Some interpreters’ unprofessional conduct on social media.

January 10, 2019 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Social media interaction can be a good thing for our professional practice. It helps us to be up to date in current events that affect our work; learn about interpreting, languages, and many other topics relevant to what we do; and it comes in handy to ask for help when stuck on a word or term. Unfortunately, social media can be a two-edged sword when used irresponsibly. It can hurt us individually or as a profession, especially when we, as interpreters, attack or criticize a colleague without actual knowledge of the subject and circumstances that surrounded the event or rendition we are ready to criticize.

I am saddened by colleagues who have never interpreted for a live event on TV broadcasted to millions, and yet they post on line uneducated remarks criticizing the interpreter for not “interpreting everything”, showing the world they have no idea of how broadcast interpreting works as far as screen timing and the expectations of the target audience. They do not stop to think that doing the rendition the way they suggest would take the interpreter into a different, unrelated image on the screen or even a commercial.

Frankly, I am tired of social media posts in chatrooms where ignorant interpreters attack a conference interpreter for not interpreting everything; a court interpreter for interpreting everything, (even the obvious and redundant), and doing it very fast; healthcare and community interpreters for doing the necessary advocacy so their client understands the message, and even the military interpreter for not being neutral and impartial.

At the end of November of last year, we lived through one massive attack and “opinions” by some colleagues who, despite not being well-versed on diplomatic interpreting, filled the digital channels with bizarre remarks.

The incident that triggered such social media activity were the November 30, 2018 remarks by president Trump of the United States, (who had traveled to Argentina to attend the G-20 Summit) and President Macri of Argentina in Buenos Aires. They both appeared before journalists from their respective countries and elsewhere. President Macri spoke first and welcomed Trump. Next, president Trump spoke, but at the beginning of his remarks, while holding a receiver in his hand, he looked at president Macri and said: “…I think I understood you better in your language than I did on this. But that’s okay…” Next, president Trump dropped the receiver he had been given for the interpretation of Macri’s remarks. President Trump’s comment was in English, but its interpretation into Spanish was heard by those present in the hall, and by everyone watching TV in Spanish in Argentina and the United States.

Right after this joint appearance by the presidents, interpreter forums, chatrooms, and tweeter accounts, filled up with strange comments such as: “…I wonder who interpreted for Trump. The rendition was so bad he said he understood better without it…” “…Trump was so mad at the interpreter he tossed the equipment…” “…the interpreter was so brave, she even interpreted the part when Trump said he didn’t understand her…” “…it wasn’t the interpretation, he said that because (Trump) hates Hispanics…” “…Trump did not like that the interpreter had an Argentinian accent, that is why he did it…” Also, the comments we see all the time: “…I wonder who picked those interpreters…” “…I bet you the interpreter isn’t certified…” “…Macri is so incompetent that he hired bad interpreters for his meeting with Trump…”

I watched the joint appearance on TV and I saw something very different from what these colleagues saw: It was obvious from the beginning that president Trump was handed a receiver at the last moment. They were already on stage and president Macri had started his welcoming speech. Trump got the receiver with no explanation as to how it works. He seemed unfamiliar with the receiver. On TV it looked different from the 2-part earpiece-receiver we use most of the time. This one looked like a one-piece receiver you use like a telephone receiver. At one point, it looked like president Trump was trying to adjust something on the receiver: maybe the volume, perhaps the channel. The video shows a lady giving him the receiver in a hurry. It does not show if somebody tested it before handing it to Trump. Maybe he was just adjusting the volume and he accidentally changed the channel on the receiver, or maybe the channel was wrong from the moment the receiver was handed to him. There is no way to tell for sure, but from the first time I saw it live, I realized there was something wrong with the equipment, not the rendition. I immediately answered all emails, tweets, and messages I got from many colleagues all over, sharing what I just said above. I know the two interpreters who worked the event, and they are the best of the best. The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) came to the same conclusion. On December 3, 2018 they issued a statement in both, English and Spanish:

                                                                       AIIC statement in Spanish

 

AIIC statement in English

Unfortunate that people who did not even watch the live broadcast or the full video were criticizing the interpreters when this was a case of a technical problem. It was disheartening to read on public professional forums how people criticized Trump because he did not like Hispanics, or the Argentinian accent of the interpreter. Before attacking and criticizing, these colleagues should learn the basics of diplomatic interpreting: President Trump was listening in English the rendition by president Macri’s magnificent interpreter, who is a male and speaks with a British (not Argentinean) accent. President Trump’s fabulous interpreter, a female who speaks Spanish with an Argentinean accent, interprets into Spanish for President Macri. Your interpreter interprets what you say, not what the others say. That is the protocol in diplomatic interpreting. The words in Spanish these misinformed interpreters heard during the broadcast when Trump states he understood Macri better in “his language” were by Trump’s interpreter interpreting Trumps remarks about the equipment during president Macri’s words interpreted into English for Trump by Macri’s male interpreter. As for who hired these interpreters; all experienced interpreters, diplomatic or not, know that presidential (and diplomatic interpreters in general) are not retained as an interpreter is hired to do a court hearing or a parent-teacher conference. These interpreters have ample experience in conference and diplomatic interpreting, they have met academic and skill requirements, passed tests and evaluations, and have been granted security clearance. Usually they are full-time staff interpreters working for their government, or very experienced, trusted independent contractors with a long history of assignments and missions working for their government. Court certification is irrelevant for this work, so the comments about that issue merit no further elaboration. Finally, just like presidents have little to do with the direct supervision of a state dinner, they have even less involvement on the interpreting equipment used for a particular event. These are the links to the English and Spanish versions of the video that clearly depict what I just described: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=YouTube.be&v=9qN2Cf0FnP8

https://YouTube.be/PWPom4j8H8Y This is the link to the White House transcript of the full remarks by both presidents: https://whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-president-macri-argentine-republic-bilateral-meeting/

Dear friends and colleagues, these attacks, criticism, comments, etcetera, hurt our profession. Few things are more damaging to a profession than its own members’ attacks out in the open for all to see. This happens when some interpreters use social media either to criticize just because they enjoy doing so, or to advance their own career and reputation by pointing out things they would never do. These unfortunate remarks are always harmful, but when uttered with no knowledge or foundation, as it was in this case and many others, it is even worse. The interpreters who follow this practice and post all kinds of irresponsible comments put in evidence their lack of professionalism and build and invisible wall around them, isolating them from any top-tier interpreters and their clients.

The final point I wanted to make concerns mixing our own personal lives and political opinions with our professional image as interpreters. Few people in the world are as polarizing as Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri. Some people love them, others cannot stand them. I have no problem with that. The thing that concerns me is that many interpreters in Argentina and the United States made this a political issue. It always worries me when an interpreter pours his or her political opinions in a professional forum, chatroom, or tweet. As professionals we should separate them both. Please make all political statements and give all political opinions you want, but do it in your personal Tweeter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts; Do not post it in your professional social media or in any group forums or chatrooms you belong to, more so if they are open to the public. We do not know what our clients’ political opinions are, as we do not need to; even if our clients’ opinions match ours, we do not know how they feel about hiring an interpreter so opinionated in social media.

Because we do not know how an agency, or even other interpreters feel about our opinions, or about voicing them in professional forums, we should keep them private, in our personal social media. I occasionally post some funny stuff about topics and issues I disagree with, but I do it in my personal social media. I have never issued a political opinion for or against anything in my professional social media as I consider it unprofessional. I have these tools to educate, inform, promote, and influence issues related to the profession. That is why I limit myself to criticize and expose government entities, multinational agencies, bad practices, and legislation that hurts or could hurt the profession and my fellow interpreter and translator colleagues. That is valid in a professional forum. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this important issue.

When client and agency do not listen to the interpreter.

April 3, 2017 § 5 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

After years of working as a professional interpreter you get to see and live many things. It is called experience. Learning from our mistakes, observing the way other colleagues solve a problem, and years of practice and study make us better interpreters, and gives us the confidence to tackle tough assignments.

Once, years ago, I was retained to interpret during a very important event with the participation of some of the highest government officials from many of the most powerful countries in the world. The event was held in one largest city in the world. It involved several interpreter booths, and interpreters of different language pairs.

The assignment, we were told, was to take place at three venues and it would include all of the guests: A big ballroom for a round table discussion by the dignitaries during the morning session; a press conference in a separate room but at the same facility right before lunch; and where they would eat, there would be several speeches by some of the distinguished visitors right after lunch.  In my particular case, the Spanish booth would have several dignitaries needing interpreting services.

The city hosting the event is a world-class city that holds many top-tier events throughout the year, but it is not the capital of a country.  The local government officials in charge of the activities had great experience with logistics of summits like the one about to take place, and the local interpreting agency is arguably the best one in the region. Unfortunately, they were overconfident and did not prepare for an event involving so many celebrities and such a myriad of languages.

The interpreters in the booths, and the interpretation equipment technicians, who are often the same all over the world, had worked in these conditions many times and knew what needed to happen.

From my first telephonic conversation with the agency, certain things had not been planned thoroughly and I raised my concerns. The main problem was that, after the first session, the dignitaries would have a press conference somewhere else in the building, but unlike the first ballroom, this time there would only be interpreter booths for certain languages: the ones expected to get most questions from the media, and Spanish was not one.

When I asked what would happen if one visitor was asked a question, I was told to just walk to him, whisper the question in his ear, and interpret the answer consecutively.  Logically, I had the two obvious follow-up questions: How am I going to find my way to the guest quickly when surrounded by so many bodyguards; and second: What about the context? Are these VIPs supposed to divine what was said before the interpreter gets to them? Had they thought that these visitors would have no context and no idea about everything said in the press-conference up to that point?

First I was told that they would look into it. Days later nearly at the event, I was told that things would stay the same despite my objections and concerns.  I suspected something would get ugly the next day but it was too late to back out of the project. I was left with one last recourse: Use my experience as an interpreter to do the best I could under those circumstances.

When I arrived to the ballroom on the morning of the event, I was greeted by a well-known interpreter equipment technician who told me right away: “You know there are no booths for you at the press conference and at the luncheon, right?” Well, I knew about the press conference, but the luncheon situation was news to me.  I was told that only the English, Arabic and French interpreters would have booths at those two events. I just threw my hands up in the air, smiled, and told him: “well, at least it couldn’t get any worse, right?” He looked at me right in the eye, and answered: “at least you are not the Korean interpreter. They don’t have a booth here either.  The will be asked to sit right behind the Korean delegation and whisper the entire thing…”  I just turned around and retrieved to the safety of my “morning-only” Spanish booth.

The morning session went fine. My colleague in the booth and I did our job as usual and the round-table moved along as scheduled. I must say I was impressed by the professionalism of my Korean colleagues. After taking a deep breath when they learned there would be no booth, they went to their delegation, sat behind them, and interpreted magnificently without complains or remarks about the adverse circumstances they encountered.

We moved on to the second event. The Spanish interpreters were lucky at the press conference because there were no questions to any of our clients. I felt bad for them as they sat there without understanding a word of what happened during the session, but at least I was not in the shoes of the Portuguese interpreters who had to do their best Harry Houdini impersonation to squeeze in and reach their delegations from Brazil and Portugal to do a whispered rendition for their clients, without the benefit of any prior context, followed by a consecutive interpretation of a long answer by one of the two delegations.

The luncheon was another disaster with little room for extra chairs for the interpreters and without headphones. I call this interpretation “silverware interpreting” because it is difficult to hear anything a speaker is saying when you must listen over your own voice and the symphony of spoons, forks and knives dangling against the china.  I heard no derogatory remarks, but the delegations were not happy with the interpreting infrastructure offered by the program organizers.

I realized there are no valid excuses for these mistakes. It is understandable that clients and agencies who rarely work these events, especially if they are monolinguals, may not think of all these basic needs of the foreign language audience; what is inexcusable is to ignore the interpreters’ and sound technicians’ comments and observations when they live and breathe these programs. Ignorance or stinginess should never be an obstacle to the correct delivery of a professional service.

I now ask you to share with the rest of us those times when you knew more than the agency or the client but they did not listen.

Things to look for in an interpreting contract.

December 8, 2015 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

There has been a lot of discussion about interpreting services contracts in the past weeks.  The SOSi immigration court interpreter contract was a trending topic all over the social media.  Many colleagues debated, attacked, and defended parts of the contract like I never saw before.  This circumstance, together with other events in the professional world that involve contract negotiation (and the contents of the agreement itself) such as all federal contracts that were up for renewal at the beginning of the new U.S. federal government’s fiscal year, several irregularities with some state government contracts that appeared prior to their new fiscal year in August, and just the wording of quite a few contracts drafted by interpreting services agencies, large and small, made me think long and hard about the importance of negotiating an agreement and reviewing the letter of the proposed contract before committing myself to anything by the power of my signature.

Signing a contract is a very important act that can impact our professional career and reputation for a long time. It is not, as some colleagues may think now and then, a simple ceremonial thing that needs to be done in order to get the big assignment or the prestigious event. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties creating obligations that are enforceable or otherwise recognizable at law. (Black’s Law Dictionary). As Samuel Williston puts it, “A contract is a promise, or a set of promises, for breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty…” (A treatise on the Law of Contracts §1, at 1-2. Walter H.E. Jaeger ed., 3d ed. 1957)

I suggest that we should all reflect on the meaning and magnitude of the concept above, and apply ourselves to the negotiating of the terms and conditions that will govern our professional services with a client, and that we review in detail the final document that the client (whether it is a direct client or an agency) tenders for our signature before we undertake any obligations.  In fact, I recommend that before signing any agreement, you give your attorney a chance to review the terms of the contract to see if there are any “unwanted” harmful terms. Even if you do not have an attorney who regularly works with you, I encourage you to get one. It is that important, and in most countries it is tax-deductible as part of the cost of doing business.  Just think for a moment: the other party had a lawyer draft the contract, that attorney is being paid by the party who has an interest in the delivery of the professional service that is different from yours, and many times it is the opposite.  Although ethical and professional, the job of the counterpart’s attorney is to protect his client’s interests, not yours.  Just like you would never enter a car race on foot while the others are driving a car, you should never sign a contract unless, and until, you are familiar with all of its contents because all of your questions have been answered to your satisfaction, and all your concerns have been put to rest.  Remember: You are an interpreter and you provide a professional service.

There are different types of contract that you will encounter during your professional life; government agencies will always have their standard contract, some large agencies, corporations and organizations will have their own contracts as well.  Smaller agencies and direct clients will likely accept your version of a contract or will adapt their own document to your demands and suggestions. Finally, some of your regular clients may not use written contracts. They will negotiate assignments with you more informally. That is fine, but remember, the document is not the contract; the contract is the meeting of the minds, the agreement of the parties. In other words, even in these cases you have a contract.

I always review all contract conditions, even when dealing with the government, and when I dislike a certain term, or I consider necessary to add some conditions, I propose the changes. You will be surprised to learn that more often than not, the counterpart agrees to the amendments to their standard contract. By the same token, I am also flexible and open minded about the counterpart’s proposals and suggestions. I always consider them and give them a lot of thought. On many occasions I agree to the changes, provided they do not leave me unprotected and the potential risk is something I can live with.  Finally, in the case of a regular client who never signs any documents with me, I always put all essential terms of the verbal contract in writing and send them to the client by email as a memorandum of understanding, stating very clearly that by receiving the email and not taking any action within the first 24 hours, the client is consenting to the terms and conditions included on the email. This way essentials such as type of event, dates and location, scope of services and fee are always included, as well as reimbursement of expenses, travel costs and fees, late payment penalties, cancellation policy, and standard working conditions according to the type of assignment (equipment, booths, team interpreting, materials and glossaries, etc.)

As we see above, contracts can come on different presentations and they originate for different reasons depending on the client who drafted the contract; but, regardless of the type of contract, there are always certain things we should look for in an interpreter contract. I will share with all of you some of those items I look for in all contracts, and I hope this helps you as much as it helps me; however, I would like to make it very clear that my suggestion is that you always go to an attorney before signing any contract. The following are just suggestions that have worked for me, but in no way they are intended to constitute legal advice of any kind. All situations are different and I do not know your particular situation, so please understand that this is not legal advice. Only your lawyer can give you that kind of professional help.

These are the things I look for in a professional contract:

First. The scope of the service. I always look for the specifics: What the client is actually retaining me for. It is very important because some clients have the idea that once you are hired, you are theirs during the assignment to do anything that they consider part of the service. They are wrong. You agreed to perform a certain service and you are only getting paid for that service. Nothing else. Be careful about services description that may “include” translation services, being responsible for giving out and collecting interpreting equipment, other peripheral interpreting services not previously discussed such as dinners, press conferences, book signings, etc.

Second. I always pay attention to the wording because it tells me a lot about the client. I look for “telling” words such as interpretation industry (instead of profession) and in the case of an agency, how they refer to their end client: If they refer to them in the contract as “the customer” instead of “the client”, we will have a very difficult relationship because it is clear that my profession is an industrial commercial activity to them. I always discuss these issues when present in the contract, educate the client about the profession, and usually they agree to change the contract’s terminology (at least for my assignments if not for the rest of my colleagues)

Third. The grounds for termination of the contract. This is a crucial item because an early termination could impact your income for at least a few days or weeks. The reasons to terminate a contract early have to be fair, and they should include both parties. I have found many contracts where only the client can do an early termination. That is wrong, unfair, and highly suspicious. The grounds should apply to both parties, and in long-term contracts, they should include the lack of payment or late payment of your fee as a cause for early termination.

Fourth.  The famous confidentiality clause that although redundant since we are professionals and as such are legally and ethically bound to this duty of confidentiality, it should be included for the peace of mind of the client and his attorneys; however, the same provision should always include that the confidentiality will be observed with the exceptions of law. Yes, the law allows you to break this duty of confidentiality, even in the client-attorney privilege case, when there are certain facts that justify the lifting of this duty. For example, if you have to file a lawsuit against your client for lack of payment, or when your client sues you and you need to defend yourself. In those cases (and others) the law allows you to break the duty, limited to what may be necessary, to defend yourself or to exercise legal action.

Fifth. I look for cases where the client contractually limits his liability, and when I find it I do not like it and demand that it be changed. Although many legislations permit that an individual’s liability be reduced or limited by agreement of the parties, it is ridiculous for the other party to suggest, and for you to agree, to be exposed to all kinds of damages in case of a lawsuit, while the agency and the end client just sit and observe how you lose your business (in one of the best possible outcomes) or all of your assets and life-long savings (as a very good possibility). This is a no-no. Everybody should have the same exposure and respond for the damages caused according to their contribution to the loss. This is a very good reason why the parties should always request a copy of the other parties’ liability insurance certificate.

Sixth. There are some provisions that raise many red flags as they denote a clear intent to tilt the balance in favor of one of the parties (and that party is not usually you). Any provision that makes it illegal for the interpreter to talk to the media about the terms and conditions of the contract, unless we are dealing with information protected by the duty of confidentiality or the client-attorney privilege, and all clauses that force you to “consent” to resolve any controversies through arbitration instead of going to court are a huge warning sign.  You see, businesses prefer arbitration because it is less expensive, but mainly, because they get to “pick” the arbitrator. Unless you know several arbitrators that you trust, which is unlikely, they will always get to suggest the arbitrator. This individual will know them, it is very likely that he has presided over other arbitrations with the same party, and he will probably, be inclined to keep the client (your counterpart) happy for business reasons into the future.  Of course this last part cannot be demonstrated and I have no basis to claim that this is what happens during arbitration. The question is: Are you willing to take the chance? I personally would not do it. I would seek justice in the court system. Yes, it will take longer, but impartiality is more common in the courtroom, and if you win, the losing party may have to pay your attorney’s fees.

Seventh.  All terms and conditions must be in writing and they must be part of the written document. Even those terms and conditions contained in an appendix to the main contract should be referenced to and identified within the body of the contract by a number or a letter. Make sure that all attachments are signed by all parties, and dated with the same date as the main contract.  Most legislations abide by the parol evidence rule which clearly states that all agreements previous or contemporary to the signing of the contract must be in writing and appear as part of the physical agreement. Those that do not follow this rule will not be considered as part of the contract.  Be very careful with all those promises and concessions on the side.  They are not part of the contract unless they are in writing and in the document itself.

Eight.  Travel expenses must be included in the contract. The document should clearly state what expenses are reimbursable: airfare, hotel, ground transportation, Per Diem, photocopies, etc. It should also spell the fees payable to the interpreter on traveling days.  Remember, you provide a personal professional service. You cannot provide your services to two clients at the same time, so on the days that you travel to and from the assignment location, you are not working for any client. Unless you like to lose money, you should clearly negotiate and include in the contract your travel fee. There is a cost of doing business, but you should never lose money for accepting an assignment. Maybe one half of your regular fee should be a fair compensation for your travel days. Make sure that reimbursement of expenses for travel days are for total expenses. You can charge a lower fee, but you cannot fly, sleep or eat for less money just because it is a travel day.

Ninth.   The cancellation policy will always be in the contract. I would never sign an agreement that does not deal with this issue.  This policy needs to be negotiated taking into account the time between the cancellation and the cancelled event.  The fact that your client just found out of a cancellation that was decided two weeks ago is no excuse to lower your cancellation fee. It is your client’s obligation and duty of due diligence to be on top of everything the end client is considering, pondering, thinking, and doing.  A last-minute cancellation should require a full fee and reimbursement of all monies disbursed to that point.  Remember, it is not your fault that the client lost the event. That is his risk, not yours.

Tenth.  A good contract should cover payments in detail: amounts, timetables, and penalties in case of late payment.  Just as you had to show up to interpret on the set date, and not 30 days later, the client has the obligation to pay you on the day agreed to, and if he does not, then you must be compensated by virtue of a penalty clause that provides for compensation in case of any delays.  This is extremely important with smaller agencies who sometimes come to the interpreter crying poverty and asking for more time to pay you because their client has not paid them yet.  Although some of you may be tempted to give the small business owner a break, I am not. Do not lose sight of reality: This individual is your client. He is not your partner. Only partners share the risks of doing business. He is not sharing his pay with you. You should not share in the risk. He pays you or else… Where he gets the money from is not your problem.  You should also look for unacceptable provisions, usually inserted by larger agencies, about penalizing you by retaining part of your (already earned) fee.  They often include deductions based on what they consider your “performance” and deduct part of the money you already made. This is unacceptable and illegal.  Nobody should agree to give up part of his fee based on the assessment of others, much less when there are no safeguards in the contract such as notice of the intent to deduct part of the fee, and a mechanism to have a hearing before an impartial authority. How about letting a real judge deal with this issue? Agencies should never get that power from the contract- signing interpreter.

There are many more points to be included and reviewed by the parties, but I believe that at least these basic elements put me on a leveled field with the client as equal parties to a contract. I now ask you to please share any pointers or comments you may have on this very important professional issue.

When the event organizer refuses to hire a full time technician.

September 19, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

One of my worst nightmares is to be in a situation where I am ready, able, and willing to do my job, and I cannot do it because something beyond my control went wrong… very wrong. In a world where we depend more on technology every day, the importance of all the devices we use in our work is paramount. An entire event can turn into a disaster if technology does not cooperate. To stay competitive, it is extremely important that the professional interpreter be knowledgeable and up-to-date on the latest technological developments that impact our industry, such as computer hardware, software, hand-held devices, and social media; that is undisputable. We should have on that same priority level the operation of headphones and microphones, interpreting consoles, portable equipment, and the basic principles of how the interpreting equipment in particular, and the audio-visual system in general, function. The idea is not to replace the computer engineer or the sound technician; the only goal is to be able to understand a problem so it can be better described to the specialist who will, in turn, take care of the issue. An interpreter who can solve small technical problems with a simple suggestion, and therefore keeps the event on track, is definitely a very valuable asset.

Those who know me are aware of the fact that I am mechanically impaired. I cannot do anything with my hands, and I have never wanted to. I am also a big advocate of hiring professionals to do all jobs, from the auto mechanic to the housecleaning person, and from the accountant to the physician. No “do it yourself” for me. Fortunately, I really like computers, electronic media, and all the gadgets I can put my hands on. This has allowed me to keep up with those issues that are relevant to our profession, but always knowing my limitations and recognizing and appreciating the essential role that the sound technician plays in the interpreting world. To be clear: As far as the interpreters are concerned, the sound technician is the most important individual in the venue. They are that crucial; especially the good ones, those who already know you, the ones that know the type of headphones we prefer, the levels we like, and even the little things that make that particular interpreter comfortable and therefore more productive. They travel with us from town to town or country to country, they know us personally, and we call them friends.

For these reasons, when negotiating an assignment I always insist on top notch equipment and the best technicians. I convey to the event organizer, or the agency, the importance of having a capable technician next to the booth throughout the event. The most experienced and prestigious agencies, convention centers, and event organizers already know it, but some newcomers may need the explanation. During my career I have seen that those agencies and promoters who want to be in the business for a long time, the ones who want to have a good reputation, and the ones who care about the quality of the event, always agree to this very basic, logical, and simple request. Unfortunately, sometimes you run into the ones who keep alive the expression: “the exception to the rule.”

Not too long ago, I was working a very prestigious event where we got to see what happens when you try to “save” money at the expense of the technician. On the day the event started I arrived, as usual, plenty early to check the booth, sound, computers, stage, and everything else that you need to be aware of to have a successful event. As I entered the room, I saw one of my friend technicians from way back. Since I had not been involved on the planning of the event, and I was just a “hired gun”, I was very happy to see such a professional experienced technician in charge of the system. I went on to get ready and did not think much about the technician anymore. It was not until that afternoon when we started having some problems with the sound that I saw my friend again; he went into action and took care of the problem in no time at all. It was seamless.

The next day I arrived at the venue and went straight to the booth to get ready. The colleague who was interpreting with me arrived, we talked for a few minutes and then the event started. Everything was fine for about two hours when all of a sudden we had a problem with the sound. There was a lot of static and the quality was very poor. I looked for my friend the technician. I did not see him outside any of the booths or anywhere else. It was then that one of the event organizers came to the booth and told us that a “technician was on his way to fix the problem.” One of the hosts of this event got on stage and announced that an engineer was going to take care of the sound problem, and that we were going to adjourn until the sound was restored. Everybody got up and headed to the cafeteria.

At that time I saw a couple of individuals coming to the interpreting area, they approached us, and asked questions about the sound. I began to describe what the problem was. As I was describing the problem I noticed the nervousness on the face of this young man who was going to fix the problem. At that point I asked him for my friend, the experienced technician. I had seen him in the room the day before, but I had not seen him that day at all. The young technician told me that my friend was not there, that he had only been hired to do the set up and to be there on the first day in case something went wrong. He then told me that he and the other technician with him were full-time employees of the company that had organized the event, and they were “IT support”, not sound system technicians. He told me that they had never worked with interpreting equipment before, and that everything they knew about these equipment was what they had learned from my friend in the last two days when he and his crew did the equipment set up, and what they saw him doing the day before. It turns out that this very important, and profitable event decided to save money on the tech support.

What happened next was a comedy of errors. These hard-working IT staff had the best intentions and tried their best, but they did not have the knowledge to solve the problem. After almost an hour of unsuccessfully trying to fix the equipment, I suggested they replace all equipment with the back-up units my friend had left in case they were needed. They did it and the event continued. There was another glitch that afternoon when a speaker played a video from his laptop and they expected us (in the booth) to capture the sound from the conference room through our headphones and interpret the video that way. Needless to say, this was impossible. We could barely hear the sound; there was no way to interpret the video that way. I asked them to hook the laptop into the sound system so we could get the sound in our headphones just as if it was coming from a microphone. They did not know how to do it. I described the cable they needed and told them that they could buy it anywhere for very little money. Once I said “little money” they listened. One of their staffers went out, purchased the cable, and we had perfect sound in the booth. The video was interpreted, but there was another delay.

At the end of the day all interpreters from all languages got together, we talked about what happened during the day, and we all decided to request a real sound technician for the duration of the event. When we went to talk to the organizers we found them buried in complaints from the attendees who were not happy about the delays due to equipment malfunction (that could have been resolved in a few minutes like the first day when the professional technician was in the premises) At that point I knew we were getting our technician without even having to request him. Sure enough, after the commotion ended, a representative of the organizers came to inform us that they had talked to the technician and he would be at the event first thing in the morning. He then told us that the professional technician was going to stay for the rest of the event, and that he would be our point of contact in case there was another technical problem. The organizers learned their lesson! Unfortunately, they learned it the hard way. Now they know that there are many ways to cut costs, but having an event without a sound technician is not one of them. As things go sometimes, the next morning my technician friend checked all the equipment and adjusted certain things that had been changed by the IT staff the day before, he stayed with us for the rest of the week until the event ended, and we never had another incident. On the last day, as we were leaving the venue, I reminded all my colleagues from the other booths of this valuable lesson, and I asked them to always remember it, and use it as an example when another agency or event organizer decided to go without a full-time sound technician to cut costs. I now ask all of you to please share with the rest of us your stories of equipment malfunction, and what was done to solve the problem.

Can the interpreter’s simultaneous rendition be distracting?

April 11, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I have been very fortunate in my career. I have worked with some of the very best in the profession, and yes, sometimes I have worked with some colleagues, thankfully very few, who would fall short from that rating. As many of you know, I have worked all over the world and I have worked conference, diplomatic, court, and escort interpreting for many years. During those years I have observed and learned many things from this spectacular interpreters and I have also seen so many different styles.

One of the things that many colleagues do when simultaneously interpreting is that they close their eyes and gesticulate a lot. They use their hands to express what they are saying and to understand the concepts they are absorbing from the speaker. This works fine for them. Their renditions are impeccable. After years of working in a booth next to some of them I have become used to their style. I interpret differently. I do not use my hands or head to express what I am saying. I just sit there without any gesticulation. This works for me just as well as the opposite works for many great colleagues. I have no problem with either style when you are working in the booth and you are out of sight; in fact, I applaud those who have found this to be a tool to improve their interpreting skills. The important thing is to provide a good service and bridge the communication gap between the speaker and his audience.

Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that this effusive style is as effective in court as it is in the booth. Interpreters who work in the courtroom are not shield by the booth. Even if they work with equipment they are not out of sight. The equipment is usually of the portable kind, and even though many courts use wireless transmitters and receivers, the interpreter sits at the table next to the defendant or somewhere else in the courtroom in plain view of all participants: judge, jury, attorneys, witnesses, and defendant.

As part of their work, court interpreters can interpret difficult complex concepts and very detailed information. One of the reasons to have a court hearing is to assess the credibility of witnesses and litigants. The jury’s attention has to be focused on those testifying or arguing the law. The non-English speaker needs to understand what is going on in the courtroom and for that he often has to concentrate. Because of some of my professional interests, I often attend court hearings in different parts of the world and as an observer who is not involved in the process, I have noticed that gesticulating interpreters can be distracting. I have noticed how members of the jury are sometimes more interested and amused by the interpreters hand movements than by the witness’ testimony. I have seen how defendants pay more attention to what the interpreter does than to what the interpreter says. I do not think this is appropriate. I believe that the interpreter who is working in the courtroom has to be aware of the fact that he cannot be the center of attention; that unlike conference interpreters, court interpreters are visible to all. I understand that this may be their natural way to communicate, that they may need to do this to understand the message they are about to interpret. Unfortunately, I do not think that most jurors, attorneys, and litigants can just ignore their gesticulation and focus on the testimony. I think court interpreters should learn to control these movements and concentrate on accurate interpreting while being inconspicuous.

I find this to be a fascinating, delicate, and frankly touchy subject that is not easy to discuss with our colleagues. For a long time I hesitated to write this blog, but I finally did it because I want to hear what you all have to say about it. I ask you to please avoid personal attacks and comments about how gesticulating helps the interpreter. Instead, I invite you to share with the rest of us your thoughts on this issue: Is this interpreting style distracting to those participating in a court procedure?

Interpreting in an unwarranted hostile environment.

February 4, 2014 § 20 Comments

Dear colleagues:

I am usually welcomed and nicely greeted when I get to the place where I am going to work.  People are willing to help by showing me where I need to go, asking me if I need anything, and so on.  I used to take this for granted until an assignment a few months ago made me realize how lucky and fortunate I am.  Not long ago I was hired by a very big international corporation to interpret for a lecture that one of their speakers was going to give to a group of middle school and high school teachers and parents.  Although I was supposed to work alone, the lecture was going to be about 45 minutes long and the deal was sweet.  I was told by the corporate representative who hired me that the booth and equipment would be provided by the town public schools.  I got the materials for the lecture, I even got paid before the event, so I entered the assignment on my schedule.

A few weeks later when it was time for the job, I arrived at the public schools auditorium in this town.  The corporate representative who hired me was already waiting for me and she introduced me to the speaker.  We talked logistics and asked to see the booth and equipment. The public schools staff directed me to a woman who was sitting on stage doing nothing.  I approached her, introduced myself, and asked her about the equipment.  Without even saying a word she gave me this very angry look and asked me: “who are you?”  I repeated that I was the interpreter for the lecture.  She got up and walking away from me she said: “you can go. We have our own interpreter.”

Because of the way she had addressed me I decided not to continue the conversation.  I went back to the people who hired me instead.  After I told them what had happened the lady who hired me asked me to have a seat while she got everything cleared.  I sat down and looked at the clock on the wall.  We were about 20 minutes away from the event and I had not seen any booth in the auditorium.  Actually, I had not even seen any interpretation equipment.

After some ten minutes the corporate representative came to me and told me that everything was fine, that she had talked to the public schools superintendent and had explained that their practice as a business is to bring their own interpreters because the lecture is very technical.  She told me that the superintendent had agreed, but there was a requirement that we did not know before:  Because this was a public schools facility, they had to use a public schools staff interpreter, not for our lecture but for the rest of the event (greetings, opening remarks by the host presenter, announcements and so on) Moreover, I was informed that there would be no booth, not even a desk top half booth, that I was going to interpret using a portable unit like the ones used in court.  I am a professional and I was not about to leave my client hanging, so I agreed to the new terms.

At this time the same rude woman from earlier headed towards me and told me: “My boss says that our interpreter will do everything except for the part that your people insisted you had to do.” I asked to see the equipment and she told me that the equipment wasn’t there yet, that their interpreter was bringing it to the auditorium and that she had not arrived yet.  This was five minutes before we had to start the event. Parents and teachers were taking their seats, and it was clear to me that many of them were looking for interpretation headsets.  It was at that time that another public schools official approached us to tell us that we had to start because they had other things to do after the event and therefore this could not be delayed.  My speaker looked at me and said: “what do we do?” I looked at her and told her not to worry, that we would start the lecture on the consecutive mode and that as soon as the equipment arrived we would switch to simultaneous interpretation.  I got up from my improvised work station where I had my iPad and a microphone on a table I had to beg for because at first they did not want to let me have it.  They told me that their interpreters did not use a table and did not sit down to interpret.

We started the lecture and about 15 minutes later the public schools interpreter arrived with the portable equipment. After she tested it and distributed it to the Spanish speakers in the audience she handed me the transmitter and I was able to do the rest of the lecture simultaneously.  Towards the end of the lecture the staff interpreter approached me and began to talk really loud. Because I was still  interpreting I was not able to understand or respond to what she said; in fact, she was so loud that I had a hard time maintaining my concentration to hear what the lecturer was saying.  After I finished she just took the transmitter away from me without saying a word.

The audience had an interesting lecture that they all understood. The non-English speakers were able to follow the entire presentation because I interpreted the event, but the speaker and I felt very unwelcomed by the public schools staff.  We both thought that there had been some unwarranted rudeness towards the two of us (she also had an episode because at the beginning they didn’t want her to use their projector for the Power Point presentation)

After I got home that night I reflected on my work and how fortunate I am, and I also thought of all of my colleagues who have to work with poor acoustics, without a booth, and put up with this type of hostility on a daily basis.  It requires a true professional to make an event like this a success.  I ask all of you who presently or in the past have faced such working conditions to please share your stories with the rest of us.

When relay interpretation does not go as planned.

March 11, 2013 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Not long ago I worked an event that required interpretation into multiple languages, there were many colleagues in their respective booths working hard and doing a magnificent job. Because of the constant switching from one language to another, we had to work the relay for most of the event.   Relay interpreting is a resource used in conference interpreting when there is more than one language combination.  The speaker delivers the message in his native language and that statement is simultaneously interpreted into English by the interpreter who works the speaker’s language.  This interpretation is fed to all the other interpreters in the other booths who immediately deliver their rendition of the English interpretation to their listeners.  It is a simultaneous interpretation of the rendition by the interpreter who simultaneously interpreted the original statement by the speaker.  Sounds complicated? Well, it can be.

This interpretation is common and vital in our very globalized society, and many experienced interpreters do an excellent job. Very often the listener does not even realize that there has been a relay.  However, this complicated synchronized work has many “moving parts” that could go wrong without a warning.  During the event I am referring to everything went fine, but I have had my share of problems when resorting to relay interpreting.  Sometimes the equipment malfunctions in the other interpreters’ booth,  in some instances it could be that the equipment in your booth is not working, the sound is poor, the relay button is stocked.  In other occasions the original foreign language speaker is not very good at public speaking and makes it difficult for the first interpreter to interpret and the rendition comes in choppy and late;  Perhaps the original interpreter simply forgot to open the relay switch and the other booths cannot hear what he or she is interpreting, and every once in a very while the original interpreter is not ready to do this type of work.

These situations have to be solved by you and your colleague in the booth. Sometimes a quick tap on the wall is enough to get the other booth’s attention, often a little adjustment by the tech support fixes the problem, but in some cases there is not a quick fix.  You have to think fast when faced with this situation. I have been in booths where my colleague or even myself happen to speak the third language   as a “B” and we just move along while the technical problem is fixed, occasionally you can become the relay interpreter or take the feed from a third booth where somebody knows the language.  I have been in situations where the original interpretation coming in from the relay booth is so poor that we have decided to go with our “B” instead of ruining the event.  Sadly, sometimes I have been left with no other choice than informing my listeners that we have a problem and the participation by those who speak certain language will not be interpreted until further notice.  I ask you to share your experience with this type of situation, and maybe tell us how you solved the problem when that happened to you.

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