contacted her client to ask her when they should meet to discuss her report.  To her surprise, the attorney who hired her stated that a meeting was not necessary and that a simple oral report over the phone would suffice.  A few days later the interpreter received the subpoena to testify during the trial, and the client informed her that there would be no expert witness-attorney meeting before the trial.

Under these circumstances, this very experienced interpreter appeared in court ready to testify as an expert.  As my court interpreter colleagues know, the testimony of an expert has two parts: First, the party offering the witness has to qualify him as an expert by asking questions about his credentials, educational background, experience, and so on.  Then, once the expertise on the particular field has been established, the parties question the expert about his analysis, methodology, findings, and opinion.

In this particular case, the interpreter had just began introducing her qualifications and academic formation when the small town judge interrupted and asked the attorney doing the direct examination if “…this (was) going to take too long, because I have so many other things to take care of…” The attorney then rushed through the qualifications of this expert, and moved on to the questions about the findings.  Throughout the direct examination this witness had to sit on the stand, and literally sit on her hands as the attorney asked her many irrelevant questions leaving out many critical points and relevant aspects of the expert’s opinion.  It became obvious that this attorney had examined very few experts during her career, and it was apparent that this was the first time she questioned an expert in linguistics.

As the interpreter waited for the “right” questions to arrive, and as it became clear that they would not, she had to swallow her frustration and hide her impotence as she saw how the case was crumbling down before her eyes despite the fact that the attorney who retained her had an expert report clearly showing that the transcriptions/translation in question were dramatically wrong.

As I heard this story, I imagined the frustration that this expert witness went through, put myself in her shoes, and realized that the simple fact of retaining an expert is useless when the attorneys do not know what to do with the expert opinion.  It is obvious that attorneys need to know how to take advantage of having a very good expert as part of their team.  In this case, as in many others, it was apparent that the small town judge and attorneys did not know what to do with the expert testimony, and never understood the importance and relevance of presenting the results to the jury to advance their case.  Fortunately, seasoned experts have the privilege to work with capable lawyers and experienced judges most of the time; so the question is: What do newer experts or those interpreter experts working in outlined areas need to do to “educate” the local attorneys, judges, and system?   I would like to hear your opinion.

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