August 30, 2016 § 3 Comments
A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in the first legal interpreting workshop for Mexican Sign Language interpreters in Mexico City. It was a three-day event attended by sign language interpreters from all corners of Mexico. With the arrival of the new oral trial proceedings to their country, now Mexican interpreters will play an essential role in the administration of justice. Until recently, the country followed a written proceedings system where interpreters were rarely needed, but now, with a system similar to the one in the United States, interpreters will participate at all stages of a court proceeding; moreover, because Mexico kept their traditional substantive law system, based on Roman, French, and Spanish Law, interpreters will also be needed in all proceedings before a Notary Public where a party does not speak Spanish.
Certainly, Mexico is not the first or the only country switching to this more agile and transparent legal system, but what I saw during the workshop showed me a different, and probably better way to incorporate interpreting into the legal system, and provide a professional service by good, quality interpreters. What Mexican Sign Language interpreters are doing should be adopted as an example by many other interpreter organizations everywhere. Sign language, foreign language, and indigenous language interpreter programs could benefit from a strategy like the one they are now implementing in Mexico.
Like many countries, including the United States, Mexico is facing problems familiar to all judicial systems: shortage of quality interpreters, ignorance by judges and administrators, lack of a professionalization system that eventually will only allow interpreters with a college degree. Unlike most countries, and even foreign language and indigenous language interpreters in Mexico, sign language interpreters are trying to achieve all of those goals by partnering with the courts and academia.
The workshop was the brainchild of a judge from Mexico City’s Electoral Court who identified the need to provide deaf citizens a way to exercise their political rights. The judge devoted her experience, reputation, time, and connections to the project, and after some effort, the Mexico City Electoral Court, Mexico’s Supreme Court, the Mexican National University (UNAM) and some district judges came on board, together with the sign language interpreter associations.
The workshop was held at three different venues in order to get all interested parties involved, and to send a message to Mexican society that the effort was real. On the first day, at the Mexico City Electoral Court, interpreters learned about the Mexican legal system and its recent changes. On the second day, interpreters attended an all-day session at the postgraduate degree school of the Mexican National University (UNAM) where more practical presentations dealing with interpreter problems and participation in a court hearing were discussed. It was refreshing to see how interpreters were able to convey their concerns to some of the highest authorities within the Mexican court system, accomplishing two things: that their voice be heard, and that judges be aware of how little they know and understand of the interpreters’ role in court. During the second day of the workshop, a program to develop a curriculum for Mexican Sign Language interpreters to get formal education and obtain a diploma after a year of studies sponsored by the Mexican National University (UNAM) and perhaps Madrid’s Complutense University (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) got its kickoff. The idea is that eventually, this program will allow sign language interpreters to learn the law, court procedure, and court interpreting by attending a combination of virtual and classroom sessions for one year, so that at the end of the year they be ready to take a certification exam that will first test their bilingualism, so that only those who have demonstrated proficiency in both languages move on to the interpreting portion of the exam. Once an interpreter passes the exam, their name will be added to the list of certified court interpreters they judiciary will have and use to determine who is fit to practice in court. Eventually, the goal is to develop a degree in Mexican Sign Language Interpreting so that all interpreters working the courts have a college degree.
Finally, the third day of the workshop was held at the building of Mexico’s Supreme Court, where one of the Justices addressed the attendees who spent the time learning about the professional and business aspects of the profession. The day ended with a mock court trial where interpreters participated with the help of law students and professors.
I still believe on addressing the private bar directly bypassing court administrators, but in my opinion, the example set by Mexico’s sign language interpreters is a lesson that should be applied elsewhere. Having justices and judges of the highest level, together with college deans and professional interpreter associations generate a plan of realistic action that goes beyond the demagoguery so often practiced by government officials who never had the desire to help in the first place, would change the “balance of power” that court interpreters are suffering in many places, including many states in the U.S. where ignorant administrators pretend to run a court interpreter program with their eyes set on the budget and their backs to court interpreter needs and the administration of justice. Having the highest authorities within the judiciary to listen, understand, and support interpreter initiatives (that are nothing but efforts to comply with a constitutional mandate) would go a long way, and having the most prestigious universities in the land to volunteer to sponsor a court interpreter education program with an eye on eventually turning it into a college degree, would solve many problems we see today in all languages. The Mexican approach encourages the interpreter to professionalize by fostering the direct client relationship between courthouse and interpreter, eliminating once and for all the unscrupulous intermediary that charges for the service, keeps most of the money, pays interpreters rock-bottom fees, and provides appalling interpreting services.
I invite all of you, my colleagues, regardless of where you practice: The United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico and elsewhere, and regardless of your type of interpreting: sign languages, foreign languages, or indigenous languages, even those Mexican interpreters who practice as foreign or indigenous language court interpreters, to consider this Mexican strategy. I believe that it has a better chance to work than those other tactics interpreters have attempted to follow for such a long time.
I now ask you to opine on this very innovative strategy adopted by our colleagues in Mexico with the full support of their authorities and academia.
August 23, 2016 § 8 Comments
It is not common that I write a blog entry hoping to be wrong, but on this occasion I hope I am mistaken. Let me explain:
2015 was a very difficult year for our immigration court interpreters in the United States. After decades of working with the same agency, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) granted their court interpreting services contract to a new contractor that is better known for their multi-million dollar contracts with the United States Department of Defense than for their interpreting services. This new contractor: SOSi, won the licitation process by bidding lower than anybody else, and to keep the operation profitable for their stakeholders, they attempted to hire inexperienced interpreters and pay them extremely low fees under unimaginable work conditions.
The interpreters rallied against the newcomer’s offer, united like never before, and took to the social media, traditional media, and professional associations for support. The movement became quite strong and as a result of these actions by our immigration court colleagues and their allies, SOSi was left with no choice but to offer contracts to many of the more experienced interpreters under work conditions similar to the ones they were used to with the former contractor, and in many cases with the interpreters getting better fees than before. SOSi agreed to these terms and addressed some of the main concerns that the EOIR had about the way they were to offer interpreting services nationwide by hiring some of the support staff that had previously worked for the previous contractor: LionBridge.
At the time, it looked like SOSi got it and decided to do things the right way; unfortunately, their temporary contract with the United States Department of Justice was about to expire and they had to move quickly to turn that provisional contract into a permanent contractual obligation. To achieve their goals, once that interpreters, immigration judges, and public opinion subsided, they decided to go after the interpreters once again.
During the last few days, many immigration interpreters received an email from SOSi notifying them the following changes to their policy:
“…In the coming weeks, we plan to release a competitive Request for Quote (RFQ) to anyone who is interested in continuing to work on the program…”
In other words, in a few weeks, interpreters will have to bid for work at the EOIR, and assignments will go to the lowed bid. Is SOSi going to pay its interpreters the same rock-bottom fees they had in mind a year ago when their master plan was derailed in part by their ineptitude, but mainly because the quality interpreters refused to work for such insulting fees.
I hope I am wrong, but as I continue to read SOSi’s communication, I detect a Machiavellian cleverness I did not see last year. Let’s read another segment of the same email:
“…In the meantime, we are issuing extensions to current Independent Contractor Agreements (ICAs) at the current rates. You will have seven days to review and execute those extensions in order to be eligible to continue working on the program past August 31, 2016….”
The way I read the paragraph, and I hope I am wrong, I get the impression that SOSi is taking away from the interpreters the argument of “contracts with rock-bottom fees” by offering its current contractors a new contract under the same professional fees (incorrectly called “rates”). By doing this, the Defense Contractor turned interpreting service provider, if questioned by EOIR, can defend itself arguing that their individual interpreter contracts contain the same terms as the prior contract, and that the interpreters who work for a lower fee than the one in their contract, do so by voluntarily participating in the “competitive request” process in order to get more work. Of course, we can assume (from the contractor’s own words) that there will be very few assignments for those interpreters who do not participate in the bidding process. They will probably work only when nobody else is available.
Finally, SOSi’s communication states that “…The goal of the changes is to provide the best, most cost-effective service to the DOJ…”
Of course they have to watch these costs; that is an essential part of their contract with the government. The problem is that they also need to make a profit, and the more the better. The question is: How can you increase your profit when your client (EOIR) will not pay you more? To me, the answer seems clear: They will pay less to the service provider (the interpreter).
I could be wrong, but I do not believe that SOSi will pass on to the EOIR the “savings” from low-bidding interpreters on a case-by-case basis. Record keeping and reporting of these individual cases would be more expensive than simply paying the contractually agreed fees. From the email, I understand that SOSi will get the same paycheck from the government, but their profit will go up from the money they will save by paying the interpreter a miserable fee. The United States federal budget for 2017 shows an increase on the appropriations that go to the EOIR from 420 million dollars to 428.2 million. There were no cuts, and in my opinion, even knowing that most of the EOIR budget goes to many other priorities, it is very hard to understand why SOSi would want interpreters to provide the same services for less money. (https://www.justice.gov/jmd/file/821961/download)
Dear friends and colleagues, I sincerely hope that my appreciations are all wrong and SOSi will honor the contracts, discard the “lower-bid” system that they seem to spouse, and things continue to improve for our immigration court colleagues; but in the event that I may be totally, or even partly right, I believe our colleagues will be better served by sounding the alarm and being in a state of alert and ready to act once again. There are just too many loose ends that require not just an explanation, but a public general commitment by SOSi not to go back to last year’s unsuccessful attempt to pay less for professional interpreting services. I now ask you to please share your thoughts on this issue, and if you have solid evidence (not wishful thinking) to prove my conclusions wrong, please share them with the rest of us.
May 13, 2015 § 2 Comments
Last week, millions of people throughout the world watched on television the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. Boxing is controversial in some quarters, and the fight itself gave both, fans and detractors alike, much to talk about. I was one of those individuals watching the pay-per-view event, but unlike most of the audience, in between rounds my undivided attention was on the boxers’ corners where seconds and coaches were giving encouragement and instructions to both fighters. My reasons for paying close attention to these breaks are very simple: the networks broadcast these conversations in the ring, and many times, because many price fighters do not speak English, this is done through an interpreter. By the same token, the sports channels that broadcast in Spanish in the United States, need interpreters to do the same thing when English is spoken at the fighters’ corners, and when the winner is interviewed from the center of the ring after the official result of the bout is announced.
Sports interpreting is a very difficult field. It requires deep knowledge of the specific sport’s theory, rules, history, statistics, and current events. Many of these interpreters are individually assigned to an athlete by the team, the league, or the sport’s federation. Some of them also function as escort interpreters and cultural brokers to the athlete. Their job requires constant traveling and total dedication. If you like sports, the field is very rewarding, but it is not for everybody.
On top of all the requirements needed to be a sports interpreter, a sports media interpreter must meet an additional set of skills. These interpreters must perform in front of the TV cameras, sometimes for millions of viewers. They need to know the ropes in the world of broadcasting; they have to deliver their rendition with emotion, yet with serenity, in a pleasant voice, and with clear pronunciation. They have to transmit the message within the constraints and limitations of a radio or television broadcast, and they have to do it live, with no second takes.
I have been very fortunate, because throughout my career as an interpreter, I have always been involved with sports media interpreting. I have interpreted many boxing matches, and more recently, I have been working during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches for the major sports networks and for the ones that broadcast in Spanish in the United States. You see, ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes need interpreters when the fighters do not speak English.
Not long ago, I was hired to interpret for both, the English and the Spanish broadcast of a UFC world championship match that took place outside the United States. There were the four basic assignments that all sports media interpreters who specialize in boxing or UFC have to cover: (1) Pre-fight interviews, (2) the weigh-in ceremony, (3) the conversations taking place at the two corners during the match itself, and (4) the interviews and press conference after the event. All four tasks are complex and unique.
When the main event is a title match or involves high profile combatants, the pre-fight interviews can be time consuming and exhausting. Most likely, the interpreter will accompany the fighters to personal appearances for radio and TV shows, to some visits to hospitals or charity organizations, and to some social and even political events such as dinners, personal appearances, and similar activities. Many times there will be a booth for the interpreter to do his job during an interview, but there will be many instances when the interpreter will need to work consecutively as there will be no place to set a booth and no time to lose.
Since full contact sports divide athletes by their weight, boxing and UFC championship have weigh in ceremonies. This is done in the presence of the opponent, and with the accredited media as witness. This is a safeguard in case that a bigger man starts thinking about fighting an individual who is smaller and therefore, perhaps easier to defeat. Weigh in ceremonies have evolved from a simple man-step on the scale routine, to very elaborated and spectacular shows full of music, dry ice, lights, and roaring crowds at the venue. These ceremonies will often be interpreted from a booth in an environment comfortable for the interpreters.
To give viewers a better idea of what is happening in the ring (boxing) and cage (ultimate fighting), for years the TV networks have been showing the action in the fighters’ corners in between rounds. All strategy, encouragement, and information that a fighter gets during the combat are delivered during these conversations. Because many of the contenders hold these corner conferences in their native language, the use of interpreters for the corner conversations has been a fixture for many years. Interpreters have a very difficult task during this minute-long breaks. They need to listen to all that is being said by the trainers and seconds as it is captured by an environment mike and a boom, and it is delivered into their earphones while everything else is going on at the arena. It is common to have code-switching during these conversations because many trainers are Americans and during the instructions, many times they go back to English without realizing it.
Here the interpreter has to be as sharp as ever: sports terminology, strategy, profanity, religious talk, all can (and will) emerge during these in-between rounds sessions. Once the break is over, the corner conversation ends, but the interpreters’ work does not. They have to remain alert and be on the lookout for any potential comments, remarks, or instructions that the corner may shout at the fighter during the round. If this happens, the interpreter has to inform it to the broadcasters so they can decide if they need to pass it on to the audience or not. It is hard for me to convey the full picture of what is going on at this time, but if you can imagine the noisiest assignment you ever had and then multiply it one hundred times, then you will begin to understand what sports media interpreters go through every time. Everybody who has been to a basketball or hockey game knows the noise level at the venue when the music is playing. These interpreters have to do their job, especially in UFC matches, while the noise is as loud as it can be. Picture yourself interpreting specialized terminology, bad words, idiomatic expressions, and similar conversations, all uttered at a volume intended for the individual who is next to you (not the general public) as it is being picked up by a boom a few feet away from the conversation, and you are doing it for millions of viewers from your seat at ring side, through a headset, while the arena’s P.A. system is playing “we will, we will rock you” full blast, your microphone and everything else is vibrating with the noise, and the sports announcers, and also the producer, are talking to you through the same headset at the same time.
I recently worked a fight where we were all crowded around the ring. We, the Spanish interpreters, were sitting to the right of the Portuguese interpreters and to the left of the Japanese interpreters. The English language announcers for Fox were next to the Portuguese colleagues, about ten feet away from us, and the other announcers we were working with: the ones broadcasting in Spanish, were at about the same distance from us as their English counterparts but in the other direction, to the right of the Japanese interpreters. It is the most difficult environment and the ultimate multitasking, all done simultaneously. Add to the job description the fact that the interpreter needs to get up, walk through a very tight space, making sure that he does not step on one of the myriad of television cables that cover the entire floor like a carpet, and climb up to the ring, or into the cage, to consecutively interpret the television interviews with winners and losers after each combat. Not an easy job!
Finally, after it is all over in the ring (or cage) and there is a winner, both fighters and their teams are expected to talk to the media a few minutes after the program is over. This takes place at a (sometimes improvised) press conference room in the arena, and it happens very late at night, or during the early hours of the morning: when the interpreter is already exhausted. This post-fight press conferences are usually attended by many journalists from domestic and foreign radio, television and print. They often block the view of the interpreters literally making it impossible to see the stage from the booth. It is total chaos with journalists, producers, and cameras all over the place; and to complicate things even more, many journalists ask their questions without using a microphone. I remind you, this all takes place after a long and busy day of interpreting.
Generally, interpreting services in the English<>Spanish combination are provided by three sports media interpreters: Two who work the fight and post-fight interviews in the ring or cage, and one who stays behind to do in-between fights interviews with other boxers and celebrities from an improvised studio under the seats of the arena. The two interpreters who work at ringside alternate between the English and the Spanish broadcast, depending on the language spoken by the contenders. These are the same two interpreters that will work the press conference once the event is over and the arena is empty, later that night.
The job is exciting, challenging, and to those of us who love sports it is a lot of fun, the pay is good, and the opportunity to meet the rich and famous is constant; however, we should never lose sight of the fact that this type of interpreting requires a lot of traveling, many hours of preparing for the assignment, very long hours, and the ability to work under very adverse circumstances, especially the noise level and the tight quarters. These interpreters work live, and deliver their rendition to those attending the match in the arena, and to the millions who watch the fight around the world; there is no room for hesitation or second-guessing. It requires of a very unique woman or man willing to work as I have described.
I tip my hat to those of you who do this kind of work, and for the rest of my colleagues, I wish that you found this post informative; you now know of another specialty in our profession, and I hope that the next time you watch a boxing or ultimate fighting match, and even if you just happen to walk by a TV set while one of these colleagues is doing his work; you stop for a moment and see them in action. I am sure you will come to appreciate your own working conditions more after you really see how difficult it is to interpret during one of these events. I invite you to share your thoughts about this topic, and any other type of interpreting that you may have done under extremely difficult circumstances, and please focus on interpreting and leave out your personal opinion about boxing or mixed martial arts.
February 12, 2015 § 15 Comments
In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.
Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.
At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.
President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.
President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.
Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.
Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.
There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).
Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.
Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.
January 20, 2015 § 6 Comments
We are in award season again!
This is the time of the year when most arts and sports associations honor the best in their profession during the past year. We just recently watched the Golden Globe Awards to the best in the movie and television industry according to the Hollywood foreign press; a few weeks earlier we saw on TV how a young American college football athlete received the Heisman Trophy, and in the days and weeks to come we will witness this year editions of the Academy Awards, Emmys, Grammys, and many others. It is true that most of these ceremonies are held in the United States, and for that reason, they are primarily in English. For people like me, the American audience, enjoying one of these shows only requires that we turn the TV on and watch the program. This is not the case everywhere in the world. There are many sports and movie fans all over the world who want to be a part of the whole award experience. The broadcasting companies in their respective countries know that; they understand that this is good business for their sponsors back home, so they carry the ceremony, in most cases live, even if it means a broadcast in the middle of the night.
The English speaking audience does not think about all the “little” things that a foreign non-English network has to do in order to provide its audience with the same experience we enjoy in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries where most of the people watching the broadcast will speak the same language that will be primarily spoken during the program: English.
As interpreters, even if we watch from an English speaking country, we know that there is a language/cultural barrier between those participating in the show and the audience watching at home. We know that an awards ceremony like the ones described above, can only be successful worldwide because of the work of the interpreters. We understand that without that magical bridge that interpreters build with their words there cannot be an Oscar Ceremony. Many of us have worked countless events where interpreters have to interpret live from a radio or television studio or booth. Even those colleagues who have never interpreted an award ceremony for a television audience have rendered similar services when interpreting live a televised political debate, or a live press conference that is being broadcasted all over the world. We all know that the interpreter plays an essential role in all of these situations.
Due to the complexity of this type of event, I was very surprised when a few days ago I turned on my TV to watch the ceremony of the Ballon d’Or on American TV. For those of you who are not very familiar with sports, the Ballon d’Or is the highest award that a football player (soccer player for my friends and colleagues in the U.S.) can receive from FIFA (the international organization that regulates football everywhere in the planet)
Because I was at home in Chicago, and because most Americans do not really follow soccer (football for the rest of the world) the only way to catch the ceremony live was on Spanish language TV. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers in the United States are as passionate about football as people everywhere else, so games and special events are always broadcasted by one of the Spanish language networks that we have in the U.S.
This time, the broadcast of the ceremony was on the Spanish language channel of Fox Sports, and to my dismay, instead of having interpreters in the studio, like most networks do, the channel used two of their bilingual presenters/commentators to convey what was happening in Switzerland where the ceremony was taking place. Because football is truly an international sport, there were many different languages spoken by the participants in the awards ceremony: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Japanese, German, and others that at this time I cannot recall. The feed of the ceremony had the original audio, but it was at the lowest possible volume. We could see how the original broadcast had interpreters for all those who needed them in the auditorium and for all those who were watching on TV (I suppose) all over the world. Unfortunately, in the United States we did not get the benefit of the professional interpretation; instead, we got one of the sports presenters’ rendition, not terrible, but incomplete, and in the third person, coupled with constant and extremely annoying interruptions by the second presenter (who probably speaks less English than his colleague) with comments and statistics that got on the way of the speeches. In other words, they deprived us of the well-planned and rehearsed event that the rest of the world watched, and instead, we had to settle for (1) incomplete renditions, a total lack of localization and cultural interpreting to put concepts in context (because it is not enough to know the language to convey the message in a proper manner to a specific and culturally diverse audience) and (2) comments and “explanations” totally irrelevant to the events we were watching on the screen. I am sure this sports presenter knows his football, but a lack of understanding of what is being said in that precise moment always renders the most accurate comment annoying when the audience can see that it has nothing to do with the things happening on stage.
Now, I know that the two sports commentators had the best intentions; I even think that it was hard for them to do the broadcast, and I have no doubt they tried their best. The problem is, dear friends and colleagues, that the network, a very wealthy one, either decided to save some money by using their own “talent” instead of retaining the services of two professional interpreters, or they think so little of the message that their audience should be able to understand during an event of this importance, that they see no difference between the job their sports commentators did and the rendition by professional interpreters. I think that in a globalized market where people see and hear what happens everywhere in a matter of seconds, broadcasting corporations need to be more careful and understand that the job of a presenter is very different from the job of the interpreter. Moreover, the audience knows. They can tell the difference between an event with a real professional interpreter who is interpreting a press conference, a political debate, or a boxing match, and these sad situations where the people charged with the responsibility to convey what is being said are not equipped to deliver the results. All we are asking the broadcasters is to let the interpreter do the interpreting. Nothing more.
I invite you to share with the rest of us other situations where you have witnessed a bad rendition on a radio or TV broadcast, and to tell us about the current situation in your local market. We want to underline the mistakes, but we also want to recognize those local companies who are doing the right thing and retaining you to do these live interpreting assignments.
November 21, 2014 § 6 Comments
Today I will talk about two topics you are all very familiar with: Creativity and quick thinking. Two necessary elements in every interpreter’s repertoire that are used to solve problems and avoid catastrophes in the complex business of communication among those who do not speak or understand the same language. An individual must possess a series of characteristics to be a professional interpreter; among them: the ability to take a concept or idea in one language, understand it and process it, and then render it into another language with the appropriate cultural context necessary for the listener to comprehend the message without any effort, therefore freeing him to concentrate on the content of the message the orator is delivering in the foreign language. This multitasking requires of a quick and agile mind. The interpreter cannot be slow in thinking, processing, or delivering the message. It is impossible.
Just as important as a quick mind is the capacity and resolve to act when needed, and in the interpreting world where many times we encounter a reality where some of the cultural concepts of the parties are at odds, the interpreter needs to resort to his creativity and sense of improvisation.
I am sure that you all have had your chance to apply these two skills during your professional career. In my case there have been too many instances when my interpreting partner or I have acted with great speed and creativity to avoid a problem; this made it difficult to decide which one I should use for this post. After a long rewind of some memorable experiences, I picked an instance where creativity and quick thinking were enhanced by the interpreters’ teamwork.
Sometime ago I was working the Spanish booth at a conference in a European country. I cannot remember the exact topic, but it had to do with the environment. There were delegates from many countries and there were interpreters with many language combinations. During the fourth day of the event the morning session was uneventful. My booth partner and I finished our shift in the Spanish booth and went to get some lunch. That afternoon the second speaker was from an English-speaking country where people have a very distinctive accent and way of talking. In the speaker’s particular case the accent was very heavy and it took a few minutes to get used to his speech. Some thirty minutes into the presentation, right after I had handed the microphone to my partner, I heard a knock on the door of the booth. It was one of the Italian booth interpreters. She looked frazzled and frustrated when she told me that her booth was having a very hard time understanding the speaker, and from the questions she asked me about the speech, it became apparent that they were really missing a good portion of the presentation. These interpreters were fairly new, I had never seen either one of them before, but from my observations during the first three days of the conference I could see that they were good, dedicated, and professional. I immediately empathized with them as I recalled the many occasions in the past when a speaker with a heavy accent, weak voice, or bad public speaking habits had made me suffer throughout a rendition. It was clear that they were not going to understand much more during the rest of the presentation that still had about two hours to go; it was also obvious that we needed to do something about it.
After some brainstorming with the Italian interpreter, while our respective colleagues worked in the booth, (the second Italian interpreter no-doubt sweating bullets throughout the speech) certain things became apparent: The two colleagues in the Italian booth were professionally trained interpreters with great command of the booth, and with excellent delivery skills. It was also very noticeable that they both spoke Spanish very well. After these facts were spelled out, we both concluded that the solution to the “heavy accent” issue was a relay interpreting rendition. We decided that the Spanish booth would take the feed from the floor in English, interpret the source in that very heavy accent into Spanish, and then the Italian booth would pick up the feed from our booth in Spanish and deliver it into their target language, in this case: Italian. Because of the teamwork, camaraderie, and will to help on the part of all four interpreters, and due to the experience and skill of the Spanish booth, and the great command of the booth and pleasant delivery of the Italian booth, we were able to deliver our service to both: the Spanish and Italian speakers seamlessly. This would have never happened without the interpreters’ professional minds working very fast to find a solution, and without the creativity of the interpreters that made it possible to switch gears in the middle of a very important event already in progress. Once again I proved to myself (and others) that professionalism and formation count. They are important tools that a real interpreter needs to use when the situation demands it. Without professionalism there is no sense of camaraderie, and without that perception that we are all colleagues, the two booths would have never worked together and solved the situation. I would love to hear some of your stories where creativity, a quick mind, or the sense of camaraderie among professional colleagues helped you to overcome a professional obstacle.
October 2, 2014 § 12 Comments
There is no doubt that globalization has brought us together in ways we could have never imagined just a few decades ago. A smaller world means innumerable benefits for earth’s population and interpreters and translators play a key role in this new world order that needs communication and understanding among all cultures and languages.
Although we see progress and modernization on a daily basis, we can also perceive that there are certain groups that are staying behind; not because they decided to do so, not because they are not valuable to the world community, but because of the language they speak. It is a fact that most people on earth speak the same few languages. We all know that Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, and everyone is aware of the fact that, geographically speaking, English and Spanish are by far the most widely spoken languages. The problem is that there are many languages in the world that are spoken by smaller groups of people, even though some of them are very old, and despite the fact that some of them were widely spoken and even lingua franca in the past.
I am referring to the so-called indigenous languages of the world. A reality faced by humankind in every continent: The Americas, Asia, Australia, the Pacific islands, and Africa have a serious problem. Once acknowledged that this is a universal issue, today I will talk about the Americas because that is my field.
It is no mystery that these languages have always existed and even co-existed with the more widely-spoken languages of the Americas. Native American tribes and nations have spoken their language in Canada and the United States while using English and French as a business tool and an academic gate to universal knowledge.
Presently, there are between 900 and 1,500 indigenous languages spoken in the Americas (depending on whose study you believe) and regardless of the real number, and without considering that many of them may be spoken by a handful of people, the reality is that there are many widely spoken Indigenous languages that are in need of interpreters and translators in order to guarantee access to modernity and legal security to many people in all countries in the Americas. There are some efforts that are bringing accessibility to these native populations, and there is legislation in the process of being enacted and implemented in many places. The United States government is making sure that State-level government agencies comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and provide interpreting services to all those who need to use public transportation, or go to court, to a public hospital, or to a public school. There is a federal court interpreter certification in Navajo as well. The Mexican Constitution was amended to guarantee the right of a Native-Mexican to have an interpreter when he is charged with committing a crime; through the protection and promotion of Mexican indigenous languages, the National Indigenous Languages Institute (INALI) empowers these communities in Mexico. INALI was created to make sure that the Mexican native population is able to participate in society like every other member, without any restrictions due to the language they speak. The current project to produce legislation and regulations for court interpreting in the new oral trial process recently adopted by Mexico, includes the Indigenous languages interpreters, who are collaborating with foreign language and Sign Language interpreters to achieve this very important goal.
Let’s be honest, the need is enormous and the resources, human and monetary, are limited. Acknowledging this reality, and agreeing on the importance of this issue, we need to look for a solution; we need many ideas, many proposals, the problem is difficult, but there is no way to avoid it. We must forge ahead towards a solution to this problem. On this post I do my share by presenting you the ideas I propose to get a solution off the ground, and at the minimum, to start a serious dialogue.
Part of the problem is the lack of enough fluent speakers of English or Spanish, and the Indigenous language. In part, this is because the language is not widely spoken, and because there are very few interpreters who speak the Indigenous language due to profitability issues. This is understandable, the interpreter needs to make a living. Another part of the problem is the lack of access for non-native speakers to learn the indigenous language and to have it as one of their language combinations. Unfortunately, from all the obstacles to overcome if we want to have enough Indigenous language interpreters, the stigma of speaking an Indigenous language is probably the biggest. Education is needed in order to bring Indigenous languages into the mainstream of interpreting, and I already addressed this issue on a separate post.
Many interpreters could say that although they would like to learn an Indigenous language, and even work as an interpreter to and from that language, how will they get work as interpreters? How will it be possible for them to make a living? It would be difficult to convince a top conference or diplomatic interpreter to drop his clients and go to work as a healthcare or court interpreter making very little money. That is not what I propose. First we need to promote what these Indigenous languages really are. We need to make them attractive for the new interpreter.
If the new interpreters and translators understand what these languages really are, and they see that the main reason why those who presently speak these languages are not using them in the mainstream business world is because of lack of opportunities for those who speak them, they will understand that these Indigenous language speakers should be at the same level of opportunity as those who speak a widely spoken language.
The idea would be that those who study languages to become interpreters or translators, be required to learn, on top of the traditional language combination of their choice, an Indigenous language that they would select from a variety of options. This way, they would enter the professional world with the same skills and language combinations they had always envisioned, and an additional language that no doubt will widen their professional horizon and fatten their wallet a bit more. My idea would be to pair them with a native speaker of the Indigenous language to work together in the booth, or as a team in court, and elsewhere. This way the empiric interpreter will benefit from the academic skills and knowledge of the formally educated interpreter, and the latter will benefit and learn traditions and cultural nuances, that just cannot be learned in the classroom, from the empiric interpreter. Of course, because the market will notice a good thing, many already established interpreters will rush to learn an Indigenous language to stay competitive; Náhuatl, Quechua, K’iché, Mixtec, Otomí, and many other versions of Rosetta Stone will sell like there is no tomorrow.
Dear friends and colleagues, I know that this proposal may seem fantastic and unrealistic to many of you, but I ask you to please, before you rush to sell me a bridge you have in Brooklyn, to kindly consider what I propose, and then perhaps offer other possible ways to address this problem; I only ask you to offer global ideas, that is, possible solutions to this problem that may work not just in the United States but all over the Americas, and maybe all over the world.
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.
February 24, 2014 § 2 Comments
We are just a few days away from that very American ceremony that the world has made its own turning it into an international event: The Academy Awards, or as it is better known: The Oscar.
There are very few broadcasts that depend more on the services of an interpreter than the Oscar ceremony. It is a fact that people will be watching, again, all over the world. Although most of them do not speak a word of English they will have people over for food and drinks, perhaps will dress up for the occasion, and will tune in for the broadcast that will be simultaneously interpreted into their native language by a team of very skilled interpreters from a booth in Hollywood or from a TV studio somewhere else in the world. Because dear colleagues, not all interpreters will be lucky enough to be working from California; many of them will do their job from a small TV studio somewhere in their own countries where they will pick up the American feed and “pretend” that they are broadcasting from the site of the event. The Oscar is also an important event to the interpreter community at large because let’s face it; in many countries we are part of that very small group of people who watch what Americans refer to as foreign language films (for the rest of the world: movies that are not in English) If you add the fact that a film in your own language, or even from your country, may be nominated for this coveted award, then you will have a most memorable night. But, what is the Oscar? Where did it get its nickname?
The Academy Award statuette was designed by an MGM art director named Cedric Gibbons and a sculptor named George Stanley in 1928. At that time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences referred to it as the Academy Award of Merit. That was its original name. It was in the 1930s that the trophy got its nickname: Oscar. There are several tales on how the statuette came to be called Oscar. The Academy endorses the following: A librarian who worked for the Academy in the 1930s named Margaret Herrick thought that the statuette had a physical resemblance to an uncle of hers. The uncle’s name was Oscar. Columnist Sidney Skolsky was present when she made the remark, and he seized the name in his famous byline: “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar’.” (Levy, Emanuel . All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. Burns & Oates. ISBN 978-0-8264-1452-6) others claim that it was Bette Davis who named the statuette Oscar after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson. One of the earliest recorded mentions of the term Oscar goes back to a Time Magazine article about the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony. Even Walt Disney is quoted in 1932 as thanking the Academy for his Oscar. Others claim that it may have been named after Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. Whatever the origin of its now world-famous name, the trophy was officially referred to as the “Oscar” in 1939 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Regardless of the language combination, the Oscar ceremony presents two interesting problems for the interpreters working the event: (1) the sometimes local expressions and politically incorrect speeches by the recipients of the award, which incidentally might not be suitable for some audiences depending on each country’s censorship legislation. Although much of this has been taken care of by the broadcast delay rule that exists in all live broadcasts originating from the United States (motivated by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunctioning during a Super Bowl halftime show); and (2) The title, different from its original, that a film gets depending on the country and language where it will be shown.
Regarding the recipient’s speech I had one of these situations during the Golden Globes, not the Oscars, when Meryl Streep uttered a bad word. Fortunately for me, because of the delay policy, I did not have to worry about that rendition as the exclamation was edited out. But it was not always like that, and I can just imagine what our colleagues went through in the past when many actors used the Academy Awards as a channel to protest and criticize governments, policies, and philosophies; not to mention Jack Palance’s push-ups routine when he got the Oscar for his performance of “Curly” in “City Slickers.” The issue of different titles is tough, really tough. It was more difficult in the past before globalization because at that time many interpreters had not even watched the movies as they had not opened in their home countries yet, so they could not even “guess” the movie. Titles like “The Sound of Music” that was renamed: “La novicia rebelde” in Mexico, or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was named: “Atrapados sin salida” had to be tough to interpret when you had no idea what the movie was about. At least naming “Jaws” “Tiburón” was easier to figure out. Now I invite you to share with all of us your personal experiences interpreting the Academy Awards, or to bring up other movie titles that were tough to translate. Finally, I would like to end this piece with a big thank you to all the interpreters who through the years have made it possible, and many times under very tough conditions, for the entire world to sit down in front of the TV set and for one evening every year root for their favorites based solely on one criteria: how they acted, directed, produced, or in any other category contributed their talents to the greatness of a film.